Letter to a Friend Who Loves Israel

Dear ———–,

In the twenty and more years we have been friends, we have sometimes disagreed about how vocal Jewish Americans should be about politics and policy in Israel. But througout that time, there has been little doubt of the fundamental support for Israel on the part of the American Jewish community. That may now be changing.

If you are as open-minded as I think you are, you'll read this carefully: “Think Again: Ships Passing in the Night,” by Jonathan Rosenblum in the Jerusalem Post.

If this analysis is right, we are heading for another period in Jewish American history like the 19th and early 20th centuies, when large parts of our community (the Reform movement, the American Jewish Committee, etc) were anti-Zionist. If that happens, I will stand with Israel and against American Jews.

I will fight for Israel's right to decide for itself, free of pressure from a community a large minority of whom say they would not consider Israel's destruction a personal tragedy. To me this is far, far more important than anything doddering old Jimmy Carter says or does–although I do see American Jews playing right into Carter's sullied hands.

Israelis call George W. Bush their best friend ever, and they are now poised to elect Bibi Netanyahu again. Not only have your friend Yossi Beilin and others like him completely failed to win over a significant part of the Israeli electorate, in fact Labor itself is poised for a massive defeat, dwindling to single digits for the first time in history.

To me that is very sad, but my opinion matters very little. My conclusion is not to say that Israelis are wrong and you or I am right, but the opposite. When a large majority of Israelis arrive at a decision about what they must do to survive, I support that decision. Period.

This is not a close call. Yossi Beilin has become a political nonentity in Israel, and there are reasons. He pushed the Oslo process, now deemed by most Israelis to have been an abject failure. He has worked all his life to persuade Israelis and Palestinians that they can come to a political agreement and make real peace, and he has failed.

Events have proved his convictions naïve and premature. Fifteen hundred terrorist murders of innocent Israelis, including Muslims and Christians, discredited Oslo. And the hated “apartheid” wall has save countless Israeli lives since it was built in the face of international condemnation. Most Israelis know this. Even with the support of a substantial Arab minority in the electorate and the Knesset, Beilin cannot make his opinions credible with any significant number of Israelis.

Seasoned and brilliant leaders from Shimon Peres on the left to Natan Sharansky on the right—not to mention Tony Blair and “the Quartet”—have concluded that Israel needs a bottom-up process that strengthens the Palestinian economy to the point where people on their side have much more to gain from compromise than from stubbornness.

Do I think that peace must come eventually?—in years, not decades?—absolutely. Do I think that the settlers and their supporters are part of the problem, not the solution? Certainly. But do I think that the small minority in Israel who support the conventional peace movement have the key to accelerating the process? No. And even if I did, it would not be my business.

I frankly am baffled by the conviction of so many Jewish Americans that they know more about what is best for Israel than Israelis do. In this Jewish-American liberals are in the same category with the Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Los Angeles who “knew” that the withdrawal from Gaza was a tragedy and that the two-state solution—in my view inevitable and just—is treason against the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

If someone put a gun to my head and said, “You must choose one or the other,” I would probably choose you and Beilin over them. But no one is, and that is the point. No one is putting a gun to my head, or yours, or the heads of the rabbis in Brooklyn.

They are putting the gun to the heads of the people with the courage to live surrounded by guns pointed at them. It is they who have given two or three years of their lives to army service, often in harm’s way. It is they who send their sons and daughters to fight and die in the first Jewish army for two millennia. It is they who sit in cafés and buses and pizza parlors that are blown up by terrorists.

It is not me, it is not you, and it is not the Brooklyn rabbis. It is the citizens and permanent residents of Israel.

That is why they have a vote, and we do not. And that is why I will never tell the Israeli electorate that I know more than they do about what they must do to survive in the hostile environment you and I don’t live in. I am amazed and dismayed that any Jewish American, comfortably eating bagels and attending testimonial dinners in a safe country with an all-volunteer army, could possibly think that he or she has a right to tell Israelis what to do—whether on the right or the left, it is to me an immoral stance.

And of course it is not a very courageous one. It is no mystery how to earn the right to vote in Israel and to get up on a soapbox and tell Israelis what to do. All we have to do is become one of them. They’ve invited us. They want us. They are waiting for us.

But of course that isn’t easy, is it? If it were, we would already have done it. We wouldn’t just be talking about our love for Israel, we would be there living the dream and the nightmare every day. That is called earning the right to an opinion. But I am not there and neither are you.

If I can put on my biological anthropology hat for a moment, I am considered an expert on human nature and mind. I can tell you that to make wise decisions you must experience the feedback of your body and your emotions. The idea that you can make good decisions in the abstract has been proven false. What is true is the folk wisdom that you have to make certain decisions with your gut.

I believe in the gut decisions of those in the line of fire, not in mine, not in yours.

So I have decided to fight against any Jewish Americans who try to throw their weight around to pressure Israel from the safe side of the ocean. I voted for Obama, but if liberal American Jews tell him it’s okay to pressure Israel into a peace process for which it is not ready, I will stand against them.

This is where my energy will go in the years to come; if a fight is needed to prevent the American Jewish community and the Obama administration from bringing undue pressure to bear on the Jewish state, I’ll be there. And I will use all my skills, however modest, to publicly oppose all who think they know better than our friends who live every day in the line of fire and in the cauldron of terror that is the Middle East—so different from Atlanta or Brooklyn that it might as well be on another planet.

You want to tell Israel what to do? Make aliyah, join the IDF, earn your vote—and I will be the first to say you are doing the right thing. In fact, I will take your opinion very seriously, just as I do those who have already made those choices. Vote with your feet and your body, and I will give full weight to any vote you cast with your mind.

From your friend as always, Shalom,

Mel

Please note: The comments below were accidentally deleted when the site was under repair by the site manager. We have restored them exactly as they originally appeared. The actual date and time of posting is shown first, before the January 2nd date and time when they were restored. Thank you all for your effort and your patience.

6 thoughts on “Letter to a Friend Who Loves Israel

  1. “I am amazed and dismayed that any Jewish American, comfortably eating bagels and attending testimonial dinners, could possibly think that he or she has a right to tell Israelis what to do.”

    Very eloquently stated. I’ve forwarded this to my fervently pro-Israeli Orthodox cousins in Chicago/Israel.

    I’d like to see you debate someone like Noam Chomsky on this subject. I think it would be a fascinating exchange of ideas.

    Friday December 19, 2008, 8:46 PM

  2. Mel—

    I find it sad to have to agree with your premise concerning American Jews and Israel.  The Jewish state has lost its hold on our collective hearts.  We American Jews no longer identify with Israel as we once did.  Even programs like Birthright can’t stem the loss of caring, commitment and loyalty.  Today’s college students just don’t care about Israel.  Why?  Are we worried by the thought of dual loyalty?  Is anti-Israel feeling so subtly taught that our children are embarrassed to support a state they see as “apartheid,” “oppressive,” and unfair to its minority members?  

    Are we so far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust that we can no longer remember the desperate plight of a stateless people?  Have we forgotten the sense of pride Jews felt when Israel won independence in 1948?  When Torah scholars and musicians and other racial/ethnic stereotypes formed an army, built superior weapons, and defeated the combined might of a hundred million or so Arabs in 1956, in 1967, and 1973?  Why do we ignore the safety valve that allowed Soviet Jews a new chance at life?  That provided a haven for Ethi
    opians, Yemenites, and others in recent decades?

    Why, indeed, have we forgotten, in our pious declarations about how Israelis have not lived up to the superior morals the world has insisted on for them, that as many Jews were forced to leave Arab lands in the 1940s as “Palestinians” who fled Israel in 1948, expecting to return triumphant when the Arab armies had pushed the Jews into the sea?  Where is the right of return, the compensation, for those 850,000 or so human souls no longer welcome on Arab soil?

    Why are we American Jews so ready to renounce a strong and independent Israel?  What made us support Israel as long as she was on the brink of extinction, but not once she learned to protect and defend her land and her people?

    To be sure, Israeli politicians of late have given us little to love.  Like Bernie Madoff here, they’ve proved nothing except that Jews have feet of clay, like everybody else.  They are venal, greedy, corrupt, self-centered—in other words, they’re human.  

    Like you, I do not feel entitled to a vote in Israel.  Nor do I feel my words or thoughts should sway those who do vote with their feet, their blood, and their lives by living in Jerusalem or Sderot.  I do feel an obligation to let others on this side of the world know why I support the state.  Too many of us have, for whatever reason, forgotten or renounced our allegiance to a place we can no longer identify with—especially in these
    days when serious religious belief has been largely replaced by feel good pop culture, when the word god is almost a four-letter word.  Sure, we’re all entitled to our feelings.  I just wish we’d consider carefully what we’re asking for and of Israel before abandoning her.  I’d hate to see American Jews wake up the day after a nuclear Arab nation turns Israel into a wasteland, only then to remember what we had and realize what the world has lost.  Israel can’t afford to surrender in the hope of some future agreement with an enemy not very known for keeping agreements.  I, for one, won’t ask Israel to open its figurative legs to be raped.  Nor will I support efforts of our government to force Israel to go against what has to be done to ensure its future and security.
    Suzi

    Saturday December 20 2008, 10:34 PM

  3. Mel,
    Perhaps I am that friend this letter is addressed to.  As someone with a long connection to and love of the country I have long felt the need to speak out and articulate my views when I fell the country is not being all it could be.  I used to be conflicted about doing so but I changed about 17 years ago, when talking to Rabbi Herbert Friedman, who you have written about on this blog.  "Everyone else is talking," Herb said that night, "you might as well too. Plus," he continued, "Israel is a free and open democracy and if they want to ignore your wisdom in the polling booth…they will."

    I have been ignored much over the years by my friends and they don’t mind being ignored at all so and I’m not personally offended or hurt when it happens.  However, I have found that the relationship between Diaspora and Israel is actually strengthened, not threatened, when such a dialogue takes place.  If all Diaspora Jewry is needed for is money and unconditional support in Washington DC I fear we will lose a generation of young American Jews who are trying to create a more meaningful relationship with the State and offer it more than the "buying of Israeli bonds and the planting of trees". Look at the JNF; they have transitioned their organization from blue
    boxes to taking people over to ride their bikes throughout the country for week to support the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a fabulous peace building environmental think tank…

    The Alyn Hospital holds a similar ride for American and Israelis to support their hospital.

    My point is that the one dimensional support you ascribe to of unconditional support is outdated, and not a very effective model of building love and affection between the Jewish State and the Diaspora.

    Give a person a voice and you have a partner.disenfranchise them and tell them you only want their money and unconditional support and you have created a recipe for a relationship that will only weaken over time.

    The Israelis are also at this new juncture of re defining relationships.  I was at lunch with my business partners just last week discussing the situation regarding Israelis who return to Israel after making "yerida" (literally meaning the act of "going down" or leaving Israel).  I was told by my partner that the term is no longer used in Israel and no longer viewed pejoratively.  This shows a huge change in the Israeli attitudes on the subject of the Diaspora.  It was only 20-25 years ago that Yitzhak Rabin referred to Yordim (those Israelis who left the country) as "the droppings of worms"…the lowest of the low.

    Israelis have come to view life in a multi dimensional manner that shows all kinds of possibilities and promises many different ways to look at the world.  They are of very strong mind and will usually vote for whoever they think is right at the time, and if you don’t like the way things turn out at the polls…don’t worry, in just a few short years they will change.

    As far as your comments concerning Beilin and the left I find them really disingenuous.  I really get the impression that you are concerned with Diaspora Jews influencing policies leftward more than you are concerned with Diaspora Jews speaking out on how they think and believe on matters of the state.  If you were really concerned about such matters you would have referred to the biggest meddling of all in Israeli politics and that happened on the right; not the left.

    When Bibi Netanyahu squared off against Shimon Peres in the aftermath of the assassination of Rabin; a Chabad Rabbi from Australia by the name of "Diamond Joe" Gutnick gave Bibi $1M through a political action committee just weeks before the election to run a thoroughly distasteful campaign called "Bibi is good for the Jews".  The meaning was that Israel’s democracy that included Arab Israelis had two classes of citizens and that the uber class had Bibi looking out for them.  The million dollars was one of Diamond
    Joe’s better investments because Bibi came from behind and beat Peres.  Many widely believed that the campaign pushed Bibi over the top (I wonder what Diamond Joe is up to this campaign?).

    Never mind Diamond Joe, Mel.  Take a look at the Israeli political landscape and you will find that all Israeli parties raise money in the United States (and elsewhere) to promote and fund their parties…so while you ascribe to an outdated philosophy that uses the red herring of stifling initiative from the left and inhibits a deeper more modern relationship for Diaspora Jews with Israel we find that it is already too late anyway and that the cow is out of the barn.  Jews in the Diaspora are already playing a huge role in the political life of Israel.  

    The fact that it is already happening doesn’t make it right or wrong but does show a certain genius in the way things can work out if let to evolve.The relationship between Israel and American Jews is ever
    strengthening and that model of deeper involvement and deeper commitment is based on not the dysfunction of ignoring and not speaking up about one or the other but the two "engaging" and "investing" in each others futures. The whole notion of the highly successful Birthright program was a landmark (initiated by none other than your favorite Yossi Beilin) that had the Israeli government investing in the future of Diaspora Jewish Youth.  Whydid Beilin see the need for the program?  Yossi says it was because Israelneeded to be invested in the future of the youth in the Diaspora and not just look at them as some sort of blank check for support.  "You want
    support?" Beilin once told me "You need to have a relationship".

    The notion Mel that Jews in the Diaspora need to keep quiet and pass the
    money only because they don’t pay taxes and fight in the army is misguided. First of all, Jews in the Diaspora do "pay taxes" and that is evidenced by the huge financial support they offer the country every year through charitable giving.  This financial support has become like fungible tax shekels that allow Israeli tax shekels to be used where the government sees fit.  The notion of "service in the Army" is also not based in reality. Should the Haredim in Israel who don’t serve in the Army be allowed to vote.Heck Mel, they don’t even pay taxes, but are rather the recipients of rather large welfare funding.  Who is this perfect Israeli you are referring to and how do you plan on administering this litmus test of qualifications to speak out on matters of interest to the Jewish state?

    The concept of not allowing freedom of expression by all Jews on matters of import to all Jews is alien and foreign to Jews throughout history.  If the real goal is to create a deeper more meaningful bond between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora I believe we should be encouraging debate not limiting it as you would propose.

    As always, with love and deep affection.
    Steve

    Monday December 22, 2008, 9:18 AM

  4. Mel,

    As I read your blog, I kept asking myself why you have chosen to attack those who seek to influence Israeli policy and public opinion when, as you noted at the beginning, the big problem is simply that more and more Jews simply don’t care what happens over there. Are you really concerned that left wing anti-Zionist American Jews will be pressuring the new administration to pressure Israel to do things that aren’t in her interest?

    Poll after poll has shown that a strong majority of Israelis support territorial compromise in return for true peace. They do so because they know in their gut that this is the only way forward. Unfortunately, there are many Jews and non-Jews outside of Israel who, for religious reasons, are pouring money into the territories to make such a compromise difficult if not impossible. Because they speak and act in the name of God, they are not about to stop, despite your best efforts to convince them otherwise.

    Tuesday, December 23, 2008,1:27 PM

  5. Beilin is in a small minority because a majority (Kadima, Labor, even parts of Likud) have basically co-opted Meretz thereby marginalizing them.  He was SO successful that he obsoleted himself, and that is despite the many failings of the Oslo process.  Everyone knows what the solution; the extremists on each side unfortunately still control the agenda.  

    Mike

    Tuesday, December 23, 2008, 10:40 PM

  6. I never have commented on your blogs, but I read them (I was going to say religiously, but somehow that is not the right adverb) often. While not always in agreement, I have never found you dull.

    In this case, you are right on. Slavish approbation of what goes on in that “area of varying cultural affinity,” as an old professor of yours would have characterized it, iks on a par with the idiocy of slavish condemnation. Nonetheless, absolute support for the Israelis to choose their own destiny and live their own lives is not.

    Keep fighting.

    Arthur

    Sunday, December 28, 2008, 3:24 PM