Sunday, July 18, 2010

So Much Heat--So Little Light

Anyone who thinks Aspen is only an upscale liberal enclave clearly hasn't been here lately.

On the same day last week those who were looking for a Right wing perspective on a broad range of issues had some tough choices to make.

They could either attend the Aspen Institute event featuring five A-list Republican governors (Rick Perry-TX, Tim Pawlenty-MN, Haley Barbour-MS, Bob McDonnell-VA, and Linda Lingle-HA) or the day-long Aspen Counterpoint session on "Conflict and Conscience" featuring six speakers who enlightened them about the evils of militant Islamic strategies, Islamic persecution of women, and the media's one-sided treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both events drew large crowds although those of us who believe that President Obama is not a Muslim terrorist in disguise or that a peaceful two-state solution is even worth pursuing in Israel felt like we had wandered on to a different planet. But we're getting used to that.  What I continue to find shocking is that the message, tactics, and unrelenting anger of the Republican Party are becoming echoed and displayed by so many Americans who call themselves "pro-Israel."

Back in the days of civil discourse when people of goodwill and common positive intent could disagree about issues in a mutually respectful way, it was possible to say things like "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it."  That has been replaced by "You are a horrible person and every belief you hold represents a mortal threat to everything decent people hold dear." If you were in Aspen last week, you would  have heard it in stereo when it came to the issue of President Obama and his true feelings about Israel.

One minute, I heard Governor Rick Perry of Texas (a renowned student of international affairs who happened to be sporting a t-shirt stating that "Marshall Law (sic) has been declared") state "the way the Obama administration has treated Israel is an absolute affront to all democracies around the world."

A couple minutes later and a few hundred yards away I was listening to Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick state that Obama has been by far "the worst president for Israel since the state was founded 62 years ago."

Thankfully, we live in America where people are free to express their opinions. But I remember a time when if a governor or journalist was going to level that kind of attack against the president, they would feel obligated to cite at least one quote or statement or action that backed those charges up.  As a proud and serious Jew, I expect more from our people. But apparently facts are no longer required to smear people in the Jewish and Israeli press now as well.

During the last few weeks, Glick (whose rants were greeted with huge applause and no challenging questions at the conference) has stated as fact that Obama has "declared war on Israel" and had told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu weeks ago that unless Israel released hundreds of Palestinian terrorist prisoners immediately that neither Obama nor anyone from his administration would meet with Netanyahu.

Since then, the two heads of state have met twice and no prisoners have been released. Glick never followed up with a correction or retraction and, as far as I know, none of her equally rabid followers have complained.  She has also never cited a single example of a statement or action by Obama that indicated he was at war with with Israel. 

She, along with fellow panelists John Bolton and James Woolsey, assured the crowd that Obama had in fact rudely and deliberately snubbed Netanyahu two months ago when the two had a short, hastily planned working meeting in Washington. Of course, none of them were at the meeting or indicated they had talked with anyone who was.

Just a few days earlier, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told an Aspen Ideas Festival audience that he had been present for every minute of each of the five meetings between Obama and Netanyahu (more than Obama has met with any other head of state) and there was never a snub or a slight of any kind.  Oren systematically debunked all the lies that have been spread by those who were outraged.  For example, the snub rumors state that Obama walked out on Netanyahu to go have dinner upstairs with Michelle and the kids.  Oren said Obama's wife and children were not even in Washington at the time.

Glick's response to Oren setting the record straight was not to thank him for clearing things up but rather to slam the ambassador in writing and demand his resignation for essentially being a traitor to Israel. She stated that Oren takes his inexplicable desire to be Obama's head cheerleader more seriously than his job to represent Israel's interests. Again, no facts supplied.

Of course there was no mention by any of the speakers that Obama courageously told Muslims in Cairo last year that they needed to abandon terrorism and accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Or the fact that Obama has repeatedly emphasized his unshakable support for Israel. Or the fact that Obama recently pushed through strong sanctions against Iran in both the U.N. and Congress. Or the fact that Obama has never made a negative statement about Israel.

For good measure, Glick took a shot at Thomas Friedman who she accused of being in the pocket of the Saudi royal family. The self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization J Street was also vilified by Glick and most of the panel as being "horrible for Israel."  Glick has chastised J Street in writing for being opposed to sanctions against Iran.  The problem (apparently only for some of us)  is that J Street has come out strongly in support of sanctions against Iran. 

One had to come away wondering how she has the energy to hate so many people (there are surely many others) and still get through her day.  She seemed like an Israeli Glenn Beck.  Always outraged, often wrong, but never in doubt.

Don't get me wrong. Much of what was said at the conference is true. Israel faces enormous challenges. It is unfairly held to a double standard by much of the world and the international media. But not every word of criticism is completely unfair and the result of Jew hatred and media bias . Israel is surrounded by neighbors who want to destroy her. But it also has an increasing number of neighbors who really do fear the threat of a nuclear Iran more than they do Israel.

It is very challenging to negotiate with terrorists and others who have shown they cannot be trusted. But it is also true that Israel cannot continue to exist as a Jewish democracy for much longer. The birth rate of the Arab and Palestinian residents of Israel and the West Bank is so high that in a few years they will outnumber the Jews. The math is unforgiving.

Like most of the difficult challenges facing the world today, these are complex and troubling issues. But what is more troubling are those who believe that simply demonizing others and backing sketchy claims with partial truths is the answer. 

Jews have a tradition of being firmly committed to the truth. We have survived and grown by getting together to talk, study, argue, disagree, and speak freely and try to learn from each other. As our most visible "pro-Israel" leaders take on the values and tactics of the American Right wing, we run the risk of losing a big part of what has made us so special and enabled us to prevail against huge odds for so long.

For centuries, the greatest risks to the survival of the Jewish people and our values have come from the outside--from those who have hated us and wanted to destroy us. Those threats are still very real and can't be ignored.

But at a time when Israel and the American Jewish community have never been stronger, I worry at least as much about the threats from within.

The Talmud says, "Who is truly wise?  He who learns from all people."  It is a pluralistic mantra that has served us well for thousands of years.  We risk a great deal by disqualifying all but a few true believers from the conversation and only learning from those with whom we already agree.

As we have sadly learned in recent months, that approach generates far more heat than light.  And far more damage than good.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Whole Bunch of Inconvenient Truths

Conventional wisdom did not have a good week--at least not in my neighborhood.

This disconnect between what people like (or need) to believe and the facts is not just annoying.  It has actually become pathological since so many seem to feel so angry and out of control about so many things in their lives that it is both convenient and sometimes necessary for them to demonize other individuals and groups and blame them for everything that is wrong with our world.

The problem, of course, is that while their designated villains do have bad qualities and do some nasty things, they are not the pure devils we'd like them to be. Every now and then we get hit in the face with inconvenient truths that should pop the mythical bubbles.

Unfortunately, the need for villains and demons is so pervasive that these facts no longer seem to matter.

Take the self-serving myths that exist regarding the challenges in the Middle East and Israel.  Please.

Early in the week, President Obama had his fifth meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu--more than he has had with any other foreign head of state. As he has since before becoming president, Obama made a statement after the meeting (as did Netanyahu) emphasizing the close and unshakeable bonds between our two countries and how the U.S. maintains a firm commitment to Israel's security and right to self defense.

Many of the self proclaimed "pro-Israel"  leaders have been ranting for months that our current president is no friend of the Jewish people and our homeland. But annoying facts keep popping up and getting in the way of a good rant. How inconvenient.

Forget about the fact that it was Obama's appointees and staff  who led the successful push in both the U.N. and out Congress to get tough economic sanctions passed against Iran

And the fact that Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. (who has been present for every minute of every meeting between Obama and Netanyahu) claims that there has never been a crisis or unproductive interaction between the two leaders.

Instead of thanking Oren for the insight and praising the American president as a true friend of Israel, the ideologues prefer to shoot the messenger and bash Oren as a liar.  Typical of the pro-Israel Right is Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post who has simply decided that Oren has turned traitor to Israeli interests and has become a liar and Obama cheerleader.

After all, if you've boxed yourself into an ideological position that is THE TRUTH, competing inconvient truths must be ignored or discredited.

Many of these same people have been complaining for months that the Goldstone Report (that suggested that members of the Israeli army behaved badly during the Gaza invasion) was the latest in a long chain of unfair assessments prepared for the U.N. by Israel-hating anti-Semites. Virtually every Jewish and pro-Israel group in the world has condemned Goldstone and his report and AIPAC has succeeded in getting most of the U.S. Congress to join the chorus.

After reading Goldstone, I tend to agree with the critics that the report unfairly suggested that the Israeli government attacked Gaza in an effort to systematically punish innocent Gazan citizens.  It also didn't acknowledge the fact that nearby Israeli towns were suffering frequent missile attacks from inside Gaza and that the Israelis had to do something to make it stop. 

But the emerging inconvenient truth is that the Israeli government and  courts have been issuing a number of indictments and charges against soldiers that suggest that parts of the Goldstone Report seems to actually be true.

Orthodox Israeli rabbis encouraged soldiers to be particularly ruthless to Gazans during Operation Cast Lead--reportedly encouraging them to show no mercy to innocent Gazan citizens, women, and children. There is an increasing amount of solid evidence that shows many of those soldiers followed those instructions and behaved very badly--perhaps criminally.

The response of most "pro-Israel" Jews to this has been  "why did they have to print that in the paper?" Not a single one has said, "Thank God we found out the disturbing truth." Again, it's a case of the pesky truth getting in the way of a clear cut good guys--bad guys situation.

How inconvenient.

Another simplictic view that is promoted in "pro-Israel" emails is that all Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslim are essentially the same. They are all bad and are either terrorists or condone terror.

But I just attended a lunch here at the Aspen Ideas Festival where the ambassador to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made it clear that he and his people live daily in mortal fear of Iran--not Israel.
He went on to say that he would applaud a decision by the U.S. or Israel to bomb Iran in order to take out that country's nuclear capability.

"If the U.S. bombed Iran it would be a disaster," said ambassador Yousef al Otaiba--an attractive, sharply clad young man who my wife described as "hot" (pictures available upon request). "But if Iran gets a nuclear weapon it would be a bigger disaster."

He added that he would personally be grateful to Israel if it was the country that took out Iran's nukes although he acknowledged that Israel would face severe criticism from the Arab "street" if that happened.

"Israel gets blamed no matter what it does," said the Ambassador from the United Arab Emirates.

He went on to say that the day that the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement, 22 moderate Arab nations would immediately recognize Israel and its status as a legitimate nation. He suggested clearly that most Arab states fear the rogue nations among themselves far more than they fear Israel.

He made so much sense and talked so rationally that for a brief second I forgot where I was. I actually believed that there are a lot of Arabs in the Middle East who are just as worried about threats from other rogue Arab nations as we are. That they want peace and a better life for themselves and their families as much as we do--even enough that they would applaud and support actions that would make that outcome more likely.

But then I checked my Blackberry and slipped back into the fact-free zone of simplistic explanations and widespread demonization. I had just received an email from one of my Jewish friends explaining to me how Koran is chock full of lines commanding good Muslims to kill infidels so it is foolish and naive to suggest that we can trust any of them.  This friend would not know a Koran if it hit him between the eyes, but he knows THE TRUTH.

At the end of the day, many of us must need villains more than we need hope, real solutions and intellectual honesty.

How inconvenient.