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Are American-Jewish Liberals Ignoring Iran’s threat to Israel?

Point-Counter-Point 1: Yossi Klein Halevi talks with SHI-North America President Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer about the Iranian threat

In this edition of Point-Counter-Point , a new Hartman Institute partnership effort with The Jewish Week of New York, iEngage Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi talks with Shalom Hartman Institute of North America President Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer over differing impressions of the Iranian threat to Israel. Click here to register for a live webinar on this subject.
Dear Yehuda,
As we approach the moment of decision on preventing a nuclear Iran, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the nature of liberal American Jewish discourse on Israel.
I share the anguish of many American Jews over the occupation as a long-term existential threat to Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state.
But some American Jews seem so obsessed with the occupation that they are missing what could be an imminent existential threat. The convergence of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the virtual collapse of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, the tens of thousands of missiles aimed at the Israeli home front, and most of all the Iranian bomb – has created a sense of deep foreboding here. Israelis are speaking about May 1967 – less overt and dramatic, to be sure, but no less menacing. Ehud Barak recently said that the threat Israel faces is even greater.
Yet I sense a strange lack of urgency among many liberal American Jews. I fear that in some Jewish circles the survival instinct has been dangerously eroded – one more tragic consequence, perhaps, of the occupation.
Dear Yossi,
Your question entails two assumptions that need to be unpacked. The first is that the issue of Iran is in some way splitting Israeli and American Jewry; I don’t see it. I think it is splitting Jewry in both North America and Israel, but I know plenty of people and organizations here much more hawkish and vigilant than even members of the Israeli defense establishment. There is a vibrant debate about the prudency and legitimacy of an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran taking place within the Jewish people globally, and I tend to believe that this is a good thing. I think we learned this the hard way from the buildup to the second Iraq war – the muting of public debate did not serve the mission well. I believe that the existence of a serious opposition to this war from within the lovers and supporters of Israel will serve to strengthen the legitimacy of the ultimate choice, so long as it does not breed stubbornness and belligerence.
This leads to my second issue, which lies in your move from insufficient empathy for a possible Iran strike to the lack of a survival instinct. Here you must not mean that the act of politically opposing the strike necessarily entails the absence of this instinct, for the reasons discussed above. Reasonable people with different ideologies and different sources of evidence and authority have to be able to disagree, even on issues of grave consequence.
You specifically cite those "liberal" American Jews whom you see having an unhealthy preoccupation with the occupation. Put differently, it seems to me you are troubled by the obsession with Jewish perpetration at the cost of the genuine possibility of continued Jewish victimhood. But Yossi, I’m not sure that we can separate either these existential categories or the specific scenarios of Iran and occupation so easily. I don’t mean to claim that Israel’s isolation from the world and the conditions of Jewish and Zionist victimhood would end if Israel lived within the 1967 borders; I am neither naive or so self-critical as to believe that we can be blamed for our own misfortunes. I have no problem with the reasonable, ethically dignified assertion of power. What troubles me is the assumption, explicit in these public policy debates, that with power must come belligerence and bellicosity, that hawkishness is morally superior.
It is simply harder and harder to separate out the moments of Israeli bellicosity that are ostensibly defined by the need for self-preservation (e.g. Iran) from those with more ambiguous motives (e.g. the occupation). It is even difficult to separate out from this rising culture of bellicosity the explicitly immoral expressions of this abuse of power, as in the recent lynching in Zion Square. This accumulation makes me highly suspect of the use of a narrative of self-preservation in the service of greater and greater bellicosity – especially when the Israeli government makes no efforts to quell this rising tide vis-a-vis the Palestinians or within Israeli civil society. So my question back to you, Yossi, is how can Israeli society get back to its power equilibrium – strong and ethical in the value of self-preservation – without making even its friends suspect that its obsession with the use of power has gone off the rails?
Dear Yehuda,
Of course I agree with you that support for an Israeli strike against Iran is no fair measure of concern for Israel’s security. If it were, then the patriotism much of the Israeli strategic community would be called into question.
And Israelis need to take your challenge seriously about the need to rehabilitate our credibility on matters of national security. Do we, for example, use security as a pretext for settlement expansion?
Yet by failing to make a clear distinction between a preemptive Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities and the abuse of power that allows for settlement expansion, you reinforce my concern about the lack of clarity in much of the liberal Jewish discourse on Israeli security. If Israel does decide to bomb Iran it will be a decision reached after agonizing deliberation, with full awareness of the potential consequences, not least to the Israeli home front. Agree or not with an attack on Iran, the motives behind it would be pure, expressions of Jewish angst and self-defense.
During a talk I gave recently in Jerusalem to a visiting group of American Jews, a leader of a dovish Jewish organization said to me, “We don’t believe you about the Iranian threat.” I was stunned. Was Israel imagining an Iranian threat? The debate here isn’t over the seriousness of the threat – I haven’t heard any Israeli question the legitimacy of the government’s fears – but of how to cope with it.
My challenge to you, then, is: Can American Jewish liberals maintain their principled opposition to the abuse of the security argument as a pretext for settlement building, while remaining clear-eyed on genuine threats to Israel’s security?
Dear Yossi,
Yes, you are right. There is a lack of clarity in this discourse. But I would counter your pinning this simply on liberal American Jews, and argue that it is endemic to all sides in this conversation. If we want to have a serious conversation in the Jewish community about issues of this significance and on matters that implicate our lives and our relationship with each other, we need to speak clearly about our expectations – and not wait around to be shocked by what is not being said (or worse, felt.)
You ask Jews to take the Israeli leadership on its word that its motives are pure: I wish it were so easy, that we were past this cynical era in which all the motives of politicians – even on matters of life and death – appear to be tinged with political considerations. It is a sad truth of the age of the “war on terror” that as existential threats have risen, the politics of the responses have become even more pronounced. The fact that this issue is getting tied into American partisan politics during an election year is not helping, either, nor is the opposition expressed towards an Iran strike by the opposition leader in Israel. If the whole issue is tainted – possibly even veiled – in political considerations and agendas, is it even reasonable to ask for the moral clarity (and specific tactical outcomes) that you are seeking from one side of the political spectrum?
But of course the larger and parallel issue is the continued question of moral equivocation. You ask that we clearly delineate between Israel’s response to the Iranian existential threat and its behaviors towards the Palestinians – which liberals tend to see as also constituting an existential threat, but this time to Israel’s moral and democratic character. On the substance of the issue, I think I can agree to this; the issues are not the same, and while they implicate each other, they require different solutions.
Still, I wonder whether the bullish and bellicose rhetoric on both fronts from the Israeli government actually undermines what you are asking of me. There is a long-standing belief that it is only the hawks who can be effective peacemakers (let’s call it the Menachem Begin theory.) Is it unreasonable or naive to expect that – in exchange for the clear-eyedness you want from the left on Iran – the Israeli hawkish establishment model a different consciousness and conscientiousness on these two issues? It is not an equivocation to say that moral authority can be earned on one front for the sake of credibility on another; it is both good morals, and good strategy. I don’t think the haters of Israel will go away when there is a final status agreement in place with the Palestinians; but I think the moral clarity of Israel’s own assertion of self-defense in all of its fronts will be much more self-evident.
I hope you recognize, Yossi, in spite of the muddiness of these issues and in spite of the awkwardness of the encounter that you describe, that on the actual existential issues I don’t think the Jewish people – with their political differences – are really that far apart. I think the culture of immo anochi b’tzara, that we stand together in trying times, is still pronounced and real; and that the pluralism on these issues may ironically mean that we are more secure as a people and not less. I just think that ultimately if we want total clarity among the Jewish people of the threats that Israel faces and total credibility on the specific responses for which our leaders are advocating, we need that moral clarity modeled by the leadership across the board – and not just on a case-by-case basis.
Dear Yehuda,
I am reassured by your sense that, in the event of an actual conflict, the Jewish people will still be capable of pulling together.
But I am haunted by the words of a prominent American rabbi, who told me not long ago that he fears that, this time, there will be Jews (many? some?) who will turn their backs on Israel, who will say that Israel brought war on itself. I worry about the attenuation of emotional identification with Israel, to the point of indifference or even contempt in time of crisis.
As for the trustworthiness of Israel’s leaders on the Iranian issue: I am troubled by the tendency in Jewish political discourse to doubt the integrity of those with whom one disagrees. I sense that same tendency among opponents of Netanyahu’s Iranian policy. By all means, question the wisdom of his approach. But not the authenticity of his commitment and his concern. Not on this one.
Finally, I agree that we need a different Israeli discourse on the Palestinians. I would welcome, for example, a renewed government freeze on settlement-building, for moral and also practical reasons: We need to focus on Iran and avoid divisive policies. And we need to help create an atmosphere in which genuine peace talks could one day happen.
Tragically, we are nowhere near that possibility. The primary fault for the impasse, I believe, lies with the Palestinian leadership, which has rejected three Israeli peace overtures in the last decade. I look forward to an exchange with you about that issue, too.


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