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Israel’s Outsized Role in American Politics

The following is a transcript of Episode 100 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Sunday, May 22nd, 2022. 

You know, the conversation about Israel in the American Jewish community sometimes feels like a funhouse. You can’t quite tell what you’re seeing or how to correlate between what we’re seeing from afar, what’s actually taking place between Israelis and Palestinians, and what the debate is like over here. So for instance, even as a person, myself, who cares a lot about ideology and in particular about the ideology known as liberal Zionism, which I think is really essential to the version of modern Judaism that I care about, I know that sometimes conversations about our ideologies, about our ideological commitments about Israel, invisibilize, or perhaps don’t correlate to the lived experiences of Israelis and Palestinians. 

Plenty of Israeli friends have told me this on both sides of the political aisle. Are you talking about an ideology that’s important to you and your identity, or are you talking about realities that characterize my actual day-to-day experience?

Or perhaps consider the gap between what we actually know about what takes place in Israel and the vociferousness with which we debate our convictions about it. The latest Rorschach test for American Jewish commitments or antipathies to Israel was the tragic killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Aqua in Jenin, unquestionably a tragedy.

And perhaps if there’s an investigation, we’ll discover, a travesty. But the battle lines and the debate about Israel’s responsibility and complicity were drawn well before this individual incident and where you stand is likely to predispose whether you want to believe that it was an accident, or if you want to believe that we can’t know what happened, or if you want to believe that it was premeditated and so on and so forth. In the absence of absolute clarity, ambiguity is a breeding ground for ideological polarization. Meanwhile, the body of an innocent human being lies in front of us. 

There are also gaps in the American Jewish community about the nature of the problem, of the relationship to Israel among American Jews. If you follow Jewish media, you would think that support for Israel had entirely crashed in America, which would conflict with most of the survey data we have in which support for Israel, broadly speaking, remains a consensus view among American Jews, perhaps we’re witnessing the difference between the large and silent majority and a small, but very noisy minority, but still it’s a funhouse.

There’s a gap between what many Hillel directors report, which is, that it’s actually very difficult for Jewish college students on a number of campuses socially and politically to identify with Israel. And at the same time events like today’s Celebrate Israel Parade, which is back after the pandemic hiatus with thousands of American Jewish Zionists proudly parading down Fifth Avenue without fear of consequence or retribution.

If you’ve seen the pictures as I have, because I have family members there, there’s virtually no protestors at the Celebrate Israel parade. It is a nonevent, uh, in a context of a community in which protests around Israel seemed to be a daily news occurence. And then there’s the world of the Israel advocacy organizations, which are in turmoil about how to make Israel and Zionism a consistent commitment, a north star, even as Israel itself changes, and even as the American context in which they operate is changing.

There’s no such thing as static identity, but it seems like they’re trying to hold to a static position and mayhem is ensuing. In the past few weeks, this meant the emergence of battle lines between AIPAC, which launched a pack to raise money for pro-Israel candidates on both sides of the political aisle and against their critics, most prominently Senator Bernie Sanders, who argue that in this partisan climate one cannot isolate Israel as a single-issue cause, and then be willing to support otherwise dangerous or marginal politicians who line up with that cause.

Separately, over at the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt stipulated a new battle line, arguing that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism and an expression of political extreme extremism, moving the needle in the battle against antisemitism and circling the Jewish communal wagons against threats both from the left and from the right. Do these changes suggest that American Jewish identity, as it relates to Israel is changing? Does this suggest that Israel is changing prompting these responses?

Maybe both are happening in uncomfortable uncoordinated dialogue with each other. And I’ll tell you, if you feel a sense of dizziness and vertigo, it’s not you. It’s the funhouse. To talk to me about this today, I’m joined by a repeat guest here at Identity Crisis. 

Michael Koplow is the chief policy officer at Israel Policy Forum. He’s a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and we’re actually recording it together today, onsite at a Hartman conference, uh, on Jewish Muslim relations, uh, out in California, where we’ve spent the weekend together talking about loyalty and solidarity. Many of the questions that underlie today’s conversation together with American Muslims, American Jews, actually Canadian, also, Muslims and Jews, as well as Israelis and Palestinians. 

So, Michael, thanks for coming back on the show. Let me start by asking you whether you think we’ll take the start with the case of, uh, of AIPAC and ADL, because so many folks, uh, in the organized Jewish community are, are listening to this story and paying attention to it.

And it does at least seem on its face that something has changed for both of these organizations. Because it, you know, whenever you have two organizations that make uh, what seem to be significant shifts in their approach, that they are other responding to something or feel the need to change the orientation strategy.

What do you think changed in the, in the environment or for these organizations that prompted these different positions that AIPAC and ADL are taking?

Michael: So, first of all, thanks for having me back and, uh, doing this in person feels like a particular post-pandemic privilege that, uh, that I hope doesn’t go away. So I’m not so sure that the organizations themselves have changed.

I think that they are responding to a very changed political environment and that isn’t to say that I necessarily agree with what they’re doing, but I think that what’s changed more is around them. So for instance, had AIPAC been the political force that it is now back in the 1930s or 1940s. And they were faced with a situation where they had to let’s say, support a democratic Southern senator on the Israel issue, but also had to balance that with segregation. Would they have reacted in a different way? 

We can’t say, but I think the point is that up until now, AIPAC has never been faced with this choice where there was something so objectionable and existential within the American political contests context that they had to say, okay, we’re a single issue organization. And that single issue will override everything else. 

There of course had been lots of controversial things in the past, but nothing that rises to this question of, do you support insurrection and do you support American democracy? And so they’ve always held themselves out as a single issue organization. They’ve always held themselves out as an organization that wants to make sure that the United States supports Israel through thick and thin and no matter what. 

And now they’re faced with a very different environment. And this is just another reminder of the way in which the Trump presidency, because I do, it’s not only about Trump, but I do put much of this on that presidency and its aftermath, the way that the Trump presidency is still this kind of bomb that went off in the Jewish community. And we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with the reverberations of that. 

Yehuda: Well, there is one, uh, change in their approach, um, which is the decision to actively raise money for candidates, as opposed to the position that they had, what had they had been doing as kind of standard operating practice for AIPAC for, for a handful of generations, which was working to cultivate support for Israel on both sides of the political aisle and doing some kind of almost back channel means towards fundraising for AIPAC, but not directly getting involved in it. 

So it does bring them one degree closer to actually effectively, not just, um, not just implicitly endorsing the position of pro-Israel, but actually, um, and functionally, um, endorsing political candidates in contested races.

Michael: Sure. And so, in a sense that makes them more political perhaps than they were before, at least overtly. But I don’t think that that’s where the core of the critique is. You know, so for instance, J street, um, to my knowledge has always operated that way. There’s always been a J street pack that raises money directly and gives the candidates directly, folks who criticize J street aren’t criticizing them for that. Right. They’re criticizing J street for other other reasons. Right. Ideological reasons, or what have you, policy reasons.

So I don’t think that the fact that they’re doing that now, uh, and, and raising money directly and giving to candidates directly. I don’t think that yes, different tactics, but, uh, but when people talk about AIPAC have shifted, I don’t think that that’s what people are talking about.

People are talking about that. Um, they feel that AIPAC by virtue of the fact that it is supporting, I think it’s now 109 members of Congress who did not vote to certify the election that that itself is qualitatively different and qualitatively new. 

Yehuda: Okay. So there’s a few pieces that I want to try to disentangle from this.

One of which is if you have, with this degree of, of partisanship in this country, you know, part of what the critics of AIPAC would say is you have to give up on the notion of bipartisanship. Um, but the strongest critics of AIPAC say they’re essentially endorsing anti-democratic measures in America. AIPAC’s defense is, this is who the Republican party is and what am I going to do? I need to effectively, I need to push for this issue. 

Um, you know, I guess part of the question here is the larger referendum around this is the moral legitimacy of supporting Israel regardless of the political consequences of doing so.

So it’s almost like it’s not about whether AIPAC is endorsing this candidate or the other, it’s a push away from some, by AIPAC’s critics of, if Israel is a project that’s worth supporting and if I can do so in a way in which I have like good moral clarity about my positions here, then fine. But if it isn’t, you know, I don’t want it to be, um, I don’t want to be a larger piece. 

So do you see it as like a real criticism of AIPAC inside that tent? Or is it a much different kind of power play against the whole enterprise of supporting Israel? 

Michael: That’s a very good question. Uh, the answer is both, right? For some people it’s going to be one for some people it’s going to be the other. But I think that here, what we’re seeing isn’t specific to AIPAC. It only feels that way because of our frame within the Jewish community and our frame of support for Israel. I’m not sure it’s possible for any organization on any issue to be a single issue organization anymore and not run into something similar because Israel is now just like everything else.

Republicans and Democrats have vastly different positions on it. Um, it’s politicized to an extent we’ve never seen. And so if you are a single-issue organization, to some extent, you’re going to be choosing sides between Republicans and Democrats. There, of course, is you know, some overlap here and there. Um, and on Israel I’d argue that there’s more overlap than on other issues.

But, you know, that’s, that’s how it is. And so, um, you know, I, I, I, I never, I never critique organizations, um, other than my own. So, uh, you know, I’ll, I’ll remain silent in a public forum about, uh, you know, what I think of, of what AIPAC’s doing, about whether it’s right or wrong or whether it’s smart or not.

Um, but I don’t think this is an issue that only, or a dilemma, I should say, that only AIPAC is going to face. And I, I almost think that if you’re going to be a single-issue organization, at some point, you’re probably going to have to make a choice along these lines or reorient yourself entirely. And it’s, you know, it’s up to people in that organization to decide how they want to deal with that.

Yehuda: So let’s take that as a thought experiment, the notion of a single-issue lobby. I’m tempted to take abortion but the reality is you’re not gonna find anybody on the right side of the political aisle who supports abortion, but it might be maybe something like maybe five, 10 years down the line could be on climate change because there could be significant regional implications to like why certain politicians kind of get in line around climate change or in the various forms of legislation that actually would be good for business, good for the local residents, et cetera. 

If you had a lobby that said we are lobbying on behalf of climate change, and therefore we’re going to raise money for candidates who support legislation to deal with and to combat climate change and we’re willing to do so across the political aisle, even if it means fundamentally endorsing candidates who we consider to be, you know, morally corrupt on any sort of other issues. But actually the organization wouldn’t even say that right, as AIPAC doesn’t, they don’t make no determination about the moral corruption of the various candidates they support on any issue. It’s just, are they aligned with this position? 

So one hypothesis as you’re suggesting is it would be impossible to do so. I kind of wonder whether it might be possible in those cases. But on Israel, you can’t get away with it. 

Michael: So you think that it’s different in the Israel case and it, and it wouldn’t be in those other cases.

Um, so, you know, as you say at the moment, I’m not sure we have a good comparison and maybe we would down the road. I think that we’re tempted to say that it’s different in the case of Israel because we’re so enmeshed in these debates over Israel and over Zionism and over what it means for Republicans and for Democrats.

And I think that even more so those debates are so hot within the Jewish community that it’s hard to necessarily have a good grasp. And you talked about a funhouse, right? It’s hard to get a good grasp of what’s happening outside the funhouse, right, outside the Jewish community. Um, So I think that it’s easy for us to think that, but I’m, I’m not, I’m not, I’m just not convinced.

I think that if you are someone who cares about, you know, to take the issue of climate change, if you’re someone who cares about climate change to a degree that it overrides everything else and you believe it’s literally an existential issue for our planet and you know, the policy and even ethical challenge of our time, then I would suggest that politics shows that you will prioritize that above everything else and let everything else get crowded out. I’m not convinced that Israel is the only issue, 

Yehuda: But isn’t that kind, but isn’t that kind of the point, like something about Israel makes it take priority, take precedence in strange ways in the American political context, both on the right and on the left. I’ll give you an example of my Congressman. I had Congressman Bowman on this show, uh, after he had defeated Eliot Engel in the lead up to the primary and I pushed him on the show before he kind of got sworn in like, is it in your interest to kind of push on Israel and it was clearly not. He laughed. 

I said, aren’t, you know, it’s possible that some of the folks who are kind of moving you into office, some of your supporters are using you to legislate internal battles or litigate internal battles inside the Jewish community around Israel.

He said I’m not interested in that. Uh, you know, I ran for this office, you know, to focus on issues of education and crime and socioeconomic differences in the Bronx. And within six months, Bowman lined up with the most progressive wing of the democratic party and was tweeting endlessly and relentlessly on issues related to Israel and Palestinians.

And it was like, it was politically incomprehensible I, from my standpoint, um, except to the extent that he has certain allies who he needs to satisfy, but there’s something I just can’t shake that this is not, oh, it’s a single issue, and therefore it’s impossible to rally around it. It is a totemic issue for both folks on the right and on the left that you have to have a strong position on this issue.

Um, or I’ll give you another example and I’ll let, let, let, let you response, um, how many Instagram live stories are we going to get from AOC on Israel? And there’s just no comparison to the other international conflicts, which don’t get this attention. You can say yes, America gives foreign aid to Israel. America actually gives foreign aid to a lot of different countries.

Um, if there’s something else going on here, which suggests that it’s not about single issue politics, it’s actually about Israel itself.

Michael: But there’s something else going on here because you and I are both in the Jewish community, the two members of Congress that you referenced are both members of Congress from New York, where you have obviously the biggest and most connected, and I’d argue, most politically active Jewish community in the country. And you also have what I’m relatively sure is the biggest and most politically active branch of democratic socialists of America, for instance, um, you know, like this is, this is the hot house of Israel in American politics.

If AOC or Jamaal Bowman were a member of Congress from, I mean, this would be from Idaho, right? Let’s say, let’s say there was a liberal enclave in Idaho. I don’t think this would be the issue that needed them as much. And you know, I’ll give you another issue. Right? Where you see members of Congress who initially were silent or took a different position move. 

There are Republicans, including a very prominent Republican member of Congress who has been in the news the past couple of weeks, who used to have a very good different position on Donald Trump, probably would have had a very different position on the 2020 election a couple of years ago.

And now is literally on the front lines of this issue. Now is that because this member of Congress had some sort of come to Jesus moment? Um, I don’t think so. I think it’s because Israel is not the only issue where we see this. It just depends on where you’re looking. And, um, there are plenty of polarizing issues and there are other issues that are single issues that, that seem to override everything else under the sun.

We see it with Israel, with enormous intensity. But you know, again, I think that we are now in such a political environment that any organization that is a single issue organization is going to be forced into similar choices. Maybe not quite yet, but I think it’s coming for everybody. 

Yehuda: I’ve I’ve been compelled and it sounds, it sounds like you don’t totally subscribe to this, I’ve been compelled by arguments by Matti Friedman and others, that part of why Israel takes on the quality that it does to Americans and to Jews in America is because it, it has outsized symbolic quality, right? It represents, you know, the conscience of the west for better or worse. It is the example of a conflict that, it’s kind of like the perfect storm example of the conflicts of the 20th century that are still lingering, but it’s like the best place to test out questions around colonialism, around race, around inequality. 

And, and it’s tied in obviously to the religious symbolism of being the holy land for three religions. You’re taking what sounds like a more kind of, um, uh, prosaic, uh, analysis of the American political context. Um, I can’t help but gravitate towards that in part, because I’m interested in not only the ideological questions that we hold, like here’s my ideology. But trying to read the ideological map of what this is about. 

I guess what’s the, what are the upsides and downsides of looking for the symbolic meaning of Israel in the American political context for you?

Michael: I think there’s definitely a symbolic meeting within certain groups, obviously within American Jews, certainly. Um, and I think that you are right. It has taken on a symbolic meaning in progressive spaces. For some of the reasons you mentioned, right? Um, in terms of colonialism, you know, uh, progressors look over to Israel and, uh, they see, you know, mirrored in police conduct and racial issues, some of the issues, uh, that are plaguing the United States.

So it’s not to say that that’s entirely absent, but I’m not sure that Americans were at large or even the American political system at large looks at Israel in that way. I think that there are obviously pockets of extremely motivated voters and activists and, uh, and politicians who certainly see that in Israel and view Israel as the battleground for all of these different things.

I’m not prepared to concede that that’s the case within the entire American political system. I think it’s the case among some very loud pockets. One of those pockets is of course the American Jewish community. 

Yehuda: Now let’s say I want to come back to the other organization we talked about, but I’ll do in a second, which is, so if it’s not necessarily true among the American political context, and I guess I’m partially persuaded about the New York point, although you have like the Betty McCollum case in Minneapolis, and it’s not, it’s not entirely in these pockets, but what about in the American Jewish community?

I mean, certainly the passions that the American Jewish community bring around Israel are in some ways rooted in questions of survival. Um, but also are tied into larger metaphorical story of Israel represents how the Jewish people are seen in the world. And that means that it’s not just, it’s not just like a literal, well, since they’re representing us in the world, I want them to behave a certain way.

It’s also, they become a kind of totem for what Judaism represents to the general public. And now I’m, now I’m totally in my head as opposed to talking about questions of actual policy. 

Michael: So I, I’m not even sure that it’s, um, I think it goes farther than what you said. I don’t think it’s even necessarily that it’s a totem for how Judaism is seen in the general public.

For, let’s let’s let’s face it for half a century for many American Jews, their Judaism has been Israel. Their Judaism has been Zionism. And so it’s not just a fight about how Judaism is represented to the rest of the world. I think it’s literally for individuals an internal fight about how their own personal Judaism, um, manifests and is represented.

And so, you know, support for Israel is seen literally as a religious goal, a religious obligation. And I think we’re also starting to see on the other side of that non-supportive Israel, anti-Zionism is also becoming a core Jewish commitment for those who hold it. So you know, here too, you know, it’s an internal struggle as much as it is, I think, about how it gets represented to the rest of the world. 

Yehuda: So how do you navigate this? Your job is to be, uh, you’re a policy person. Um, you’re a policy person at a policy organization, right? We were talking about this yesterday, you’re chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum.

Um, and as I said to you yesterday, it’s like I’m chief Hartman officer, that’s the equivalent, that’s the analogy, Um, there’s something very straightforward, even normative about the work of trying to advance clear prescriptive solutions to how to address the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The most obvious one, I think, is still the position of IPF, is the two-state solution. It is the most politically and morally plausible way of actually resolving the conflict, to leave Israelis and Palestinians position of both peace and security and justice. 

Um, so you’re pushing for that and you have to do that in a context that’s not just about political obstacles in America and in Israel, Palestine to say the least, but also has to push through this ideological cloud of what people are passionate about. Talk about that a little bit. How might one do that and how do policy people interact with the ideological climate in a way that doesn’t just involve looking down on it?

Michael: I think that I probably sit at that nexus maybe more than anybody else in the entire country. And it’s a great question because the ideological aspect to it and the identity aspect to it, are becoming much more prominent than they were before. And I’ll give you an example. 

As you rightly note, um, both me personally and Israel Policy Forum organizationally very much support a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for practical reasons. And because we believe that this is the best solution for both sides that is actually attainable and kind of leaves everybody at as much power as you can have. 

One of the ideas that is becoming much more popular within the Jewish community that is not really yet entering policy circles, um, in the United States. And that is also not really at entering policy circles in Israel or Palestine is the idea of confederation. And much of my policy work within the Jewish community these days encounters people who say two states is passe, we are now embracing confederation. 

And the reason is because it offers, I think, a more ideologically satisfying solution. I would argue that confederation is actually not practical from a policy perspective in any way, shape, or form, but what’s attractive about confederation, and I’m not saying this in a pejorative way, I understand it very deeply. 

What’s attractive about confederation is it says to people, hey, we can avoid some of the hardest issues. Right? What are the hardest issues on the Israeli side? Evacuating settlements. On the Palestinian side, right of return. Guess what? We don’t have to make that choice. Under confederation, Palestinian refugees can return wherever they want. Under confederation, there are no such things as settlements anymore. Settlers don’t have to leave the West bBank. It’s very satisfying ideologically. 

And particularly when you’re talking about American Jews, who do I think engage with Israel Palestinian issues more on an emotional level than on a policy level. This is something that they can get their heads around and support and feel good about it.

Because let me tell you something. If you’re somebody who supports two states, there’s not a lot to feel good about, and that’s, that’s not new, you know? So if somebody comes along and says, hey, I have a very elegant solution. And you can actually feel good about it and it satisfies your moral instincts, and it’s presented as something that’s doable, I see lots of American Jews who are rushing toward that because they find it attractive. 

And that’s really, you know, a great spot where ideology and policy interact in a way that, as I said before, I would argue, causes a clash at the end of the day between ideology and policy. But the two absolutely impact each other in the discourse among American Jews.

Yehuda: But hasn’t the  two-state solution falling into that trap for a long time as well? You know, there’s a whole term for this called solutionism for which the two-state solution is the ideal example where the people who most want to bring about that solution are so persuaded that it’s a solution that a commitment to the solution gets in the way of actually the work to get there. I’m not subtweeting any member of my family right now by talking about this this way, but they’re the passion about the solution was so clearly part of the problem um, throughout Oslo and beyond of like the people who had most to give up and least likely to come to that conclusion, turned on the solution itself.

So there’s a little bit of a trap in general, when it comes to any policy solution that it becomes so convinced of its own rightness, that it loses the work. So when you talk about your business as an essence to business of persuasion, how do you get people away from the idealogical story that they want to be most comfortable with towards like a real commitment to the hard work of actually transforming political realities?

Michael: So here’s the difference at least today, I think about two states versus confederation. And that leads to the answer to your question. I know of almost nobody, certainly not me today who supports two states and describes it as anything other than a suboptimal solution that at least in theory is workable. There, there is no talk, and this certainly wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago during, during the height of Oslo, I guess 30 years ago now.

But there is nobody today who, who talks about it in the ideological terms of it being great for both sides or, um, you know, allowing, allowing one to, um, avoid difficult choices or avoid moral complications. It’s very much portrayed as something that if you have the right leadership and you work out the arrangements, something that at least is viable and workable. Will not solve all the problems, will not lead to comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but at least it can be implemented. 

And so that to me is when I think about my work, the path I try to take, because everybody, especially American Jews, right? Everybody has a million ideas and everybody thinks that their idea is the best one, and everybody is committed to their ideas based on the vision that they have. What I always try to do is to really take things away from the conceptual level and down to the practical level.

So you may think that something is a great idea because it appeals to your sensibility. It appeals to your worldview. It appeals to your sense of what is just and what is ethical? The question is, can it actually be implemented? And if not, then you have to compromise and make some difficult ethical and philosophical choices within yourself.

And so to me, pointing out what can be achieved first, and then thinking about if it’s achieved, how does that fit in with your philosophy? That’s the tack I take to try to bring things away from the overtly ideological, because of course everything is always ideological in some sense, to take things away from the overtly ideological and into the realm of policy, really, you know, think about outcomes versus aspirations.

Yehuda: You know, uh, most of the deliberations that this conference that we were out over the weekend are, are confidential. So I’m not gonna cite anybody’s names, but there was an interesting moment over the weekend when one of our Hartman Palestinian colleagues was talking abou his grievance with the ways in which Israel’s aspiration to be the Homeland for the Jewish people is getting in the way of the ability of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, 20% minority, to forget about feel as though it’s their homeland, um actually be equal citizens within the context of their own state. 

And there emerged a really interesting argument between him and one of our Jewish colleagues about like how much when Israel commits to becoming a state of with all of its citizens, what does that do to all of these American Jews, for whom Israel as the Homeland of the Jewish people is central to their ideology.

And I was like, oh, this is kind of the perfect story. My ideology is getting in the way of your reality. Now the dream, right, is that you wind up creating a space between the river and the sea in which all of the following are true. That Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, that it is the national Homeland of the Palestinian people. And that it’s a state for all of its citizens. 

But the off-ramps are so severe. And the off-ramps are either powerful ideological commitments to one of those and not the other, or passionate political commitments to one of those and not the other. And it sounds to me a little bit, like the way you’re describing a two-state solution is the same is the political parallel to what I’m talking about as the ideological dream, which is the capacity to hold all of these things.

That’s just seems very hard. It’s like a long question to get to a short question. And the natural human temptation is to allow for those off-ramps and to feel as though it’s re it’s just so difficult to fight those. 

Michael: It is very difficult. And, and I think that we are seeing those off ramps abound everywhere in the ideological space and in the political space, more than we used to. 

You know within in the ideological space to, you know, to tie this back into where we started, I think we certainly see that with American Jewish organizations, both on the right and on the left. In the political space to be a policy person in Washington right now who talks about two states is to enter into almost every conversation knowing that the person you are talking to has an enormous degree of skepticism about what you’re saying before the meeting even starts. 

And so the off-ramps are going everywhere and it’s, and it’s why we see, you know, on the Republican side, this notion that two, two states a silly why can’t Israel just do whatever it wants. And we see not, I wouldn’t say taking over the democratic side, but certainly in the progressive wing, again, this idea that, you know what, all these things together are not viable. And so the core commitment has to be to a just and democratic solution. And that just and democratic solution is one state.

So we’re seeing these off-ramps all over the place. Part of what makes it so lonely where I sit is that you’re correct. I’m, I’m trying to hold to this scenario where none of these off ramps will have to be taken. And I have to say that in terms of Israel policy forum, um, something that I’ve been saying to people for a few years, which is that we are increasingly owning the center and the policy space because everybody else is vacating it.

And so that center has grown by leaps and bounds. But nobody else is in it. Because the off-ramps look more attractive. It’s not an easy situation to be in.  

Yehuda: So let’s go back to the organizations for a second. So in this context, I think politically, what AIPAC is doing, by being committed to its mission, we support pro-Israel politicians. We don’t, AIPAC doesn’t really have a position on two-state solution. I could probably dig up some tweets, they were supportive of it because it was the state of position of the Israeli government for a while, but they don’t really hold that position. Um, that’s one way of off ramping towards, in some ways, an ideological commitment by many American Jews and non Jews.

Which is, support for Israel kind of doesn’t matter, what’s happening on the policy side? ADL actually is a little bit of a different story. Because ADL’s position also is not particularly explicit about support for any particular outcome for Israelis and Palestinians, but as opposed to the, we support Israel and we support politicians, they’re taking the kind of red line strategy. 

What I would call an exclusive solidarity approach versus inclusive. It’s not, I’m together with anybody who will be part of my team, but I want to actually red line those who make claims that are outside of it. That feels to me like a very pronounced impulse in this environment that also pulls people away from engaging in the actual work of trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because you’re kind of triggered by what you see as your threats and therefore you, all you want to do is kind of regroup. 

Do you see a correlation between those two things, the ability to do kind of real programmatic work to change the reality versus the impulse that I think is rising in the American Jewish community to focus less on what are we supposed to do to fix and more, how do we protect ourselves against what we consider to be a threat.

Michael: Yeah, I think it’s how we protect ourselves against what we consider to be a threat, but also how do we protect and assert our core identity. And obviously those things are wrapped up in each other. The, I agree with, I agree with something you said earlier, which is that in many ways, the way in which we American Jews talk about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, doesn’t actually have to do with Israelis and Palestinians, and doesn’t actually have to do with the conflict. 

It’s about us at home and how we feel as American Jews and how we’re going to project those, uh, values and feelings and hopes and fears onto a place far away. And when we do that, is that making it any easier to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflicts in either direction?

I, I don’t think it is. Um, when we have the fights here about Zionism versus non Zionism or anti Zionism, and, you know, what constitutes these different things and should people be allowed in the room if they are one of these things, or not. It’s not, it’s not impacting anything on the ground. Um, I’m not sure that very many Israelis or Palestiniansn care about the debates we’re having internally among American Jews. 

I’m not even sure that they would understand it even kind of as a, as a framework for how to approach these things. So you know, here too, the, the question of how you engage ideologically, and the question of how you engage from a policy perspective are very, very different things.

Yehuda: May I ask a personal question if I can, which is, you know, you, you, this is what you do professionally. You’re living in the funhouse, but you’re actually trying to find a way out. Um, but you’re also, I think self identify as an Orthodox Jew, you, you, the liturgy is filled with all of the metaphors of Israel of Jerusalem, a return to home.

I think it’s impossible for contemporary Jews to ignore the romanticism of Zionism, some people detest it. Many people love it is transformed, um, Jewish identity. I’d love for you to reflect a little bit on, on metaphor. Metaphors is huge, a huge driver of why this is ideologically so significant to Jews, regardless of whether it actually maps on to the realities there.

And how that is alive in your life, even though, you know, Monday morning, you’re back to maps, right. You know, um, actual political solutions and can’t live in that metaphorical uh, space all the time. 

Michael: Another very good question.

So part of it is that, um, metaphorically, and obviously emotionally, I have a deep commitment to, love for, admiration for Israel. Um, both through, I think, you know, you point out the liturgy, it’s, it’s all over the place. But it’s not just about that. It’s obviously about my own also personal firsthand experiences and all the time I’ve spent there and, and different memories I have of it and the way it shapes my identity. But I also try really, really hard to completely compartmentalize that from my day job.

Now, obviously it’s not possible to do entirely because if I didn’t have this personal background, I’d probably be doing something else. And you know, the truth is that, uh, until, I don’t know, 11 or 12 years ago, my over weaning professional commitment was to not be another Jew working on Israel because I didn’t want the personal and the professional to be so enmeshed.

So I try very hard not to enmesh them. But as you point out, it’s very difficult because we do have this, this metaphor. I don’t quite understand people who don’t think that Zionism is central to Judaism. I understand why people want to rebel against it. I understand why people have personal issues where they don’t want to be Zionist, or they don’t want to support Zionism. But the argument that it somehow is an outside, a relatively new creation, the, the idea that it isn’t central to Judaism. When I say Zionism, I mean, in a much larger sense, because of course we know there are many Zionisms. The notion that it’s not central to, to Judaism, is a strange one to me.

And so yes, this metaphor is always there. But I also think that if you get too caught up in the metaphor on either side, it leads to relatively extreme positions and, and extreme places, both on the right and on the left, you know, when you embrace that metaphor too fully or trying to excise that metaphor too fully, leads to places that, that I don’t think are helpful. And so I try my best to keep it out. But of course, it’s always there in the background.

Yehuda: I guess, where I agree with you is around the essential role of Zionism in Jewish identity. Um, or a relationship to Israel as part of the Jewish identity. I believe strongly that, you know, you can argue that it wasn’t always the case. That’s true. But history actually matters, like, you know? So like it’s, things happened in the 20th century and the notion that we’re going to kind of like reclaim a 19th century version of Judaism because it works better for now is a, it’s an interesting reclamation project, Jews have done that throughout history, but I think that there’s something, I think it’s either a missed opportunity or worse. 

Um, I guess where I would differ with you is I don’t want to compartmentalize. I would rather just know that we are, all of us, carrying around ideological commitments and political hopes. And sometimes those political hopes for Israel are not quite the same as they are for America.

And sometimes we want them to be the same and it’s, it’s okay to know that those are acting upon you as they’re acting upon you. I just, I find that the attempt to compartmentalize, I don’t know. I just don’t think it’s going to work. 

Michael: So let me ask you a question, is that due to a personal commitment or feeling, or a professional commitment or feeling, because you and I sit in very different places, professionally, obviously both very enmeshed in Israel, but approaching it in different ways.

Yehuda: Yeah. Look, I, one of the things I love about my work is that I think we at the Hartman Institute as a place of like applied research for the Jewish people, I don’t think anything that we produce that is completely dispassionate or pretends to be, is ever any good. I think one of the things that’s powerful about the work that I get to do with my colleagues is that people’s learned opinions, shaped both on how they read texts and how they understand history and philosophy, and as fueled by their own life stories and their own life experiences, actually come together to produce something much more authentic. 

Um. But I think that can be true, whether you’re on the kind of intellectual communal side, which I am, or on the intellectual policy side, which is you are. I, I just, this is my post-modern sense. The attempt to compartmentalize to separate those two. I don’t think it’s doing us any favors.

Michael: Mhm. I guess. Uh, and I should be clear, like I said, it’s not possible to compartmentalize it entirely. You know, Israel policy forum has five core values and one of them is Zionism. Right. We don’t pretend to be anything that we’re not.

But I’ll, I’ll get you a good example to obviously, you know, if you know your Torah as folks in the West Bank like to point out all the time, the biblical heartland where this all played out is the West Bank, right? It’s not Tel Aviv. And, you know, as someone who is in shul every week and who often is standing up there reading Torah every week, tthis, you know, I, I, I feel that I feel that in my bones. You know, frankly, every time I am in the holy land, I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud, but I feel a deeper connection to the land in the West Bank than I do in Tel Aviv for Herzliya. 

Now, if I didn’t compartmentalize that, then at least from a policy perspective, I’d be in a very different place. And that would cause all sorts of other difficulties, including my own ethical and moral guidelines about how I think it should be resolved in a fair way forever.

Um, but I think for me personally, oftentimes it’s really important to do what I do to just keep my emotions separate from my day job, because oftentimes they conflict and my heart and my head tell me different things often.

Yehuda: I find this to be such a critical conversation, especially for American Jewish leaders, to know that these two impulses towards the political, the policy, and towards their own sense of history, romance, ideology, are our fueling at the same time. 

I mean, your example is a powerful one. I lived for two years in a West Bank Yeshiva and it was in, it was right around the time that Oslo was being negotiated. And at the time, the head of our yeshiva, Rabbi Lichtenstein of blessed memory said we’re committed to our Yeshiva, but if there is a negotiated agreement, we’ll move to Jerusalem. I love that because he was acknowledging the romance of Alon Shvut in the West Bank.

He was acknowledging this wasn’t going to come without a sense of loss. It was just going to be a trade off. And it was, I don’t think it was compartmentalized. It was, I love this and I’m willing to give it up if there’s something else to return on the other side. After the second Intifada, he moved to Alon Shvut, because he was living in Jerusalem at the time and commuting. And there was, you know, I’m happy for, wherever he wants to live is fine with me, I don’t, you know. Um. That, that was a loss, uh, the willing, the unwillingness to kind of stay in that place between the passionate and the pragmatic. 

So, one last question for you, which is a heavy question, but I, I, you know, as part of this fun house story, how do you suggest people watch the news? I alluded to before this, um, this, this incredibly devastating story of the killing of Shireen Abu Aqleh, which is a story that has consumed social media and media, um, has actually prompted more than five or eight members of Congress, this time, to call for an investigation. I think they’re up to 50 or 60 members of Congress calling for an investigation. 

Conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority about whether that investigation is going to actually happen, probably will not. And, you know, seeds a lot of doubt as to whether an investigation would actually produce an outcome that would lead to justice.

Um, but I can’t help but shake the sense that when these stories happen, it is a fun house in that nobody knows anything, but everybody’s got opinions. So how would you, as a, especially as a, as a person who works on policy, who knows the ways in which a news story can really alter how the work is supposed to happen, how you fix things, how do you suggest people watch the news that comes out from Israel and Palestine, to be able to learn from it as opposed to just being reinforced in their views?

Michael: So first, I’d say, watch the news with deep skepticism because nobody watches the news anymore. People get the news filtered through whatever filter it is that they use and that filter can be television, can be written media, can be social media. So I’d say, I’d say first with deep skepticism. 

The second I’d say, whenever you see news coming out, take a few beats. Sometimes a few beats can mean a few minutes and sometimes a few beats can and should mean a few hours to wait for more information, because what gets reported early on is rarely what happens.

Not even just what gets reported. Take this example for instance, when the news first came out that Shireen Abu Aqleh had been killed in Jenin, prime minister Naftali Bennett tweeted out a video suggesting that there was proof that she had been shot by a bullet coming from the Palestinian side. And he himself had to backtrack shortly after because it turns out that, you know, that that actually wasn’t, uh, wasn’t very, very reliable proof. Um, so I think everybody should, should take a few breaths. 

And third, I’d say it’s important to remember that there is often a pattern to this that we see repeated over and over again. And if what you see deviates from that pattern, then there’s a good chance that it’s not accurate. And so in this case, the idea that anybody could know right away who shot her, you know, I kind of called BS on that the second, the second I heard it, um, because that’s never how these things play out. 

The idea that the Israelis purposely were targeting her. Same thing, you know, uh, there’s, seems, seems to be that there’s a decent chance that she was shot by an Israeli bullet, not the same thing as them assassinating her or purposely targeting her. For another podcast, we can talk about whether the fact that there is an Israeli occupation of the west bank means that the Israelis still are responsible for it, no matter how it happened. 

But I I, I think that people should keep in mind that sadly we’ve been watching the Israeli Palestinian conflict for a long time. And oftentimes the news follows a pattern. And if it deviates from that, then not that it’s impossible, but if it deviates from that in a big way, it’s rare.

Yehuda: Yeah, I would add one other thing to all of that guidance, which is, I want people to periodically be disappointed by the news. Right? So some of the quest for affirmation, the desire to tell the Israeli police’s side of the story, the desire to amplify Naftali Bennet’s response, was so self-evidently a need to avoid the cognitive dissonance that might come with, I care about Israel, and this is a horrific thing that I’m supposed to really be upset about.

And I, I just, that’s a normal human temptation. And part of what we’re trying to sort out in this mess is you’re allowed to feel passionately about this and also have your heart broken by it. And to be disappointed, you’re allowed to care about Israel and not necessarily agree with the positions that are taken by Jewish organizations around Israel. Right. 

Michael: Right. And again, it goes back to this question of identity and ideology, you know, in some ways, it’s, it’s, it’s more important for many people’s personal identity to say right away, oh no, the Israelis definitely did this or, oh no, the Palestinians definitely did this, than it is to actually have the right answer or know what happened. Right. It’s more about us than it is necessarily about, uh, what actually took place. 

Yehuda: Sometimes you find yourself in a funhouse. Uh, enjoy the ride. 

Thanks so much, Michael, for being on the show this week, and thanks to all of you for listening to our show.

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Louis Gordon with assistance from Alex Dillon, Miri Miller, and music provided by Socalled. Transcripts of our show are available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes. Although there’s a lot in the news. So if you’ve had a topic you’d like to hear about, or if you have comments on this episode, please write to us at [email protected]

You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find the show. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. And thanks for listening.

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics