"He's lying! He's lying!" the man at the back of the hall shouted, in a tone as desperate as it was angry. "He hasn't read the Geneva Conventions. You haven't read them, so you don't know he's lying."
The primary object of his rage was me. The secondary object, it seemed, was his fellow congregants, who'd allowed me to lecture at his New York-area synagogue. I'd spoken about threats to Israel's democracy, including those posed by ongoing expansion of West Bank settlements. This was the first time, I'd been told, that the congregation had hosted a speaker on Israel from outside a spectrum running from right-wing to very right-wing. During the question-and-answer period, I was asked about my statement that the legal counsel of Israel's Foreign Ministry had warned before the first West Bank settlement was established that it would violate the agreement of the Fourth Geneva Convention. That's when the man in the back came unstuck. The congregation's rabbi, who was moderating the Q&A session with the trained calm of a psychologist running group therapy for fractured families, slipped to the back of the room and talked him down.
The incident stayed with me, demanding to be decoded. True, the particular synagogue was Orthodox, and more Orthodox Jews espouse hawkish views than do members of other Jewish denominations. But I've been lecturing around North America for three weeks, and the experience fit a pattern. I've been told repeatedly that it's a breakthrough for a congregation to invite someone with my views, which back home in Israel register as well within the political mainstream. On previous trips to America, I've faced similar outbursts in non-Orthodox synagogues and on college campuses.
High-pitched as Israeli political disputes are—and as eager as the Israeli parliamentary right is to restrict dissent, an Israeli dove visiting Jewish North America can still feel that he's stumbled into a constricted, out-of-joint alternate universe. The moderate Israeli left's argument that West Bank settlements undermine democracy and peace efforts is sometimes greeted in the U.S. as treasonous, sometimes as daringly unconventional. Ideas that have gone extinct in Israel still wander the American landscape, as if it were a Jurassic Park of the mind. What's going on?
Part of the answer is that Jewish politics reflect general American politics, where conservatives hurl forged-in-Fox, counterfactual cannonballs rather than discuss ideas. And the minority of American Jews who are devoted to the single issue of defending Israeli policy, and who can dominate discussion within the Jewish community, inhabit an echo chamber that may be even better sealed than the conservative separate universe in domestic politics. Golda Meir—remembered in Israel as the prime minister who failed to see signs of oncoming war in 1973—is still regarded as a hero in America. (Imagine visiting some distant "pro-American" island where people put up busts of James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover.)
Inside the echo chamber, advocacy groups provide "facts" on key issues. Press reports or historical accounts that tell a different story are seen not only as mistaken, but as deliberately false. So, for instance, the tiny minority of scholars of international law who defend the legality of Israeli settlements—especially Reagan Democrat Eugene Rostow—are endlessly quoted on advocacy websites. This half-explains the despairing anger of the man in the back of the room when I quoted a top Israeli official saying the opposite.
Of course, there are many American Jews whose liberal views on domestic issues are matched by their support of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Some feel constrained in speaking as clearly as they'd like about Israel for fear of being identified with another rigidly ideological contingent: Diaspora Palestinians with their own overdone nationalism, and a small coterie of Jews whose express their disappointment with Zionism through mirror-image anti-Zionism—as if denying Jewish rights to national self-determination were somehow more progressive than denying Palestinian rights. But realistic, moderate progressives always face the challenge of portraying a more complex reality than extremists recognize.
And a third factor—besides the echo-chamber effect and concern about extreme anti-Israel positions—is at work in the sudden hostility of some American Jews at criticism of Israel. It has to do with the place that Israel often fills in Jewish identity in America. An incident my son recounted after a visit to the United States as a teen alluded to the issue: He'd come to take part in an international interfaith camp, and one day the campers were brought to a nearby city to visit a church, synagogue, and mosque. At the synagogue, he was surprised to see an Israeli and an American flag in the sanctuary. He couldn't recall seeing an Israeli flag in an Israeli synagogue, and asked the executive director of the congregation why it was there. "The Holocaust is very present in our hearts," came the response.
At first glance, that's a non sequitur. Unpacked, the comment means that victimhood is part of the story that Jews tell about their past. In that story, a besieged, endangered Israel is the sequel to the Holocaust. Like most narratives, this one contains pieces of truth alongside distortions and anachronisms. The victimhood was very real. But for most Jews living today in America, the trauma is a taught memory, passed on by previous generations, out of sync with their current condition. And seeing Israel as the symbol of victimhood is discordant: Zionism was a rebellion against Jewish powerlessness, and present-day Israel testifies to the rebellion's success.
One of the first rules of conflict resolution, though, is that when you challenge a group's narrative, some members will take that as a denial of their identity. They'll get angry. They will repeat their story more loudly. They may accuse you of telling falsehoods.
This is not a reason for a journalist, historian or activist to silent. It does make sense of the fury with which people sometimes defend the old story. It explains why changing the story takes time. I needed to tell the facts as best I know them. I'm glad someone else was there to calm the guy at the back of the room.
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