Saturday, June 22, 2013

Israelism Revisited

I have received a number of responses to yesterday's article in which I coined the term "Israelism" to describe the over zealousness on the part of many of my fellow Jews who are loving Israel to death.  Perhaps more damaging are their slanderous accusations of anti-Semitism against dozens of decent people and public figures--many of whom are Jewish themselves.

Some people have thanked me for "hitting the nail right on the head" and "saying what needed to be said."  But others, including many close friends, were annoyed and even angry over my use of the term "Israelism."

Here is part of what my good long-time and very intelligent friend Bruce had to say:

Your use of labels makes you, if not equal, then worse, then those you criticize. You are worse, because by criticizing those who falsely label others as anti-Semites, you admit that you know how wrong it is to label this way, yet you do it anyway.
You seek to support the branding of Israelism and Israelists to be a dirty word. Just what we need is a new title to label and brand another Jew. This is what Judaists think will return civil discourse?
Imagine if you were successful. We would all learn to hate Israelists. We would root out the ugly Israelists amongt us. Sort of like the new Amalekites. Supporting Israel must make you a dirty Israelist. And Israelism will eat your soul. Hell, if you were successful enough, your term would catch on and the mass media would begin to call any supporter of Israel an Israelist. Now, wouldn't that be wonderful?

First and foremost, I do not use "Israelist" to describe the vast majority of Jews who, like myself, feel a strong connection to the land and people of Israel and who take pride in the many accomplishments of the Jewish state.  It is only descriptive of the small but vocal and powerful group that claims to speak for the Jewish community (although it clearly doesn't) and violates most of the key Jewish prohibitions against using slander, distortions, and lies in an overt effort to destroy the reputations and careers of good people.

As always, I fell back on a sports analogy.  I can't help myself.  Before I was God's gift to money management and then the savior of the Jewish people I worked for ten years as a TV news reporter.

I am a big University of Arizona basketball fan. Like all successful programs they have a strong booster club (AIPAC?) which holds pep rallies where they sing the school song (Hatikvah?).and show highlight films which feature the great plays made by our team and the dirty plays made by the other team because the booster club is not there to educate or provide balance. Their goal is to get their fan base whipped up and make them even more devoted to the team. That is all a good thing.  I attend these pep rallies myself.
When I go to the games--which I love--the most vocal and rabid fans sit in a corner the student section--the Zona Zoo. In past years, a small but vocal group of self-described fans have shown their support for the team by spitting on and swearing at members of the other team.  Often these fans (which of course is short for the word "fanatic") did some research and found personal details about opposing players and used personal insults about their families as part of their desire to help the home team.  It got so bad that two opposing coaches said they wouldn't play at Arizona again unless their teams didn't have to walk through the tunnel that is always flanked by the abusive Wildcat fans.
 I don't think it is hateful for me as a fan to speak out against those who are giving the rest of us a bad name. Quite the opposite. I am proud that the University of Arizona revoked the season tickets of several of those fans, publicly apologized to their victims, and made it clear that this kind of "support" is in conflict with the schools values and ethics.  The players and coaches also made it clear that this kind of behavior actually hurts and embarrasses the team that these fans were trying to help. 

As an aside, a strong and healthy team also has radio talk show and blogs where fans like me who have opinions--sometimes positive and sometime critical-- can weigh in and be heard. That was the huge void in the pro-Israel infrastructure that was missing before J Street came along.

 My friend, we have studied Torah and Jewish wisdom together and you have worked with me for years on Federation and Israel Bonds campaigns and you know I was a past board member of AIPAC. I am a bigger fan of Israel than I am of either the Packers or the University of Arizona about which I am borderline fanatic.
The last thing in the world I would do is demonize or perjoratively label people who support the democratic Jewish State of Israel. But I think we need to rise up as a community and police our own ranks and make it clear that those who violate  principals of Jewish values and ethics by unfairly and publicly slandering public officials and fellow Jews and smear them as anti-Semites are crossing the biggest of red lines.

And when their behavior is as shameful and outrageous as those cited in my article from yesterday, they should be stripped of their tickets and asked to leave the stadium. Not because I disagree with their right to express their opinions and certainly not because they consider themselves staunch supporters of Israel but because those who engage obscenity and vulgarity and disregard for Jewish values should not be allowed to claim they speak for our Jewish community and reflect our values.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Israelism--The Religion That is Destroying Our Jewish Community

Last year I wrote about the two new denominations of Judaism that have emerged and made the traditional Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform labels less relevant. 

Now the most meaningful distinction is between Aspirational Jews who look to Judaism as a value-added app that will help them live happier, better, and more productive lives and Tribal Jews whose main goal is to not grant Hitler a posthumous victory and to remain vigilant against the ongoing threats of anti-Semitism and our many enemies who are still out there trying to destroy us.

Most American Jews incorporate some mix of these approaches to Judaism viewing it as encouraging hope for the future while remaining aware of life's harsh realities.  The Book of Proverbs tells us not to "veer too far to the right or the left."  The conversation and tension between the approaches is healthy.

But in recent years, a small but vocal sect of passionate Tribalists have taken the tone of conversation to a new and much uglier place and it is driving a new and deep wedge into our already-fractured community.

These Jews who are damaging our community in the name of saving it have emerged on the scene with a renewed vigor and venom in a way that further threatens our ability to have a civil conversation about Israel and the important challenges we face.  Unlike extremists on the Left, who can be annoying but are far less affluent and organized, this group tends to be wealthy, well positioned, and very influential.

I call this group the Israelists and Israelism has become their religion.  Not just because they feel a deep connection as Jews to the state and land of Israel as we all do but because they have used their passion as license to attack those who do not share that passion with stunning disregard for the clear Jewish prohibitions against slander and negative speech about others.  Their focus and tunnel vision has risen to cult status where it has functionally become their defining connection with their Judaism.

Elevated passions and Tribal views on the part of many older, wealthier American Jewish "leaders" is not a new phenomenon.  Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic wrote about it more than five years ago in his New York Times article entitled "Israel's American Problem."   His words are even more relevant today.

Jewish leaders, who live in Chicago and New York and behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs, loathe the idea that Mr. Olmert, or a prime minister yet elected, might one day cede the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the latent state of Palestine. These are neighborhoods — places like Sur Baher, Beit Hanina and Abu Dis — that the Conference of Presidents could not find with a forked stick and Ari Ben Canaan as a guide. And yet many Jewish leaders believe that an Israeli compromise on the boundaries of greater Jerusalem — or on nearly any other point of disagreement — is an axiomatic invitation to catastrophe.

This is an existentially unhealthy state of affairs. I am not wishing that (President Obama) be hostile to Israel, God forbid. But what Israel needs is an American president who not only helps defend it against the existential threat posed by Iran and Islamic fundamentalism, but helps it to come to grips with the existential threat from within. A pro-Israel president today would be one who prods the Jewish state — publicly, continuously and vociferously — to create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for the birth of a moderate Palestinian state.

The situation that Golberg described back then was serious, but look how things have deteriorated since then. 

In recent months I heard former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams--the featured speaker at AIPAC's annual event in Tucson--accuse award-winning columnists Joe Klein and Thomas Friedman of being "Jewish anti-Semites" because they expressed opinions that were critical of specific actions of AIPAC and the Iseraeli prime minister. 

The Israelist Right--using tactics made popular by Tea Party activists--has smeared caring Jews like Peter Beinart and J Street executive Jeremy Ben Ami as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, even though each has lived in Israel and has worked tirelessly to promote conditions that will enable it to survive as a Jewish democratic state..

Most recently, the Israelist rhetoric has kicked up to a new level as Islamophobe Pamela Geller's group has taken out ads in New York and Washington subways comparing Muslims to "savages" in the name of the Jewish people and those who support Israel.

The vitriol and accusations of anti-Semitism have expanded well beyond Jews in recent months.  When twice-decorated war hero and former Senator Chuck Hagel was nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense, the Emergency Committee for Israel and other Israelist groups ran an expensive smear campaign against him labelling him an anti-Semite--again in the name of American Jews.  lAnd what was Hagel's sin that qualified him as a Jew hater?  He had complained seven years ago about the heavy-handed tactics of AIPAC--an opinion I have heard from dozens of members of Congress.

Also appalling is the recent campaign against Samantha Power who is nominated to be our next Ambassador to the United Nations.  As soon as she was nominated, the Israelist hit squad ran articles branding her as an anti-Semite in headlines based on a two minute out-of-context snippet culled from an interview she gave on an obscure cable channel eleven years ago.

The email campaign waged hot and heavy until people like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chimed in that they thought Power would be an excellent choice based on her past performance and commitment to Israel.

But the crusher came when Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren defied precedent and wrote a passionate endorsement of Power..  The respone from the Israelists who smeared her as an anti-Semite has been deafening silence.

It brought back visions of Goldberg's article about Israelist American Jews who are far to the Right and far more strident than the counterparts in Israel they claim to represent. 

What is most striking (and most troubling)  is that the terms anti-Israel and anti-Semite have become synonymous and are used interchangeably.  Neither Friedman, Klein, Hagel, or Power ever said anything negative about Jews or Judaism.  What few comments they made were about the tactics and/or policies of AIPAC and/or the Israeli government.  Can you imagine if every person who is sincerely critical of the policies of the U.S. government was branded as anti-America or unpatriotic? 

In a recent interview on Jackie Mason made the following telling comment to David Evanier in Tablet Magazine when he asked Mason if he has experienced anti-Semitism in his life

I did 45 years ago, but I haven’t in the last 30 because the Gentiles in America have changed from looking down at a Jew 40 years ago to looking up to a Jew today. They used to condescend to a Jew; now they apologize to me for not being a Jew. They say their sister-in-law is a Jew, they’re married to a Jew, they’re trying to move into a Jewish neighborhood, they want to be a Jew. The only anti-Semitism that I suffer from today is from Jews.

Although they claim to be obsessed with concern about the future and safety of Israel and the Jewish people, much of what they write and forward in emails are criticisms--often laced with lies or distortions--about the evils of Arabs, Palestinians, and Islam.

Many of these Israelists are bright, caring people who are my very good friends.  I have spent the last three decades working along side them as I have chaired Federation and Israel Bonds campaigns, worked to raise and have given money to day schools and synagogues. 

But isn't there a risk that the Jews who cry "anti-Semite" so frivilously will not be listed to if real anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.

Going forward, Judaism will thrive or wither not based upon our ability to idenify and demonize our perceived enemies but rather upon its ability to provide people with a wonderful values and wisdom based system that can help them live happier, better and more productive lives.  It is a complicated and nuanced mix of those values along with ritual observance, culture, and a unique relationship with the land of Israel and, in recent years, the democratic Jewish state that has been built on that land.

As so often before in Jewish history, our people is facing a number of existential threats. For the first time in Jewish history, the most serious of those threats is internal--not coming from outsiders who want to destroy us but from the likely outcome of disastrous decisions being made by those who claim to be our leaders.

As the great Talmud scholar Rav Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

We might not be able to eliminate Jew hatred in the world and control the forces of evil out there that target Jews, but can't we at least find a way to call off the circular firing squad.