Progressive Israelis Are Agonized. Can the U.S. Help Them?

Both the proof and the damage of the Israel lobby may be seen in a simple fact: In Israel, people can sharply criticize their government in the mainstream press; here the mainstream press excludes sharp criticism of Israel (because it is judged, by friends of Israel, to be antisemitic). The result is that both the U.S. and Israel are deprived of progressive American voices that could actually play a salutary role in the mess.

The latest crisis in Israel demonstrates what I’m saying. In the last week the Israeli press has been filled with outrage over the new deputy P.M.: Avigdor Lieberman. The leader of a political party made up chiefly of Russian immigrants, Lieberman has called for redrawing Israel’s boundaries so as to expel Arab citizens and for the execution of Israeli Arab members of Parliament who met with Hamas. Let me repeat: this guy is the new deputy Prime Minister.

The appointment has generated agony among Israel’s progressives. In the paper Ma’ariv two writers compare Lieberman to Hitler and fantasize darkly about his plans for cattle cars. In Ha’aretz, diplomatic corr’t Akiva Eldar says that Lieberman’s inclusion in the Cabinet is far worse than a political development that caused international condemnation: the ascension to the Austrian government in 2000 of fascist Joerg Haider. At least Haider signed a declaration promising to abide by the European principles of democracy and human rights, and he apologized for statements downplaying the Holocaust. Lieberman, a settler, has changed his anti-Arab tune not at all.

Uri Avnery (appearing in Counterpunch) says that the spirit of Israel right now is like the “last days of the Weimar republic.” Also in Haaretz, the always-eloquent novelist Yitzhak Laor writes that only a cynic “does not grasp that this is another stage in Israel’s decline.”

These are all harsh words, and all in an Israeli context. The likelihood of their appearing in the U.S. mainstream is about equal to the likelihood of Al-Jazeera running Mohammed cartoons.

And this is dangerous. These Israeli liberals believe that Israel has been corrupted by its policy of colonizing Arab lands, a policy carried out by religious nuts who cite Biblical texts as expressing God’s desire that they repopulate the Jordan Valley. Americans live very far from the Jordan Valley: you would think we would be free of the feverish political pressures that come to bear on moderates in Jerusalem. Here—where the reversal of racism and securing of minority rights is one of our greatest achievements—we should jump up to condemn this policy and its advocates, and how it damages our image in the Arab world. Yes, the NYT has editorialized against Lieberman, and Tikkun and Americans for Peace Now have lamented his appointment. But none of the criticism approaches the level of outrage in Israel.

And as for a politician or candidate for Congress calling this guy a racist, and saying that these policies damage American interests in the Middle East? No way. The (secular) Israel lobby will kneecap anyone in our politics, like Jimmy Carter, who dares to criticize the Israeli government, no matter what it does.

Eldar again:

The silence of the leadership of mainstream Jewry in the world, in view of the legitimization of a person such as Lieberman, undermines the moral high ground they hold in the struggle against Israel-haters throughout the world. If a Jewish politician who aspires to transfer an Arab minority across the border can sit in an Israeli cabinet, why should an anti-Semite not sit in an Austrian government?

I’ll tell you what the talking point is for mainstream Jewry on Lieberman. Israel is “not perfect.” Ira Stoll of the N.Y. Sun used that language when I interviewed him for the Nation two months back. Israel: “a pluralistic though imperfect country where Jews and Arabs coexist.” Ditto Birthright, the program that sends American Jewish kids to Israel for free:

Israel is about Jews. It is about saving Jews… It is about Jews learning how to live with each other. It’s about a Jewish state that sometimes makes mistakes and is not perfect, but that still strives for social justice…

Imperfect—I wonder if that’s what the Boers called apartheid.

Because I’m an optimist, I actually think things could change here. “The pro-Israel position in the United States needs to start approximating more closely just where the debate is in Israel,” former Barak adviser Daniel Levy said (per Mike Desch.) Significantly, the executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, David Elcott called for change in the lobby last week in the Jewish Week:

[The] settlements undermine Israel’s ability to defend itself and its citizens….our simplistic and knee-jerk advocacy for Israel is in dire need of rethinking and repair, because it no longer reflects the Zionist vision of a democratic, Jewish state in which our people can live out its unique vision of a Jewish homeland. Israel must be assured the military strength to defend itself, but military prowess and congressional support alone will not be enough to protect the Jewish state. [emphasis mine]

Elcott is saying what I’m saying, in a much quieter way. This is an American tragedy. Where is the ADL, which says that it stands up for minorities?

Progressive Israelis Are Agonized. Can the U.S. Help Them?