Friday, June 4, 2010

American Support for Israel: Structural Failure

Surely many Israel supporters will disagree with the points argued by Gal Beckerman in The Forward. Beckerman is joined by Peter Beinart and Anshel Pfeffer in criticizing the American Jewish Establishment's response to the flotilla raid. The articles, all anti-AIPAC and decidedly pro-J Street, challenge the polarized nature of the debate.

But if there is one word to describe the raid, it is debatable. Armed citizen activists violated a questionably legal blockade of the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million residents. The blockade is imposed on security grounds and out of concern for the residents of border communities like Sderot and Ashkelon (whose well-being we can safely assume did not cross the mind of any of the so-called humanitarian activists for a moment). The raid undertaken by the IDF was one in which soldiers, expecting nonviolent resistence, were assaulted by anti-Israel civilians wieldng knives, poles, pepper spray, and slingshots. In the aftermath [read: IDF media blackout], 9 of these civilians lay dead, 5 from gunshots to the head. One was a 19-year old American citizen. 7 Israeli commandos were wounded in the raid and spent this week in a hospital bed.

It's simple, really.

And what is the PR strategy of Israel and its American supporters? We say, "The activists were bad so its ultimately ok that we accidentaly killed them." We join some pro-Tzhal Facebook groups. We hold some white and blue flags and sing Hatikvah.

This isn't a issue of message, or how many hours it took to get our videos on Youtube. The failure is not of our operation as a community, but rather our structure. Our message lacks nuance not because we designed it that way, but because our community is completely incapable of having a real discussion in the first place. Uniting at the front has chilled our ability to produce the kinds of effective defense of the Jewish state that it desperately needs right now. Our PR has become a dystopian pygmalion in that what we sought to create is what we have become. Blunt. Unwavering. Simple. And it costs us the PR win every single time.

To any undecided observer, the videos Israel released of the Mavi Marmara and its viciously misanthropic passengers speak for themselves. Defending the raid is something Israel is doing beautifully. Defending Israel is something at which it is failing. The issue is the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The issue is the lack of proportionality and double standards held by the Israeli government. It's the blockade, stupid.

But how can a nuanced defense emerge when the American Jewish Committee's homepage screams "The Terror Flotilla," and J Street's emails omit the incontrovertible fact that the activists on the ship were armed and seeking to attack IDF commandos? How can we foster a discussion of our best move forward without discussants?

Defending Israel will require a serious examination of ourselves as an American Jewish community. In Israel, self-examination is already occurring. Israelis are smart, pragmatic people, and they question the wisdom of the raid, question the simplicity of the government's position, and question what options they will have moving forward. Israelis feel isolated, and are concerned about the future of their state. It is our obligation as American Jews to help them.

But American Jewry, for all its strengths, was analytically impoverished this week. The solution must be long term. But the harm to Israeli and Palestinian people is right now. And our inability to protect them is nothing short of shameful. They deserve better, and we deserve better for ourselves.

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