26 March 2012

Pro-Israel = Pro-Democracy

When our synagogue recently hosted two State Department veterans, Elliot Abrams and Robert Malley, a few congregants and even a local merchant objected to our having invited Mr. Abrams, a known “war criminal.”  Similarly, when our synagogue hosted Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian academic, others claimed our pulpit now had “Jewish blood on its hands.”  Another congregant asked, “How can you invite Malley?  He and the President hate Jews.”

In all three cases, as reasonable people know, and as I calmly and dispassionately demonstrated, Mr. Abrams is not a war criminal; Dr. Khalidi has never killed anyone; and Mr. Malley spoke with candor about Israel’s vulnerability that convinced detractors of his objectivity.  Nevertheless, this set of reactions speaks to the treacherous and often enflamed environment of Israel programming in the public sphere (in a synagogue no less), where passions that justifiably run high but often miss the mark in their attempt to reach understanding and peace.

For the past several years, as America has wound down its military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; as Israel has continued to remain a nation at war with its Palestinian neighbors; and, the region surrounding Israel continues to represent a cold peace at best and with Iran, an existential, nuclear threat, our synagogue community has convened ongoing discussions with academics, journalists and activists across the spectrum in order to educate ourselves and the broader community about what may be done to bring peace to lands loved by hundreds of millions of people.

Before events featuring Malley and Abrams, Rashid Khalidi, Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Akiva Eldar, Gershom Gorenberg, Breaking the Silence, Jeremy Ben Ami, Anat Hoffman and countless others, I always say the same thing:

“God chose the Jewish people to share the message of Torah with the world--a Book that says it’s our sacred duty to work on behalf of justice and peace.  Let’s agree that in this day and age, with Israel at the center of so many people’s minds, God calls upon to demonstrate that with reasonableness and civility, we can be a light unto the nations for how we argue as well.”

Maimonides is particularly helpful as well.  He makes very clear in the Mishneh Torah that moderation of temperament is critical for living a moral life.  Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum regarding Israel, one is bound to hear things one doesn’t want to hear.  From Arutz Sheva, Settler media, I learn about outrageous statements from Palestinian leaders; from Ir Amim in East Jerusalem, I learn about unjust government support for Jews in Arab villages.  How will we know what to think if we don’t hear it all?  Surely Israel’s vibrant democracy can handle divergent expressions and opinions.

Here in the States we’re still too caught up in the pro-Israel / anti-Israel dichotomy.  Rather than rush to judgement, however, I think it’s best to listen to all sides as an expression of the Jewish people’s unique view that “each of us stood at Sinai.”  Each of us have a perspective on the truth that bears hearing.

The test is found in how we react.  Do we listen and argue back?  Or do we demonize and vilify?  Slander, tale-bearing, revenge, bearing grudges--all of these are considered by the Sages to be sinful behavior.  All are often quite present in public forums when Jews talk about Israel.  

That’s a shame.  

On a recent weeknight in Brooklyn, where I serve, we hosted a public forum called “Progressive Voices Against BDS” about the absurd and immoral proposal before the Park Slope Food Coop (where I and several synagogue members belong) to boycott products made in Israel.  The BDS movement’s real goal--the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state--has been convincingly demonstrated elsewhere in this publication.  

Being a somewhat “liberal” neighborhood, our community felt it was essential that our strong support for Israel (where I spend my summers and lead annual synagogue trips each year) be demonstrated by hosting three organizations that are working assiduously to strengthen Israeli democracy, even while criticizing government policy with regard to Settlements.  Our forum included leaders from the New Israel Fund, J-Street U, and Peace Now--three organizations that are often erroneously vilified for being “anti-Israel.”  

During our ninety minute program I heard no such thing except impassioned, loving, strongly argued “pro-Israel” statements coming from three organizations who fervently believe that the best hope for maintaining a “Jewish, democratic, secular state” necessitates the separation from most of the territories captured in 1967--a view articulated by Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, and Ariel Sharon.  Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state and we eagerly await his proposed borders as well.  

You don’t get more pro-Israel than that.

There is no doubt that Jewish politics has its own set of challenges.  After all, it took Moses more than forty years to get the Children of Israel from Egypt to Israel--a journey today that would take less than two weeks.

Israel’s Knesset is no less complex an endeavor.  And the American Jewish communal landscape should be proudly diverse as well.

This year, our synagogue, which celebrates its 150th year (at its founding in 1861, women couldn’t vote and Blacks were not free) will also celebrate Israel’s 64th founding for Yom Ha’atzmaut.  I plan to be present that day with sign that bears a simple message:

“Because I support Israel, I support AIPAC and Peace Now and J-Street and NIF.”  And when I get yelled at, I’ll smile; and quietly, calmly, argue back.


Josh Leifer said...


I have a hard time imagining Israel can ever be a Jewish and truly democratic state. By definition, a Jewish state is exclusionist, and implies a lack of recognition for its non-Jewish inhabitants.

But that isn't why I'm commenting here. I really think the Jewish community needs to be open to challenges by Jews of Zionism - liberal or Revisionist. A preference for a binational, secular state says nothing about the integrity of one's Jewish credentials. Such an idea shouldn't be stigmatized or excluded from the debates in the Jewish community.

Allison Benedikt said...


How can you write: "The test is found in how we react. Do we listen and argue back? Or do we demonize and vilify?" And then go on to call the Food Coop proposal "absurd and immoral"?

Andy Bachman said...

Allison. Thanks for writing. I can say that because I believe it and I'm not shouting it and attempting to delegitimize someone for saying it. Banning Peaceworks Tapenade *is* absurd in my eyes; not having the courage to simply call for the end of Israel *is* absurd. Saying nothing of daily massacres in Syria or as of the last few months, the Sudan, but singling out Israel's particular sins *is* immoral. I am certainly allowed to argue that--my point is to do so respectfully and with reason, not through demonization, as sadly often happens.

Allison Benedikt said...

Thanks for answering.

I'm not sure how I feel about BDS, but by your logic, boycotting South Africa was immoral because there was worse stuff going on elsewhere. What about the Birmingham bus boycott? What boycott movement could perfectly satisfy your parity requirement? (Not to mention that there are already sanctions against Syria, and what proof do you have that boycott supporters are somehow OK with Assad?) But my point wasn't to argue over the merits of the proposed boycott. It was to say that calling the movement immoral IS demonizing it.

Andy Bachman said...

No, I think it's more complicated than that, as I'm sure you know. For instance, South Africa as a nation WAS immoral. That's easy. And further, it's Apartheid system was immoral. But as an example of the Israel debate, Israel gets called Apartheid, even though it's a democracy (and to be clear, in the West Bank, which isn't Israel, there are "apartheid-like" qualities. But not in Israel!) Again, Birmingham Boycott was about the radical immorality of institutional, national racism. I would have supported that boycott. I could even see the merits of boycotting products made in the West Bank (though I am not particularly moved by the "effect") but the issue is that BDS is using boycott as a smokescreen to return to 1948 and all refugees which means the demographic end to Israel. That's why the boycott is "immoral" in my eyes because it seeks to end a nation that has as much a right to exist as any other legitimate nation. Hope that's more clear.

Andy Bachman said...

To your last point. Is calling something "immoral" really "demonizing?" Why? Endlessly vilifying, ostracizing, humiliating, castigating, exaggerating reactions--that's what I call "demonization." But to say something is immoral is just calling it immoral, which in my opinion, it is. Theft is generally immoral; so is murder and adultery. One has a right to name those as immoral actions but one is *not* granted the right to demonize someone for that. Religiously, heck, one is allowed to repent of one's ways! Demon, connotative of the "devil," has no use for me. But making moral and ethical arguments--that's more than half the fun of life.

Allison Benedikt said...

OK, I am running out the door to get my kids, so this is a very quick reply, which I can elaborate on later, or even over email, but: As a reader, your calling the BDS movement immoral is vilifying it, ostracizing it. I'm absolutely fine with you disagreeing with the movement—like I said, I'm not sure how I feel about it—but I am sure that many people who believe in the boycott believe they are making a political statement against something they feel is unjust in the world (and which is). (Also, to me, it's OK to, say, demonize murder!)

Andy Bachman said...

Okay. Put another way: I think not offering health-care to every American is immoral. I wouldn't vilify most Republicans for thinking that. Let's agree to disagree, if you're okay with that.