Monday, March 27, 2017

It's Not Friedman. Pro-Israel Advocacy Has A "Kapo" Problem

AIPAC's 2017 conference is focused on the theme "Many voices, one mission." The slogan reflects well-placed concern over the increasingly partisan nature of the US-Israel relationship. Actors on both sides are contributing to this problem, including at the conference itself. If Not Now's protests/antics outside the Washington Convention Center yesterday make a polarized conversation more polarized and do little to legitimize serious conversations about the future of Israel's presence in the West Bank. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer's comments about there being no daylight between the US and Israel for the first time in years were a petty swipe at an Obama administration which is no longer in office. It needlessly alienated liberals who constitute a majority of the US Jewish population and voted overwhelmingly Democrat in both 2012 and 2016.

Politics in the US are polarized in general and we shouldn't expect the tide to ebb any time soon. The best approach in the meantime, therefore, is to build and re-enforce sandbag walls that mitigate further slippage of the discourse into further nastiness. A change in administration - and a new US ambassador - offers this opportunity.

During his confirmation hearing, Ambassador-designate David Friedman's comments about J Street being "worse" than "Kapos" proved divisive. It is astonishing they were not disqualifying on face. The use of Holocaust terminology in this context should be an obvious red line to liberals (who have been guilty of similar statement in the past) and conservatives alike. 

But Ambassador Friedman did not confirm himself. Ultimately, a majority of US Senators decided their careers would not be at stake if they overlooked a blatant invocation of Holocaust rhetoric against a Jewish pro-Israel organization. As it pertains to the Ambassador, this issue has been analyzed to death. But the Senate vote is indicative of a deeper problem in the American pro-Israel community itself.  

This problem is not that Ambassador-designate Friedman used (and later apologized for) a certain turn of phrase. It's that many pro-Israel Americans agree with him. And while they may disagree with the specific terminology, they truly believe J Street is a nefarious organization with the intent of destroying Israel. This belief is, to put it plainly, an alternative fact with piles of evidence to the contrary. 

Disagreeing with J Street and its policies is fair game (see earlier posts on this blog). But pro-Israel apathy toward an American official invoking the word "Kapos" toward other Jews is unacceptable. Rebuttals to J Street are (sometimes) based in fact. Deploying or ignoring Holocaust terminology against J Street is based in tribalist paranoid demagoguery that cheapens the memory of the Six Million. It is a blight on our community that a basic respect for our history and for each other has blinded us to the goodness of brothers sitting together.

It would be a mistake to instrumentalize Ambassador-designate Friedman's comments as a tool for bleeding political capital in a US relationship with a critical ally. Instead, pro-Israel Americans must see his comments as a mirror that reflects an ugly truth about the standards we accept tacitly or otherwise in the pro-Israel community. It is incumbent that each of us - working in our own ideological camps - do the hard work of self-reflection about how we represent our passion for Israel and its security. Perhaps AIPAC's admirable commitment to unity of mission could be built upon establishing these grounds for common decency.



Thursday, March 23, 2017

David Friedman Is The Next US Ambassador To Israel

The confirmation of David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel is an opportunity for a fresh start that neither the US nor Israel can afford to squander. 

Both the United States and Israel face serious long-term challenges that only cooperation can solve. These include remedying the violence of Syria's brutal civil war, strengthening economic ties between the US and Israel, and achieving a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Critical to these challenges will be the creation of broad coalitions within and between peoples. To this end, Ambassador-Designate Friedman should focus immediately on building ties between the US and Israeli administrations. He should seek to engage not only with Israel's government but also with its diverse and ambitious people. He should work to support Israeli and Palestinian pragmatists with innovative ideas for a final status agreement based on the concept of two states for two peoples - a position consistent with decades of US foreign policy.

Most importantly, the Ambassador-Designate should reaffirm his commitment to pluralism in the American pro-Israel community. The framing of Israel as a partisan issue is one of the greatest dangers facing the State of Israel in the next decade. Furthermore, the polarization and lack of respect for pluralism within the American pro-Israel community is a serious threat to Israel's ability to ensure support in an increasingly volatile Middle East. The apologies Ambassador-Designate Friedman offered during his confirmation hearing should be the first in an ongoing series of reconciliatory measures which indicate that supporters of Israel in America have a place at the table.  

Diversity of opinion - and the ability to tolerate it - is the single greatest asset that the US and Israel share. The new Ambassador should work hard to ensure that it remains a major element of American and Israeli politics. Nothing could be more foundational to the long-term vitality of the US-Israel relationship than affirming the love of liberal democracy Americans share with the People of Israel.