What we talk about when we talk about Israel



Mel Farber is a mild-mannered guy when you meet him. A longtime software consultant, the 63-year-old wears a perpetual trace of a smile. There are really only a few things that raise his gorge.

“When I get mad, I go to my keyboard and express myself,” he says.

The Silver Spring resident sends the results to the letters columns of The Washington Post, The New York Times, New York Jewish Week and, most often, to Washington Jewish Week, where he is a regular contributor.

At the top of Farber’s list of betes noires is J Street. The dovish pro-Israel group never fails to get Farber’s goat. Its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, “wants to make decisions of the prime minister of Israel without any of the responsibilities,” argues Farber. Its college arm, J Street U, is “indoctrinating children.”


J Street, which supports the Israeli government’s goal of a two-state solution but criticizes the country’s building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jews.” Farber says that’s hooey: “I view J Street as self-centered, egotistical, looking for fame and fortune by criticism of Israel.”

Farber believes that pressure on Israel has its roots in anti-Semitism, “because people who criticize Israel invariably only criticize Israel.”

Farber’s been writing letters to the editor for about 15 years. He says that if there’s a running theme, it’s this: “Don’t tell others what to do.”

Alex Sinclair, on the other hand, wants you to share your views – positive and negative – about Israel. Speaking from his home in Modi’in, Israel, Sinclair, director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, believes a knee-jerk defense of Israel is in no one’s best interest. Not that he doesn’t understand the impulse.

“If someone from the outside criticized my children, my number one instinct is to attack them in a black-and-white way,” he says. But, “we have to learn to love Israel along with critiquing it.”

Sinclair makes his case in a new book, Loving the Real Israel – An educational agenda for liberal Zionism.

“Israel is genuinely under threat,” he explains, “but the situation is complicated. I don’t believe that all Arabs are out to get us. But for some people, there’s a fear. So they’re cautious about their criticism and focus on the need to defend Israel.”

‘What are we arguing about?’

The Jewish community could be split among the Mel Farbers and Alex Sinclairs of the world, as well as among those holding a seemingly infinite combination of nuanced views. What anyone talks about when he talks about Israel depends on many factors. But how can it be that two people who love Israel will talk in such different ways, focusing on completely different things? Can the Jewish community survive the tension between “pro-Israel Jews”?

Eric Rozenman thinks people are arguing about the wrong things, that the debate tends to hinge on specific Israeli policies as opposed to the larger issue of Israel’s battle for legitimacy.

“As soon as Jews who care about Israel begin to obsess about how they discuss their viewpoints with others who care about Israel, it plays into the longstanding anti-Israel campaign – which is real,” says Rozenman, the Washington director of CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog.

“What is this debate about?” he asks from his office not far from the Capitol. “That Israel is not threatened? That there’s not a worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel? Exactly what is it that we’re arguing about?”

Rozenman’s job is to monitor threats to Israel that come in the form of biased reporting and opinion pieces in the world media. The Boston-based group’s goal is “to hold media to traditional standards of accuracy, objectivity, context and balance.”

Recent coverage on his organization’s website includes a CAMERA-prompted correction to a Haaretz op-ed “which falsely implied that black students do not attend the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.” There is also a blog entry about a pro-Israel statement by Sheikh Ahmad Adwan of Jordan and a long analysis about why Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat’s reported declaration that Palestinians “cannot accept Israel as the Jewish state because they lived in the region long before the Jews” is “an invention.”

“We’re always busy,” says Rozenman, who nevertheless radiates calm. “We’re simply dealing with the most egregious examples. The problem is there’s a lot of it.”

The continual attack on Israel’s legitimacy has produced a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, in which Jews have come to identify with the positions of Israel’s critics, he says.

Clive Lawton thinks a different pathology is at work. It might be called the Holocaust Syndrome.

The trauma of the Shoah, and the tendency to confuse it with Israel, has stunted Jewish life when it should be flourishing, says Lawton, the British-born co-founder of Limmud, which organizes educational conferences and events.

“Concentrating on our enemies is a way of keeping ourselves weak and threatened,” the globetrotting Jewish educator writes in an email. “This is not healthy for the Jewish psyche nor is it accurate to the truth of things. Even more important, it makes it impossible for us to have rational and successful conversations with others about Israel because we react like battered wives – in turn either cowed into silence or in extremis unable to manage any future healthy relationship since our trust has been blown. Taken overall, Israel can defend itself if it chooses – and it can also make matters worse for itself.”

While America’s pro-Israel organizations have succeeded in keeping “a lid on Israel challenge and bashing,” he says, “they also save Jews the trouble of thinking for themselves – and they magnify issues to keep the ‘threat’ in front of Jews.”

Lawton argues that Diaspora Jews should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Israel because the communities are in dialogue with each other and seek to affect one another.

“Israel’s actions impact on me as a Jew living in the Diaspora, and Israel also takes
it upon itself to lecture me about my responsibility to support it and even immigrate to Israel,” he says. “If they think I’m their business, then it’s a two-way street.”

Baby love

Above:  Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA, believes the debate over Israeli policies plays into the hands of the Jewish state’s enemies by obscuring the real issue – Israel’s continuing battle for legitimacy.
Mel Farber, a regular WJW letter writer, sees his bete noire, J Street, as “self-centered, egotistical, looking for fame and fortune by criticism of Israel.”

A Jew who has a complex view of Israel is ultimately better able to advocate for Israel than “someone who has merely been taught to parrot statements in a shouting match,” writes Sinclair.

In Loving the Real Israel, he urges American Jews to embrace that complexity, to love Israel like one loves an adolescent, not a baby.

Ongoing efforts to tell the world the good news about Israel are examples of baby love, he says. Yes, Israel really does produce all those Nobel Prize winners and that amazing high tech. The facts are correct, but the picture is distorted.

“To present an image of Israel as perfect and without flaws … is to set up a false dichotomy – an either-or choice – that can only work against Israel in the long run,” he writes. “When one suggests that the only way to be in a relationship with Israel is an entirely pro-Israel stance, people are very turned off by that.”

Recent polls show that younger Jews have a weaker connection to Israel than older generations. And the young increasingly see the Jewish state in the context of an unfulfilled need to create a Palestinian state next door.

Young Jews are “going to be exposed one way or another to the complicated aspects of Israel’s existence,” says Sinclair. “If they see the organized Jewish community doesn’t acknowledge or grapple with this, I’m nervous that people will say, ‘There are plenty of other calls on my time [than Jewish involvement].’ That to me is very sad.”

Mel Farber isn’t buying it. American Jews have no right to say if Israel’s actions are right or wrong. (Farber says he kept quiet when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, even though he opposed the move.) And he’ll thank Israelis for not coming here and criticizing their country in front of American audiences.

“I plead guilty for being a knee-jerk supporter of Israel,” he says.

Farber became interested in Israel in the late 1960s and has made three trips there in the years since. In his college days, his peers were protesting the war in Vietnam.
“People who were protesting the war didn’t want to go [to Vietnam] and die,” he points out. Similarly, Israel’s critics are speaking up on life-or-death issues from the comfort of a safe distance, he says.

He’s irritated by the double standards of these armchair critics and their profession of friendship to Israel.

“If you want to claim you support Israel, you have to criticize its enemies. You have to criticize [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas and Hamas and the Arab League,” says Farber. But that doesn’t happen. “It’s always Israel’s fault. Everything is all Israel’s fault, for J Street and others.”

Banging away
When CAMERA gets wind of one-sided reporting, it mobilizes a response. But Rozenman says the conflict is taking a toll on Israel supporters.

“It’s long been my view that Arab refusal to make peace, normalize relations with Israel on a compromise, reciprocal basis has had the fringe benefit, for opponents of the Jewish state, of inducing frustrated, weary, anxious supporters of Israel to turn the conflict inward,” he writes in an email.

He and CAMERA try to keep the focus outward, especially on the foreign press, which is much rougher on Israel that the U.S. media. “I’m not saying we’ve turned things around, but there’s pushback,” he says. “Editors and reporters come and go. In that sense it’s never ending. So you have to keep banging away.”

While Lawson sees a role for pro-Israel groups, he has chided those whose sole Jewish activity is fighting for Israel or battling the BDS movement on campus. Two weeks after last fall’s release of the Pew Research Center’s report on Jewish Americans, he stood in front of an audience at the Conservative movement’s Centennial event in Baltimore, aghast at the finding that, of all the ways a Jew can be connected to Judaism, 73 percent said that an essential part of what being Jewish means to them is remembering the Holocaust.

“Folks,” he said at the time. “How sick is that?”

There might have been good reason for this display of trauma 50 years ago, he explains, but the community has succeeded in re-traumatizing each new generation of Jews.

“We need to move on and start to think about the mental and social health of the Jewish people now and into the future, not least because we’ll bring up the next generation affected by our attitudes,” he says. “Right now, we are not the people destroyed by the Holocaust, but the people who survived the worst that the Nazis could throw at us. It’s arguable whether or not we’ve emerged from that ordeal stronger, but we’ve certainly emerged from it impressively and with a vigor that’s remarkable.”

There is one group of Jews that displays that vigor, he points out. And they are the fastest growing group of Jews on the planet.

“The most vigorous are those who are the least bothered by defense issues – the haredim. They don’t build Holocaust memorials and museums. They have children,” says Lawton. “Oddly, despite the stereotype or prejudice, they are the most forward-looking Jews in the world.”

A zero-sum legacy
There’s an argument to be made that the intractability of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is rooted in the basic constructions of the human condition.

As journalist Robert Wright writes in “Why We Fight and Can We Stop?” in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic: “As [human beings] they suffered from a deep bias tendency to overestimate their team’s virtue, magnify their grievances, and do the reverse with their rivals. This bias seems to have been built into our species by natural selection – at least that’s the consensus among evolutionary psychologists.”

Wright could be describing the two sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but he was referring to a study of Princeton and Dartmouth students about a football game played between their schools.

“Such biases seem to be, in part, the legacy of all the zero-sum games that got played during human evolution,” argues Wright.

What might be a small conflict on the gridiron can be seen, according to this view, as the consequence of the us-versus-them power politics cemented in mankind’s hunting and gathering past.

Wright’s article was in part a review of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene. As director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University’s psychology department, Greene tries to understand the psychology behind a group’s moral judgments.

Humans possess two sets of reactions to conflict and danger, Greene explains in an email. Like a camera that can be switched between a rapid “point and shoot” setting and a “manual mode,” humans are equipped with the ability to toggle between two kinds of response.

“Our automatic setting is our gut feelings, which are efficient, but not very flexible,” he says. “Our manual mode is our capacity for explicit effortful reasoning, which is flexible but not very efficient.

“If you come across a snake, efficiency is more important that flexibility: Jump back now and figure out whether or not it’s poisonous later,” continues Greene. “But when human groups are in conflict, gut reactions are not generally reliable. If everyone’s gut reactions were correct, then there would be no conflict to resolve.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is notable “because of its significance and duration,” says Greene. The psychology behind it is “perfectly ordinary.”

“In general, when two groups of people are in conflict, there are strong, uncompromising feelings on both sides,” he explains. “That’s the problem. At the same time, there are people on both sides who are sometimes willing to put those uncompromising feelings aside and work toward a practical solution.”

When Jews claim the mantle of “we” in their discussions about Israel, each individual may not even be a part of the same “we,” according to Greene, who discerns the existence of “tribal Jews … more committed to the Jewish people than they are to secular moral ideals [and] post-tribal Jews [who] identify as Jews, but [whose] secular moral commitments take precedence over their personal feelings of connection to other Jews.”

Greene believes the problem of us versus them will eventually be solved. But evolutionarily speaking, it won’t be this week.

“The first phase of this process has taken hundreds of years,” he says, “and it will likely take hundreds, if not thousands, more years to complete it.”

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