With the announcement of new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, I’m bracing myself for the inevitable pro-Israel debate that is about to dominate my inbox, Twitter and Facebook.
One of the saddest things about being a Jew who lives outside of Israel is the ”pro-Israel” debate that seems to consume Diaspora communities. The reduction of the complex relationship that a Jew has with Israel has been morphed into placard politics that ignore everything but the politics of the day. The reductionist nature of this conversation, the tribalism that enables it to consume thousands of communal funds and hundreds of communal hours is ultimately self-destructive.
The Jewish peoples’ relationship with Israel has never been simple. Where Zionism fits into one’s Jewish identity is a complex philosophical and personal journey that often develops throughout one’s life. This, of course, does not preclude one from taking a political position, yet it is all too often the be-all and end-all of many Jews’ relationships to the state.
The self-destructive nature of this issue stems from the shallowness of political support. If the entirety of your relationship with Israel can fit on a placard, you are doing it wrong. This does not preclude one from becoming an anti-Zionist, a post-Zionist, an expansionist-Zionist or a liberal-Zionist. It does mean, however, that one’s journey through Zionism should not be based solely on a boo-hurrah news cycle.
The abandonment of Zionism as a topic within much of the mainstream discourse has seeded our intellectual challenge and heritage for others to define, use and abuse. To be a Jew was always something complex, the modern state of Israel enriches that complexity.
Due to the political nature of the Israel debate, many Jewish communities around the world have been instituting red lines that set the limits of communal discourse. Depending on what you put on your placard, you are either given or denied access to the table.
This approach compounds the issues I am describing rather then helps them. With the exception of inciting violence (which should be banned no matter where it comes from), the communal red lines should not be based on political positions, but on how they were arrived at.
If as a result of a deeply complex Jewish journey and self exploration one has arrived at a position some consider an anathema, they should be invited to discuss that position with those who have traveled the same road but reached a different conclusion. If, however, their position is based on letters to the editor that start with “As a Jew,” then their placard Zionism or anti-Zionism does not merit discussion.
Of course I realize that this test is almost impossible to judge. How do we discern between the genesis of a position being a place of deep thought or a reflex? Is it intellectually arrogant to deny a platform to those without well-thought out political positions?
I do believe this it necessary. The constant politicization of Jewish identity is leading many to ignore and abandon Judaism altogether. We desperately need to ground our conversations in an educational rather than political framework. This does not stop opportunities from being political calls to action, but does mean that groups that solicit Jews primarily as Jews on the basis of a political talking point around Israel need to examine the collateral damage they are doing in their wake.
The past few weeks have been a time of great transition for the Modern Orthodox world. In the United Kingdom, the retiring chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, published his goodbye message. In the United States, Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, stepped down after acknowledging his failure to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse against YU rabbis in the 1980s. He published his goodbye letter last week. In Israel, the national-religious community revived its fight to elect Israel’s next chief rabbis, with Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu apparently garnering the support of most Habayit Hayehudi Knesset members.
These three communities have so much in common that they are often mistaken as the same. If you were to draw a Venn diagram, the Modern Orthodox communities of the United Kingdom and United States, and the national-religious community in Israel would greatly overlap. The common thread that combines them, however, is at risk of snapping if Eliyahu is indeed elected to become Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi. His election, supported by the national-religious community, would demonstrate a fundamental rejection of both of the ideologies that the U.K. and U.S. Modern Orthodox communities hold dear. To understand how, we must look at what drives each of these communities.
Modern Orthodox mensches
Though a diverse crowd, if one had to find the defining concept at the heart of Anglo-Jewry’s Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) community, it would be “Derech eretz kadma la’Torah.” This was the lesson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the late 19th Century rabbi in Germany, and roughly translates to manners (or behaving well) proceeds the Torah. Being polite, or, using the Yiddish term, being a mensch, is a necessary prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. The literal translation of the term is “the ways of the land come before the Torah.” Understanding what it is to be an upstanding member of society comes part in parcel of being a G-d-fearing Jew.
This ideology can be seen in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ writings and particularly in his last publication, “A Judaism Engaged in the World.” Critiquing both assimilation and segregation of the ultra-Orthodox, Sacks makes a passionate case for an Orthodox community that can fulfill its mission as a light unto the nations.
Sanctify the secular
In the United States, the ideology behind Modern Orthodoxy is Torah Umaddah, Torah and secular knowledge. Embodied by Yeshiva University, its great figure was Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, commonly known as The Rav. The belief that one could enhance their understanding of the Torah through the study of secular knowledge alongside that of the Torah is at the heart of Yeshiva University and all of its rabbinical graduates.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, perhaps the leader of this ideology today, spoke about the need to sanctify the secular and understand the liminal space between the secular and the holy. Life is complex for Modern-Orthodox Jews, but worth living.
Serve G-d and the state
The national-religious community in Israel focuses on serving G-d and the state. When I was in Hesder Yeshiva in Israel, I was told that for Jews from abroad there was the Rav (Rabbi Solovetichik). In Israel there was the Rov (Rabbi Abraham Ha’Cohen Kook). Rav Kook’s ideology of the holiness of the land, the concept of redemption through the state, and G-d’s will happening through those who are not religious are some of the main concepts behind the national religious. The religious Zionism he championed can best be summed up in the B’nei Akiva slogan, “Torah Ve’avoda,” roughly translated as “Torah and work.” In the 1920’s this work was on kibbutzim, but today can be seen as contributing to the state.
The knitted kippa-wearing public of all three communities all share parts of each other’s foundations. At 18 years old, Modern Orthodox Jews from the United Kingdom and United States go to Israel for their gap years and often study in yeshiva or seminary. Religious olim bring to Israel the values and ideologies of their home communities. British rabbinical students attend Yeshiva University and the chief rabbi is a revered figure in the United States. The endorsed figures for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, however, could present significant challenges to the interconnections of these communities.
Rabbi David Stav shares many of the values and understandings as members of both the British and American Modern Orthodox communities. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, shares few – if any.
His legacy of racism and incitement to violence stands as an anathema to the values of what are the two sister communities in the Diaspora. If elected, he should not be welcomed nor hosted in any Modern Orthodox community abroad. It truly would be a stain on the values of the Modern Orthodox and the national religious for him to be selected.
The progressive streams of Judaism have made their voices heard when it has come to the Women of the Wall protests and successes. The ultra-Orthodox have marched in New York against reforming the Tal law. Now, Modern Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora need to make it clear that a racist chief rabbi of Israel will not be accepted or welcomed anywhere.
After John Kerry was appointed Secretary of State, he made the Middle East Peace Process his personal mission. Post the President’s visit, John Kerry has visited Israel and Palestine 5 times trying to get the parties back to the negotiating table. Below is a short review of what Kerry has achieved and where the sticking points have been in trying to get the negotiations back on track*.
It was clear from the start that Kerry wanted to use Jordan as an additional mediator in the eventual negotiations and use the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative as the regional support for the talks themselves. In this way he could avoid the mistakes of the 2000 Camp David accords. Starting off on his first trip he listened to the demands of each side and quickly got a ‘negotiation’ deposit from each. Israel would release the tax revenues to the PA and in return the PA would not go to the ICC or the UN. Abbas gave Kerry a three month guarantee on this (the time running out somewhere in mid-June.) In addition he negotiated with the Arab League to accept small border swaps to the API’s language.
Over the next few visits Kerry clarified the various demands of each party and split the negotiations into three tracks. The political he took full control over. Economically he has put together a $4 billion incentive package to help build Palestine through the private sector and has asked Tony Blair to lead. On the security track he has appointed General Allen to work with the Israelis on their concerns with the hope of answering many of them and, ultimately, taking them off the negotiation table.
So far the leaks seem to indicate that General Allen is getting a cold shoulder from the Israelis who are distrustful of international peace keeping forces. Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Jordan Kerry revealed that there was an economic track in place but has not revealed any additional information apart from the $4 billion price tag.
On the political track Netanyahu has maintained that he is willing to negotiate without any pre-conditions, though he has indicated that the conflict is around the Palestinians accepting Israel as a Jewish State. Abbas has laid out three conditions to rejoin the talks:
- A settlement freeze
- Release of the Pre-Oslo Prisoners (approx. 120)
- Netanyahu to accept that the 67 borders form the starting point for the discussion (or for Netanyahu to present a map)
On Kerry’s last visit to the region (end of June) he spent three days trying to hammer out a compromise position from each party on these issues in order to get the talks started in Amman. Abbas has agreed to hold off with international moves until September, but each party is keen to produce some progress by the start of Ramadan (July 8th) where a prisoner release would be significant.
Abbas was demanding that all 120 prisoners be released at the launch of the talks. In return he would accept a full settlement freeze outside the ‘blocs’ and a partial freeze inside the blocs and East Jerusalem. He would also accept John Kerry’s commitment to the ‘67 lines being the basis rather than Netanyahu making the commitment.
Netanyahu agreed to all of the above it seems except the number of prisoners to be released. He feared that if he were to release all 120 upfront there would be nothing to keep the Palestinians from abandoning the talks and going to the UN in September anyway. Over three days the number the US negotiators managed to get Netanyahu to was 60, of which 20 would be released at the start of the talks, the other forty during.
Abbas rejected this and said that if there were not 120 then he would need a full settlement freeze and Netanyahu to personally accept the ‘67 lines. He feared he would look weak and compromising with only a minibus of 20 prisoners to Hamas’s 1000 prisoners that were freed in exchange for Gilad Schalit. Netanyahu responded saying that if he was going to say ‘67 lines that Abbas would have to accept all of the Israeli security arrangements as is, including a long term military arrangement in the Jordan valley at the start of the process.
Kerry did not manage to break through this Gordian knot and has left two of his advisors in the region to see if they can fashion together a bridging proposal to get the talks started. In general it seems that the Palestinians are very clear with Kerry about pre-conditions and their final positions on all the key issues. Israel is focused on incentive packages to get the negotiations started and some vague language around the different issues. They are refusing to negotiate outside the negotiations themselves.
After all of his efforts remains totally unclear whether, even if the parties do agree to negotiations, a zone of possible agreement actually exists.
*This information is correct as of July 1st 2013 and is based off public forms of information.
Kerry announced that he had managed to get an agreement on the basis to have talks. Rather then having Bibi and Abbas speak to each other directly, Livni and Erekat will lead each team meeting in Washington DC this week with the hope of an announcement to follow.
Kerry has insisted on upmost secrecy in these talks so it is hard to work out what has been agreed and what has not. What we know so far is that Israel has agreed to release prisoners. The figure 350 is being pushed around and that all the pre Olso prisoners who are not Israeli Citizens will be released. Some of these prisoners will be released at the start of the talks and the rest in stages.
It is unclear if the Linvi Erekat talks are the talks themselves, or if they are talks to lead to more talks. Martin Indyk has been tapped to lead the talks as envoy for the US with both Abbas and Bibi agreeing.
On 67 lines and settlement freeze it seems that Kerry used the two letter system. To the Palestinians he wrote in his invite that the 67 lines would form the basis. To the Israelis he did not write that this would be a framework. To both parties he wrote a technical description of the talks. Within the technical description both parties promised to not make moves that would disrupt the talks (read settlements and international moves). They also agreed that only Kerry and a select few would be authorized to speak on the talks.
The secrecy seems necessary to get the parties on board, yet has led to much confusion on the ground on what has actually been agreed to, with the PLO saying that these are talks before the talks and that these have not been fully agreed to yet while the Israelis are reporting that these are the actual talks. While secrecy is important, the fear will be that rumors can fill the void that can damage the ability of the teams to negotiate. There is no good way to solve this issue.
The EU decree on settlements seems to have allowed Abbas to save face, create a stick for the Israelis and come at the right time to push the parties together. Whether the move was coordinated or a happy coincidence has not been resolved.
It seems that Abbas has staked his own reputation and that of the talks on prisoner releases hoping that getting something tangible will help bring public support for the talks. For Bibi it was the best of all bad options.
We wait to see when talks start in DC and if these will be able to make progress in order to have Bibi and Abbas in the same room. The timeframe people are looking at is between 6-9 months.
I will continue to update this post as things contiune.
The State department announced the preliminary talks to take place tonight between Livni, Molho (Bibi’s personal envoy) and Erekat and Shatyyeh. The hope is that by Tuesday there will be an announcement of the frames of the talks to last around 9 months.
The talks started after Bibi convinced his cabinet to release all of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners. In an unpopular move Bibi won the cabinet vote with the prisoners being released in 4 stages.Most controversial were the Arab citizens of Israel and the Jerusalem residents who were on the agreed list. Many balked at the PA dictating terms for Israel’s own citizens.
A comprise deal was put on the table where all the Arab Citizens of Israel and Jerusalem residents would be in the last round of releases. Bibi, Boogie, Livni, Piron and Aaronovitch make up a 5 member committee that will over see this process.
Bibi also fast tracked a referendum law that would mean that any peace deal would be subject to a popular vote.
In Ramallah there were small demonstrations against the return to negotiations.
Martin Indyk was named today as the special envoy for the talks.
The first joint press conference between Livni, Erekat and Kerry happened following a dinner, a meeting with Obama and Biden and some more talks.
Kerry announced that there will be a 9 month process where everything will be on the table – all final status issues and all core issues. The next round of talks will happen in two weeks in either Israel of the West Bank. In the coming days Israel will ease conditions in West Bank and Gaza. Kerry is the only person authorized to speak about the talks – he urged everyone not to believe any thing that he does not say – and he stressed he would be saying little.
He also mentioned that the Quartet econ track would continue alongside as would General Allen’s security track with the Israelis. He stressed the mutually beneficial things that can come from reasonable principled compromises.
He finished by saying that there is no alternative to 2 States and that time was running out to get there.
Erekat made a short statement thanking the US and stating that no one benefits more from a deal then Palestinians.
Livni made a slightly longer statement about the sacrifices Israel has made to get to this point and hopes to get to a historic breakthrough.
There is a tendency to think that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the Middle East Peace Process. A new secretary of state but the same old shuttle diplomacy with the stated goals of getting the parties back to the negotiating table. If this was a film, someone somewhere would be charged with copywrite theft.
The ‘Groundhogs’ day phenomenon, however, is mistaken. Though the political situation has remained stagnant, the attitude of the populations has developed over the past twenty years, as have the facts on the ground. Peacemakers are faced with two populations who still agree in principle on the final outcome but who are incredulous on the ability to get there in their lifetime.
The basis of this lack of belief is a legitimate lack of trust both on a people to people level in addition to their leadership. Though the Israelis might at times make the correct noises, the settlements continue to grow. Security cooperation with the Palestinians might be the best they have ever been; yet there has been no preparation of the population for the compromises that will be necessary for a peace deal.
In order to coax the parties back to the table John Kerry and his team have been experimenting with different options. The most reported ‘confidence building measure’ has been a pledge to support the Palestinian economy, continuing the Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian Prime Minster, paradigm of building Palestine despite the occupation.
Given that these measures have the ability to help the daily lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank, some observers have been surprised at the Palestinian pushback to these incentives.
The reason the Palestinians are not thrilled with a state building effort is due to the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s concept of economic peace. Never a fan of the peace process, Netanyahu has long been the champion of replacing political rights in the West Bank with economic incentives.
While economics are a necessary factor to create a sustainable two-state solution, they are not sufficient. Through Netanyahu’s support for economic measures but opposition to political rights, the economic state building efforts themselves have become unpatriotic within Palestine. As long as it is perceived that the economics come as a replacement, rather then a supplement, to resistance to the occupation – economic incentives will not help bridge the gap to get the parties back to the table.
I was happy therefore to hear John Kerry’s joint press conference with Netanyahu after his recent visit to the region. Kerry opened his remarks stating that he had discussed many different options with Netanyahu including some economic ones. Netanyahu followed stressing that there were some good economic projects that he could support to improve the lives of the Palestinians. Kerry then went off script, and protocol, to put in a final word where he stressed that economic moves are no replacement for the political process. It was a message that he stressed again in his final remarks before he left the region.
Kerry’s early highlighting of this understanding provides a solid grounding for him to mount his effort. With the resignation of Prime Minster Fayyad and the Israelis apparent rejection of the majority of his suggested bridging proposals, a solid footing is about the most he can hope for at this early stage.
The British House of Lords is anathema to many on this side of the Atlantic. Even with reforms, there are still members of the chamber who are there due to an accident of birth, and its members’ titles sound like a Shakespearean play. Yet despite the unelected, privileged and often detached nature of many of the peers, the House of Lords took time on Thursday to debate the role of civil society in building peace in Israel and Palestine.
The Lords and Baronesses of Great Britain decided to have an in-depth discussion around the civil society groups, so often overlooked and ignored by analysts and decision-makers, and elicit a government response. The members who participated range from the former chair of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel group, Lord Palmer, to Baroness Tonge, a passionate advocate for Palestine.
The groups mentioned included ACRI, OneVoice (full disclosure: I am a staff member), Hand in Hand, B’tselem, ALLMEP and others. The discussion ranged from funding levels to normalization, refugee rights and educational policies.
In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords exists to provide expertise on legislation, and a discussion that has a small check and balance on the House of Commons. Back here in the U.S. where I now reside, the Senate, where discussion is supposed to be king, is clearly failing with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The lack of intelligent public discussion on the challenges and opportunities in the conflict coming from members of Congress is frankly appalling. Though high profile confirmation hearings bring out the worst grandstanding from Senators, the repetitive nature of the inquisition of Senator Chuck Hagel demonstrated the poverty of the debate.
Compare the obsessive fixation on Israel in Senator Hagel’s confirmation with the softball questioning of Senator John Kerry in his confirmation for Secretary of State. One could argue it demonstrated a lack of real interest in what’s going on on the ground, in such an important area of U.S. foreign policy.
The power of the Senate to affect the conflict dwarfs that of the House of Lords by such a magnitude that it is hard to even hold them side-by-side. The more power the chamber has, the more it seems to have an inverse effect on the level of debate. The more power, the less informed televised debate happens, and all of us who care about the conflict suffer.
When was the last time anyone heard anything new or interesting about the conflict in a Senator’s remarks? If elected officials are going to fixate on Israel and Palestine, they should at least have something interesting to add to the discussion.
I love the power that the American political system embodies in Congress: Elected officials in the United States are far more than the lobby fodder of their British counterparts. With six-year terms, Senators have the time and power to truly make a difference. It would be nice if they actually did.
In the new, and may I say excellent, Netflix remake of the political thriller “House of Cards,” the main protagonist, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, seeks to knock out the president’s choice for secretary of state. With some in-depth research and some dirty tricks, he links the nominee to an obscure op-ed written 40 years ago that criticizes Israel. Underwood then gets the Anti-Defamation League to come out and call the nominee anti-Semitic, and in the ensuing media storm the nominee is withdrawn.
Chuck Hagel, on the other hand, survived the media firestorm amidaccusations of anti-Semitism to arrive at the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination as secretary of defense. But – in a life imitates art scenario – it wasn’t an easy ride.
While Hagel does have a record worth questioning – as would any other candidate for a high cabinet office, to ensure they are qualified for the post – his confirmation hearing made for uncomfortable viewing for anyone who really cares about Israel.
Israel was raised a stunning 178 times (according to the Lobe Log; Foreign Policy counted 166 mentions), with Senator Cruz (R-TX) even brining in an audio-visual display. The focus of the questioning was guided by the weeks of campaigning by groups such as Christians United for Israel and the Emergency Committee for Israel. Yet the uproar that these groups caused ahead of the hearing turned out to be that of a paper tiger; Not only did they have no material success, they ended up having the inverse impact on Israel’s image to that which they sought to achieve.
Stephen Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby” argues in his book that pro-Israel lobbies prevent Congress from holding open debate about U.S. policy toward Israel. He goes on to argue that this lack of genuine debate on Israel prevents a “generally positive impression of the Jewish State” to be shaped among politicians, and thus the American public. “Playing the anti-Semitism card stifles discussion even more and allows myths about Israel to survive unchallenged,” he writes in his book.
After the circus at Hagel’s confirmation hearing, Walt ironically thankedthe Emergency Committee for Israel, Jewish-American magnate Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for “providing such a compelling vindication” of his views.
The Punch and Judy Show that the Israel debate has become in Washington is incredibly damaging to those who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship. While in 2008 there was a danger of it becoming a partisan issue, the bi-partisan consensus has truly been shattered by the debate shifting from the reality of the situation to the ideology of the religious right. The mainstream support of Israel is being battered by a singular slavish view that is more in line with the evangelical Christian community then that of the U.S. Jewish community.
This episode should serve as another reminder to the U.S. Jewish community to the fact that they are not the only players in the Israel-lobbying sphere. The mainstream Jewish groups sat out of the Hagel fight, yet Israel remained the number one issue in the confirmation hearing. The obsessive questioning further disconnected intelligent voters and Israel as a bi-partisan cause. The issue was appropriated and abused by a small group of resourceful and passionate activists, and through their abuse Israel was damaged in the eyes of many.
Pro-Israel lobbies should be careful not to lose the American Jews who are conflicted between their own “hugging and wrestling” with Israel and the desire to keep a united public front to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. For if the pro-Israel standards that are expressed before the public continue to drift further and further to the political right, especially on prime-time television, Jews will find themselves attempting to identify with a consensus they no longer recognize.