American foreign policy American Jews Far left Israel Israel lobby Palestinians

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.

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