This started long ago. In 1947, the British government withdrew from its commitment to the 1923 Mandate for Palestine – the Ottoman Empire was long gone, and now so were the Nazis, but now there was no way to arrive at a solution of who should run what, in that little corner of the world, that was acceptable to both Arabs and Jews, Jews who might finally have their homeland. The Brits threw up their hands and walked away. Their own country was in shambles after six years of war, even if they had won, and the days of the British Empire were long gone. They were in no position to make things orderly and proper in places far away. They needed to make things orderly and proper in their own green and pleasant land. Someone else would have to take care of the daily administration of political matters in Palestine. They were out of there.
All bets were off, so the newly created United Nations – created here in San Francisco and then headquartered in New York – approved the UN Partition Plan (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181) on November 29, 1947, to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Jerusalem was to be designated an international city administered by the UN, to avoid conflict over its status.
Cool. That should work, so on May 14, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate, the Jewish Agency proclaimed independence, naming the country Israel, and then we had a decision to make:
Margaret Truman said it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn’t he?
Presidential advisers and the government were split. Clark Clifford, Truman’s legal counsel, strongly favored recognition. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.
But the Department of State, including the highly respected Secretary of State, George Marshall, advised against it, as did much of his cabinet. Truman greatly admired Marshall and had said that “there wasn’t a decoration big enough” to honor Marshall’s leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then Marshall would vote against him in the coming election.
Truman made his own decision. Two days later, May 14, 1948, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation only 11 minutes later.
And no one has been happy since. One side got its own nation. The other side somehow didn’t. Israel fights daily for its very existence and the Palestinians want them gone. A smaller and smaller number on each side still think they can get along with the other side – just establish an actual Palestinian state with real borders and all that, and then work out the details of that original 1947 UN Partition Plan, a simple plan for something like coexistence. That plan called for an economic union between the two proposed states, and for the protection of religious and minority rights. How hard can that be? But the current Israeli government, building settlements in any disputed lands and saying, look, that’s Israel now, is not helping much. Angry factions of the Palestinians, lobbing rockets into Israel and occasionally blowing up a bus, don’t make things easier either. Sometimes it’s all-out war. The Israelis always win. The Palestinians seethe. Then it all begins again. For those of us born in 1947 – we’re old now – this has been going on for as long as we have lived.
We side with Israel in all this. Harry Truman sided with Clark Clifford, not George Marshall, and that eventually led to this:
Israel announced Wednesday it will refuse entry to United Nations human rights investigators who seek to probe potential war crimes committed in the latest 50-day military assault on Gaza.
The 47-member UN Human Rights Council in July approved the inquiry into “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Gaza Strip in the context of military operations conducted since mid-June,” focusing on the actions of Israel as well as Hamas. Twenty-nine nations voted in favor of the investigation, with the U.S. issuing the sole “no” vote.
That’s what we do:
Critics charge that the UN, in fact, does not go far enough, as U.S. veto power prevents the international community from acting on this and other inquiries, including the Goldstone Report, which reviewed a previous Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2009.
We’ve got their back, except nearly sixty Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, decided to boycott Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Netanyahu did come to Congress in defiance of the White House, to upbraid and shame our young and hopelessly naïve president – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, or at least prefer Israel’s prime minister to our president, or who just love Israel a whole lot. Obama was preparing to reach a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program. This man had to be stopped. The Republicans agreed. It was time to side with Israel against our president. It was the patriotic thing to do.
It was? That notion was a bit confusing, as was the fact that many of those who boycotted the Netanyahu speech were Jewish, cheered on by other American Jews. That led to an odd interview up in Elizabeth Warren’s state:
Republican Rep. Steve King suggested Friday that some American Jews feel like “Democrats first and Jewish second.”
“Here is what I don’t understand, I don’t understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first and Jewish second and support Israel along the line of just following their President,” King, a hardline conservative from Iowa, said Friday on Boston Herald Radio.
“It says this, they’re knee-jerk supporters of the President’s policy,” King said.
How can these Jews abandon Israel? This Goy is puzzled, and he’s an important Goy:
As a Republican from Iowa, King has met with virtually every Republican considering a 2016 presidential run, hosting the first cattle call of 2016 Republican hopefuls in Iowa in January.
Iowa is the first station of the cross in the primary process. Every Republican hopeful has to get though Iowa to move on. Each needs the blessing of Steve King. You don’t piss this guy off. Say the right thing about all those self-hating Jews out there.
He might be wrong:
Executive director of the American Jewish Committee, a leading global Jewish advocacy group, David Harris, was quick to condemn King’s comments, calling them “painfully wrongheaded and hurtful.”
“It’s a painfully wrongheaded understanding of American Jews and this kind of collective description should have no place in American political discourse,” Harris told CNN. “American Jews, like other faith and ethnic groups, are a very diverse community in their thinking, in their policies and in their voting behavior.”
Harris added it was wrong to equate criticism of Netanyahu as anti-Israel, pointing out that there’s no “single Jewish outlook or point of view.”
“I know lots of American Jews who support the President and many others who don’t support the President on Israel on Iran policy,” Harris added.
The Goy doesn’t care:
When asked if anti-Semitism was a factor – it’s not clear if the host was referring to Obama’s policies – King said yes, along with “plain liberalism.” King’s office did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
Well, a majority of American Jews support the Democratic Party – they always have – and there’s this:
Several Jewish groups also criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his repudiation last week of a Palestinian state in the lead-up to the elections. Netanyahu has since walked back those comments, insisting that he supports a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
A number of Jewish groups – both in the US and Israel – advocate for a two-state solution and some oppose Netanyahu’s position on the peace process.
Daniel Gordis says there’s a reason for that, and he opens with an anecdote:
There is a relatively new dimension to the ritual of taking off on an El Al flight: security, boarding, stowing bags, getting seated … and waiting. The wait is due to Haredi men, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who refuse to sit next to a woman during the flight. They demand to be reseated, not an easy task on a packed 747, all the more so because many passengers, outraged by what they perceive as medieval behavior, refuse to be complicit by moving. Because El Al security doesn’t allow the plane to leave with the bags of those who deplane, even throwing the Haredim off the flight wouldn’t save time. Finding their bags in the belly of the plane would take longer than the reseating.
Other Israelis increasingly resent this enormous bloc of black-clothed Jews who impose such trouble on them. They were delighted when the finance minister, Yair Lapid, led a campaign in the previous government to force Haredim to serve in the army and to curtail government subvention of Haredi schools. Now that the Haredim will once again be in the governing coalition and Lapid will not, the Haredim have already announced that they intend to undo any “damage” Lapid inflicted.
To many American Jews, this Haredi power, with its rejection of pluralism and blatant use of raw political force, is beyond distasteful. It reflects a dimension of Israeli society they cannot abide. Many of those same American Jews were distressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election announcement that he no longer supported the two-state solution, and mortified by his appeal to Jewish voters to rush to the polls because Arabs were voting in huge numbers (they weren’t, by the way). Those Americans will comfort themselves, albeit with sadness, that Israelis voted for security rather than a domestic agenda.
Gordis says that’s naïve, because something deeper is going on here:
It is not just security versus economy. Israeli society is increasingly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, European sensibilities versus Middle Eastern pugnaciousness, a tendency toward secularism versus a reverence for religion even among the nonobservant.
Although precise numbers are not out yet, it is clear that Isaac Herzog’s voters were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and European in origin. The Mizrachim, Israelis of Middle Eastern ethnicity who first swept the Likud and Menachem Begin into power in 1977, may surely have voted for Netanyahu because they trust him on Iran. But it’s more than that. The refined, Western, soft-spoken Herzog feels foreign to them; Netanyahu’s pugnaciousness seems better suited to this part of the world, where pride and bravado are valuable assets in conflict. Talk to the taxi drivers; these non-European Israelis are unabashed about saying that they do not want Protestant Caucasians in Washington telling them what to do.
Truman and Clifford and Marshall were Protestant Caucasians in Washington, but that was a long time ago:
Mizrachim now account for half of Israel’s population, and that percentage is slowly growing. Thus, values that are important to many American Jews – openness to non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism, giving women greater access to places of religious worship, softening Israel’s footprint in the West Bank – will matter much less to an increasing number of Israelis.
That is going to make Israel an ever more complex cause for many American Jews. To the extent that they identify with and support an Israel that seems like the U.S. except for its being Hebrew-speaking and falafel-eating, the Israel of yesteryear will have much more appeal than the Israel of tomorrow. As Israel becomes more Middle Eastern and less European, and especially as the Middle East becomes increasingly dangerous, Israelis’ instincts are likely to be very different from what many American Jews wish they would be.
That is a problem for American Jews, but Gordis says that may prove problematic for Israelis too:
Obama is clearly getting ready to put the squeeze on Israel. He snubbed the prime minister by not calling him to congratulate him on his victory, and the White House announced that it might consider a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, precisely what the Palestinians demand. Israelis who voted for a Netanyahu locked in mortal combat with the American president may well have assumed that they had that luxury because American Jews have their backs. What those Israelis might not fully appreciate, because they are much more at home in the rough and tumble Middle East than in the nuances of the West, is that the society they are now shaping will probably seem ever more foreign – and unappealing – to the very Jews whose support enables them to feel so secure.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees that too:
The Law of Return, enacted by David Ben-Gurion’s government in 1950, guarantees Israeli citizenship to all Jews who move to Israel. This was meant to guarantee that Israel would remain Jewish (Palestinians, controversially, are not granted this right) but it also meant that, after the Holocaust, and thousands of years of wandering, there was finally a place to which all Jews could go, and defend ourselves, if nowhere else was safe.
This is why Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions on the eve of this week’s Israeli elections were so monstrous. In a successful bid to take votes from far-right parties, the prime minister vowed that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he’s in charge. It was an unmasking of sorts, revealing what many suspected all along: He had no interest in a two-state solution.
Netanyahu backed off that position after the election, assuring American news outlets NBC, NPR and Fox on Thursday that he still backs a two-state solution, in theory. His backtracking seemed nominal and insincere, but even that gesture is reassuring, for abandoning the idea of a Palestinian state will destroy the Jewish state just as surely, if not as swiftly, as an Iranian nuclear bomb.
The problem is the notion of democracy:
Without a Palestinian state, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democracy but not both. If it annexes the Palestinian territories and remains democratic, it will be split roughly evenly between Jews and Arabs; if it annexes the territories and suppresses the rights of Arabs, it ceases to be democratic.
There are roughly 4.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and another 1.4 million living inside Israel. That puts them in rough parity with Jews, who number just over 6 million. Higher Palestinian population growth and fertility rates indicate that Jews will be a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in a few years.
Some right-wing outfits contest these numbers and try to make the dubious case that Israel can annex the Palestinian territories and still survive as a democratic Jewish state. Those were the type of voters Netanyahu was fishing for when he said before the election that he would not allow a Palestinian state – and when he warned on Election Day that “Arab voters are coming out in droves.” But in the end there can be no democratic Jewish state unless there is also a Palestinian state.
That’s kind of what United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 said back in 1947, but Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (that would be Reformed, not Haredi, of course) sees this:
I believe in Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. In fact, I wish all other nations in the region would follow Israel’s lead and also protect every citizen’s right to express him or herself freely and without fear at the ballot box. So it was with deep sadness and concern that on Election Day, I read this statement on the prime minister’s Facebook page: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.”
No public figure should lament his fellow citizens’ right to vote. Indeed, that right is fundamental to the health of any democracy, which Israel has been since its founding nearly 68 years ago. In Israel as in the United States, devotion to democratic values is meant to transcend politics and partisanship. I am not alone in that belief. Not only has the leadership of my own branch of Judaism roundly condemned the prime minister’s remarks, but we were joined by many others in the broader Jewish community.
The sad truth is that voting rights are not being celebrated or even protected as they must be – in Israel or in the United States. As troubling as the prime minister’s words were, they are reminiscent of the sentiments expressed in 2012 by then-Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan who lamented voter turnout “especially in urban areas.” And the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act that has for decades, and with bipartisan support, thwarted efforts to limit access to the polls, was similarly misguided.
Misguided, perhaps, but not unexpected. Netanyahu thinks like a Republican, or it’s the other way around, but this American Jew doesn’t think that way:
Two weeks ago, I stood with thousands of others in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights. I was there because I am deeply proud of the long history American Jews have fighting for voting rights, from the thousands of activists who marched alongside their African American sisters and brothers in the 1960s to those who helped draft the Voting Rights Act in the conference room of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center. Those rights must be defended in the U.S. as in Israel.
Each of us must reject initiatives that seek to constrict rights, instead of expand them. Rather than passively celebrating the democratic values that the United States and Israel share, we must hold both nations to a higher standard and demand an uncompromising commitment to ensuring and, indeed, encouraging, access to the polls for all citizens. We need a commitment from our leaders to advocate for the inalienable right to vote – even for their most strident critics.
All democracies are judged by how well they uphold the rights of their minority communities. It is incumbent upon each of us – as Jews who care about the health and future of the state of Israel, as descendants of ancestors who spent centuries dwelling in nations that did not allow them the right to vote, and as Americans who treasure the rights enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights including religious freedom and voting rights — to reach out across the divides of race, class and faith to build a more equal and more just future for all.
Would Steve King dismiss Rabbi Jonah Pesner as an anti-Semite? Perhaps he would. Steve King might say the same about George Marshall, but Slate’s William Saletan has had just about enough of this nonsense:
Netanyahu can no longer be dismissed as a rogue. He has proved that his people stand behind him. They have given him more seats in parliament than he had before and a more hawkish coalition of ruling parties. We don’t have a Netanyahu problem anymore. We have an Israel problem.
Israel and the United States have a long, deep friendship. It’s based on shared interests and values. But it’s no longer clear that the old interests and values are shared. The U.S. government believes that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, are entitled to a sovereign state. We believe it’s wrong to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to you. We believe that ethnic minorities are entitled to participate in the political process and that they shouldn’t be vilified to scare up votes. The events of the past week suggest that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t believe these things and that most of his people either agree with him or don’t care enough to vote the other way.
It’s true that Israelis have other concerns, such as the high cost of housing. But when you set aside an issue, such as the rights of Palestinians, you’re saying it isn’t important to you. It’s also true that it’s easy for Americans like me to talk about this without facing the threat of terrorism. But sometimes distance is helpful. A friend can help you see changes in yourself. The constant pressure of war, terrorism, and peril has hardened Israel’s heart.
Those of us who were born in 1947 remember an old advertising tagline – “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” This is not your father’s Israel either:
When you look for a pattern in Netanyahu’s behavior – the settlements, the ethnic demagoguery, the speech to Congress, the retraction of his commitment to an independent Palestine – no moral principle unites them. What unites them is audacity and calculation. Netanyahu does whatever he thinks he can get away with. That’s how he describes the thinking of his adversaries, because that’s how he thinks, too. If you listen to Israeli leaders who are trying to influence the behavior of their nation’s enemies, the word you’ll hear again and again is price.
That’s why Israel has descended to its current level of disregard for others. It hasn’t paid a price. Even in the face of Netanyahu’s unwelcome speech to Congress, the Obama administration sent officials to the AIPAC annual conference to pledge that the United States would stand by Israel no matter what. “We have Israel’s back, come hell or high water,” national security adviser Susan Rice assured the crowd. So Netanyahu delivered his speech, went home, and gave the United States, Europe, and the Palestinians more hell. And Israelis re-elected him.
We have enabled this behavior, and we must end it. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. We must clarify the price Israel will pay for continuing to flout international norms and commitments. The challenge is to find the right measure.
That is a problem, but in an interview with the Huffington Post, President Obama did say this:
Well, I had a chance to speak to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, congratulated his party on his victory. I did indicate to him that we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way for the long-term security of Israel, if it wants to stay both a Jewish state and democratic. And I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.
Juan Cole offers a simple translation:
For appearances sake I had to call that son of a bitch and pretend to congratulate him. But I let him know that his outrageous torpedoing of any Palestinian state has two consequences:
1. Israel isn’t a democracy any more – you don’t get to call yourself that if you plan to rule 4 million occupied people with martial law forever.
2. The Palestinians and the Americans are not falling ever again for this two-faced lying bastard’s charade of “peace talks” that actually just provide a fig leaf to massive and expanding Israeli theft of Palestinian land.
There you have it. After sixty-six years and ten months, Harry Truman’s decision doesn’t seem all that wise now – not that it was the wrong decision at the time – but times change. Nations change too. This is not your father’s Israel? No, it’s not. And the last Oldsmobile rolled off the production line on April 29, 2004, by the way. The brand no longer meant anything. It was just another dumb car – as dumb as all the others. There’s a lesson there.