The following is a transcript of Episode 76 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis: a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America and we’re recording on Thursday, November 4th, 2021. My colleagues and I at Hartman have been working for a long time on the twin challenges that North American Jews faced with respect to Israel.
The first challenge of distancing from Israel – that Israel is less relevant and oftentimes less comprehensible to a growing number of us. And second, the challenge of conflict about Israel – that Israel is a polarizing and divisive force among a growing number of North American Jews. These two problems, ironically, undermine each other.
Or rather the solution to one is not necessarily the solution to the other because you need to be passionate about something to want to fight about it. And my guess is that fights about Israel are one of the contributing factors as to why a lot of Jews want to have little to do with the state of Israel.
So is Israel meant to be something that we care about so much that we want to go to war with our fellow Jews about it? That’s the weird and dark question that I think vexes a lot of us. Since the war in Israel in May, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the question of what we as Jews owe each other in a moment of crisis. In religious terms, this is oftentimes referred to as ahavat yisrael, the obligation, the commandment, that Jews are meant to love one another. It is usually understood as a riff on Leviticus, 19: the obligation that we love our fellow as ourselves. It then gets mapped onto a religious obligation. Usually, though as a form of criticism of who’s doing it wrong. Criticism of Jews who don’t stand up for one another in a time of vulnerability.
I’ve never actually loved the use of the terminology of Ahavat Yisrael. I’m not persuaded that it’s our job as human beings to interrogate and decide what’s in someone else’s heart. And I’m also really skeptical about how Jews can criticize, oftentimes violently, other Jews for not loving Jews enough or the right way, which seems kind of ironic.
But the term sticks around – ahavat yisrael – because when a people thinks of itself as a people, as a tribe, or as a family, those metaphors come loaded with affective sensibilities. And they come with real questions about what it means to be loyal, both: what are we supposed to feel for each other across the divides? And how are those feelings supposed to turn into obligations, actions, responsibilities?
This question came to the fore in the midst of the May war when, among other acts of protests in the Jewish community – and we’ll try to put this in a larger context today – a group of ninety or so rabbinical students from different liberal seminaries penned a group letter castigating Israel for its actions, naming Israel as practicing apartheid, and using the framework of their Jewishness to stand in protest Israel and its actions.
This came under criticism, widely from other people in the Jewish community, including three of the seminary heads who publicly criticized their students for not exhibiting sufficient ahavat yisrael. And that story is back this week in the news in the form of a New York Times Magazine story by Mark Tracy which profiles some of these students and argues that the letter portends or maybe reflects a breaking point in American Zionism.
To unpack this moment, to understand where we are in history, where as a community, we might be headed, I’m talking today to one of the world’s experts in intra-Jewish conflict, a role we can all agree as an unenviable one
And let’s also acknowledge that it is a growth industry. It’s a good time for that business. Dov Waxman is the director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA, where he’s also a professor of political science and the Rosalind and Arthur Gilbert foundation chair of Israel Studies, and the author of a really great 2019 book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel.
Dov, thanks for coming on the show today.
Dov Waxman: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Yehuda Kurtzer: So Dov one of the things that’s core to the thesis of your book is that in spite of the fact that there is a long history of intra-Jewish conflict, a long history of Jewish sectarianism not just in pre-modern periods, but even about Zionism over the past a hundred years, the state of Israel over the past 70. You argue that there is a sea change underway relatively recently, let’s say the last decade, last 20 years, and maybe even the last 24 months.
So I would love for you to make that case. What actually is different about the more recent time in the American Jewish community about Israel versus earlier iterations of this. And what do you think has changed?
Dov Waxman: I think the shift that I describe in my book is a shift that’s been decades in the making. I traced the shift as far back as the early 1980s and the first Lebanon war the first Intifada. So I don’t think this is a shift that’s just been caused by recent events, just occurred overnight.
In fact, I’m critical of those who tend to attribute this just to kind of the latest escalation and violence between Israel and the Palestinians or features of American politics. I think it has been taking place for some time. But I argue that it’s with the kind of community of development that is really over the last decades becoming increasingly apparent.
So the shift, as I describe it, is one from really largely uncritical, equivalent, and unconditional support for Israel, which characterized, broadly speaking, American Jewish attitudes toward Israel for about two decades or so. From really the aftermath of the Six-Day War till the late 1970s.
So a relatively short period of time, but a period of time that is held up as the kind of norm of how American Jews should relate to Israel. It was this time of very strong pro-Israel consensus. And what I’m describing is a process taking place since then, whereby increasingly dissent of this consensus. Criticism of Israel has gradually become increasingly more mainstream, increasingly more acceptable.
The taboo against public criticism of Israel has gradually been undermined. And so there’s been the shift from unconditional support for Israel, Israel right or wrong, to what I would call critical engagement. Not disengagement from Israel, as many people have feared, but a shift in terms of how American Jews support Israel. And increasing they support Israel, at least in some cases by criticizing Israel, by protesting its policies. And so it’s really a shift in the nature of American Jewish support for Israel that’s taken place. But I think politically this shift has become important and manifested over the last dozen years or so with the rise of groups like J-Street, for example. They didn’t create this shift.
They have taken advantage of this to now bring this into the halls of Congress.
Yehuda Kurtzer: You allude to what you call the “mainstreaming of criticism of Israel.” And certainly, a piece of this is the total demise of the old mythology of we don’t air our dirty laundry in public. We don’t litigate our conflicts in public as American Jews. I want to get into that a little bit later, about how much this shift in American Jewish identity has nothing to do with Israel.
You have to add that it’s not just the mainstreaming of criticism. It’s also the radicalization of the nature of that criticism, right? I mean, it’s not, “wow. I disagree with this country’s policy.” Something else is taking place here about what the stakes of that criticism are and what it’s allowed to include in this criticism.
Dov Waxman: Absolutely. I think that’s absolutely correct. It’s not just that the criticism’s become more widespread, but the debate itself has become increasingly polarized. Those on the edges of the debate are the loudest voices, those on the far left and on the right. In the past, the kind of consensus was the one that was most often presented by Jewish organizations in public debate.
That’s shifted. I think that we’re seeing not just within the American Jewish conversation about Israel, but in our public debates in general. In the United States, it’s the extremes that are getting the most attention that is often shaping the terms of the debate. So not only is it only more polarized than it’s been in the past, but the issues have expanded. So in the past, there was criticism, more narrowly focused on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Those on the left were calling, for example, in decades past, for Israel to negotiate with the PLO, to establish, to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Now the debate isn’t over whether there should be a Palestinian state, but whether there should be a Jewish state. In other words, it’s expanded now, not just to focus on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, but really over Zionism itself.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Right. And the equivalent activity, of course, happens on the right, which is in a dialectical relationship. The further the left goes in terms of its extremes, the more the expressions of loyalty towards the state of Israel shift from broad support for the state of Israel and its policies to very pointed insistence on support for those policies as the indicator of what it really means to be a Zionist.
So, let me ask you, maybe it’s a facile question. I’m genuinely curious to try to figure it out if there was, for a period of time, a stronger voice of the center which is, “yeah, I support Israel. I don’t have to agree with all of its policies.” I think that’s probably descriptively true that the majority of American Jews based on almost any study would probably identify with that position.
Why is it the case that the strongest and loudest voices in our community are emerging on the polls, on the extremes? What is holding back a consensus position from actually finding its voice in the American Jewish public square?
Dov Waxman: Well, I think that that voice is still expressed by many establishment Jewish organizations. But I think in the past the voice of the Jewish establishment dominated the conversation and managed to a large extent, to exclude or silence those voices on the margins.
So I think, in the past, there were these perspectives, but they were rarely heard from because they didn’t have a megaphone and they didn’t have institutional support or power behind them. Now we’ve seen the traditional gatekeepers of the Jewish conversation about Israel, institutions, losing that power, losing the ability to dominate the conversation or to monopolize it. And those on the wings on the edges, on the polls, be they on the right or on the left, are gaining a megaphone. The internet being the best example of this. That nowadays it’s very easy to voice your criticisms and to find support and to appear much more populous and popular than you actually are.
So I think that has facilitated groups on the left and right. And it’s actually weakened groups in the center. Another factor in terms of why some of the kind of pro-Israel consensus in the center isn’t expressed as much or as forcefully is because there’s a kind of crisis of confidence in that position because it’s being challenged from both sides. There is less confidence in expressing the consensus as it still exists. There’s a wariness about even engaging in this debate because it’s become so toxic and so many people who be inclined to agree with some points with those on the left and some points where those on the rights and who are really in the center and are turned off by the whole debate altogether, they feel that their position isn’t reflected. And it’s not really possible to get that across. There’s both a kind of amplification of these voices on the margins, which can give a misleading impression about where American Jewish opinion really is. But there also is a declining, willingness of those in the center to really forcefully express themselves in this debate.
Yehuda Kurtzer: I will tell you on a personal level I struggle with that all the time. If I write something, whether I publish it or put it on Facebook or Twitter, I know who’s going to criticize me for it and trying to hold some measure of a position that I come out honestly which is sometimes the criticism of the right and sometimes the criticism of the left. It’s just a vulnerable spot to be in like everybody is. There’s a lot of disincentives to actually participate in the discourse in this kind of way. And that winds up amplifying those who feel risk-free in terms of the position that they’re taking because there is this purity that’s available to them.
Dov Waxman: Absolutely. I feel the same sometimes. If you’re trying to articulate a more nuanced position in these public debates, it’s very difficult. It often feels like a very lonely position to be in, despite the fact that if you look at the survey data and you look at opinion polls, you actually probably represent the plurality of views on these debates. But there is criticism that you’ll inevitably hear from the left and the right who will attack you on either side. So, many people just choose the path of least resistance, which is basically, disengagement or silence.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Let’s take a particular example. That’s this new story. You’re quoted in the story in the Times Magazine about rabbinical students. It is, on one hand, a pretty big deal. It’s a pretty significant percentage of the rabbinical student population. And it’s a big deal, I suppose because as opposed to 90 random, young Jews, you’re talking about people who have thrown their lot in to set out their careers working for and on behalf of the Jewish people.
So first let’s take it as a data point. Do you see it more on the side of like, “well, this affirms where we’ve been headed for a long time,” or do you see it having actually moved the football in some significant way down the field on top of those trends?
Dov Waxman: In many respects, it does reflect this longer-term trend. And in some ways, there’s nothing new about rabbis and rabbinical students and those most in the Jewish community expressing this kind of criticism. That has been happening for decades. So in some ways, it’s misleading because actually what I think is more novel isn’t those who are most Jewishly engaged sometimes expressing criticism of Israel, but this more widespread phenomenon of those who aren’t really that engaged doing so.
I think there are some novel elements in this particular kind of protest letter. One being the ways in which it touched on some of the most taboo topics like questioning American military aid to Israel. That was something that I think Jewish critics of Israeli policies in the past weren’t willing to go that far, weren’t willing to call into question. The provision of American support for Israel, I think, is one of the things that shifted in this debate. It’s no longer just focused on Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. It wasn’t criticizing Israel’s policy and calling for shifts in Israeli government policy. It’s increasingly focused on US policy toward Israel. And that’s something that earlier generations of Jewish critics didn’t focus on as much.
I think another thing that’s interesting and was striking in the letter, you mentioned it, was the reference to apartheid. So again, showing that the terms of the debate are shifting position. Criticism that would have once been inconceivable and taboo with any reference to apartheid, is now part of this debate. It is now a subject of open debate. The reference, the illusion to racial violence in the letter shows significance in showing how there’s this kind of tendency to map on some of the racial politics in the United States to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I think that’s also significant. And I think, on top of all of that, the simple willingness of so many rabbinical students to sign a public letter and thereby risk their own livelihoods.
They did so knowing that this could jeopardize them. Whatever you think of this letter, I think there’s more courage in taking that position. I think that again, reflects a more assertive attitude towards the Jewish establishment. A willingness to very publicly take on and express this kind of dissent in a way that I think earlier generations would have suffered quite serious consequences.
It will be interesting to see what consequences if any, those letter writers receive. Maybe some of them might, but I think fact that they’re doing this, again, shows that there’s a broader shift taking place. Positions that one could not be publicly articulate or people would have been wary about doing so now are being done and are now happening and they’re happening with great frequency.
It happens almost every time there’s an escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yehuda Kurtzer: It remains to be seen whether there actually may be quite significant professional consequences for some of the folks involved. There already were, I think, 12 internships that either got canceled for rabbinical students or were threatened to be canceled. And it is noticeable.
Many people kind of observed this or in this field that the majority of the students who signed the letter were in their first couple of years of rabbinical school. And that’s noticeable of how strategic people are. And maybe you anticipate, within three to five years, when they’re going to get jobs, the Jewish community will be there.
Or maybe there are going to be significant repercussions. There was a lot that you said there, Dov, that I want to unpack, but I want to take on the term that you used, which is moral courage. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that? Because it’s not a neutral term, right? I suppose it could be neutral in the sense of taking a moral stance, knowing that it comes with risks attached to it or a stance on a moral issue.
But there are those who would argue, myself included, that the positions themselves, some of the positions themselves were immoral and therefore to take those positions is not inherently, morally courageous. It might be counter-cultural, it might be counter-normative, but, in of itself, it’s not necessarily a moral position.
So how do you use that term and what’s your reference?
Dov Waxman: Yeah. I was using it in the first sentence in the sense that I think taking a public stand on something on the basis of your belief that it is ethically necessary to do that, risk personal consequences in doing so, I think that is a position of moral courage. And that does acknowledge that there may be individuals in groups that do that for positions I don’t agree with. I didn’t agree with everything that was in that letter, but any time an individual or group takes a moral stance knowing full well that there may be consequences to pay, I think that should be understood as moral courage even if we may disagree with the substance of that stance.
Yehuda Kurtzer: One of the things that’s hard to parse out in a moment like this is that a little bit of what was unique about this is the speaking in the language of Jewish tradition and marshaling the authority of the rabbinic tradition and the identity of somebody as a rabbi and saying, “I’m not merely, taking this position because of the conclusions I’ve drawn politically. It’s because this is what I’m sent to do.” Right?
There’s a sense of mission, this is what I’m sent to do as a Jew. So in comparing that population to the overwhelming majority of American rabbis, it is unusual and different. On the other hand, there was so much of this language, especially around apartheid and the racialization of the conflict and American military aid that it’s just the straight talking points out of the progressive camp of American politics.
And in that sense, it’s counter-cultural perhaps in the rabbinic world, but it was totally kind of weirdly flat as just an expression of progressive politics. So that’s kind of a weird thing, right? In the context of rabbinical students, it may be a historically unusual position to make, but it also felt like weirdly lockstep with a platform of progressive politics.
So how much is this actually American Jews being counter-cultural to their Jewishness and how much of it is just essentially an embrace of a progressive ethos on the Jewish left?
Dov Waxman: That’s a good question, but a tricky one to answer. So I think certainly, it does reflect many of the positions on Israel and Palestine that have been now widely accepted on the left. But I think that there is an attempt now of young Jews in particular to create a real Jewish left, to try to meld these two things together. So on the one hand, it’s very much of the moment in so far as it’s, reflecting what are now the consensus positions on the left, not just with Israel-Palestine, but on many issues, whether it’s immigration, racial justice in the United States. So there is a border Jewish left emerging, but unlike in the past where these were Jews who were leftists or leftists who happened to be Jewish, I should say. Right? And so they express positions on the left, but not in any Jewish vernacular and didn’t try to present it as based upon, as grounded in Jewish texts. The shift today is an important attempt to both be simultaneously leftists and Jewish leftists and really to bring their Jewishness, Jewish values, Jewish identities, and rituals these left-wing positions.
So they’re not just leftists who happened to be Jews. That effort is not unprecedented, but I think, we haven’t seen really anything quite like that. This kind of much more confident, growing movement is particularly led by young people who are committed in both these worlds, committed to the world on the left and, and not just with regards to Israel/Palestine, but as a broader worldview. They are committed to their Jewishness and really trying to forge a symbiosis or a synthesis between these two worlds, which have grown increasingly apart over the last few decades in many ways.
When we look at this letter from the rabbinical students, one of the things going back to what’s distinctive about it is it comes in part of a much broader shift that’s taking place of this rise of a kind of Jewish left and challenging Jewish institutions, not just on Israel/Palestine, but on other issues and seeing Israel/Palestine as one part of a broader issue.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Yeah.
Dov Waxman: It’s not just doves criticizing American Jewish doves. There are American Jewish leftists criticizing Israeli policy, criticizing the American Jewish community for being in lockstep with those policies. But I think it is part of a broader ideological challenge that we’re seeing in American politics.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Right. I totally agree. I think you’re right to notice and to note the larger political shift in what this represents in terms of a Jewish left. I guess I’m a little bit more cynical than you because a real synthesis, a real hybriding of Jewish values, and the values of the left should create a lot more discomfort.
That’s the whole point of a hybrid, of a synthesis. But when actually on all of the issues themselves, they are basically just pulling off the pages of progressive talking points, then you’re not actually allowing the Jewish values to create any provocation. They just had the effect of kind of like pull quotes.
I’m going to take this pull quote because it mirrors this. And I sense that’s where the resistance from many of the teachers of these students came from. Wait a second. On a political level, you can take all of these positions about American aid, even the language of apartheid, which is used by some Israelis.
Right? Ehud Barak even said, “we’re headed towards apartheid.” You could use that language, but Ehud Barak and Israelis who live in Israel are really are anxious about their relatives under rocket attack. And the reason they don’t say it is because if you talk about empathy for Israeli civilians, you lose your standing with the left.
And that’s where it kind of loses its hybrid dimension of being Jewish values in relationship to progressive values.
Dov Waxman: Yeah, I think that’s a fair critique. I think, on the one hand, the tendency to kind of mine a tradition for how it can support your positions is not unique to those students. I think on all sides of this debate, there is a kind of fast and loose approach to using, to invoking Jewish values and concepts and historical episodes to support your points.
I think that’s true among Jews, as it’s true among Muslims as it’s true among Christians. That’s how people engage in many ways with these traditions is that they find in them what they want to find, essentially.
But I think you’re right, that it is, unfortunately, the case that in offering critiques of Israeli policy or of Israel as a state, they’re often not, couched in any kind of recognition or acknowledgment that Israelis are also suffering care. That you have to start out with a basic sense of compassion for both peoples who have been injured during this conflict and understand that when it comes to Jews in Israel, this is a deeply traumatized population as Jews themselves are, but particularly in Israel from what they live in.
So I think that unfortunately in public debate nowadays there is a tendency to not want to express even the slightest bit of recognition for the other side’s, conditions, or concerns. There’s this kind of standing with the victim and the identification that there’s only one side that’s a victim.
And that creates this kind of victimhood Olympics where different sides compete who can claim the mantle of victimhood. Whereas, there is no monopoly on victimhood. When it comes to discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the debate between right and left. Each side wants to monopolize the status of victimhood.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Right. And if you are yourself in a polarized political context, it serves your interest to treat the object of your politics as polarized as well. It makes things really easy, maps out your allies really easily, shows the stakes of the moral difference between those and you disagree with.
Let’s come back to race for a second because obviously, a lot of Americans are obsessed with race. They always have been for a long time. Certainly, the American public discourse has been transformed around race over the past two years. And it’s all over these criticisms that have emerged about Israel in the past year.
The racialization of the conflict, the portrayal. And the Talmudic term is a kal v’chomer. If I already care about race so much here and I’m committed to being on the side of racial justice, should I not also care about it there? And should I not care about it more?
Like it’s a Jewish state. Therefore, we should be on the side of justice. I guess there are two ways to think about what’s going on here. One, the critics will say you are mapping an American story onto Israel. It’s basically irrelevant and therefore all you’ve done basically is like you, as an American Jew, have decided that Israel is not actually about Israel as the Palestinians. It’s about you.
And on the other hand, you mentioned early on in your book, American Jews are participants in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And it’s not just by being outsiders. It’s because American Jews actually do have levers, through politics, through philanthropy, and otherwise.
So when you read this story of racialization, which is it? Is this an American Jewish projection of this story or is it almost like a necessary tool to be able to make change or do you think something else is going on here?
Dov Waxman: First, I would say that when it comes to engaging in foreign affairs wherever we are, it’s always a projection of our own domestic sensibilities and concerns. I don’t think this is true too only true for American Jews and their attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We look at other parts of the world or the communities that we’re not familiar with and the way in which we try to make sense of that is by projecting our own divisions, our own concerns onto that. So, I think that’s always the case. When it comes to Israel and the conflict, American Jews have always projected things onto Israel.
They’ve always engaged with a kind of metaphorical Israel and not the actual country and their engagement and their views toward Israel and about its conflict with the Palestinians have always been filtered through the kind of domestic context given the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice and concerns about systemic racism that’s now a lens through which some American Jews are looking at Israel. In the past, if you think after the 1970s, for example, it was in the wake of the Vietnam War, concerns about war and militarism, and pacifism. And so Israel was seen in that context or in a colonial or anti-colonial context.
I don’t think there’s anything novel in our tendency to project onto other countries onto other issues because that’s really psychologically how we reason. We reason by analogy that shortcuts thinking. We don’t really have the time or the inclination necessarily to really immerse ourselves in the specificities of any particular situation.
So we just come say, this is like that. And I know this. This must be similar to that. And this will inform what to think or feel about this other issue.
And I think it’s clear when it comes to Israel because we know the situation in Israel doesn’t quite look like that. But I’m sure there are other issues, other countries that I do that about and I’m not aware that it doesn’t actually mirror reality. But specifically, when it comes to the issue of applying the kind of racial lens, I do think that is a shift that’s taking place.
I think it’s partly been the result of a kind of campaign or activism by Palestinians in the United States, Palestinian Americans who over the last number of years established alliances with black Americans and tried to kind of forge this coalition. It’s happened on college campuses and it’s happened in municipal politics and local politics. Politically speaking, in trying to find the allies in the United States, it makes sense for them to obviously emphasize and try to establish these commonalities. So I think as a kind of activist strategy, it makes a lot of sense because you’re trying to find allies just as Jews have tried to do in years past as well.
Like Jews tried to kind of make connections between, “you’re seeking this and we’re seeking the same thing. You’re seeking independence. And so are we.” I think when it comes to Jews, American Jews, themselves doing this, then I think that on the one hand, yes, it’s easy to criticize because there are obvious differences.
And obviously, Ferguson and Gaza are not the same. We can always point out the differences, but I think that doesn’t really take seriously what the critique is. The critique isn’t simply saying that the racial divide in the United States is exactly the same as the Israeli-Palestinian divide, but rather in terms of how groups of people can be dehumanized. How domination and power can operate. How discourse can shape who is seen as a threat and who isn’t seen as a threat. How some lives can be cheaper than other lives. Those kinds of those kinds of similarities. Then talking about race, isn’t necessarily strictly to say, “you know, these Palestinians are black and Jews and Israeli Jews are white.”
No. But, how do systems of oppression operate? How do groups become stigmatized and seem threatening and therefore allowing that then, in turn, allows for a kind of security discourse toward them? I think it’s easy to dismiss and say, there are obviously differences. There are differences. But I also think it doesn’t really seriously engage with the underlying critique.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Yeah, it reminds me of one of my favorite Onion headlines, which is, “Professor sees Similarity Between Things, Other Things.” I think what you’re pushing towards – and I’ll internalize this and maybe translate for our audience – to the question of those who disagree with those comparisons.
How do you respond to them? There is something equally trivial. If you think that the comparisons are trivial, if you think the comparisons are wrong, there’s something equally trivial to saying, “they’re absurd and there’s nothing worth engaging in.” As opposed to acknowledging that, of course, people are going to use the prism of their own understanding to figure out what’s going on in another place.
And that requires a good amount of humility so you don’t wind up actually, ironically being a colonialist through your own frame of reference to something else. And on the other hand, it can’t be used as a kind of cheap hasbara tool to say, therefore, the conditions Palestinians are experiencing is totally fine.
The place where I think I have the most empathy for really vociferous critics of Israel is what emerges for me as the kind of sum total of this, of this really big trifecta resisting military aid, characterization of Israel as apartheid, the racialization of the conflict.
A lot of it adds up to me to a kind of helplessness. I have strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t think that the present status quo is sustainable. It’s not going to go away by itself. And I, as an American Jew far away feel I have no leverage and I have no levers. So what am I left to do either?
Protest really loud? Scream out loud, “this is not in my name! It doesn’t reflect my values.” Or maybe, get attracted to the one lever that currently exists in political behavior, which is, participating in a boycott movement that’s led by Palestinians. So it’s not that I don’t support those positions, but what I’m empathetic to is the helplessness.
I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that helplessness because it’s going to pertain to a huge amount of American Jews who will not sign up with BDS, but also feel a sense of, “how am I supposed to act on this? What am I supposed to do in the world?” And, I believe in a two-state solution, but I really wish I was able to do something to effectuate change for Israelis.
Dov Waxman: Yeah. I think you’re right. There is this sense of helplessness and a kind of despair. I think it’s been building really since the end of the Oslo peace process. Over the years as the prospects for peace dwindled, belief in a peace process as being able to achieve a reasonable and fair or stable solution to the conflict has gradually disappeared.
People, Jews in the United States, elsewhere, and in Israel itself are seeing this and experiencing this and reacting to it in different ways. I think on the one hand for some it’s leading to a kind of disengagement, “there’s nothing we can do. This is a hopeless situation. It’s too painful. It’s too depressing. Therefore I want to focus on other issues.”
And so I think we’re seeing Jewish Americans become increasingly active on other issues because Israel/Palestine feels so hopeless. So they’re focusing their energies elsewhere. But we’re also seeing it, though, on those who are still engaged in trying to look for some miraculous salvation to some deus ex machina that will change things. For some, it might be, the belief that enough international pressure on Israel through say BDS will miraculously change the situation. And I think in many ways support for the BDS movement is a bit like the miracle cure.
It’s not based upon very much on reason or logic in terms of how might this actually affect change, but some sort of wishful thinking basically. It’s like an article of faith that, “well, this is going to work despite all the evidence that suggests otherwise.” And for others, if they’re not willing to go as far as embracing BDS, now it’s becoming about, “well, if only we could get the United States government or to push Israel or if only we could get it to place restrictions on American military aid to Israel, that will make a difference.” And I think that grossly overstates the ability of the United States to influence the situation. So there is this frustration, there is this sense of not really being able to do anything. And I think what’s making it worse for many Jews. That this isn’t just a situation. This helplessness isn’t just about trying to ameliorate a situation, thousands of miles away. They’re worried about and upset about it because it’s affecting the lives of Israeli Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. I think for many, there’s a recognition that this is actually affecting American Jews themselves. This isn’t just a conflict over there that is only that, America participates in, but really it doesn’t affect their wellbeing and their interests. We’re seeing in many ways, there is a spillover of this.
It’s been clear in Europe for some time that it’s affected European Jews and their security and their safety. It’s happening in the United States as well. So that’s making the sense of impotence, despair, even worse because it was bad enough when it was Israelis and Palestinians who are bearing the consequences of the continuation of the conflict. Now American Jews and, in a much less serious way, of course – I mean, I’m not saying remotely the same scale. They are experiencing blowback from this conflict. They are experiencing a spillover and yet they’re helpless to do much about it. And I think that adds to this sense of anxiety that is really pervasive in the Jewish community.
Yehuda Kurtzer: You know, it makes me wonder, this is just a speculative thought, something about Zionism was about the secularization of the Jewish people’s understanding of itself and its capacity to change history and to transform history and to stop being kind of passive participants in our political realities.
And the miracle of Zionism is that it succeeds, right? It really does transform the Jewish condition politically. There’s something ironic about the anti-Zionist position, which is rooted in the self-confidence of Zionism. We ourselves are the ones that could actually fix this destiny. We could do it ourselves and it means that we’re going to take on these various political levers.
Jewish participation in BDS is in some ways, as a means of changing Israel is somewhat unthinkable, if it weren’t for Zionism.
Dov Waxman: I think it’s true. And I think, that was one of the great contributions of Zionism. It empowered Jews. It gave Jews a sense that it could be masters of their own fate and not at the mercy of others. It was that sense of empowerment that, I think strangely enough, in recent decades and beginning with shifts in Israel, Zionism has gone from a movement of Jewish empowerment, and a message of empowerment –
Jews can change their fates and be accepted into the world – to the opposite message and actually a sense of helplessness and futility that now Israel is the victim. Israel is the new Jew in the world that there would always be Antisemitism. It is a permanent feature of Jewish-Christian relations.
This is the conventional view. The mainstream view about Antisemitism is that it’s always there waiting to arrive. But that Israel’s existence has made no difference to that. That the world is always against Israel. That understanding of Zionism when we’ve heard it expressed, I think mostly repeatedly by former prime minister, Netanyahu, whose Zionism wasn’t about empowerment in many ways. It was actually a message of eternal victimhood.
Dov Waxman: I think that particularly young people were turned off by that just as it was young people who were gravitated towards Zionism. Because you are not looking for an ideology of despair. They want something that will give them a sense of being able to be active agents in the world and to change the world that they’re in.
And if the message is that you can’t do that, then I think that they’re going to turn off that ideology. And that’s the message that Zionism has become.
It’s typically expressed in many ways. It’s not this assertion of Jewish agency, but actually the opposite. I think that’s kind of a tragedy: exactly that impulse, that was so powerful in the rise of Zionism now actually declined from within Zionism itself.
The only Zionists today who really do express that are the Jewish settlers. They are those who do believe that they can change Israel’s fate and that ultimately these things will shift. But if you’re not in that movement and for many others who will count themselves as Zionists, there is a sense that Israel and Jews are at just the mercy of these wider forces.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Last question for you, Dov. Whenever you see this kind of growth and pronounced criticism of Israel in public, any shifting of the goalposts, right? As this becomes more intense and there’s going to be a response. There’s going to be backlash. They’re going to be consequences punitive and otherwise. I’m curious, just give us a couple of sentences, what you think those are going to be.
And if you could write the script, what do you think they should be.
Dov Waxman: So I think that the debate is shifting now to the question of Israel itself, as well as existence as a Jewish state, to the legitimacy of Zionism. And so the critique has now gone beyond the occupation and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank but to the very nature of Zionism. And therefore what the backlash is now trying to impose that as the red line. So it’s no longer, you’re going to be cast out if you support a two-state solution as was the case for decades ago. Now the red line is your, your view on Israel’s very legitimacy or the existence of Israel or political Zionism in Israel as a Jewish state.
That has become the new dividing line. That’s in part why we’re seeing this concerted effort to define anti-Zionism as Antisemitic. The more Zionism is being challenged outside the Jewish community, but also inside the Jewish community, the stronger is the desire to silence that challenge by defining it as Antisemitic. I think that’s very problematic for a whole host of reasons. We need to accept the fact that there was in decades past debate about Zionism within the Jewish community before Israel was established.
There were many non-Zionist institutions, including august ones like the AJC which was a non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist organization. I think the only way Jews in the United States and elsewhere can manage this debate is by returning to that tradition of ideological pluralism. And by not insisting that there must be support – well, I think support and concern and compassion for Jews in Israel is absolutely essential. And I think, if you aren’t willing to express that kind of ahavat yisrael – there should be Jewish solidarity.
Absolutely. But that shouldn’t necessarily have to mean particular positions on the nature of the Israeli state or on the future political disposition of Israel/Palestine. I think we have to accept that the ideological consensus around Zionism that emerged after the Holocaust, and that reached its apogee in the decade after 1967, that’s dissolving.
And trying to maintain it by punishing those who were dissenting from it is only going to drive those people out of the organized Jewish community and turn off many others.
So, in that respect, I think we have the cultural capital to have a kind of ideological and political pluralism because that’s been the norm in Jewish history. We just have to remember that is the norm. Not this very brief period where we all for a brief moment in time, largely seem to agree with one another.
Yehuda Kurtzer: Well, thanks all for listening to our show this week, and special thanks to my guest Professor Dov Waxman. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman edited by Joelle Fredman and Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show and 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 shalomhartman.org.
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