Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Speaks for America's Jews?

(Click HERE for musical accompaniment)

Deprived for much-too-long of borscht-flavored intellectual ferment, I sojourned to Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut to hear a debate between Alan Dershowitz and Jeremy Ben-Ami provocatively titled “Who Speaks for America’s Jews?” (both men would like to tell you that the answer to the question is “me”). I came with high hopes for this debate between two heavyweights in the Yiddish League of verbal sparring; I assumed that given the speakers’ expertise I might have heard a vigorous discussion of American Jewish activism in relation to the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen.

For those who are unfamiliar with the speakers, Jeremy Ben-Ami is the Executive Director of J Street – self-described as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”. He is an American Jew descended from some of the first settlers in Tel Aviv, whose father founded a number of American Zionist organizations and who has himself lived a substantial part of his life in Israel. Now as the head of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami is asserting himself as the face of American Jewry dedicated to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to guarantee “Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy.”

Many more of you probably know Alan Dershowitz – the Harvard Law professor who has made a name for himself as an advocate for the State of Israel. Dershowitz’s background as a constitutional liberal makes him an estimable defender, because he vows support for a two-state solution and opposes the Israeli settlement of the West Bank. His argument is that he opposes the singling out of Israel for human rights violations – which he interprets as the product of anti-Semitic prejudice. And likewise, the author of such titles as The Case for Israel, The Case for Peace and The Case Against Israel’s Enemies has spent the better part of the past decade serving as the go-to destroyer of Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the Board of Directors of Hampshire College and anyone else who might criticize Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories – including the new group J Street.

I had come to this debate thinking that Jeremy Ben-Ami and Alan Dershowitz would make a thorough discussion of American Jewish activism in relation to U.S.-Israeli relations, Israeli policy towards the Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Lebanon and Syria and the rest of the Arab world – ostensibly, the reasons why one should be interested in who speaks for American Jews. Unfortunately, the vanities of both Dershowitz and Ben-Ami allowed for no such thing – and what could have been a substantive debate on policy descended into a petty catfight between two prima donnas.

Hardly more than a few softball questions into the debate, Dershowitz veered the discourse to file a personal grievance against J Street; in one advertisement, they displayed Dershowitz’s face alongside those of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and other prominent opponents of present negotiaions for two-state solution in a group that J Street calls “The Chorus of ‘No’”.

“How dare you lump me together with two people with whom I have nothing in common? You owe me an apology!”

Ben-Ami tried his best to mitigate the apoplectic Dershowitz but could not; “The reason why you appear in “The Chorus of No” is because this is the way you choose to advocate for Israel. As soon as there is something that you interpret in a way you don’t like, the person is immediately ‘anti-Israel’…”

“I think we have to talk about George Soros... George Soros has publicly said he is not a Zionist, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Zionism, he thinks that Israel causes anti-Semitism, he has compared Israel to Nazism, you have denied that he funded you…”

“As soon as there is a question on the table, you throw out the name ‘George Soros!...”

“…You are a cover for many people who are virulently anti-Israel!”

In such a manner, Dershowitz and Ben-Ami plotzed and kvetched about bupkes for at least the first 40 minutes of the “debate”. It was not until 50 minutes into the “debate” that the discourse turned to actually substantive matters when the moderator asked Jeremy Ben-Ami, “What exactly is it that troubles you about Israel’s human rights record?”

“Have you been to the old market in Hebron?” Ben-Ami asked, and even invited the Stamford rabbi to come with him some time. "It is impossible to be a Jew and not feel shame at the way in which Palestinian people are treated in the center of Hebron… Down the middle of the street runs a barrier; on one side Palestinians are allowed to walk, on the other side Jews are allowed to walk…”

This is precisely the moment when Jeremy Ben-Ami was lobbed a softball down the center and he could have hit it out of the park. He could have leaped upon this opportunity and declared the unequivocal injustice of one nation ruling another under the yoke of military occupation, the fundamental wrongness of any nation annexing the territory of another won in battle as the spoils of war, he could have illustrated the barbarism of Israeli settlers evicting Palestinians from their rightful land by gunpoint and killing those who refuse. He could have eloquently depicted the humiliation of Palestinians whose day-to-day movement is frustrated by cumbersome checkpoints, he could have explained how the economy of Gaza has all but collapsed since Israel laid siege to the city with a stifling embargo and cut off electricity and fuel and deprived a city of a million people of basic functioning water and sanitation treatment facilities. He could have cited reports from groups like Amnesty International and Rabbis for Human Rights documenting the bulldozing of entire apartment complexes, the use of white phosphorus in populated neighborhoods, the IDF’s use of human shields in the 2008-2009 Gaza invasion, etc… But no, Ben-Ami bunted; the most troubling thing he could think of was the layout of the market in Hebron – implying the A-word that alienates much of an audience like the one at Temple Beth El.

Even the purportedly-neutral moderator pounced, “I’ve seen human rights violations that are so extreme in what they do to human beings and how human beings end up dead, maimed and dead… whether it’s in Sudan or Sri Lanka… I don’t understand why of all the things you want to give me as an example of why it’s troubling… I don’t doubt that it would be troubling, but troubling is not what I’m looking for from you!”

Dershowitz seized the opportunity to make the relativist argument: “No country in modern history has had a better record with human rights under comparable threats than the nation of Israel!” he proclaimed, “not the United States – which detained 110,000 Japanese-American civilians during the Second World War, which has killed civilians in drone attacks, which has had much greater human rights violations in administrative detentions in Guantánamo; not Great Britain – with its fights in Northern Ireland, its fights in Kenya; not France – with its problems in Algeria…”

Then Dershowitz laid his trademark “gotcha!” trap: “Jeremy Ben-Ami, I want you to name a country with a better human rights record – that has been more criticized for its human rights record than Israel.”

“I’m struggling to think of another country in the world right now that is occupying another people…”


“… that is preventing them from exporting any goods…”

“China – Tibet! Kurdistan! And I can go on! Fourteen or fifteen countries – most of which nobody has ever heard of because the UN doesn’t spend any time on them!”

The central problem with Dershowitz’s strategy of defaming critics of Israeli policy – illustrated here – is that the crux of his case tends to employ a mixture of the straw man argument and ad hominem attack. When someone like Jeremy Ben-Ami so much as criticizes a specific Israeli policy, Dershowitz makes pains to avoid addressing that grievance and quickly changes the topic of conversation to the criticizer’s own shortcomings;

"Iran/Syria/China/Burma/Sudan/Zimbabwe/Kyrgyzstan is violating human rights. Why aren't you criticizing their human rights record?"

His opponent freezes, can only stammer some weak-kneed excuse: “Well… my organization doesn’t have an official position on the situation in Zimbabwe, so I really don’t know …”

“So, even though Iran/Syria/China/Burma/Sudan/Zimbabwe/Kyrgyzstan is committing gross human rights abuses, you remain silent! You only criticize human rights abuses when they are made by Israel!” Dershowitz thunders, “Therefore, your judgment is tainted with anti-Israel bias! Therefore you are an anti-Semite! You are a Jew and yet you are an anti-Semite and therefore you are a self-hating Jew! Therefore, anything you might say about Israel’s human rights record is an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, blood lie against yourself!” Dershowitz’s Jewish audience pockets the line of reasoning, proceeds to view his opponent as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a yamulke for the rest of the debate and thereby dismisses anything of merit that he might have to say.

Indeed, Alan Dershowitz has a valid point to make when he rejects criticisms of Israel’s human rights record made by regimes that are themselves gross violators of human rights with a long history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias; e.g. the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran or the UN Human Rights Committee when it was chaired by the delegation from Libya. He is right when he demands that human rights organizations within the United Nations umbrella, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc. be evenhanded and not single out Israel for vilification while remaining silent about the Egyptian and Jordanian governments’ and Hamas’ crimes against the Palestinians, Syria and Hezbollah’s disregard for the human rights of Lebanese civilians. He is right to criticize Hamas and Hezbollah's terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as violations of Israelis' human rights - and thereby he is right to criticize the governments of Iran, Syria, Sudan and Venezuela for sponsoring these terrorist groups. But that doesn’t mean that Dershowitz is right in shouting down anyone who dares to criticize Israel’s human rights record.

The central plank of Dershowitz’s destruction of Ben-Ami – “You can’t name one country in a situation comparable with Israel’s with a better human rights policy” – is a terrible defense of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip. What it amounts to is more or less “So Israel might be flagrantly violating international law in its occupation and colonization of another nation’s sovereign territory… but you can't criticize Israel so long as they are not the superlative worst offender of human rights!" or "Hey, at least it’s not genocide!” Is that really the kind of logic that American Jews want to employ when defending Israel? Shouldn’t people who write books with titles like The Case for Moral Clarity be arguing that the State of Israel have a human rights record not just better than that of blood-stained Asiatic autocracies and African juntas but so immaculate that it is beyond the reproach of fair criticism?

That argument for moral clarity, actually, was what Jeremy Ben-Ami was trying to make before Alan Dershowitz shouted him down.

“The occupation of the West Bank and the way in which the Palestinian people have been treated for 42 years is very, very troubling. I’m not putting it on a scale with the genocide that took place in Rwanda, I’m not putting it on a scale with what happened in Sri Lanka… What I am worried about in the Jewish community is that we’re too self-satisfied that we’re not as bad as Sri Lanka, we’re not as bad as Rwanda – that’s not good enough. We should be treating people according to the values that we were brought up under, the values that we expect other people to treat us with, and if we were treated in Hebron the way that Palestinian people are treated by Israelis, we would be deeply troubled as well.”

“There is a standard of morality, a standard of ethics, a standard of behavior that I was raised to believe is fundamental to what it means to be Jewish. I don’t care where my standard falls vis-à-vis the Kurds, I don’t care where my standard falls vis-à-vis the Chinese. What I believe is that the country that is the nation-state of my people should be behaving and upholding the standards of my people.”

Nevertheless, one would think that Alan Dershowitz handily won this “debate” judging by the reactions of the largely elderly Jewish audience. By keeping his vocabulary within the secular language of human rights and constitutionalism and democracy he was able to swat away Ben-Ami’s criticisms with nary a word that might discomfit a liberal, college-educated audience. He was able to excuse Israeli mistakes with such bombast that it seemed that in making these mistakes Israel was in fact righteous and that it was her accusers who were at fault for the very act of making the accusations. And when he made his applause lines the audience dutifully applauded – even if you disagree with everything the man says, you have to admit that Dershowitz is a masterful rhetorician. Having seen Dershowitz do his song-and-dance routine in person, it is clear why Benjamin Netanyahu invited him to serve as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

But on the substance of the “debate”, I feel that Dershowitz really didn’t make much in terms of an argument – he didn’t really defend Israel’s policies in regards to the occupation, the settlements and its human rights record as much as he criticized Mr. Ben-Ami’ criticisms of them. I left Temple Beth El disappointed that the bulk of Dershowitz’s shtick was to undermine the credibility of his opponent by associating him with some outrageous thing that George Soros might have said out of context this one time, to showcase the fact that Ben-Ami never publicly denounced this or that left-wing anti-Zionist and to thereby put those outrageous words in Ben-Ami’s own mouth. Instead of responding to Ben-Ami’s criticisms of Israel, he just insinuated that these criticisms somehow originated in ideologies of anti-Semitic prejudice. So if Dershowitz won, it was only because he bullied and crowded Jeremy Ben-Ami out of the discourse so that he never really had a chance to speak. Though I have enjoyed some of Dershowitz’s books and found them to be fairly compelling, I found Dershowitz’s performance in person to be so mean-hearted and pandering to the least common denominator that I left the synagogue feeling more skeptical of his arguments than before I came in.

And thus I have to agree with Ben-Ami when he rejoined Dershowitz’ ¬love-it-or-leave-it posturing; “You and that advocacy are part of the reason so many young, liberal Jews are walking away from Israel”. When people like Alan Dershowitz – or Eric Cantor or Abraham Foxman or Bill Kristol – throw around epithets like “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic” so often in so many contexts when it is not even remotely appropriate or they make a point of repeatedly professing their love for Israel to the point that it becomes hackneyed and meaningless, it really turns off a lot of people who are truly interested in hearing a bona fide discourse on things that matter. When a public figure questions the patriotism of his rivals and filibusters amidst the last refuge of scoundrels, it leads certain members of the audience to conclude that the speaker lacks the facts and the law to slam and so he has resorted to slamming the table. Likewise, if the best that the most learned defender of Israel can do is to make a relativist argument, kill a straw man and criticize the criticizers, it leads a number of us to wonder if anyone can straightforwardly defend Israel’s human rights record in the Occupied Territories.

This is part of the reason why the new J Street organization is being embraced with so much enthusiasm by many American Jews – especially youth. A great many of us strongly identify with our Jewish heritage and with the nation of Israel; however, we do not hold any blind tribal allegiance to the Jewish settlers of the West Bank any more than we hold blind tribal allegiance to Bernie Madoff, Scooter Libby or Paul Wolfowitz. We believe that the Jewish people have the right to determine our own destiny in the State of Israel, but we do not believe that Jews have the right to steal the property of non-Jews living in the West Bank. We reject the platform of the Likud Party which "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River." We believe in Judaism and Zionism; however, we do not believe in Likudism.

A lot of American Jews who believe in the Jewish democracy have a difficult time speaking as apologists for the State of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Especially when we factor in the Bronze Age barbarism of the West Bank settlers, our views on every single one of 7.5 million Israelis cannot be described as unconditional respect. This 24-year-old American Jew, for one, has trouble perceiving Israel as at all times the victims as much as my grandfather who considered emigrating to Israel to fight in the War of Independence or my parents who lived through the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. American Jews of my generation know our history of Israeli victimhood, we identify with contemporary Israeli victimhood of suicide bombings and rocket attacks - but we have also been cognizant of Israel occupying 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and laying siege to another 1.5 million on the Gaza Strip so long as we have been able to read newspapers. To many of us, there is solid evidence to portray the Israelis who are colonizing Palestinian lands and the state which facilitates this systematic oppression as victimizers. We are not going to waste our time comparing the human rights records of the State of Israel versus Hamas or Hezbollah, we don't care whose human rights record is the worst, but what we are going to do is to ask that the Jewish State - the state of our people - live up to its moral and legal obligations to respect the human rights of people of other nations.

Justifications of Israeli policy resting upon the premise of Arab treachery seem to so many of us outdated; the sneak attack of 1973 was 37 years ago, Egypt and Jordan have long ago signed peace treaties and the Arab League’s Peace Initiative remains the only offer on the table, moreover, Yasser Arafat is dead and buried. In light of these realities in the year 2010, a great deal of American Jews can’t understand why so many of our people still oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. We know very well that certain Arab states and certain Palestinians have committed atrocities in the past, but we have no desire to shackle the destiny of our people to the dictatorship of history or the tribal warfare of yesteryear.

Accordingly, many American Jews are alienated by organizations such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Congress which have monopolized the discourse in recent years because we feel that the Likud-Shas fantasy of a “Greater Israel” which they defend is a very radical, narrow interpretation of Zionism which runs counter to our democratic values. That is not to say that we would necessarily be Laborites, but a great many of us do feel estranged by the American faction which reflexively supports any and every policy that the State of Israel might conduct without any regard for the legitimate rights of other nations. We do not object to the existence of an Israel Lobby - in fact, we consider ourselves a significant part of the Israel Lobby - but we feel that an organization which can stand for the indefinite subjugation of the Palestinian people cannot speak for the totality of American Jews.

That is why the J Street organization is filling a very necessary niche in the constellation of American Jewish political activism. A good number of American Jews – especially youth, including this writer – do identify with the nation of Israel as the spiritual home of the Jewish people, and for this reason we insist that the State of Israel live up to the highest standards of morality, international law and human rights in its conduct with other nations. We insist that the State of Israel live side-by-side and in peace with an independent State of Palestine, because we who consider ourselves the intellectual heirs to Moses, Jefferson and Weizmann count the self-determination of peoples as one of our most fundamental values. We believe that these principles of morality, human rights and international law are not just maxims to be invoked on behalf of Jews but universal truths that are applicable to all peoples at all times. We believe that if we expect to be able to defend our own liberty with these principles then we must abide by them in our own conduct with all other people - especially Muslims. And that is why we have such high expectations for the nation of Israel, because if we are going to call ourselves the Chosen People then we have to live up to our lofty promise.

1 comment:

pH said...

Dershowitz didn't win the debate: we ALL lost.

I find so dishonest and repugnant the tactic of changing the subject to other countries--"Why aren't you criticizing China?" etc. Why are people always saying this about events that are ABOUT Israel! This is not a Model UN conference: we're here to talk about Israel!

Another reason that the above mentioned argument is dishonest and vile is because the responsibility of the American government to the Palestinians--for over half a century we have supplied their oppressors with the tools of their oppression--is completely different than our responsibility to the Uighurs, the Karen, the Biafrans, the Roma, female citizens of Arab nations, or the many other kinds of oppressed people who are usually brought up! This even applies to the poor of America! America’s poor are poor because of structural reasons like capitalism and lingering socially ingrained but no longer legally codified racism—things that, as history shows, it is hard to change as quickly and dramatically as we would like. Palestinians are poor because they live under full blown military occupation, apartheid, and starvation—things that can be put an end to more or less immediately to dramatic beneficial effect.

All that said, it is always interesting to observe how with the tone of certain intellectuals (eg Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Badiou, or the undersigned author), while uttering objectively true facts and judgements about Israel’s egregious conduct, nonetheless betrays the betrays the taint of an anti-Semitic pleasure in the act of uttering these facts. But even if a guy gets an anti-Semitic kick out of talking about how Israel bulldozes apartment complexes, the criticism itself—as opposed to the enjoyment of the criticism—is right. The best way to address this kind of anti-Semitism is to minimize your contact with such worms by not giving them the chance to criticize you, say, by not slowly strangling with despair, starvation, and murder the residents of Gaza.

There is something that bugs me about saying that “we” must live up to the “standard of behavior that [we were] raised to believe is fundamental to what it means to be Jewish”, while in the same breathe asserting that “we believe that these principles of morality and law are not just maxims to be invoked on behalf of Jews but universal truths that are applicable to all peoples at all times.” There’s a conceptual disharmony here. I won’t call it a contradiction, but neither is it merely rhetorical. What compels us to be just towards us? Is it the particularities of our culture, the norms of our community, the habits of our identity group? Or is it the recognition that there is a dimension of our humanity that is in excess of these categories, the something about us that is universal?

It’s very nice to say, “Israel is bad for Jews” or “a real Jew doesn’t approve of the occupation” but these statements strike me as disingenuous, because if you’re smart enough to know those things, you’re smart enough to know that, at the level of ethical considerations, whether it’s good or bad for Jews isn’t what’s important. The point is it good or bad for anyone.

And here we teeter inevitably into the abyss. That ridiculous statement: “No country in modern history has had a better record with human rights under comparable threats than the nation of Israel!” Any non-brain dead person understands that the primary reason Israel is under threat is because for 40 years it has been brutalizing Palestinians—because they pose a threat! But isn’t there a more intractable dilemma—the absurd contradiction between calling oneself a democracy, and also calling oneself the state of a particular ethno-national group. The Jewish state is an anachronism. It is under existential threat not just from anti-Semites and Palestinians, but from capitalist democracy, which destroys all traditions, transforms all Peoples into atomized worker-citizens, and generally melts all that is solid into air. And to that I say bravo.