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  That has been replaced by "You are a horrible person and every belief you hold represents a mortal threat to everything decent people hold dear."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.


Mark Rubin said...

Facts are ever less important in our dialogue, whether or not Israel is involved. The reason is obvious: There is no price for being wrong, and lots of profit--money, status, ego--in having other listen. No democracy can sustain itself without an agreement about basic facts and, at least right now, the far Right, Jew and non-Jew alike, have no interest in facts. We should all be afraid, for the lack of a common set of facts places our republic at risk.

Norwegian Shooter said...

Wish I could have been there!

PS I'm going to give Perry the benefit of the doubt. Marshall must refer to something else rather than be a misspelling of Martial. He may be dumb but he's not that dumb.

What are your thoughts about my soon-to-be-ex-Gov Pawlenty?

How many other Jewish commentators regularly cite the Talmud?

Hypothetical: what if Orthodox and/or settler birth rates were higher than Palestinian birth rates? Would J Street and other pro-peace movements have as much support?

Larry Gellman said...

As usual you are right on Shooter. Marshall Law is the name of a band in Texas. THEY may not know the difference but Perry probably does. Just don't know about Pawlenty. Never had a reason.

As far as birth rates are concerned, I think J Street is more of a response to the Rightward shift of the leaders and messages of most American "pro-Israel" organizations. It provides an entry point and a home for people who care about Israel but really think that a two-state solution is the only answer--regardless of what the Israeli government of the moment might think.

What's truly shocking is that so many on the Jewish Right treat J Street in the same way Israel is treated by much of the world or Obama is treated by the American Right.

They can't just say "I know your intentions are good but I strongly disagree with what you are saying." They feel the needs to totally demonize and delegitimize the "other."

Larry Gellman said...

Mark. Thanks as always.

Of course it's a symptom of what's going on in broader society and the media. Maybe it's my Jewish sense of high expectations but I have always expected more from us.