The recent coalition agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, has made waves inside Israel. Some Diaspora Jews have also openly spoken against Netanyahu and Liberman; many more, however, are keeping quiet, possibly due to the longstanding position in the Diaspora that Israelis – and only Israelis – have a right to wade into the Jewish State’s politics.
“You have to live in Israel to truly understand the situation,” the argument goes. But in an age of global connectivity, when Diaspora Jews have every opportunity to stay abreast of Israeli politics, do the old rules about the Israel-Diaspora relationship still hold true? Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of the Walrus magazine and Barbara Kay, a columnist for the National Post, discuss.
Jonathan Kay: After my last CJN exchange with Barbara Kay, a friend of mine emailed me to provide “the Jewish version of ‘mansplaining'” — which he defined as follows: “When a late middle-aged Forest Hill resident explains to his dinner guest from Israel — someone actually born and living there, who did army service, and now works or studies in Israel — why Netanyahu is right, and their guest is naïve. I’ve seen it more than once.”
I’ve seen it more than once, too. It’s a product of the modern internet age, when geography presents no barrier to information. So we all like to imagine that we are perfectly well-informed about other parts of the world, even though the material we read about those others parts of the world is coming to us in narrow silos that correspond to our pre-existing beliefs.
The other factor at play here is the Manichean quality of debate that has animated much of the discussion about the Middle East since 9/11. Groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas (which, lest we forget, truly are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state) are cast as the embodiment of pure human evil. And surely one must be 100 per cent steadfast in the face of pure evil, right? Actually, Israelis themselves know that sometimes you have to negotiate with evil, such as when Israel does prisoner exchanges for the body of an IDF soldier. But that feels like unprincipled appeasement to observers on the other side of the ocean. Which is to say that observers in the Diaspora often see world events through the lens of black-and-white moral purity.
This absolutist logic is true on the other side of the political spectrum, too: Many Western campus leftists see any Israeli security measures against Palestinians as a form of apartheid. In Israel, this attitude is not unheard of, of course, but it is harder to sustain that kind of moral absolutism when the violence is just next door.
Barbara Kay: It’s good to start things off with a laugh. I well recognize the “Jewish version of ‘mansplaining’” Jon alludes to, and admit to having done my fair share of it. In my defence, I stick to the broad themes, not the micro-politics of Israeli life: I couldn’t even name all the political parties or their leaders unless they’re personally involved in a crisis. And although I would never presume to advise any Israeli how to cast his actual vote, that doesn’t mean I don’t often think certain Israeli leaders are naive (see the Oslo accords).
I would disagree that 9/11 brought about what Jon calls the “Manichean quality of debate.” The more important tipping point was 1967. The euphoria of Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War that swept Jews everywhere glowed briefly, to be extinguished with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After that, with the Arabs’ realization that Israel could not be defeated militarily, the battle for Western hearts and minds began in earnest, and the great divide began. Terrorism isn’t always physical. It can be psychological, too. One might say that the 1975 UN resolution that “Zionism is racism” was in its own minatory way a Jewish “9/11.” Israeli Apartheid Week and Durban didn’t spring up out of nowhere. The groundwork had been going on for decades.
So I would go much farther back for the paradigm shift in Israel-Diaspora relations. It was in the 1970s that Diaspora Jews began to understand that while, up to then, Israel had been empowering Diaspora Jews with wins on real battlefields, where our input wasn’t needed, it was now up to Diaspora Jews to help empower Israel in the battle for public opinion. Or rather those who still saw Israel as the rightful homeland of the Jews. Progressive Jews chose to go with the Nakba narrative because it dovetails with the other political shibboleths they are marinated in. They aren’t invested in Israel as sacred Jewish space, as I and the Jews I identify with are.
Maybe the Internet exacerbates the silo effect, but it isn’t as if we were clueless before the Internet. And the arguments were just as passionate when we only had magazines, books and newspapers to provide us with information. Back in the day when Israel’s legitimacy was taken for granted, one didn’t need to retreat into moral absolutism. One could debate freely inside Zionism’s big tent. It is the moral absolutism of the anti-Zionists of the West, in collaboration with the extreme and growing virulence of an anti-Semitism that takes active form in Hamas and Hezbollah but permeates the entire Arab world, which forced Zionists into our siege mentality.
Jonathan Kay: I don’t think that it is true that progressive Jews “aren’t invested in Israel as sacred Jewish space.” Rather, I see these Jews as conflicted between (a) their emotionally felt connection to Judaism and Israel (the semantic question of whether this feeling is properly called “Zionism” is not relevant here), and (b) their loyalty to feminism, multiculturalism, relativism, and pluralism.
A lot of left-wing Jewish activism in regard to Israel takes the form of projects designed to reconcile these two belief systems. That’s why left-wing Jews are so fond of theatre groups, discussion panels and workshop-level cottage-industry arts projects that bring together liberal Jews and liberal Palestinians. (I am very skeptical whether any of this is effective, but it is very well-intentioned.)
Right-wing Zionist Jews, on the other hand, use Israel to play out a completely different, and much more absolutist, form of moral narrative: What they want to see is the triumphant value system of a technologically advanced and politically free Judeo-Christian civilization asserting its superiority over a bigoted, regressive, superstitious Oriental society. Both sides say, truthfully, that they love Israel. But both sides also are using the Zionist project to reify other, larger ideological dogmas.
And I disagree with Barbara that this is all old hat. In this media age, the degree of Diaspora interference in Israel is playing out in new ways, in part because Netanyahu is such a master at exploiting conservative American (and Canadian) culture-warrior Jews who view the Israel question as humanity’s singular moral pivot. Consider, for instance, Sheldon Adelson, whose family has used his Las Vegas casino billions to fund a giveaway mass-circulation Israeli newspaper – Israel Hayom – that acts as a propaganda mouthpiece for Netanyahu. Imagine, for a moment, if George Soros were funding an anti-Netanyahu pro-Palestinian giveaway newspaper in Israel. Zionists would go stark-raving nuts.
Barbara is right that the 1967 war is a big deal in the Zionist imagination, but the effect has not always been benign. The result of that crushing victory was to convince Zionists that Arabs (and Muslims in general) can always be easily smashed if Israeli leaders just show enough moxie — an idea that is completely outdated in the era of, say, Hezbollah, which exhibits a level of morale and military professionalism far greater than that of the old tinpot Cold War Arab armies.
A few years ago, I attended a Commentary magazine event in New York where the keynote speaker was journalist Brett Stephens. He went down this road, rhapsodizing about Israel’s success in 1967 and then bemoaning Israel’s leaders for not being more hard-ass in annihilating Hamas. It was the classic example of Diaspora-splaining: A bunch of well-heeled Jews in a fancy Manhattan ballroom telling Israeli politicians and military leaders what they should be doing.
Barbara Kay: Beginning with Jon’s last point: he is quite right that Hamas and Hezbollah have learned to compensate for their brute-power imbalance with Israel in other ways –organized intifadahs, incessant low-level bombardment, tunnels, and above all, propaganda, at which they are masters and the Israelis by comparison total amateurs. Not because Israelis couldn’t be as good at making their legitimate case, but because they don’t seem to estimate brilliant communications at its true worth. The Jenin “massacre,” the al Dura myth: they leave it to Diaspora Jews to knock themselves out defending Israel. I frankly find Israel pretty delinquent on that front.
Jon finds Adelson’s Hayom shocking. That gives me a chuckle. The anti-Zionists have a “real” newspaper, Ha’aretz, that carries their water – in particular, their resident Israel-hating columnist Gideon Levy. Levy compares Israelis to Nazis and supports the apartheid canard. He never criticizes the Palestinians (“what the Palestinians do is none of my business”) and sees his job as demonizing Israel, period. He’s very popular in the Diaspora.
Then of course there is the matter of the NGOs from Europe and America, 99 per cent of whom are in Israel and the West Bank to ensure that the Palestinians get their story out and to vilify Israel. They are spending millions upon millions there – way more than Adelson spends on Hayom, I assure you. Why Israel permits this I do not know. Canada would not permit European NGOs to park themselves on Indian reserves and catechize First Nations in why they should rise up against their oppressors, even though conditions on our reserves are 100 times more dreadful than even the worst of Palestinian villages under Israeli occupation.
I do agree with Jon about young Jews’ conflicts regarding their loyalty to feminism and multiculturalism et al. And I share his skepticism about the Jewish-Palestinian discussion groups and theatre and falafel parties or whatever. From what I hear and read, the common denominator in these groups is a sense of apology on the Jewish side before the discussion gets started, so really it’s not exactly a meeting of moral equals.
“WHERE JON SEES ‘SETTLEMENTS,’ [RIGHT-WING ZIONISTS] SEE ‘COMMUNITIES’ OF JEWS ‘RETURNING’ TO LANDS FROM WHICH THEY WERE EVICTED, MANY OF WHOM HAD LIVED IN THOSE HILLS SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL.” – Barbara Kay
I disagree, however, about the motives behind right-wing Zionists. The Orthodox Ashkenazim and the Mizrachi, the Jews of Arab lands who never wavered in their Zionism and who were dreaming of Zion before Herzl was a gleam in his father’s eye, see Israel in its existential light, as the destiny of the Jewish People and all the land as sacred, not to be used as a political bargaining chip. Their “moral absolutism” is inherent, not a response to political events. Where Jon see “settlements,” they see “communities” of Jews “returning” to lands from which they (or at least other Jews) were evicted, many of whom had lived in those hills since time immemorial. Remember, the UN resolution 181 speaks of “Judea and Samaria”; Oslo speaks of “Judea and Samaria”; this was the terminology everyone used 70 years ago.
Progressive Jews see Israel as a post-Holocaust refuge and the Jewish tenure contingent on how they treat Palestinians. They see the entire country as a bargaining chip, one they are (righteously!) prepared to see bargained – or taken – away.
The CJN: Benjamin Netanyahu has now been the prime minister of Israel for over seven straight years (he also held the office for three years in the late-‘90s). Israelis have always had mixed feelings about Bibi, but so do Diaspora Jews, and that is increasingly clear here in Canada, where public criticism of his leadership has never been more pronounced. The question is: is it appropriate for Diaspora communities to speak up when they perceive a problem with Israel’s political and military leadership? Or do they risk doing more harm than good in the ever-present PR battle over Israel? What benefit can it have, if any? And should Israelis care what Diaspora Jews think about them?
Jonathan Kay: I don’t think Netanyahu (and Israel more generally) can have it both ways. To the extent he/it justifies Judeo-centric policies as necessary tools to further the interests of “the Jewish state” and the protection of “the Jewish People,” then Diaspora Jews naturally are going to have their say. Moreover, many West Bank settlements, and even high-end condo developments in the most sought-after parts of Jerusalem, are developed with money from wealthy North American Jews who jet back and forth between Israel and New York, Toronto or Florida. I just spent a few days with a Jewish law school friend in Westport, Conn., whose teenage son seems to spend as much time in Israel as he does in the United States. There are many people like this — especially in the tech industry, academia and finance — who effectively blur the distinction between Diaspora and non-Diaspora. And much of the Israeli economy is fuelled by their largesse.
Should Israelis care about what, say, people like me say about their country? Maybe not. The country is rich. And it’s not like we’re living in 1973, when Israelis welcomed foreigners to come help the country get by while they were under siege from Arab armies. Israel has never been more secure. The Arabs in the region seem 100 per cent intent on killing one another, and have more or less forgotten about the Jewish running dog. Hezbollah, in particular, is tied up in the Syrian morass, where it has lost more than 1,000 fighters, some of its best leaders, and a good deal of its popular support. So in the short term, who cares about what the Diaspora thinks?
“NOW IS THE TIME WHEN ISRAEL COULD BE OPERATING FROM A POSITION OF STRENGTH. BUT INSTEAD, NETANYAHU HAS SOUGHT TO CONSOLIDATE POWER BY PURSUING DEALS WITH EXTREME FIGURES WHO HAVE NO INTEREST IN PEACE.” – Jonathan Kay
In the long term, though, the view of the Diaspora does matter. Because one day, Israel will again face existential threats. But by that time, many of its global Jewish supporters will be alienated by crude populists such as Netanyahu and the militant strains of religious nationalism that are rising up within Israel under his watch.
Now is the time when Israel could be operating from a position of strength. But instead, Netanyahu has sought to consolidate power by pursuing deals with extreme figures who have no interest in peace. The Israeli prime minister now seems largely indistinguishable from any other cynical, sloganeering nationalist. When an Israeli soldier murdered an Arab lying prone on the ground, Netanyahu picked up the phone and made a soothing call to the soldier’s dad. No reasonable or humane Jew in the West is going to support this guy. And Netanyahu is one of the main reasons why so many American Jews have become alienated from Zionism and are embracing Bernie Sanders. I imagine that Barbara will say that these Jews are all addled by self-hatred or something like that. But the alienation from Bibi-style hard-core nationalism is becoming pervasive in the Diaspora, and simply dismissing all these people as deluded self-haters won’t really do much good.
Barbara Kay: I think it is fine and natural for Diaspora Jews to have their say about Israeli leaders. I only find myself irritated by double standards. Jon, for example, provides the example of Netanyahu calling the parents of the soldier who killed the already-downed Arab. That infuriates him. But I wonder if he is equally infuriated when U.S. President Barack Obama inserts himself into tense race-relations situations (“If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”) even before the facts are known, and even though he’s surely aware that his interference is bound to roil rather than soothe tensions.
I’m not defending Netanyahu’s particular action here, but if an incident of that nature –picayune in the scheme of things – can make or break a Diaspora Jew’s support for Israel, then he wasn’t much of a supporter to begin with. I think Jon is too preoccupied with what “alienates” Diaspora Jews. I am “alienated” by Obama, Hillary and Trump, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t support America if it were attacked by North Korea or Iran. If you care about Israel, you’re in it for the long haul. You criticize when criticism is due, but you don’t make your support in general contingent on Israel never embarrassing you in front of your non-Jewish or far-left Jewish friends.
So many Jews consider Netanyahu a hardliner. He certainly talks tough, but what has he actually done that is so offensive? He has talked a lot about the threat Iran poses (and I know Jon is sick of hearing about it, but Netanyahu happens to have been right from the beginning about Iran), but he hasn’t actually done anything stupid like bomb Iran, as so many feared he might. He has been temperate in war against Hamas, using reasonable force, and only joining battle when nothing else would stop attacks. He has allowed “settlement” – i.e., community – building in the Jerusalem area, allegedly a provocation, but only on land that is, according to any eventual negotiated peace treaty, going to be under Jewish sovereignty anyway, and he has made it clear, as well he might, that there can be no peace talks unless he sees credible good faith from Abbas, which has not been forthcoming – quite the opposite in fact.
I really don’t know who Jon thinks would be a good alternative to Netanyahu, but so far I don’t see a natural successor who I think would do a better job than Bibi has. He has kept Israel safe and secure for many years. The economy has flourished under his aegis. Israel’s enemies fear and respect him, which is a good thing.
Israel’s political system makes it difficult for a leader to be what Jon is seeking, since any leader has to make deals with extremists to form a government. It’s a very tough job. (One might also say that Putin is an extremist, yet Israel and Russia are politically engaged, which may bear interesting fruit with an “extremist” like Liberman talking Russian to him.) And I disagree that Netanyahu is not interested in peace. He is a realist and knows that there can’t be a peace until the Arabs get serious about wanting it. There is no sign that they do, so why should he spend energy on a project that has no serious partner? At the moment, of course, as Jon notes, the Arabs are preoccupied with their own internecine battles and Israel isn’t on their radar. So there is no hurry to make peace.
Jonathan Kay: I think we have to move away from the idea that I (or anyone else) objects to this or that Israeli leader or policy because he is “embarrassing” in regard to the judgment of one’s left-wing associates. The case against Netanyahu rests on more than the disapproving glances of Annex intellectuals. He was hysterical about Iran and would have done something idiotic like bomb Iranian nuke sites if he hadn’t been talked out of it by his military, which is run by actual adults. He also happened to be wrong about the Iran deal, and the only influential voices who say otherwise are the think-tanks and media outlets that are focused on what-Netanyahu-said messaging – not to mention trying to get people to rebrand “settlements” as “communities.” (Or that New York Times magazine writer who recently purported to describe how Obama had given away the store on the Iran deal, and it later turned out the author had been a proponent of bombing Iran.)
“ISRAEL IS NOW A NASTIER, MORE NATIONALISTIC PLACE UNDER NETANYAHU – WITH GREATER TOLERANCE FOR OVERT DISPLAYS OF OUTRIGHT SUPREMACISM AND ANTI-ARAB HATE.” – Jonathan Kay
Bibi is a political opportunist who makes deals with whatever hothead props up his coalition (although I should say that this is as much a failing of the Israeli proportional representation system as Netanyahu himself. How dumb is it that some Canadians want to bring this form of voting to Canada?) Barbara suggests we should overlook all this because we must stay true to Israel more generally. But “Israel” is not a constant. Different leaders can change its character. And that’s exactly what Netanyahu has done. The country is now a nastier, more nationalistic place under him – with greater tolerance for overt displays of outright supremacism and anti-Arab hate.
Israel is still a great and admirable country in many ways. But as we’ve seen in a variety of places around the world in recent years, democracies can drift and mutate in all sorts of ways if they are led by cynical politicians who use the levers of nationalism to consolidate their support. Add my name to the list of Diaspora hen-peckers who believes Israel is at risk of that.
Barbara Kay: Jon talks about Netanyahu as though he were a variant of Assad or Gadhafi – tyrants who seize the reins of power in order to act out their grandiose visions – when in fact he was, you know, democratically elected. The voting system in Israel is horrible – we both agree on that – but it isn’t Netanyahu who hardened Israeli hearts. Israelis hardened their own hearts, as any other prudent society would in the same circumstances, when it became finally clear to them – after Oslo, after Camp David, after the return of Gaza – that being nice to people raised in a culture of chronic grievance and self-pity, who have no interest in sharing what they consider Muslim lands with Jews under any circumstances, wasn’t working, and it was necessary to adopt an attitude of realism and nurture their own interests.
A “nastier” place? ”Anti-Arab hate?” I find that harsh in the circumstances. If it is hatred we are discussing, all the hatred toward Arabs in Israel rolled together would be a pebble next to the Rock of Gibraltar. As famous American foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn wrote in an in-depth piece in the Atlantic in 1961 (before the Occupation and the “settlements”) after a tour of the UNRWA camps in the West Bank, “Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it. Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and, en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts. Their press is vulgarly base with hate-filled cartoons; their reporting describes whatever hate is now uppermost and convenient. Their radio is a long scream of hate, a call to hate. They teach their children hate in school. They must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread. And what good has it done them?”
Nothing has changed since 1961 in that respect anyway. Nation-building can be messy, especially when you are surrounded by enemies who proudly proclaim their objective is to eradicate every man, woman and child amongst you (and the people who proclaim this were also democratically elected, let us remember.) Does Jon think that the response to such neighbours should be a leader whose defining trait is his devotion to “sunny ways”?
Jonathan Kay: “Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it” — I realize that Barbara is quoting something written by someone else, and written many years ago. But she seems to be quoting it approvingly. I will end here by noting that if any Arab or Muslim commentator in Canada said “Jews gorge on this,” or “Jews roll in that,” Barbara would be declaring this the most vile kind of anti-Semitism. So why do Diaspora Jews feel they have a licence to say this sort of things about Arabs and Muslims? Netanyahu and his supporters have helped legitimize this sort of thing. Clearly, the influence goes both ways — from Israel to us, and from us to Israel. And in this moment we are now experiencing, the feedback mechanism is quite toxic. I believe Diaspora Jews like me — who reject Barbara’s argument that all of the region’s problems can be traced to Arabs being such plain bad people — have a duty to stand up to it.
Barbara Kay: Gellhorn’s conclusion was based on long conversations with the uninhibited ordinary (Muslim) Arabs she met in her travels, from which exchanges she quoted extensively. Her interlocutors were indeed “gorged with hate.” Not that we needed Gellhorn’s observations, since evidence of hatred – and as noted, invariably of Jews, but not only of Jews – as a driving force in Arab culture is so extensive that groups like The Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI) and Palestinian Media Watch, tasked with reporting what children learn and what everyone sees on television, have a tough time keeping up with it all.
If any Arab or Muslim commentator declared in the pages of the Atlantic that Jews or Israelis “gorge on hate,” they would be lying and they would know they were lying. But Gellhorn had no axe to grind. She was reporting what she saw and heard. (Jon’s reflexive wince does, however, remind me that the Atlantic magazine would probably censor those words out today, such is the political correctness of these multicultural times. Come to think, I bet they would never print her entire article. Jon might think that is a good thing. I think it is pretty sad.)
So if I am hearing Jon correctly, he would rather that not only should I keep my own mouth shut with regard to what is plain to see about Muslim Arab culture (and which, by the way, plenty of honest Arabs also testify to) in order not to give permission to Arabs to say bad things about Jews, I should not even quote bad things about Arab culture from a source of the most impeccable, non-partisan and scrupulously objective kind. Perhaps I should not quote from Joan Peters’ book, From Time Immemorial, a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the true history of Arab-Jew relations in the Middle East? Or Bernard Lewis? Or just about any honest scholar who comments on Arab attitudes to Jews? Because it all comes to the same thing.
“TO SPEAK FRANKLY OF COLLECTIVE ARAB HATRED IS TO SPEAK OF SOMETHING SO OBVIOUS, SO ENTRENCHED, SO COPIOUSLY ARCHIVED THAT IT IS LIKE ANNOUNCING THAT THE SUMMERS ARE HOT IN CAIRO. REFUSING TO ADDRESS IT WILL NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY.” – Barbara Kay
Arab commentators do not ask my permission to say terrible –and untrue – things about “Zionists.” And they say it all the time. Their “commentators” say it at the UN, and in demonstrations and on campus. And in general it is not considered hate speech, as it would be if directed at other groups. The average Middle East studies program in North America is permeated with loathing for Israel. So Jon’s appeal to unilateral disarmament is doubly disheartening.
The bottom line is that to speak frankly of collective Arab hatred (and do I really have to say that I do not pre-judge individual Arabs to convince Jon I am not a racist? I guess I do) is to speak of something so obvious, so entrenched, so copiously archived that it is like announcing that the summers are hot in Cairo. Refusing to address it will not make it go away. But of course refusing to address it is a luxury we here in the secure and sunny West can afford to do. It is a luxury Israel, for all its wealth, cannot afford to do –including at the ballot box.