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Jewish Obama Donor Defection Story is Way Overblown

June 9, 2011 Comments off
Barack Obama

Image by jamesomalley via Flickr

Right wing bloggers have been trying to create a story line that some large Democratic donors are not going to support President Obama because of his recent speeches about the Middle East.   On her Commentary blog Contentions, Alana Goodman, said: 

One of the most important Democratic donors in the past two decades, whose generous contributions helped pay for the DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., has indicated that he will not contribute to President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, because of the administration’s stance on Israel.

The thrust of Goodman’s blog post was to continue to build the story that Obama anti-Israel.  And further, that it is hurting is chances of fundraising.

However,  Washington Post’s Greg Sargent decided to follow-up and go straight to the source.  In his blog yesterday, Sargent quoted Saban as follows:

“If solicited, I will absolutely write a check to the level allowed by law,” Saban said. “I don’t agree that he’s anti-Israel.”

Sargent characterized it like this:

Saban told me that he did not view Obama as anti-Israel and that he would donate the maximum to Obama’s campaign if asked. And while he said he had problems with the timing of Obama’s announcement, he stated that he has no problem with the substance of Obama’s position, and said conservatives had misrepresented it in order to drive away Obama’s Jewish support.

 

Is President Obama Pro-Israel? Yes, According to AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg

June 7, 2011 Comments off

There have been a lot of arrows slung at President Obama in the last ten days from both sides of the political aisle.  But there is one person, a very unlikely person some would say, who actually lays out the facts about what Barack Obama has done for the State of Israel while he has been in office – the President of AIPAC, Lee Rosenberg (better known as “Rosy”).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS3aQJUtpyQ&feature=player_embedded

It is very curious to me that the the media, members of Congress, and apparently many members of AIPAC have seemingly ignored Rosy’s very eloquent review of the President’s pro-Israel record:

  • Enhanced military co-operation between the two countries
  • Maintenance of aid to Israel at current levels of a little over $3B per year
  • Request for additional funding of $200M+ for the successful Iron Dome missile defense system
  • Obtaining international support for the most stringent sanctions on Iran to-date (which by the way, despite what many critics have been saying, may be beginning to work – although WSJ front page article on June 2 points to internal domestic political issues, implicitly it would seem that Ahmadinijad’s taking over the Oil Ministry is likely related to issues caused by both oil and financial sanctions)
  • Veto of UN resolution regarding settlements (albeit with alot of hesitation)

Despite this record, the President is being attacked from all sides for making explicit what has been the understood basis for negotiations by virtually everyone directly associated with the current peace process:  “1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps“.  Note: those words form a single phrase.  That was true listening to the speech as well as reading the transcript.  Anyone who claims that he suggested “1967 borders” alone, is simply being deceptive.  This deception is now being used to make Israel a partisan issue.  See Rep. Joe Walsh laughingly outrageous rant in the Daily Caller last week and Bret Stephens similar contentions in the Wall Street Journal.

The real problem is that this masked some actual new content in the speech.  Specifically, this paragraph was virtually ignored:

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

Note these very clear statements:

  1. Reaffirms Israel’s right to defend itself, i.e., not having to trust international or UN troops to provide defense
  2. Reaffirms Israel’s need to prevent weapon smuggling and to secure its borders
  3. Although he does call for “full” withdrawal of Israeli troops, it is within the context of a “phased” withdrawal, and for what I believe is the first time, calls for the Palestinian state to be “non-militarized”
  4. Recognizes that the security arrangements must be effective

These undeniably strong pro-Israel statements are loud and clear.  Why has everyone – Netanyahu, the US Congress, the press, and most importantly, a large portion of the American Jewish Community – ignored them?

I Think That There Are Actually People Out There Trying To Paint President Obama As Anti-Israel!

May 26, 2011 2 comments
A political map of the en:Near East in 1135 CE...

SECRET MAP OF PRESIDENT OBAMA’S PROPOSED BORDERS

Far be it from me to speculate what the motivations would be for people to want to mischaracterize the President’s positions and actions towards Israel, but it certainly appears that there are indeed folks out their who are claiming that, based upon the speeches which Mr. Obama made over the past week, he is the most “Anti-Israel President ” ever.  (Shockingly, some of these comments have even been heard from those who are normally fair and balanced).  What is even more upsetting is that if I am wrong (which I am known to be occasionally) and those people are correct in saying that he is insidiously anti-Israel, we have a bigger problem.  Because that would mean, since their veiwpoints are so closely tied as you will see,  that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be the most anti-Israel Prime Minister that Israel has ever had!  And somebody had better wake up the Israelis ASAP so that they can drum this guy out of office because things are tough enough without having their country run by an imposter who is clearly as anti-Israel as this Obama no-goodnik.

Why do I say this, you might ask?  Because I have actually gone through the transcripts of the four speeches given since last Thursday and discovered something that really is surprising.  When you strip away the audiences and all those standing ovations, when you look at the texts of these speeches, not only are each of their positions virtually identical, but they even use almost exactly the same themesAnd, everyone talks about the importance of there being “no daylight” between the US and Israel, and I’ve got to tell you, when I compare the differences between Barrack and Bibi’s positions, I am surely not being blinded by the light. 

Although a lot was made of the “1967 borders” issue, anyone who listened to the speech or even read the transcript had to understand that “1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps” was all part of a single phrase which should never have been parsed out separately.  Also, as the President said in his speech to AIPAC, anyone who has spent any time at all following the current status of the peace process knows that virutally everyone agrees that any agreement will almost certainly involve just that:  1967 borders plus swaps.  And when you actually read the details of what Bibi and Barrack both said about this, they really didn’t disagree.

As to the Right of Return and Jerusalem, granted Obama did not agree with Bibi.  On the other hand, he didn’t disagree either.  What he was doing, it is clear, was trying to bring the parties together using the two issues that various reports (including Bernard Avishai’s NYT Magazine article about Olmert and Abbas negotiations) indicated they were close on: Borders and Security.  The idea was that if they could show some progress on these issues, it could build trust and goodwill before moving on to the even more intransigent issues. 

So, my only conclusion, as difficult as it is for me to believe, is that there are actually people out there that want to misrepresent Obama’s stand towards Israel.  And, heaven forbid, they may even be doing it for political purposes!

Finally, I believe so strongly that the content spoken by Obama and Netanyahu is almost exactly the same (with the partial exception of the Right of Return & Jerusalem issues as stated above), that I challenge anyone out there to prove me wrong.  If you can come up with some valid evidence using direct language from these speeches showing me where I have missed significant disagreements, then I have a crisp $100 bill here that I am prepared to give to Magen David Adom.  Let me know.  I’m up for the challenge.  Either way, it’s win-win.  Kind of like a peace agreement might be…

Below is a topic-by-topic comparison of selections from the four speeches:

1. Obama at the State Department, May 19

2. Obama at AIPAC, May 22

3. Netanyahu at AIPAC, May 23

4. Netanyahu before Congress, May 24

TOPIC

OBAMA-STATE DEPT

OBAMA-AIPAC

NETANYAHU-AIPAC

NETANYAHU-CONGRESS

         
Borders The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.    
Borders The Sequel   By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation   The status of the settlements will be decided only in negotiations. But we
must also be honest. So I am saying today something that should be said
publicly by anyone serious about peace. In any peace agreement that ends
the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders. The
precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated.
Borders III   It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.   This compromise must reflect the dramatic demographic changes that have occurred since 1967.
Enough with the Borders Already       We will be very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state. But as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.
Palestinian Right of Return Open issue     Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they
so choose, to a Palestinian state. This means that the Palestinian refugee
problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel.
Jerusalem Open issue     As for Jerusalem, only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship
for all faiths in the city. Jerusalem must never again be divided.
Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel. I know that this is a
difficult issue for Palestinians. But I believe with creativity and goodwill
a solution can be found.
Israel as a Jewish State   Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. [Emphasis added]   My friends, this must come to an end. President Abbas must do what I have
done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I
said… “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It is time for President Abbas to
stand before his people and say… “I will accept a Jewish state.”
Self-Defense As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself — by itself — against any threat As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat.   When we say never again, we mean never again. Israel always reserves the right to defend itself.
Security Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.[Emphasis added] Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.   So it is therefore absolutely vital for Israel’s security that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized. And it is vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. Solid security arrangements on the ground are necessary not only to protect the peace, they are necessary to protect Israel in case the peace unravels. For in our unstable region, no one can guarantee that our peace partners today will be there tomorrow.
Obama Admin Commitment to Israel As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.   Yesterday President Obama spoke about his ironclad commitment to Israel’s
security. He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented. He
spoke of that commitment in front of AIPAC. He spoke about it in two
speeches heard throughout the Arab world. And he has backed those words
with deeds.
 
Security Cooperation   It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented  
Advanced                        Technologies   It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies    
Military $$   And it’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels. I know these are tough economic times. So I want to thank the president and
Congress for providing Israel with vital assistance so that Israel can
defend itself by itself
Thank you all, and thank you President Obama,
for your steadfast commitment to Israel’s security. I know economic times
are tough. I deeply appreciate this.
Iron Dome   That includes additional support – beyond regular military aid – for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. This is a powerful example of American-Israel cooperation which has already intercepted rockets from Gaza and helped saved innocent Israeli lives. … make no mistake, we will maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. I want to thank you all for supporting the Iron
Dome missile defense system
 
Agreement Must Be Between the Two Parties   These are the facts. I firmly believe, and repeated on Thursday, that peace cannot be imposed on the parties to the conflict.    
Delegitimization For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. You also see our commitment to Israel’s security in our steadfast opposition to any attempt to de-legitimize the State of Israel. As I said at the United Nation’s last year, “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate,” and “efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States.”…No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.    
Hamas As a Partner Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. Moreover, we know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist, and we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and their rhetoric.   And Hamas is not a partner for peace. Hamas remains committed to Israel’s
destruction and to terrorism. They have a charter. That charter not only
calls for the obliteration of Israel, but says ‘kill the Jews wherever you
find them’. Hamas’ leader condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden and
praised him as a holy warrior.
Hamas-Fatah Unification the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel — how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. And I indicated on Thursday that the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace. No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements    
Israel’s Right to Exist And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.     My friends, this must come to an end. President Abbas must do what I have
done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I
said… “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It is time for President Abbas to
stand before his people and say… “I will accept a Jewish state.”
Gilad Shalit   And we once again call on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years. And you’ve joined
President Obama and me in denouncing Hamas and demanding that it release our captive soldier, Gilad Shalit
 
New Proposals?   There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. Administrations.…By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation If there’s a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately. [Emphasis added]    
Palestinian intransigence       So why has peace not been
achieved? Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.…You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state.
Iran   See below   A nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East…This is why I ask you to continue to send an unequivocal message: That America will never permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Obama’s Actions Against Iran   You also see our commitment to our shared security in our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Here in the U.S., we’ve imposed the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime. At the United Nations, we’ve secured the most comprehensive international sanctions on the regime, which have been joined by allies and partners around the world. Today, Iran is virtually cut off from large parts of the international financial system, and we are going to keep up the pressure. So let me be absolutely clear – we remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.   It is even worse because there
are many who rush to condemn Israel for defending itself against Iran’s
terror proxies.  But not you. Not America. You have acted differently. You’ve condemned the Iranian regime for its genocidal aims. You’ve passed tough sanctions against Iran. History will salute you America.  President Obama has said that the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He successfully led the Security Council to adopt sanctions against Iran. You in Congress passed even tougher sanctions. These words and deeds are vitally important.
Arab Teaching Hatred For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.     They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name
public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to
perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the
descendants of Palestinian refugees.

Hillel’s Message to AIPAC and all American Jews: Now Is The Time To Make A Two State Solution Happen (Part 3 of 3)

May 24, 2011 1 comment
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”

“And if not now, when?”

Hillel ends his admonition with an imperative:  The time is now.  And so it is for Israelis and Americans who truly want to preserve Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.  Although it has been said for years that the window of opportunity is closing, like the boy who cried wolf, this time it is really true.

Map of Israel and Territories

There are three major trends in the Middle East which underscore why it is so critical to move boldly and swiftly towards peace.  The first is the Arab Spring.  Everybody loves democratic uprisings – when they first begin.  However, they do not always end up quite the way we hope.  The very nature of grass-roots rebellions is that they tend to be short on organization, which opens them up to co-option as things move from the emotional frenzy of demonstrations in the streets to the reality of picking up the garbage in the streets.  In Egypt, which is probably the best example of successful regime change, the final outcome is indeed still open to question.  But the response of the Israelis seems to be that of delay. In March, we spoke with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky who had just come back from Israel bearing the message from Israelis leaders that “Now is not the time for action.  We need to let things settle down.”  While there is some logic in that point of view, the counter argument carries a lot of weight as well.  That is, it might make better sense to get an agreement moving farther along (including the support of other world nations) before things blow up around or in the Palestinian territories.  In other words, it seems just as likely that spontaneous developments in the region will actually give the Israelis less control at the negotiating table than they have now.

The second factor is the movement towards a unified government that Fatah and Hamas have taken.  This took everyone by surprise (by all accounts, Mahmoud Abbas included) and as a result it is not totally clear whether the arrangement will work out or what the results will be if it does.  But what is clear from the reaction of the Israeli and American governments is that everyone on this side of the table is scared to death.  Although the excuse is that Hamas is a terrorist organization, it seems that the real fear is that no one really understands Hamas’ motivations or its ability to politically control and organize its factions. I am not sure why people are reacting with such repulsion.  It seems to me that we should take the advice of that old Texan, LBJ, on this one:  “It’s much better to have him (LBJ referring to J. Edgar Hoover) inside the tent pissing out, than having him outside pissing in.”  It would certainly be much easier to assess what Hamas is thinking if we met with them rather than to simply turn our backs – which is what both the Israelis and Americans are doing.  A former Israeli General once said to me:  Never turn your back on a Arab (which by the way, was not said with malice or derision, but simply as honest
advice).  So why turn your backs on Hamas? Additionally, the current position gives Fatah nowhere to turn.  Simply saying “it’s Israel or Hamas” makes good political rhetoric, but if you think about it, it actually gives additional power to Hamas because they know that Abbas does not have enough political support to reject Hamas at this point in time – so the Israelis haven’t given him a real choice.  Under normal circumstances, it might be best to wait to see what happens between these two factions.  However, there is a third
factor that overrides this:  September.

The Palestinians have slowly and methodically been paving the way to go to the UN in September to seek recognition as a nation of the world. The resolution will first go to

UN Flag

the Security Council where the US will be able to veto it.  However, it will then move to the General Assembly for a vote of all of the nations.  It is quite likely that they will be able to
get the votes needed to pass the resolution as there are already over 100 countries that have recognized the Palestinian Authority.  One Israeli official has been quoted as calling the possibility of UN ratification a “train wreck”, and rightfully so.  If Palestine is recognized as a sovereign nation, it totally changes the legal relationship with Israel according to accepted international law.  And while many American and Israeli spokesmen have minimized the validity of the vote and its potential impact, that seems to be the naïve point of view.

So, the Arab Spring, the Fatah-Hamas détente, and most importantly, the anticipated Palestinian quest for statehood at the UN, all underscore the fact that time is closing in on Israel’s opportunities to control their own fate.  But instead of urgency, what we hear loudest from the American Jewish community is denial.  American Jews can stonewall and contend that the Israelis cannot possibly deal with terrorists (although let’s recall that the PLO was the foremost terrorist group in the world at one time) and that there is no one to make a deal with, and that the world is delegitimizing Israel, and that that old UN is once again being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  We can do that.  But that doesn’t stop the clock towards UN declaration of a Palestinian state from ticking.  Why do we want to put the fate of Israel and Palestine in the hands of the UN?  If we don’t act now to do everything we can to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to the table, we may well leave setting the terms of the agreement to others.

Instead of continually reciting all of the obstacles to peace, we American Jews should do all we can to urge Israel to engage with the Palestinians.  And soon.  Instead of a wholesale rejection of Hamas, why not be creative?  Find some clever way of giving Hamas an out that will allow them to save face with their own people, while providing some assurance to the Israelis that they are moderating.  For example, while some in Hamas have maintained their hateful rhetoric, Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal has already indicated his openness to accepting an agreement under certain circumstances.  Why shouldn’t Israel use these statements to open the door – even if it’s just a crack?

This is just an example, but if you examine the information being distributed and promoted by the Major American Jewish Organizations, most of it consists of reasons why peace cannot be accomplished.  It lists all of the obstacles to peace.  Underlying all of this is an unstated (or sometimes stated) assumption that Israel has too much to risk by making peace.  But there are two problems with that.  First, it fails to recognize that
it is no longer 1948.  The relative powers in the region are very different than they were back then.  As Hillary Clinton said last year at the AIPAC Policy Conference, the real dangers to Israel lie in demography, ideology, and technology – not from conventional military attack.  And secondly, it fails to recognize the very real risks of doing nothing.  More former Israeli political and military leaders than you can count have emphasized that the status quo is simply unsustainable.

So, my hope is that my fellow AIPAC members and the rest of the mainstream American Jewish community will go beyond the same old platitudes that give all the reasons that peace is not possible and instead, urge the Israeli government and our elected leaders to make definitive, substantive steps towards peace.  It is time to be bold and brave.  We Jews are strong enough, we are tough enough, and we are smart enough to cut a deal with the Palestinians that, if well thought out, implemented and monitored, can bring better lives to everyone in the region.

The time is now.

Hillel’s Message to AIPAC and all American Jews: Now Is The Time To Make A Two State Solution Happen (Part 1 of 3)

May 23, 2011 1 comment

One of the most profound aspects of Rabbi Hillel‘s brilliance was his ability to express the essence of Judaism in basic core ways that doesn’t require the years of study demanded of a Talmudic scholar.  Perhaps the most well-known of Hillel’s aphorisms (which our congregation repeats in song each High Holiday) reflects the essence of what it means to be both a human and a Jew:
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
 And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
 And if not now, when?”

This statement of simple eloquence seems to be an appropriate  guide to how we, as American Jews, should approach the Israel-Palestinian conflict:

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

There is a very visceral connection to Israel for Jews around the world that begins with our historical, Biblical lineage. And whether you are a believer in the divine covenant or a cultural Jew – whether a Jew by matrilineal descent or a Jew by choice – whether an ardent Zionist or an indifferent secularist – there seems to be an intangible link to the land of the matriarchs and patriarchs.  There is also a connection created by the sweat and blood of the early Zionists who really did make the desert bloom.

But what is really at the heart of the American Jewish relationship to Israel is the desire and the need to protect its very existence. The number one goal is to protect and preserve Israel as it is envisioned in its Declaration of Establishment:  as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

The need for a safe haven for Jews is self-evident to even the most skeptical observer in light of the 2,000 years of the Diaspora culminating in Hitler’s attempt at the Final Solution which was met by apparent indifference from much of the world.  Although some in the world try to deny the Holocaust, that very denial amply proves the point of the need to preemptively prevent another holocaust by maintaining the state open to all Jews without question.  And while some in the West, particularly those of the younger generation, forget or dismiss the reality of anti-Semitism, new currents of this age-old sentiment have been bubbling closer to the surface in dangerous ways.  Though most American young people cannot conceive of a return to the explicit anti-Semitism that existed until the last generation or so, history tells a different story. Although we can hope that the trend will not continue to grow, it would be naive to blithely believe that it won’t.
So, even today, the need for a refuge remains very real.

But, the most prominent message (that often drowns out all others) of AIPAC, the Federations, and many other Major American Jewish Organizations is that danger lurks around every corner: Terrorists waiting to blow themselves up killing innocent women and children; missiles amassed at Israel’s border – now with the capability to strike at the heart of Israel’s civilian population; the specter of a nuclear Iran looming ever closer. Unfortunately, they are right.  There are very, very real treacherous enemies that will not rest until every “Zionist” is driven into the sea.   However, the message conveyed by the Jewish organizations is usually simplistic and absolute.  Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranians represent the devil incarnate – evil and implacable with the sole goal of wiping Israel off the map.  The message preserves the images from 1948 of Israel surrounded by hostile armies ready to cross the border at any moment.  The tone is of tense fear often cloaked in the language of righteousness and the an absolutist version of history.  Again, it is certainly true that there are a significant number of jihadists in these groups who fit this definition – but it doesn’t take much digging to find examples of the voices of moderation in each of these groups.  Ironically, the monolithic characterization actually works to Israel’s detriment.

First, ignoring the moderate voices has the effect of strengthening the more radical elements.  Examples of some moderation include the Green Movement and current inter-governmental turmoil in Iran, the voice of Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal
saying that he will conditionally accept an agreement with Israel, and the recognition that both Hezbollah and Hamas have social and political arms which provide necessary services to their populations.  Not recognizing these moderate elements only supports the radicals’ contention that the Israeli and American governments are blindly seeking to destroy the Muslim world.  It is hard to see how widening the gap between Islam and the West does not increase the influence of the radical Jihadists.

More importantly, simplistic characterizations lead to a dangerously poor understanding of the complexity of one’s enemy, Israel’s geo-strategic situation, and therefore the best ways to avoid attacks as well as the most effective ways to defend against them should they occur.  Tactics will always change as facts on the ground change.  For example, in a recent conference call, Major General (Ret) Natan Sharoni, a member of the Council for Peace and Security, pointed out (in response to the criticism that President Obama has taken with regard to his explicit public endorsement of setting the borders based upon the 1967 borderswith land swaps) that the importance of “defensible borders” has diminished significantly.  The concept of “defensible borders” is really based on a misunderstanding of the current state of military technology and military tactics. What he said was that we no longer have huge armies massed on the border of Israel.  In  1948, Israel was threatened by standing armies from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Egypt.  But today, neither Iran nor Iraq have expeditionary forces. Egypt and Jordan have both signed peace treaties with Israel, and Syria cannot and will not act alone.  The inveterate framing of the military threat as that of conventional armies attacking across physical borders is now highly unlikely. Instead, General Sharoni points out that the military threat now comes from 1.Terrorism, and 2.Missiles. Neither of these threats is particularly mitigated by borders per se.  In addition, although he did not mention this factor, the logistical
capabilities of 2011 including helicopters, cellular and satellite communication, and naval capabilities, make the military advantage of cutting off Israel’s North and South quite a bit less critical than it was in 1948.  And while military strategists and tacticians can certainly debate these assertions, it is precisely the benefit of debate which the mainstream Jewish organizations need to recognize and embrace. Rehashing the old naïve and simplistic phrases that we constantly hear from AIPAC, the ADL,  the AJC, et al, prevent a
realistic assessment of the military threats facing Israel.

But there is an even more insidious danger to the Jewish People that arises from the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that is the transformation of the State of Israel into a country whose values are no longer representative or even recognizable as “Jewish”.  That is to say, Jewish values as expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Establishment: “[Israel] will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”  It seems impossible to see how many recent actions and proposals of the current Knesset meet these criteria.  I use a simple litmus test to determine whether or not Israel’s actions reflect my personal Jewish values.  It is not the legal definition of whether Israel’s actions fit the letter of international law.  It is not whether Israel has the right to defend itself (of course, it does). It is not whether some world leader denounces Israeli actions. No, my test is simple.  It is called the kishkes test.  When I read the newspaper, listen to the news, or see something on TV, do I cringe and feel a deep sense of shame in the pit of my gut – my kishkes?  If so, then there is something inherently wrong with the action.  Ironically, one of the unshakable demands of the current Israeli government is that the Palestinians unequivocally recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”.  By my way of thinking, we need to be even more concerned that Israel recognize itself as a Jewish state in accordance with its Declaration of Establishment.

Hillel’s admonition to be “for myself” rings true in every one of the above contexts with regard to how American Jews should relate to Israel.  But Hillel also posits that it is not sufficient to think only of one’s self.

Speaking at Northwestern U, Peter Beinart Blows Away the Crowd

April 14, 2011 1 comment

Anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue who didn’t hear Peter Beinart speak at Northwestern on Tuesday really missed something.  Although the headline above looks like everyday hyperbole, if those who were there would have to agree that he captivated the near capacity audience for ninety minutes. 

Beinart’s NY Review of Books June, 2010 article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment sent a shock wave through the American Jewish community.  Why this article has become a phenomenon among those who follow Jewish issues is not patently obvious.  The ideas in it are not earth shatteringly unique.  There are no secret papers uncovered.  Not even any shocking off-the-record quotations.  Instead, the article is simply so well written, its arguments so well documented, its organization so logical and compact that it strikes the reader (particularly those involved with the major American Jewish organizations that Beinart writes about) full in the chest like a hammer (one might say, a Hebrew Hammer – but that’s another story).   And it certainly helps that he brings tremendous credibility as someone who comes from the Center Right, and who practices Modern Orthodoxy.

These same characteristics came through in his speaking.  Not only his prepared remarks, but his answers to ad hoc questions were so well structured and economical that the listener was just carried along.  It was amazing to me that he could construct responses to questions that were not only logical and understandable, but were chock full of facts, figures and quotations.   This is a very rare gift.  I have heard him speak several times, and regardless of the content, I find that listening to him speak,  how he structures his points and arguments, is analogous to listening to Itzhak Perlman play the violin.  Peter Beinart is simply a virtuoso.

But beyond admiring his intellectual and rhetorical abilities, what he is trying to tell us, the American Jewish community, is so very important.  His main thesis can be summed up by a quote from that article:

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Those in the Major American Jewish Organizations are at their own peril if they reject his analysis of the schism between today’s Jewish American youth and Israel.  Since his article was published in NY Review of Books he has quickly become one of the most incisive commentators on what may turn out to be the most significant crisis in American Jewish history: the disaffiliation, disconnection and delusion of a majority of today’s non-Orthodox American Jewish Youth with Israel, and beyond that to their very Jewishness.  Beinart’s ability to boil down complex themes and/or questions into an organized holistic answer – on the fly – is truly a gift.  He is knowledgable, thoughtful, logical, insightful, understandable and direct, and quietly passionate.  If you were not there, I urge you to be there when he returns.  You will not be disappointed.

Word of the Day: “Unprecedented”

March 1, 2011 Comments off

The J Street Conference ended today.

There was a lot of good information – straight, no chaser..
There was a lot of insightful analysis.
There was a lot of nuance.
There was a lot of learning.
Most of all there was a lot of energy.

And, if there was one overwhelming theme that permeated the conference, the theme was that we have entered into a period of unprecedented change in the Middle East. Dennis Ross politely characterized as a “Period of Uncertainty”. The implication of this for almost all of the speakers was obvious: with events unravelling so quickly and with little predictability, it is imperative to move the Peace Process along swiftly and strongly.

And, although Ross went on to say that President Obama believes that the world is changing – and will continue to change because there is a new generation of youth rising in the Arab world. And he further believes that we “need to be ahead of the curve”. Further, Ross went on to say that we “can’t get stuck in the unsustainable status quo”. Then, remarkably, he followed that up by saying “Negotiations are the only way forward.” And proceeded to lay out a meager list of activities the Administration was taking that were clearly dwarfed by the gravity of the situation. Essentially, he presented the same concepts that have guided US policy for the past twenty or so years.

Thinking about this, I like to use common sense logic. Let’s examine this. Ross clearly indicated that we are in a period of uncertainty which requires us to stay ahead of the curve. Yet the policy recommendations are essentially the Same Old, Same Old.

Virtually every other speaker agreed about the conditions, but drew a very different conclusion. The conclusion is that time is extremely limited and we need to be pro-active and dynamic with our policies. If not, we shall almost certainly stay behind the curve – which means that eventually the heady perfume of democracy and freedom will waft across the borders into the West Bank and Gaza. As one J Street leader asked me – what will the Israelis do when faced with 100,000 non-violent protesters marching through the streets of Hebron? This no longer seems to be a simply theoretical question – because it is likely that if the Palestinians and Israelis continue with the same Mexican standoff that has been going on year after year, this will be the result. At that point, there will be few good options.

Again, the situation logically calls for a renewed urgency in making some real progress towards peace so that the Palestinian Street can have some hope. But what is the word from Israel? A congressman that just came back today from meetings there was told by the Israelis: “This is definitely not the time for action”. Frankly, I was dumbfounded. The only explanation that I could come up with for this attitude was that the Israeli government continues to feel they can ‘ride out the storm’ – despite the fact that virtually every observer can see that what is happening in the Arab world has taken on a power of its own. It appears that the strongest country in the Middle East – by almost every measure – is being paralyzed by fear. While there are clear risks of taking some bold actions towards solving the problems, given the events of the last 8 weeks, I believe that the risks of doing nothing are much, much larger.

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