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A Little More Conversation: Talking About Iran

In a conversation with Israeli colleagues we stumbled upon a significant and painful chasm
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

In a conversation I had this week with a number of Israeli colleagues with whom I feel both a political and temperamental kinship, and with whom I feel I have a lot in common, we stumbled upon a significant and painful chasm. They feel deeply afraid of the threat of a hostile and increasingly nuclear Iran, and are living with a kind of existential fear about the possibility of long-range threat – or more likely, a deadly shorter-range alliance with Hezbollah. And they are frustrated to find themselves ignored or condescended to, and to see that these feelings have captured the attention only of some of the mainstream/classic Jewish organizations, but not the majority of the American Jewish community.
I, on the other hand, find myself less bothered and alarmed than my colleagues, and both skeptical of attempts of some of these Jewish organizations to leverage this kind of anxiety about Israel into a fundraising campaign, and at the ways this supposed threat is mostly translating itself into fiery political rhetoric in this Republican primary season. I am also doubtful that the Israel that I know and am consistently proud of is really, truly, under serious threat. If America and Israel survived Hussein, bin Ladin, Qaddafi and others; if our covert and excellent cooperative military and security relationship can every few months discreetly bomb a nuclear facility or take out some key scientists, what is all the panic about?
And so we found ourselves shaking our heads at each other, they feeling hurt and ignored that their existence was not my concern; me feeling skeptical and annoyed that these heartstrings were once again being played on, and that my Israeli friends could not see that their singular focus on their own well-being was not the entire center of gravity for my complex American (and Jewish) political identity.
In some respects we are lucky to have each other.  Unlike most American and Israeli Jews, we are both in constant dialogue with our interlocutors across the water. Both of us truly and deeply care about each other, and we feel ourselves intertwined with each other’s fates – familially, historically, and ethically. We are not the overwhelming majority of American Jews who feel either positive about Israel but disconnected from it, or worse, blithely unaware of its existence; nor are we part of the increasing percentage of Israeli Jews who are so culturally dislocated from a Jewish peoplehood identity that the fate of the Diaspora remains an insignificant concern to them. Put differently, although we have stumbled upon a significant place of dissent, pain and discomfort – there is still hope. If my friends and I can find some common ground, perhaps there will be opportunity to map these outcomes to broader sectors of Jewish life both in North America and in Israel.
From my perspective, I think there are four possible causes to why I feel less animated by Ahmadinejad’s various rants and the rumors – or intelligence reports – of a significant mounting threat. None of them are a failure in my ability to understand the responsibility of immo anochi b’tzara – that I must stand with my people in a time of desperation:
First, Israel has become the boy who cried wolf. We as a community have badly overplayed the card of ‘existential threat’ – both in America, with our language around assimilation and intermarriage, and especially in Israel with reference to whatever is the causus belli du jour. On this issue, it does not help the hysterical cause that folks like Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo from the defense establishment are also attempting to scale back this rhetoric and the resulting official Israeli bellicosity. There is the potential for a real policy discussion with serious people on all sides, and when that is the case it is usually an indicator that the most hysterical voices are being – well, hysterical. Without a real metric to know when the existential threats are real, how are we supposed to know which existential threats are real?
Second, and related: The skepticism that I feel about this kind of language is exacerbated by seeing those who literally derive profit from its use. In the weeks leading up to the would-be unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood at the United Nations, my e-mail inbox was full of panicked messages by Jewish organizations who were citing this impending ‘disaster’ as a motivator for me to donate to their various causes. It was not late-night pizza money for the erstwhile Israeli diplomats at the United Nations; it was rather the familiar useful rhetoric of crisis and urgency that motivates philanthropy. Meantime, here stateside, the loudest voices on Iran seem to be Republican candidates for political office. Is it because they are more prescient or savvy when it comes to intelligence reports, better versed on the international status of the Straits of Hormuz? Perhaps; but it sounds to me more like political posturing on an issue that may attract a nexus of Jewish political and neoconservative money. From a public policy perspective, the political noise around this issue mutes its seriousness.
Third, and this is difficult to write but it reflects sad realities: I am sensing a kind of mounting “pro-Israel fatigue” even for those of us dyed-in-the-wool Zionists, whose work regularly involves reading, writing and talking about Israel. A congregational rabbi who is teaching our Engaging Israel curriculum called me despondently a few weeks back, in the throes of the reactionary “Haredi Spring” in Israel. He said that he was having a hard time motivating himself to get up and give an upbeat presentation on Israel as the Jewish “Values Nation” using the aspirational language that features so prominently in our curriculum. The demand to rally around a serious threat to Israel does not take into account the emotional challenges of supporting Israel constantly and consistently from far away, and the dwindling religious political rewards that liberal American Jews see from Israel in exchange for that support.
And finally, I wonder whether ironically Diaspora Jews look differently upon anti-Semitic leaders and the epithets they hurl, since it is our fate to live alongside those who hate us rather than across the borders from them. This may be a bit perverse, since the history of Jews among anti-Semites has not been favorable for our protagonists. But maybe the starkness of sovereignty actually raises the level of fear of those enemies, since actual borders and demarcated battle-lines create more of a zero-sum condition. For all its successes, American Judaism is still Diasporic, and synagogues still get vandalized; and I think the way we relate to hatred and fear is quite different than in Israel.
Whatever these reasons, it is clear that this conversation is not tenable, and I think all sides on this phone call stepped away from it somewhat bewildered, belittled, and confused. What we lack, apparently, is a deeply empathic conversation between Israeli and American Jews about both hopes and in this case, fears – a conversation that strips aside political partisanship and rhetorical showmanship in favor of honesty and trust.
A real conversation on the existential threat of Iran – which I am committed to learning about and taking more seriously, if only because I respect my friends and trust that their fears should be my own – requires of us on both sides to recognize the political complexities that both Israeli and American Jews experience as part of our becoming full political actors both under sovereignty and in Diaspora. We should be willing to scrape past all the actors who profit from the rhetoric to understand the real issues. This requires a kind of hearing and trusting that relies on Israelis’ willingness to help us understand between real threats and merely profitable ones; and on American Jewish willingness to trust and sympathize a little more generously and a little less skeptically. And it requires us to all take a broader and fuller look at the unique conditions created by a vibrant American Jewish community and a strong Jewish sovereign state, and to then explore how the underlying assumed Jewish Peoplehood identity – the one that requires of us a deep interdependence – is nevertheless to be sustained. After all, whether it is due to Ahmadinejad or due to how we relate to each other about Ahmadinejad, one existential threat or another to the Jewish people is now looming.


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