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My speech on candor, Israel, and the rhetoric of the far left

By now, readers of this blog know that I was part of a panel discussion on “How To Talk Candidly About Israel” at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, June 21st, 2007. I was on a panel with Anne Roiphe and the Philip Weiss. The moderator was JJ Goldberg.

I have posted the written text of my remarks on the “Speeches” page, which is in the upper right hand corner of this page, next to “Comments.” Or go directly to: I could not deliver all of my remarks due to time constraints, so some of the important nuances and expanations were lost (they were important to me, at least).

This event, co-sponsored by Ameinu and Meretz USA, tried to do something that –to my knowledge– has never been done. We tried to have a candid, public conversation about the different obstacles to candid, public conversation about Israel, and did so from the perspective of American Jews who have criticized Israel but have very different views about the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Anne spoke about the constraints imposed by right wing American Jews on criticism of Israeli policies.

I spoke about what I believe to be a different set of constraints, which are imposed by some people on the far left. I discussed how their rhetoric against Israel and American Jews is sometimes so vitriolic that it is politically counterproductive. (Read the remarks for more)

Philip expressed his antipathy to Zionism and explained why he did not want to be forced to endorse Jewish nationalism.

There have been objections to the fact that all of the panelists were Jewish and claims that we were acting as if this were just a “Jewish” issue, rather than an American issue. But I believe the audience understood that the organizers were not trying to exclude anyone from a conversation about something that is obviously not just a Jewish issue, that they were trying to take a small, initial bite out of a very large apple by focusing mainly on the American Jewish community, and that they intended to do future events with a broader range of panelists.

Most of the audience was made up of Jews who are in the Zionist peace camp. At least one, Bill Pearlman, was a self-proclaimed “Likudnik.” Based on the lengthy Q&A that followed the presentation, it was clear that some audience members were not Jewish and some shared Philip’s antipathy to Zionism.

One of my purposes was to begin to explore whether it is possible for the pro-Israel peace camp and pragmatic people further to the left to find common cause and a common language. We did not get very far on that particular path but it remains one that is worth at least exploring. One reason we did not get very far, I guess, was that I was very harsh about one segment of the left, and regret that I didn’t speak more about the possibility of engaging another segment.

But I was pleased to get the following email from a lefty neighbor who attended, He sent this to a small group of fellow travellers who don’t normally have much to do with progressive Zionists:

Dan participated in an experimental program attempting to achieve communication among Jews from nationalist to anti-zionist. There was both passion and civility, and clearly participants heard one another. Seeds were planted and their growth is to be seen.

Perhaps we can plant seeds as well among peace-seeking arab, leftist, and zionist here in the United States. Political action for balance on the part of the US government and removal of the assumption that Jewish support follows only those in support of the Israeli right, these would be useful outcomes that I think we all seek.

He is trying to set up a small meeting. That is very gratifying. I bring that up because of its stark contrast with Phil Weiss’ dyspeptic version of what happened, which he posted on his blog..

There is little to be gained in pointing out all of the points upon which we disagree. But I do want to assert that his description of an event dominated by an air of “Jewish suffering” was not accurate. He focused on one comment I made, ineptly, when I was trying to present an approach to this topic, a way of speaking about it, that would not completely alienate American Jews who need to be mobilized. I said something to the effect that, when talking about this, people would accomplish more in the political realm if they acknowleged that the occupation has a negative impact on Israelis as well, that it coarsens and butalizes them. I was trying to say something that Ghandi and Martin Luther King have said in other circumstances. It seems fairly obvious to me and anyone else in their right mind that the occupation is not healthy for Israelis, either. And, in that sense, the soldier at a checkpoint is “victimized” by the situation.

But I did not imply or suggest that this meant the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint and the Palestinians waiting there were experiencing suffering that was in any way comparable. Of course they aren’t. Nor did I imply or suggest that the impact of the occupation on Israel and the Israelis was my primary concern. Phil has visited Israel and the territories once (last summer). I have been to both many times. I have seen the same appalling circumstances of Palestinians in the territories that he has seen, but unlike him, I have actually tried to do something to change those circumstances, something tangible.

But, in his recent post, Phil seized upon this one comment as proof that he should have nothing to do with “progressive Zionists,” because they wanted him to sympathize with that Israeli soldier and are much more concerned with the moral mortification of conscience-stricken Israelis than the real victims of the occupation, the Palestinians.

That pleased some of his fans, as I’m sure he knew it would. But all Phil did was create a straw man and then proceed to destroy it. The evening was not characterized by Zionists bemoaning the effect of The Situation on Israel. It came up only once in a comment about how to communicate in a politically savvy manner. The evening was devoted to figuring out how to change Israel, change American foreign policy and free Palestinians from their terrible circumstances.

26 thoughts on “My speech on candor, Israel, and the rhetoric of the far left

  1. Dan,
    A couple of decades ago I remember reading a column in an Israeli newspaper–it was probably Nahum Barnea’s column in Yediot–about how the Israeli left had said all of the trendy things on world affairs: they were against the Vietnam War, for Castro and Guevara, ignored China’s occupation of Tibet, etc. But this didn’t help them in the late 1960s when the left turned against Israel. The useful idiots of the Jewish hard left will continue to help the Arabs delegitimize Israel and then they will be discarded in turn. As a prominent Russian rabbi once said, “The Trotskies make the revolution, but the Bronsteins pay the price,” playing off of a prominent revolutionary’s real name and his nome de plume/guerre. I guess you know which category different individuals belong in.

  2. Tom,

    You’re right, but your analysis is incomplete. It’s a different situation, now, an unprecedented one. On a global scale, the “Jewish hard left” plays a relatively very small role in the anti-Israel parade.

    You have a tacet alliance between the hard left, the Liberty Lobbyists, that peculiar breed of white supremacist that believes in the ZOG, Islamic jihadists, Pat Buchanan acolytes, radical libertarians, complete lunatics and others who have nothing in common except for their obsession with The Jews. They speak the same language and perpetuate the same theories. I’m not saying anything that isn’t obvious but it must be said, ‘lest we forget.

  3. Regarding the plight of the Israeli soldier, Sam Bahour agrees with you when he writes: Every day of occupation, whether it witnesses us burying our young or not, eats away at each of us. Whether those checkpoint and prison soldiers want to admit or not, they too are being eaten from the inside. That quote was featured in this 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation flyer from The Electronic Intifada.

  4. I didn’t get the sense from reading Phil Weiss’s report that he was attacking you in the way that you seem to feel attacked. I think he was not trying to summarize the entire night’s proceedings, but was just highlighting a few aspects which caught his ear as potentially more revealing than the platitudes which normally fill evenings like this. I don’t know just how “turbulent” the atmosphere really was in there, but I hope you are over-reacting.

    You haven’t said anything about what you took out of the meeting. Surely if it is the case that, as Phil reported, both you and the other progressive speaker both said they could not deal with someone who does not prioritize Zionism over other considerations, and if you two are representative of the Jewish left, then I think that is an interesting and important finding. Certainly it’s one that the American public should be made aware of, since it means that most discussion of the Middle East is likely to remain highly constrained, so long as Jews continue to claim ownership of the subject.

  5. David ( a typically Jewish name by the way ) your a very strange guy. You want ownership of what exactly. And when you own “it” whatever that is, will you be happy. How much time a day do you spend contemplating the Jewish conspiracy

  6. I agree that the vitriol gets to a point that it’s no longer constructive. Here’s what I felt about the event, which you can also read on Philip Weiss’s blog:

    I attended “How to Talk Candidly about Israel” on Thursday and thought it was a pretty terrific event. Years of education, experience, deconstruction, activism, and mindfulness were embodied on that stage in the Stephen Wise Auditorium. But I felt Philip’s account of the evening was very “Philip” – it’s focused on the most personal aspects of what happened to him that night – I get it, it’s his blog – but this retelling missed what I thought was the most powerful part of the event – the attempt to actually change the conversation about Israel. I thought you were up there trying to change the conversation about Israel. It was pretty damn impressive. Philip can argue that he was trying to do the same thing. But I’d disagree with him, because he kept himself at arm’s length from the actual intent of the evening – and his blog continues to keep him at arm’s length from the actual intent of the evening, contrary to this blog, which takes the analysis further and then some, with the inclusion of your full remarks.

    Your position on nationalism was clear and had the room to contain some Philip and some Anne – when I asked you and the other panelists about compromise, I was grateful that you answered it – you basically said, acknowledge the state of Israel, and everything else is up for debate. That was a real moment of power-sharing. I wish the other panelists had thrown their chips in.

    An attempt to actually change a conversation breaks new political ground – if a commitment had then been formed to move forward on a mutually acceptable message – that would have been interesting. Maybe I’m dissing Philip’s blog because J.J. Goldberg has no blog, in which I could post my disappointment in his moderating skills (post-halftime: his opening remarks blew me away). The supremely articulate and wise Goldberg failed to focus all three panelists into a conclusion / bring the arc of the dialogue to a (temporary) close. I wish he had made the three of you actually come to an understanding on what I believed to be the original intent of the event: forging common language.

  7. I wasn’t there. But how can we expect a “common language” with people who are obsessed with showing why Israel and their American Jewish supporters are worse than anything else on earth?

    By “we,” I guess I mean people who either accept or endorse the fact that Israel ain’t goin’ nowhere. It’s here to stay. I don’t care if people endorse it as long as they accept its reality. And if they do, then let’s try to figure out how to share the land with another state. If that’s what Dan meant by “acknowledge the state of Israel,” then I’m with him.

  8. “written text of my remarks” – looks like a link but does not work like a link in my case.

    And what please is the “Speeches” page?

  9. LeaNder:

    Woops. Sorry. I’m running out the door and will fix that later. In the meantime, the link to “Speeches” is on the top of the page, next to ‘Contact,” “Publications,” etc.

  10. FurGaia,

    If there are two states, living side by side, with internationally recognized boundaries,I assume you would not claim that Palestinian citizens of a Palestinian state would be experiencing apartheid. If so, the only potential victims you could be referring to would be Israel’s Arab citizens. Their problems won’t be solved just because a Palestinian homeland emerges. But the situation within Israel proper could not conceivably be compared to “apartheid” now and certainly would not be comparable if there are two states.

    Arab citizens vote and serve in the Knesset. There are lots of efforts now to deal with the inequities that exist within Israel proper and they need to continue, with affirmative action programs and other steps that are taken by other countries that need to promote equal rights and equal access for minorities.

    I think Dan has stated that as far as he is concerned, Israel should call itself “A state for all its citizens.” Makes sense to me, although that is admittedly a controversial proposal in Israel. There is also a lot of thinking going on by both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews about how to amend the “Law of Return,” I’ve been told, although I don’t know much about it.

    But the main thing is to find a way to have two states for two peoples. You will not help to create two states for two peoples unless you acknowledge that one state is here to stay and it is a fantasy to somehow uproot it completely, or transform it completely. I would argue that it is also wrong to do that, but I assume you would disagree so let’s deal with practical realities.

  11. If there are two states, living side by side, with internationally recognized boundaries,I assume you would not claim that Palestinian citizens of a Palestinian state would be experiencing apartheid.

    No, I would not make such a claim.

  12. Dan,

    I think you did a great job of clarifying what you meant to say the other night but I also think you undermined your point by the way you attacked Phil, accusing him of playing to his audience. (“That pleased some of his fans, as I’m sure he knew it would.”) You are implying that Phil is insincere and merely striking a pose. It is a cheap shot and false to boot. It’s also not the way I believe we should talk candidly about the Middle East with those with whom we disagree. I think Phil is entirely sincere. In fact, I think that Phil is simply thinking out loud on his blog. He is not thinking about the way his comments might affect American Jewry as a whole, the way I have a feeling you think he should, and the way you seem to think about your own comments. He is one person giving his thoughts in a free country. I got the sense from your comments at Stephen Wise that you believe that can be dangerous. (I am referring to your references to the “virus” of anti-Semitism.) I disagree and I think you owe Phil an apology for impugning his integrity.

  13. Larry,

    I do apologize if I gave the impression that I was impugning Phil’s integrity. He is, indeed, an “entirely sincere” and compassionate person, and I know this based on our (admittedly odd) friendship. But when you say he is “thinking out loud” on his blog, that is precisely the problem. Of course it’s a free country. But we have a responsibility to think CAREFULLY about what we say and how we are going to say it before we say it, especially when we are talking about hot-button issues like the role of American Jews in foreign policy. I don’t think Phil is careful enough about the manner in which he expresses a variety of theories. Look at my remarks on the “Speeches” page at the top of this page, when I discuss the need for critics of Israel and Israel’s lobbyists to be aware of the historical forces they are playing with. No political topic should be off-limits. The difficult question is, how can we scrutinize the role of American Jews in Middle East policy without playing into the hands of the truly dangerous, loopy characters who have been around for thousands of years, ready to blame THE JEWS for all their problems? I admit I don’t know the answer to that question. But Phil has not come up with it, to say the least. We have to start by acknowledging the problem. I don’t think he or his regular commentators seem willing to acknowledge it. Instead, they are hostile to anyone who brings it up.

  14. Dan,

    I believe free speech means just that. If you are going to have it, you have to allow for bozos who may not be thinking “carefully.” [Not that I am calling Phil Weiss a bozo.]

    I actually believe that your prudence, while admirable and understandable, actually hurts your cause because it perpetuates the idea that Jews have a hidden agenda. This is the heart of Phil’s accusation against the Neocons: that they are not being straightforward in saying that what they really care about is Israel above all else. I think he is wrong about that but it needs to be aired because a lot of people do believe it.

    As I tried to say the other night, I don’t deny the existence of anti-Semitism or the fact that there are people bent on destroying Israel. But I do think that most American Jews are far too fearful. The fact that our enemies see us as all-powerful and we see ourselves as besieged is a recipe for disaster.

    Some African-Americans may believe that America today is just as racist as it was in the 1950s but I think most of us recognize that progress has been made while we don’t argue that racism is completely behind us. Some gay friends see homophobia everywhere but America is much more gay friendly today than it was in 1970. And homophobia remains a problem.

    We American Jews as a community need to recognize the progress that has been made in the fight against anti-Semitism. We are not poised on the edge of another Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust is more recognized and honored by more people around the world than ever. It’s 2007, not 1938. We can talk about our relationship to Israel in all its messy incarnations.

    Finally, I find it somewhat sad to be championing free speech the day after the Supremes hacked away at the First Amendment.

  15. Larry, what about my premise that this kind of rhetoric is politically counter-productive and doesn’t help the Palestinians?

  16. Tom,

    “The useful idiots of the Jewish hard left will continue to help the Arabs delegitimize Israel and then they will be discarded in turn”

    Aren’t you the one who said he considers Israel to be a colonial-settler state? Or are you just quoting Nahum Barnea?

  17. Dan,

    I re-read your speech. I don’t count Phil as one of those who are saying that Israelis are Nazis. I don’t pay much attention to the hard campus left on Israel.(Or anything else for that matter.) Too marginal. There is not too much danger of a majority of the American mainstream coming round to the idea that Israel is entirely to blame and the Palestinians are helpless victims. When I was in college I was an apologist for the Soviet Union briefly. Thank heavens nobody paid attention.

    The true danger is the fact that the conflict is not being resolved when we all know what the endgame looks like: two states. Is Israel going to get less in that final deal because some of the campus left hates it? I don’t think so.

    When it comes down to it, you and Phil are not very far apart. Phil would probably be very happy with an Israel that made a fair peace with the Palestinians and made efforts to treat its Arab citizens more equally. He doesn’t want to see Israel’s Jews driven into the sea. Even if he advocates a binational state, it is one in which Jews have a right live freely as Jews. Most American Jews see that as a recipe for the end of Jewish life in Israel but why does it have to be so? It’s so unlikely an outcome anyway why shouldn’t we imagine a binational state as one in which Palestinians and Jews live in harmony?

    Dan, you have a great vision for the future of Israel. You should be focusing on getting that message out to the broader American Jewish community and not worry so much about the marginal left. You only have so much time and energy, right? I could sit and argue with the LaRouche guy on my corner every day, or I could try to actually nudge the political process in a positive direction.

  18. Thanks, Larry.

    I don’t expect to convince anyone on the marginal left of anything. I am mostly interested in more reasonable people who are tempted to use the rhetoric of the marginal left, and in all the eavesdroppers out there who have not made up their minds about anything but could be influenced by the marginal left (and their allies, on this issue, on the marginal right). Most importantly, as I’ve been trying to say in many different ways, the American Jewish community will be less receptive to my message because of the rhetoric I’ve been complaining about.

    But thanks for your thoughtful and generous comment.

  19. Thanks Dan, for the help to find your written remarks. It seems it would have helped, had I simply opened my eyes. And now I message up your much better earlier design with my blindness it seems.

    But concerning the eavesdroppers, that is people like me, I find the Jenny’s – or attack poodles – much more frightening. Brilliant how you dealt with it.

    I am not so sure about the dichotomous handling of the groups on the American Jewish left. But I guess I have to find out more about the parties you discuss. And reread your statements.

    What I do not like either is the monolithic mirror image of antisemitism that somehow hovers over these lines:

    “The useful idiots of the Jewish hard left will continue to help the Arabs delegitimize Israel and then they will be discarded in turn. As a prominent Russian rabbi once said”

  20. Peter H.,
    I’ve never said that Israel is not a legitimate state. I don’t consider settler or post-settler states to necessarily be illegitimate. If that were the case Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States would all be illegitimate.

    I just don’t believe in denying history or reality: Israel was settled during the British mandate–which was presided over by the British colonial ministry–under British military protection. There is a conflict between an immigrant population, including hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, and an already existing native population. But it is also denial to ignore that the Israelis are also returning natives and that they returned with the approval of the international community.

  21. Larry – I think you are being a little too generous with Phil Weiss. If anyone should be open to criticism it should be Phil Weiss. Phil is very willing to ascribe all sorts of nefarious and ulterior motives to others, and engages in and promotes conspiracy theories that have real life and death consequences. He does this a self-centeredness that has come to define his (and your) generation. If Phil wants to fight the good fight for a 2-state solution and an end to the occupation, he is more than welcome. The more the better. But Phil is after different game. He is looking to become the Walid Shoebat/Benjamin Freedman of the Jewish Left. He wants to position himself as the superior human who sells out his narrow minded tribalist cousins. My personal take is the guy, like many writers, gets hooked on an idea, starts to imagine the rewards he expects to receive for the book he will write on it, and in the process of working through the issues gets stuck and lost in certain places. That’s all well and good, but when he does his thinking out loud, is taken seriously by others, and makes accusations that can never be proven or disproven, but fit in perfectly with genuine article anti-semitic progams, than it does open him up to serious critcism.

    Larry, perhaps you would feel differently about all this if Phil was obsessed with Larry Silverstein and impugning your character on his blog while thinking out loud instead of American Jewry. Phil might question whether Larry Silverstein had ever really abandoned his Soviet communist leanings that he so energetically advocated for as a young man. He might also question whether Larry Silverstein ever contemplated sexually violating a women against her will. He would not be claiming that you did of course, but he would be just raising the issue since you’re a man and many men fantasize about this and he has no proof that you haven’t ever considered it, and you may have even unconsciouslly been considering it and you don’t even know it. While it is true that many men don’t fantasize about raping women, many do, and you’re a man, so it’s not crazy to imagine that you have at some point fantasized about commiting a felony of this sort. Turning your fantasies into reality is a different story, but it’s fair game for Phil to consider out loud. And if scores of man-hating feminists were to pick up on Phil’s lead and post commentary on the oppression of women in today’s society and Larry Silverstein’s complicity in this and his supposed, or potential, fantasies about sexually violating women, well that may mean that there is something to this argument. And if you were to post arguments in your defense, well that may mean that either you are unaware of your own impulses to violate others or you are a liar. Now, Phil would question and predict that you are likely to want to deny any of these accusations since the consequences for these becoming public are not good for Larry Silverstein. Your friends who comment on your behalf on his blog will be written off as useful Larry Silverstein idiots or co-conspirators simply in on the oppression of women and therefore not to be trusted. Even those of your friends who agree that women have been historically oppressed and that many men in fact due engage in such sexua fantasizing will be written off. In fact, they are the worst – effeminate little men who try to suck up to women and acknowledge female oppression while at the same time furthering it. They deserve a fate worse than the male pigs that at least are up front about their desire to physically, sexually, and politically oppress women. Indeed, these ERA supporting male feminist friends of yours are part of the problem, not the solution, and they are the reason that none of us have realized these awful things about you. Larry – the jig is up and Phill Weiss is on to you. You’ll have to stay tuned for the book for the full story, but in the meantime, should your entire life come apart as a resul of this thought exercise by Phil Weiss, well don’t you agree that this is a small price to pay for free speech?

    Apologies for the crudeness of the example – I use it because it it the last thing I imagine you to be – but you get the point. Everyone is for free speech until the speech starts to libel you.

  22. Larry – Let me clear up some confusion. I accidentally mixed who you are up with Richard Silverstein and created “Larry Silverstein”. My point regarding is Phil remains the same, but I apologize for any confusion my error may have caused. All you left wing Jews look a like and sound a like you know.

    I’d also like to again stress that my comments were not intended to besmirch your good name (which I apparently don’t even know), but make a strong point about Phil’s approach to his blog.

  23. Plant seeds in peace-minded Arabs? Why? Do they not already have plants growing?

    Seeds must be planted in war-minded Arabs and other Islamics. Based on the headlines, Arab newspapers, Mosque sermons and the like. peace minded arabs are few, far between, and powerless.

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