The Leftist Pathologies That Drive Criticism of Israel
In 2009, Jay Michaelson, writing at the Forward, penned a controversial piece entitled “How I’m Losing My Love For Israel” in which he noted that it was exhausting to defend Israel among his social circle. Whatever we might think of the validity of that reason, I remember appreciating Mr. Michaelson‘s honesty and self-awareness. Getting to root causes can be painful and even embarrassing, but it reflects intellectual honesty that’s often difficult to come by.
In the aftermath of the Israeli Left’s cataclysmic loss in last week’s Israeli parliamentary election, it seems a little more introspection and self-awareness would be useful – especially for our liberal co-religionists.
Following that tough political campaign, the Union for Reform Judaism expressed “concern” about some of the campaign tactics and positions taken – notably their “concern” about a “non-democratic future in which a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority” or “a non-Jewish future in which democracy is preserved, but, inevitably, the Jewish character of the state will disappear.”
The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly was harsher. They “condemned” the prime minister for his “statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel,” saying it was “unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
But it wasn’t just the religious movements. And, at least, the religious movements didn’t suggest that the US-Israel relationship be taken out back and shot.
Michael Cohen, writing in The Boston Globe, called the US-Israel relationship a “casualty” of Netanyahu‘s reelection and said that, since Netanyahu “shamelessly used racist and nationalist appeals to mobilize his right-wing base,” the US must now “reconsider its relationship with the Jewish state.”
Jonathan Chait, writing at New York Magazine, decried “Netanyahu‘s…racist pre-election rants against Arab voting…and, even more so, his categorical rejection of any two-state solution during his tenure. A fundamental alteration of the American alliance with Israel may be inevitable.” He then tweeted that Netanyahu was Israel‘s Arafat.
Fast forward to this week’s conference of the liberal group J-Street, which I attended and live-tweeted.
My experience at the conference was one of Jane Goodall-like fascination mixed with a disgust/sorrow cocktail. Watching thousands of Jews stand and applaud Saeb Erekat, listening to the derisive laughter as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s video message came on screen, and hearing condemnation after condemnation of Israel without so much as a mention of terrorism was as puzzling as it was upsetting.
Why do liberals – and, especially, liberal Jews – feel an apparently compulsive need to pile on Israel?
I have come to believe that a number of near-pathological responses are at work. Here they are in no particular order:
MASOCHISTIC OMNIPOTENCE SYNDROME
First is (rendered without commas to impart a breathless, haphazard quality) a belief that Westerners are essentially all-powerful if only we try hard enough but that we have failed to try hard enough because we are, at heart, Muslim-hating racists and therefore the entire situation is all our fault and we need to atone for being truly horrible people.
Professor Richard Landes of Boston University refers to this phenomenon as “Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome.” It’s not a new problem. In 1984, the late, great Jeane Kirkpatrick delivered her famous “Blame America First” speech in which she decried the leftist preoccupation with America’s alleged past sins. But, she said, “the American people know that it’s dangerous to blame ourselves for terrible problems we didn’t cause. They understand…the dangers of endless self-criticism and self-denigration.”
Do we? Many of the J Street attendees don’t seem to.
Another explanation, and an uncomfortable genesis of the first, is that people who feel this way are, in fact, anti-Muslim racists.
Those affected by Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome treat Arabs and Muslims as amoral beings by ignoring, excusing, or glossing over medieval barbarism and suicide terror or, at least, their cultural veneration as a deplorable but understandable act of a desperate, oppressed people; ignoring and insulting the memories of myriad desperate, oppressed peoples throughout human history – Jews included – who did not turn their societies into death-worshiping blood cults. The Palestinians – not individually, but as a society – have made a series of very bad choices. A right-thinking response by people who value enlightenment liberalism would be to hold them accountable. Unless, of course, one believes Palestinians to be morally stunted sub-humans who, poor dears, can’t help themselves. I don’t believe that. But some on the left, though possibly unaware of it, do.
At the conference, a panelist at a breakout session on Palestinian leadership said that if Americans had been subjected to a 48-year occupation, they wouldn’t be calling for international law. They would be reading the Second Amendment. Hundreds of attendees applauded. But would we strap explosives to our 16 year-old daughters? Would we dispatch developmentally disabled young adults to blow up grocery stores? Would we name streets and town squares after murderers of innocent civilians? Would we welcome as heroes people whose only accomplishment in life was bashing in a little girl’s skull? Would we beat a man to death with our hands and dance around with his blood, literally, on our hands? Would we hand out candy to celebrate that a baby got run over by a car?
J Street didn’t ask these questions because, of course, the answers are obvious and would make it impossible for them to believe what they believe. There is a problem in Palestinian society. It must be dealt with. And ignoring, excusing, or glossing over it is irredeemably racist.
A third alternative explanation for this compulsive need to excoriate the Jewish state – and, I believe, the most common – is that the accusers are desperate to believe that the Jewish people are in control of their own situation.
In 2010, Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote a book titled, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End. In light of the totally obvious fact that there was not a Palestinian leadership interested in or capable of making peace, let alone one capable of selling a deal to the Palestinian public, Gordis contended, Israelis had little choice but to prepare themselves for a foreseeable future at war.
For anyone who loves and cares about Israel, this is a terrible and heartbreaking thought. It is a foundational violation of Herzl’s vision of a Jewish people in its own land capable of defending itself and determining its own future if, as Gordis stated, there was no way to make peace and no moral way to win an outright military victory. Heartbreaking or not – violative of the Zionist dream or not – it is also probably true.
It is human nature to want to control the environment around us. Basic human needs such as food and shelter need to be in such supply as we feel secure about our ability to access them. The same is true of physical safety for ourselves and our families.
The reaction among some on the left of the Jewish community to events of the past few years that Israel needs to do more – always more – to bring about a peace that the other side has shown no willingness to sacrifice for or ability to enforce suggests a need for control over the solution to the conflict to be in the hands of Israelis. This need further suggests an understanding by those on the left that the Palestinians are neither interested in nor capable of founding their own state. As with the viewpoint directly preceding, this explanation treats the Palestinians as little more than objects.
There is also no shortage of the Western leftist phenomenon of encouraging “dialogue” for its own sake – no matter how naïve, frivolous, or dangerous the dialogue. In fact, every breakout session I attended at J Street had, at least, an aspect of this.
Much was made – including lots of derisive laughter and a religious study session – on the question of whether or not Benjamin Netanyahu had a right to refer to himself as either a representative of the Jewish people or as “speaking for Jews.” The study session was interesting and ably led. But, at no point did anyone ask if this intellectually stimulating conversation had any applicability in the real world. Netanyahu, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the room obviously didn’t like it, is the elected leader of the world’s only Jewish country. Doesn’t it pass the reasonability test that he might claim to be a representative of the Jewish people? If it had been Yitzhak Rabin z”l or Shimon Peres making such a claim, would there have been a text study on the subject at this conference?
A panel of three Arab experts – including the very interesting and erudite Khaled Elgindy of Brookings – spent 90 minutes discussing “what’s next for Palestinian leadership.” It was interesting but totally devoid of any mention of armed groups, terrorism, or violence within Palestinian society. Not even the violent mutual hatred of Fatah and Hamas. As Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t actually control anything outside of a five-block radius around his Ramallah compound, it seems strange to spend an entire conference discussing how Israel must negotiate with him while ignoring his powerlessness to implement a deal.
So what purpose do these dialogues serve? Certainly not to educate attendees. Nor to deepen love for Israel or the Jews who live there. Nor even to provide a nuanced picture of a complicated situation.
Finally, since the founding of Israel in 1948 for some and the miraculous victory of the Six Day War in 1967 for most others, there has existed in the American Jewish view an Israel as a kind of Jewish Disneyland. Everyone there is tough and tan and good-looking. It is a romantic place. Tel Aviv is a gleaming modern city set in a land of prophetic uprightness. Too many of our people still view Israel as a two-dimensional cartoon – for good or for ill.
There are, then, people who so desperately want Israel to be what they believe it should be – and who are so disappointed by reality – that they come to hate the very thing they claim to love. This is hardly new in human history. Martin Luther famously loved the Jews and believed they would convert in large numbers to his new form of Christianity. When things didn’t materialize as he had hoped, his love metastasized to hatred. J Street Jews aren’t there yet. But it’s not a big leap.
Here is the good news about J Street: It is a massively underfunded organization with tremendous disagreements between dueling points of view among its leadership and members. There is a market within the Jewish community for something like it, but it is a limited market and J Street, by too actively playing footsie with elements outside of the Jewish mainstream, has failed to corner it. Their members certainly care about Middle East policy, but the fact that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough started his remarks to the conference with five minutes on domestic policy (including a loud and extended ovation for Obamacare) indicates that everyone knows that attendees are liberal activists first and, only after, interested in Israel. Try that domestic policy riff at AIPAC. Even the liberals in the crowd will be annoyed.
They have to give away their conference for free to get people to come, and they still only get 3000 people. Having been in the plenary room, I’m not even sure I believe it was 3000 people. It looked about the size of AIPAC’s Detroit annual event. They have absolutely no pull on Capitol Hill. They have proven useful to the Obama Administration, but they merely ride the current of policy rather than influencing or directing it.
J Street as an organization is unlikely to survive. But the pathologies that drive its donors, members, and conference attendees will continue to grow among the American Jewish community. It is these pathologies – not the organization that embodies and exacerbates them – that require therapy.
Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained Reform rabbi, former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and a Senior Fellow at the Haym Salomon Center. This article was originally published by The Washington Times.