The Observer Interviews Naomi Wolf on the War in Israel and Gaza

The Observer has been publishing a dialogue between the author-activist Naomi Wolf and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the subject of the war in Israel and Gaza. It began with a Facebook post Ms. Wolf made on her personal page, which has some 85,000 followers and hosts a very lively discussion. Rabbi Shmuley responded to that posting with an Observer column that accused Ms. Wolf of “trivializing genocide.” Ms. Wolf responded with a follow-up Facebook post and Shmuley responded with another column, this one headlined “Naomi Wolf Responds to Shmuley, Believes that Jews Do Not Need a State.”

Ms. Wolf strenuously objected to this headline, as did many of her supporters.

An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome missile defense system. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome missile defense system (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Ms. Wolf suggested the Observer interview her so she “can actually communicate with readers about this issue and the kind of remarkable events of the last three weeks.” Good idea. Here is an edited transcript of that interview with some emails weaved in, as well.

New York Observer: Let’s begin.

Naomi Wolf: Rabbi Boteach is welcome to his opinion — I have no problem with what he chooses to say in the body of an opinion piece. But your headline, on your front page, is an Observer editorial decision, and as you know it is not phrased to claim that Rabbi Boteach says or believes that I think “Jews don’t need a state.” (Which again, for the record, is untrue). Rather as a headline — meaning the voice not of the writer but of the newspaper — it is phrased to communicate the Observer’s announcement to its readers that I said that “Jews don’t need a state.” This is just not how I was trained as a journalist. Never in my career has a colleague refused to address a flat error — not a matter of judgment but of fact — inserted into a headline, without any reference to its factuality or lack thereof. This is really a new low in journalism. I ask you once again to show me where I ever said or wrote that — I did not.

NYO: You seem to be under the impression that the headline was written by the Observer rather than by Shmuley. That’s not correct. He handed this in with the headline “Naomi Wolf Believes that Jews Do Not Need a State.” I added the “Wolf Attack” simply as a headline-y pun. If you think that’s stupid or insulting, that part I’d be willing to delete. I also added “Responds to Shmuley” to give it context and make it clear that this was an ongoing dialogue, rather than just stating that you believe “Jews Do Not Need a State.” Furthermore, I added the entire subhead “The feminist writer and occasional campaign operative responds to my response” to make it even more clear that this was a dialogue — a conversation. My hope was that it’d put it in better context for the reader, and I think it achieved that. I even changed “Al Gore operative” to “campaign operative” because I didn’t want it to read like a cheap shot, since of course there’s nothing dishonorable about having worked for the former Vice-President. Shmuley is entitled to his interpretation that your Facebook comments and open letter to him mean you believe Jews to not need a state. I think it’s supportable opinion. I followed up with Shmuley and he stands by his opinion.

Naomi Wolf: Let me be really clear that I see the role of the comments and citizen journalism that I’ve been soliciting on Facebook, which has been blowing up into a community of 4.1 million Christians, Muslims and Jews, as an aspect of a longstanding democracy building project,, that I’ve been part of building. I’m learning. I don’t have a position on Israel. I have questions. And I have been learning a lot, as I have from my exchanges with Rabbi Boteach and from the conversations on my page, including with friends like the Jordan-based British-trained human rights barrister Mary Nazzal, who works on Gaza legal issues and Leeat Granek, a professor of psychology at a university in Israel.

These are people who almost never get a chance to be in dialogue.

These are intellectuals having a conference on what they call the one-state solution – I learned about it from friends of mine who are filmmakers in Egypt. There are Muslims all over the Middle East, all over the Muslim diaspora, who are having a conversation. I don’t nearly know enough about the one-state solution to say that I support it. I don’t have a position on what should be done in Israel. I have a lot of thoughts on how we can behave more morally and more conscientiously as a world community.

When I post something, it’s not because I support it. I post things because they’re news to me. They’re worth discussing.

NYO: I take you at your word on this, that you’re simply “bringing things up.” But I want to tell you that’s word for word the response I get from bonafide white supremacists. I interviewed David Duke in 2000, and from him on, when I say “why do you quote this passage from Mein Kempf” or whatever, they say, “I’m just raising these issues for discussion.” Someone in your position, with 90,000 followers, a bestselling author respected around the world — it’s tough for me to allow to go unchallenged when you post stuff linking Israel to the riots in St. Louis and stuff that I consider nutty.

Naomi Wolf: I very much reject the analogy. The conference on the one-state solution was a very serious academic institution – it was intellectuals. It was at a very reputable academic context. As a reporter it seems odd to me that I shouldn’t let people know this is taking place.

NYO: Whenever I see one of these people who wants to, say, debate whether the Holocaust occurred, I feel like it elevates the kook side of the discussion.

Naomi Wolf: Every time someone posts something ridiculous, like did the Holocaust happen … this is a Facebook discussion. I encourage people to double-source things. Every time someone posts something ridiculous – there is no staff. It’s just me. You have interns and whatever, but it’s just me and I try not to block people, but I go through and I encourage people to double source their assertions. If you’re not familiar with this conference in London, it’s a very reputable conference. Everyone knows I post things that I don’t agree with. I reported a long time in the Guardian that US Police were being flown to Israel for training.

NYO: I don’t get it. That’s like “reporting” that a police chief vacations in Italy or eats grapes imported from Chile. So what?

Naomi Wolf: I agree with that. I don’t have a conclusion about it. I think it’s worth looking at. It seems odd to me that the ADL is funding this trip. Since 2008, when I first wrote the book The End of America, which was turned into a movie, I’ve been worried about the erosion of civil liberties in the United States. One of the key things is to not have militarized police forces. I have been writing for years about my concerns about the lines of Posse Comitatus fading and armored vehicles and the divisions between domestic police and armed forces. In 2011, I wrote a piece for the Guardian after the crackdown on Occupy Wall Street protesters.

NYO: Shmuley supported his contention “Naomi Wolf Believes That Jews Do Not Need a State” by citing your statements about Israel’s actions, such as “If this is what a ‘Jewish state’ requires of us, it is not worth it to us in my view” and your remarks about Israel’s misdeeds, including “fetishizing ethnicity, a judicial double standard, militarism, violence against civilians, and disregard for the rule of law” and your conclusion, that Israel “is the OPPOSITE of a truly Jewish state.”

Naomi Wolf: The grammar is very clear. I should have made it two sentences. “This” refers not to the state of Israel, but to things that corrode our conscience.

NYO: OK. So let’s substitute that phrase: “If doing things that corrode our conscience is what a ‘Jewish state’ requires of us, it is not worth it to us in my view.” Is that a statement you can stand behind?

Naomi Wolf: Doing things that corrode our conscience is not worth it.

NYO: In the real world, there’s no country in history that hasn’t done things that are shameful, immoral and unconscionable. Does Israel have some sort of special requirement because of the high esteem in which you hold Jewish values?

Naomi Wolf: No. Obviously, no country should be judged any differently from any other country. I focus on universal human rights. I have seen genocide in Rwanda, I went to Sierra Leone and wrote about genocide, I interviewed girls who were kidnapped as sex slaves. I watched people rescue girls from warlords. I wrote about America’s abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan and I wrote about Muslim clitorectomy. I’m completely consistent – everywhere there’s a violation of human rights I try to point it out. I asked my readers, “Why does Hamas fire on civilians?” I don’t understand it, even from the pro-Palestinain side. I am a supporter of Israel. I am a very loyal Jew and a supporter of Israel, in asking us to think about what are Jewish values.

NYO: As a progressive, do you worry that your support of the people of Gaza ultimately means supporting a repressive regime?

Naomi Wolf: I don’t support the people of Gaza any more than I support the people of Ber Shevet. There are ways to keep the conflict from the civilians. I found the conference. I won’t keep sending you academic conference links but this one was at the Harvard Kennedy School. You see Israeli and Palestinian both speaking. Again I dont endorse it. I send this to note that reporting on a conversation that Harvard also acknowledges seems to me solid journalism and far from marginal sourcing. An Ivy League university is not in my view the equivalent of the fringe hate group in the analogy you brought up.

NYO: OK, I understand — reasonable people who aren’t David Duke are discussing this idea seriously. But I do think, with respect, that for such an outspoken and strongly opinioned person, you have played the “I’m just throwing this out there” card here and it feels disingenuous to me. 

Can you just say, having obviously researched it quite a bit, whether you favor or oppose a one-state solution? I concede that your opinion may change/evolve as you learn more and whatever. So may mine. But I’m willing to state where I stand (and no one gives a shit where I stand…): “I, Ken Kurson, Republican hatchet man and Giuliani toadie and teabagger and all the other stuff I’ve been called since this dialogue started, oppose a one-state solution.” I believe that demographics and culture would spell a near end to any Jewish character of modern-day Israel. Perhaps I’ll learn more and be swayed by someday attending a conference at Harvard. But today, on August 14, 2014, I oppose the one-state solution.

Naomi Wolf: I don’t support it. I support, though I am extremely reluctant to make a policy proscription in such a difficult context, and try to be always nonpartisan in my work on US civil liberties,  a two-state solution as supported by Jimmy Carter; with no illegal settlements and no illegal occupation and Israel obeying international law and Hamas and the PA obeying international law; no indefinite detentions, no preventive detentions (these are illegal), no attacks on civil society institutions, no shooting or incarceration of journalists, no shooting at TV and radio stations, no shooting at hospitals and bombing of schools, no attacks on civilians, no shooting at peaceful protesters, on any side by anyone (including none of the above here at home).

Fishermen stand on a small boat at Gaza City's harbor.  (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Fishermen stand on a small boat at Gaza City’s harbor. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

And in the future as we go forward, I would like to see much more civil society partnership and open respectful discussion and dialogue across the to-me-artificial barriers now set up to separate Palestinian Muslim and Christian, and Israeli and Diaspora Jewish, voices and interests. Everyone is talking about geopolitical borders as if they are the only things that matter  in relation to peace but to me building civil society relationships and everyone obeying the law are as urgent and in some ways more urgent than focusing only on borders and diplomacy — or on war, incarceration and bombardment — in getting to peace. Peace is not ‘quietness.’ Peace is more active than mere separation of warring peoples. Peace involves knowledge of the ‘other’ who is demonized (on both sides), and lasting peace also involves justice. On both sides.

To me, if you open dialogue, debate, respect and education about the “other,” many of the border issues that now seem incontrovertible, ease and find solutions because people have built a complex set of relationships, a shared civil society understanding of where their interests are aligned, a shared sense of humanity, a recognition of each other’s painful histories, and a basis of trust. You have seen that happen around the world currently where cultures that were initially at daggers drawn now coexist or even build up partnerships of many kinds together.

As you know, I think we are all connected and there is really only one larger interest while there should certainly be two law-abiding states. The Observer Interviews Naomi Wolf on the War in Israel and Gaza