Sunday, June 19, 2011

Divide and Conquer

As I mentioned last time, my wife Jackie is currently in Israel leading a trip for Jewish twenty-somethings as part of the Taglit Birthright Israel program. So it was with some interest that I clicked over to a piece entitled Birthright’s True Aim, and Is Its Aim True? by Marc Tracy in the online journal Tablet.

Tracy briefly reviews a 4,000-word piece by Kiera Feldman entitled The Romance of Birthright Israel in the left-wing magazine, The Nation. Tracy correctly notes that “Birthright is a central aspect of Israeli-diaspora relations,” and that it therefore deserves close examination. He praises Feldman's essay in those places in which it “earnestly relays what Birthright is about, for its organizers as well as its participants.”

But Tracy also identifies some troubling aspects of Feldman's analysis. He notes that Feldman seems to have “cherrypicked her data and interviewees,” and identifies a past Birthright participant quoted in Feldman's piece who, as it turns out, had a running dispute with the Israeli government—a fact left undisclosed by Feldman.

So kudos to Marc Tracy for uncovering some of the less-than-savory techniques used by Feldman to tarnish the Birthright program. But he misses the big picture, which is not Feldman's overt attack on Birthright's agenda, but rather her covert rhetorical campaign against Israel itself: 

Israel is an “ethnocracy” built on the “forty-four-year illegal occupation of Palestinian lands”. The Green Line is an “internationally recognized border”. Seven hundred thousand Palestinians were “expelled” in 1948. These allegations require no support because, naturally, The Nation's readership already knows them to be true.
Birthright Israel indoctrinees, er, I mean, participants

I've used this forum in the past to make the liberal case for Zionism. Others, such as Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, have also done so, far more effectively than I ever could. This case needs to be made, in part, because there are those, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, who would claim the mantle of Zionism exclusively for the right. 

They are wrong to do so. As Harris and Hirsch so clearly explain, there is a compelling liberal interest in the Zionist cause. The right has its Zionist argument, and so does the left: all that remains are the anti-Zionists, who have sought to divide and conquer by clothing themselves in the rhetoric of the left, as Feldman has done, or in the politics of the right. This strategy has proven tragically effective: as Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the US, has stated, “Israel has become a partisan issue in the U.S., and this... is bad for us.”

If support for Israel does split along party lines in the years to come, it will not only be the fault of the Republican Jewish Coalition and its cynical campaign to make the GOP the home of pro-Israel American politics. No, it will also be the fault of writers like Ms. Feldman, whose casual and presumptive misrepresentations of history can be immediately transformed into fodder for the next RJC appeal.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Exceptionally Normal

Here in Southern California, we're fortunate enough to be able to watch Israel's IBA News on the local PBS affiliate, KCET. I've taken an even keener than usual interest in news from the region this week, as my gorgeous and very, very busy wife Jackie is in Israel leading a Taglit Birthright Israel trip.

As I was watching the other night, I was almost mechanically tweeting the various headlines.  Here are a few examples:
Unlike American “news” programs, the IBA (Israel Broadcast Authority) news usually spends several minutes covering one or more important topics in depth with a guest. In this instance, the interview focused on the cottage cheese boycott. Around the time the anchors turned their attention to sports and weather, it dawned on me: there had not been one single terrorism-related news item, and only brief coverage of the peace process, featuring yet another prattling EU technocrat.  

Reviewing my posts, it occurred to me what normal stories these were, the type that could easily have been featured on the local news anywhere in America. Don't get me wrong: rising food prices are a serious matter. Unfortunately, the Israeli economy is still in some ways a prisoner to its socialist past, and perhaps to an overheated rush to deregulation as well. But compared to bus bombings, missile attacks, and coerced cross-border rioters, well... all in all, I found it rather refreshing.

Israel, like any country—indeed, like any human enterprise—is imperfect. The government, the society, the leaders: they err, they are tempted into corruption, they lose their way, and we do the Zionist cause no favors by pretending otherwise. So the evening news will, no doubt, continue to be filled with stories of individuals and groups failing to live up to our millennia-old, hope-sustaining vision of Israel as a beacon to the other nations of the Earth.

So I make this offer to the universe: give me news of visiting musicians and student competitions—I'll gladly embrace them, even if they are mere sidebars to headlines filled with consumer revolt and labor unrest. Take away the terror, the baseless hatred, and the nuclear saber-rattling, and I'll accept the scandals, the crime, and the poverty as unavoidable subplots to the ongoing story of a normal country struggling to become exceptional.