Friday, December 26, 2008

So, you think you love Israel? Open Letter to America at the Dawn of a New Administration

With a new administration promising change in Washington comes an opportunity for infusing American support for Israel with a dose of realism that has been lacking thus far.

Actions taken by Israel result in a dwindling number of options for its future.1 Arab countries and populations have responsibilities of their own for achieving a just peace and the world is quick to point those out. When it comes to Israel, however, ‘friends’ too often drift in an ocean of rosy rhetoric, uninformed and counterproductive. Too many groups are friends of Israel as a barman is friend with a compulsive drinker—enabling rather than supporting.

Plural constituencies cooperate and compete to determine Israel’s policies and actions. The outcome is a lopsided set of priorities, which only serve to defeat aspirations for peace. Israel’s friends would do well to understand this.
(1) Demography is the absolute top priority. To remain a Jewish state, Israel [feels it] must ensure that its Jewish citizens far outweigh the number of its Arab citizens (currently below 20%), regardless of final borders. This affects the treatment of Palestinian and Israeli Arab families; it encourages the ugly gerrymandering of East Jerusalem and will ultimately increase pressure for the “transfer” of Arab populations—a form of ethnic cleansing.
(2) The geographic imperative leads Israel to continue expanding its borders, one hilltop, one house and one neighborhood at a time. This is carried forward by the government and by aggressive settlers, backed by powerful constituents operating beyond the authority of the state. Departing Prime Minister Olmert admitted that the settlement infrastructure on Palestinian land makes peace unachievable. It is telling that he was unable to express this prior to resigning.
(3) Although security is a genuine concern, Israel’s expansion into Palestine disproves the claim that preventing existential threats is the first driver of its actions. Some of Israel's security policies are actually self-fulfilling prophecies. Long before the wall which imprisons Palestinians was built, presumably to contain terrorism, ethnic policies and conquest already contributed to the violent response of alienated Palestinian youths.
(4) Once the first three priorities are addressed, Israel also wishes to be a rule-of-law, liberal democracy. Israel would actually like to treat all its citizens with equity and something akin to “liberty and justice for all”—quite a challenge when certain religious and ethnic groups receive preferential treatment.
(5) Morality is in fact a heavy concern for Israel and for the Jewish world, given the roots of Jewish faith. But because this concern is too low on the list of priorities, only a façade of morality can be preserved. Maintaining that façade requires a strong justifying narrative, demanding always greater self-deception and propaganda. These include “having no partner for peace,” de-humanizing Palestinians, and promoting covert and overt forms of racism. Current policies could not be reconciled with Jewish values without these rationalizations.

Israel’s order of priorities is fundamentally anti-Jewish and represents an existential threat against the Jewish state that is more imminent than the eventuality of Iranian missiles. When we become prey to our fears and irrationality, it is invaluable to have honest friends who call us back to reason. The problem is that political and religious supporters of Israel alike have lost the capacity to be honest friends.

You love Israel? More power to you! Whether in a synagogue, a church, a political office or the State Department, you can start by understanding what guides Israel’s behavior, helping it face the truth and change its self-destructive course.

American religious groups should help a complex Israeli society express a truly Jewish identity inclusive of different races and religions, purge itself of racism and, in so doing, perhaps heal the traumas of the past. Becoming the victimizer is no cure for having been a victim. Faith groups should reach out to Palestinian and Israeli peace groups and move from cheerleading for the occupation to the tough job of reconciliation, repentance, justice and peacemaking.

Political groups should stop blindly condoning violence and occupation and oppose the use of US funds and arms against civilian populations. President Obama should take the political risk of a tough love approach to Middle Eastern affairs. Building peace with security will require better than yes-men and yes-women in constant praise of dysfunctional Israeli politics. (Imagine President Obama naming Jimmy Carter, rather than someone handpicked by AIPAC, as special envoy to the Middle East!)

There are hundreds of mustard seeds of peace activism on both the Palestinian and Jewish sides of the conflict. What is not clear yet is whether America will serve peace and become a true—that is, honest—friend of Israel. By moving from enabling to supporting, America could also gain the moral clout it lacks in promoting the birth of a modern, pluralistic Palestine.

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