Why Are They So Angry?

"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.

Comments

It's easier to take a rigidly ideological position about a faraway, mythical place than about the place where you live, work, and raise your children. Similarly with casting Golda Meir as a feminist heroine (Americans) rather than as the worst prime minister in Israel's history (Israelis).

One disagreement, though. I don't think it's fair to label Jewish anti-Zionism as rigidly ideological (I guess "overdone" Palestinian nationalism is rigidly ideological by definition). There are rigid ideologues in the anti-Zionist camp, Jewish and otherwise, but that doesn't make it a rigidly ideological position.

Having become a Zionist, a quite active one I would suggest, in 1962 in New York, and living there until 1970 and being very involved, can I say that Gershom congratulates himself too much, I fear. He has trea no new path. Robust debates with opponents have always taken place even in strongly supportive congregations and organizations of the right of Jews to reside in Judea and Samaria, something they did - which usually is ignored - throughout recorded history except for the brief 19 year period of Jordanian illegal occupation between 1948-1967. Somehow, persons like Gershom rarely dissect the history as regards "rights", "legality", etc. when it comes to the reality of that period and that immediately prior, seeking to distract attention from the behavior of the local Arab nationalist movement in Mandated Palestine which engaged for 30 years in a prolonged campaign of ethnic cleansing of Jews from Hebron, Shchem/Nablus, Gaza, Jenin and Jerusalem's Old City in addition to the newer locations such as the 4 kibbutzim in Gush Etzion, at Bet HaAravah, the moshavim of Atarot and Neveh Yakov accompanied by terror, gto be continued througout the 1948-1967 period first by fedyeen and then by Fatah/PLO. Gershom & Co. always start from June 10, 1967 and a supposed "illegal occupation".

Of course, his back row intelocuter has a point. Besides that opinion, of someone who subsequently left Israel and ran away to more progressive quarters, Israel's legal minds and its Supreme Court, have awarded legal approbation to almost all of the construction of Jewish homes, factories, farms and schools in Judea and Samaria, distinguishing between that issue and that of eventual political sovereignty. In assisting the view that Jews should be banned from Judea & Samaria, prohibited from living there, Gorenberg actually serves the darkest forces of illegality, apartheid and violation of Jewish rights as guaranteed by the highest legal forum at the time which recognized the historic connection of the Jewish people with that territory as part of the land area to become the reconstituted Jewish national home (for a collection of opinions, see: http://myrightword.blogspot.com/2011/08/are-settlements-legal.html)

YMedad,

First a historical point about which you seem to be equivocated. There were almost no Jews living in the West Bank before Israel conquered the territory in 1967. If you think that Jews coming from anywhere in the world have the right to live in the territory that they call Judea and Samaria, do you also think that the Palestinians who were expelled or ethnic cleansed from the West Bank in 1967 (about 150,000) have the right to live in Israel? In case you accept that some Palestinians have the right to live in Israel, why don't others get this right, even ones who lived there before 1948? You might say that no Palestinians have the right to live in Israel or that only some have this right according to some criteria. Well, couldn't it also be the case that no Jew has the right to live in the West Bank, or that only some according to some criteria (like that they don't have stolen land that belong to private Palestinian owners, that they accept the laws of the legitimate owners of this territory, the Palestinains, that they have applyed for permission to live there, that they pay taxes to the Palestinian authorities?) Or do you think that Jews in Palestine have special rights that others don't have?

Second, your historical points are all of them misleading. I don't have the time to comment all of them. In any case, there was no Palestinian campaign of ethnic cleansing. It was the Jewish settlers coming from other parts of the world who had no connection to Palestine whatsoever who started expelling Palestinian peasants from their lands. Writing about Yitzhak Epstein, Benny Morris says that "he had been deeply troubled by the eviction of the Druze tenant farmers at Metulla in 1896.(...) Epstein took the Zionists severely to task for purchasing land from effendis and then pushing out the poor (Palestinian) tenants". We should add that the documents about ownership of land that the Jewish settlers used were often falsified. He also says that the Jewish colonists "forcibly denied local shepherds the use of traditionally common pasturelands." At the same time, there was a Jewish policy of not employing Palestinians.

Benny Morris and other historians tell a history of the Jewish settlement in Palestine that begins with the desire of transfer and ends with ethnic cleansing of the original Palestinian population that had always lived there for the last 3000 years. He writes: "For many Zionists, beginning with Herzl (already even before the colonisation?), the only realistic solution lay in transfer". Already early immigrants in 1883 were worried with not arousing the "rage" of the natives. Why? Because they knew what they were up to. Morris still tells how badly the colonists treated the native population, considered them "primitives". It's no surprise that the Jewish colonization of Palestine was from the beginning on a violent enterprise.

To deny the rights of the Palestinian population to live in the lands to which they have a historical connection of 3000 years you have to distort history in a systematic way, you have to treat the Palestinians as a people without rights, you have to ignore international law and humanity and at the end you justify all kinds of violence.

Try to explain why do you think that Jews from Israel have the right to live in "Judea and Samaria" but Palestinians from "Judea and Samaria" don't have the right even to go to Jerusalem freely and many of them have never been able even to go to the beach a few kms from their homes because Israel doesn't allow them to do so.

I agree with much of what you write, but I think you might take too much meaning from the presence of Israeli flags in American synagogues. Regardless of what the executive director said, I don't think the Holocaust has anything to do with it.

In the United States, flags and open displays and proclamations of patriotism are more common than in many other country. American flags are everywhere- they hang from people's houses and buildings, they're in every classroom. I've read that many Europeans are surprised and startled when they learn about how American school days start with the Pledge of Allegiance, or when they see Americans put their hands over their hearts during the national anthem at a sports game. It seems vaguely fascistic to them, even though it seems normal to us.

Many American churches have an American flag inside. If the State of Israel had never existed, it's very likely that American synagogues would have only an American flag inside, both because it seems normal to Americans to have flag within their place of worship and because Jews generally have an extra desire to affirm their loyalty and devotion to this country. So if American synagogues are going to have an American flag anyway, and since Israel does exist, wouldn't it be a little strange if they didn't also have an Israeli flag? And it's not like devotion to Israel is seen as anti-American within the broader American political culture- Israel is seen as an ally- so there generally isn't a perceived contradiction between honoring the flags of two different sovereign nations.

"Jurassic Park of the mind" is a brilliant image; I'm sure I'll make use of it soon, plagiarism being the sincerest form of flattery. "counterfactual cannonballs" however misses the mark. What FOX news is endlessly firing or relaying are afactual cannonballs. That they strike home with so many Americans of all persuasions is a function of something very fundamental to the American Experience: Faith-based bombast tops fact, not every time nor all the time, but from time to time it haunts our history from the Great Awakening of the 1830s to the present day. TRUTH trumps the merely true. Among the reasons for the relative silence of American Jews of a progressive stripe, I don't find my own. It has always struck me as somewhat unseemly for the residents of a diaspora with no intent of emigrating to the Homeland to offer solutions to those who have. Israel has many enemies who threaten its existence and even in my view which is not unlike yours, it is clear that only a small number of them are Israeli Jews. I'm a New York actor who went to Israel to shoot a film in Jerusalem several years ago and I established as a pre-condition that I would not be asked to step foot on conquered territory outside of the the holy city itself. On the last day the bus back to the airport in Tel Aviv diverted to pick up a hard disk with the captured images from the home of the Director of Photography which, of course, turned out to be smack in the middle of the West Bank. It was an appalling and sobering experience, and convinced me once again that I was right in thinking that maintenance of the conquest was the single greatest threat to the survival of the Jewish state, but that the issues were infinitely more complicated than I knew, that the beliefs of the "settlers" were seemingly intractable, that the threats to Israel's security wouldn't magically disappear if the territories were abandoned, and that as distasteful and illegal as I believed "Greater Israel" was, the buffer it provided was deemed to have value and the 1967 borders were deemed indefensible by many people whose lives were directly at risk if my view prevailed and proved wrong.

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