Clueless American Jews are a Strategic Danger to Israel


Last month, I tried to show just how clueless Americans are about the Middle East; and I strongly implied that American officials’ ignorance of the area’s cultures is a strategic danger not just to the United States, but also to the countries in the region.


Now, I would like to address a subset of that issue: the fact that Israelis and Diaspora Jews in general and American Jews in particular are losing their fund of common knowledge, upon which useful discussion and debate depends. The fact is: today, the two groups of Jews have less and less in common, know less and less about each other, and so have less and less to converse about.


As a result, increasingly, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews have been talking at each other and past each other, rather than with each other. If that trend continues, the Jewish people too may end up facing a real strategic threat.


One central problem is that the debating floor in both societies has been seized by the most extreme groups. And so the middle, which is usually occupied by the majority, ends up becoming the repository of spectators, and is ignored.


Another no less important problem is the fact that the Jewish societies in the Diaspora and in Israel are each evolving at a very rapid pace. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the concerns that led to those evolutionary adaptations, let alone track the adaptations themselves. For that reason, it is only when a massive, comprehensive study, such as the recent Pew study on the Jews of America, is published that caring observers can begin to comprehend the enormous changes in Jewish life that are underway.


A third, major problem is that while Diaspora Jews, and especially American Jews, feel free to critique the Israeli government and its policies, Israelis are, in general, not even the slightest bit interested in learning about Diaspora life, let alone critique it. To most Israelis, Diaspora Jewish life is an aberration of all they think being Jewish is, and so they believe it is irrelevant to them. For example, even when they emigrate to America, Israelis rarely join or take part in activities run by Jewish community institutions.


This then leads to a highly asymmetric relationship. Put in American historic terms, American Jewry too often behaves as if it was made up of British citizens in the 18th century, who had relatives in the 13 colonies and who also supported the results of the American revolution, but who also decided that it was heir right and duty to influence American policies, from abroad, during the period from the end of the War of Independence in 1782 up to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I’ll explain in a moment why a belief in the need for a constitution is of the points of division between Israelis and American Jews.


But first, I want to answer an obvious question: Why have chosen this particular time to discuss this particular subject?


The reasons are multi-fold.


While the gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry has been growing wider and wider for some time, it has now reached the point where it seems to be almost unbridgeable.


Recently, in part because of the media coverage of the Women at the Wall, there have been a large number of articles about just how ignorant Israelis are about the nature of the religious pluralism that is fundamental to life in the Diaspora.


Far less discussed, though, is the breadth and depth of ignorance of Israel on the part of Diaspora Jews in general and American Jews in particular.


My own experience has been that American media consumers in general, and American Jewish media consumers in particular have no interest at all in fact-based analyses of what is occurring in Israel. And thus they are incapable of conversing with Israelis on subjects of real import to the Jews living in Zion.


Many people, not only Jews, react viscerally whenever the word “Israel” is mentioned. For that reason, I have found that most editors (Jewish or not), Jewish activists and media consumers in the United States have been unwilling to confront hard data that undermines their emotionally-based prejudices.


There are many reasons for that. Certainly one is that a lot of material that is necessary for a person to understand what is happening in and to Israel is simply not easily available. One reason for that is that Israeli academics, in general, get tenure by publishing their research in prestigious international magazines. Most of those journals couldn’t care less about Israel. And so the Israeli research has to be written up in a way that addresses a universal issue or can be slotted into a larger, comparative study. Either way, it is hard to find.


Second, with the communications media now in turmoil, and because Americans have become less literate, articles have become shorter. I, personally, find it very hard to write a comprehensive description of what is going on here using only the number of words available.


That has given me a niche, of course. I spend most of my working hours reading the studies nobody else does and then comparing the various comparative studies. That gives me an almost unique perspective on what is going on here. But I must say that what I find in those studies is often of interest only to people who have personal stakes in what is happening here, such as would-be investors.


There is any number of examples I could give you of the kind of work I do. But one, which cropped up just last month, was particularly striking. In September, the World Happiness Report, prepared jointly by the Vancouver School of Economics, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the London School of Economics, and Columbia University was published. It found that Israel is the 11th happiest country in the world, while the US was only in 17th place. The results of that survey were given wide publicity in the Israeli and Jewish Diaspora media.


Even more interestingly, though, a follow-up question by Israel’s Channel 2 got no publicity at all. When he was asked to comment on the report, Prof. Mooli Lahad, a very sober psychologist and researcher, and arguably Israel’s leading expert in PTSD, said that other studies have shown that Israeli Jews are also happier than American Jews.


That difference can be explained by any number of factors—not least early childhood experiences. However, Lahad answered a question I, at least, hadn’t thought to ask. Yet it was a crucial one. He pointed out that one statistically large group with a common background—Holocaust survivors—tells an important story. Those who have lived in Israel are happier and more satisfied with their lives.


Those are subjective judgments that are also open to question. But what is unquestionable is a solid statistical fact that, according to Lahad, Holocaust survivors who reside in Israel live longer than Holocaust survivors in the United States.


Since the usual reasons given for such study results—differences in food intake, the availability of medical assistance, and local violence—can be excluded, the extended lifespan of Holocaust survivors living in Israel can only be attributed to statistically significant differences in cultural and social factors such as perceptions, living environments and behaviours.


My central point is that it is precisely those factors that people outside Israel are most ignorant of that should be shaping perceptions of how the country is developing and why its citizens act as they do.


But what we are invariably bombarded with are articles that basically repeat old arguments. Such pieces tend to come in waves. A couple of months ago, those in the pro-settler camp appeared to have taken over the debating floor. Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon even got an op-ed piece into the New York Times.


But recently, especially in the American media, those on the American Jewish left have also been having a field day.


For example, one event that sent my neurons flashing was Peter Beinart’s latest tirade in the New York Review of Books. In the past, Beinart, who takes “progressive,” “peacenik” positions on the Arab-Israeli dispute, has written broadsides, complaining, among other things, that the American Jewish leadership, because it has slavishly supported Israeli government policies on settlement in the occupied territories, has alienated most of America’s young, liberal Jews.


I’ll come back to Beinart in a moment.


Then came another article, this one, an op-ed piece in the New York Times, was published by another leftist American Jewish academic, Ian Lustick. This epistle made me want to throw up my arms in despair. It was a compilation of some of the most foolish assessments I have yet read on the viability of the so-called “two-state solution.” He thinks that there is no such option.


To me, the artice was an icon of how many American Jews, especially too many who are labeled “public intellectuals,” are totally at ease in their belief that reality in the Middle East is what their imaginations can concoct without reference to any scientifically-gathered data set.


The publication of Lustick’s speculative idiocies, assumptions, and false analogies could have been ignored were it not for the fact that it was the featured op-ed article in the Sunday New York Times, was accompanied by a large, eye-catching graphic, and was allowed to go on for a far greater length than other op-eds of its type.


The article was therefore both significant and instructive because it demonstrated what the editorial board of what is arguably the most important media outlet in the United States considers to be informative, important and relevant. The publication of the article is a warning sign if there ever was one of the ignorance and stupidity that is accompanying the descriptions of and the public debate about the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

A third article that made me shake my head in wonder was published recently by Daniel Levy in Foreign Policy, which is, effectively, the house organ of the American foreign policy-making fraternity. Levy, a British political scientist who once worked for Ehud Barak and Yossi Belin, is director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. Without using any objective facts to back up his assertions, he claimed that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is against peace in the Middle East.

The three articles are indicative of the level to which discourse on the Middle East in some of the most prominent journals in the United States has plopped.


Of the three articles, Beinart’s tract deserves the closest attention. He is an important writer and a skilled researcher. I may disagree with some of his conclusions, but I very rarely find any factual errors in his articles.


Beinart’s premise this time was that anyone who comes to visit Israel under the auspices of a Jewish or pro-Israel lobbying organization such as AIPAC lives in a cocoon because he or she is not given an opportunity to talk to or to interact with Palestinians. For this reason, these political and other sponsored visitors—and thus many, many Washington decision-makers—never come to understand why the Palestinians and their allies act as they do.


Binart’s conclusion may be the product of an accurate assessment. Having never taken one of the trips he describes, I cannot offer any judgment.


But his description of the environment in which those trips take place did highlight what I believe is a far more important issue. Most of the writings from the neo-nationalists and the left are advocacy pieces, and so in order to achieve their rhetorical goals, their material is deliberately far too circumscribed. In other words, they distort reality because they focus only on a very narrow aspect of a much broader and a much more encompassing problem.


In this case, the broader issue is how the public’s perceptions of the Israel-Arab dispute in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in particular, are formed—and whether those perceptions are based on an accurate reading of reality. For example, I have found, after talking with people who have taken the trips that Beinart describes, that it makes no difference whether Diaspora visitors come on trips sponsored or organized by the Jewish establishment, neo-nationalist Zionist organizations or “progressives.” All are kept in such a tight-fitting cocoon that they are rarely if ever permitted to learn anything of significance about Israel, let alone about the Palestinians.


I have to emphasize once again that, although I have highlighted articles written by left-wing American Jews, not just those on the left are guilty of this fault. This approach to persuading others appears to be endemic to the majority American Jewish so-called “public intellectuals” whom I have read. For example, it has long been clear to me that, as is the case with neo-con Norman Podhoretz, too many American Jewish advocate/scribes, whatever their political leanings, write only to cocoon their readers by using silken intellectual webs that are no less insidious and impervious to outside influences and outside influencers than the ones woven by the trip organizers whom Beinart criticizes.


In general, if one looks closely at the writings about the Middle East that emerge from the word processing programmes of American Jews, it becomes rather obvious that they are not based on a thorough examination of how and why Israelis live out their lives as they do. Instead, there is a marked resemblance in the arguments used in these tracts to the ideological battles that these same Jews carry on in America. In other words, Israel has become merely another convenient peg upon which these American-originated debating points can be exchanged.


A very good example of this phenomenon took place at the annual J Street conference this fall. When Shelly Yachimovitz addressed the meeting, she received wild applause when she talked about Israel’s national healthcare service, the need for civil marriages and gay rights—all hot American issues. However, as the Times of Israel reported, when she said “we believe in a free and democratic Israel with a strong army and secure borders to defend not only our people but our values,” the applause was muted. And when she paused after adding “this is the true Zionist dream,” there was no applause at all.


At this point, I must make clear that I don’t dismiss any of these incidents or any of these articles out of hand, even if the content is mindless. That is because these American writings and reactions reveal something that is ultra important: The things that Israelis do, and what they talk about among themselves, rarely, if ever, enters American-initiated discourse. In other words, most of what American Jews and European Jews write about Israel today displays a profound ignorance of how Israeli society and Israeli politics have evolved since 1967.


I have found that one thing unites the majority of the Diaspora political preachers. Almost without exception, these writers, like the governments of the countries in which they live, assume that they know how they would act if they lived under the same circumstances as Israelis do—and therefore how Israelis should act now.


There are many reasons for this unwillingness to enter into a real dialogue with Israelis.


The first reason is that the subjects American Jews want to talk about emerge not from the long-established “parliaments” in the coffee houses in Rehovot, Tiberias or Kiryat Shmona, nor from the intense discussions that well up in Israelis’ living rooms and around Israeli dinner tables, but from the political cauldron in Washington.


The fact is: The daily briefing at the State Department and the regular press conferences held at the White House have more of an impact on what American Jews think about and talk about than the subjects that consume Israelis. That is because those briefings are covered intensively by the media, while what Israelis say to each other at work or in their living rooms rarely if ever gets reported by the often Hebrew-deficient foreign journalists in Israel.


And what do the daily State Department briefings focus on? It is only natural that the subjects discussed at events that the Department sponsors almost invariably relate to those things that the department’s employees see as being their within their mandate or area of expertise.


In general, American diplomats are mandated to do three things—gather information about the thoughts and doings of a foreign country’s ruling elite, mediate disputes and provide humanitarian assistance. These three subjects then set the agenda of almost everything American diplomats talk about. In Europe, these same subjects pervade the press releases distributed by the continent’s highly-influential NGOs, such as Oxfam.


Among other things, this phenomenon has led, since 1967, to an almost obsessional focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. That is because intervening to alter the nature and terms of that conflict fits the Department’s mandate and the stated purpose of the European humanitarian NGOs like a glove.


An even more important reason why perceptions of the reality in which Israelis live their lives is distorted is that there is an almost chasmic difference in understanding between Israeli and Diaspora Jews about what the reference point for their political discussions should be; and who the ultimate audience for their thoughts and observations should be.


But before I go any further, I must, again, digress and take some time to explain how the Israeli reality differs from what the Diaspora Jews’ perceptions of it are because, to the best of my knowledge, no one else has done this.


Diaspora Jews, for the most part, live in democratic countries whose system of self-rule is ordered by a written or, as in Britain, by an unwritten but otherwise generally accepted constitution. In addition, subjects or situations not covered by the provisions of a constitution are usually dealt with by using a set of agreed-upon formal and informal rules of political behaviour. In Great Britain, for example, it is not unusual for a member of parliament to resign not because he or she has done something illegal, but just because what they may have done “just isn’t done.”


By contrast, Israel has no constitution and no otherwise agreed-upon conventions for dealing with issues in dispute. For that reason, for example, the Shas, party felt totally at ease welcoming back Aryeh Deri to lead it. The party argued that Deri, a convicted criminal, had served out his prison sentence and had spent a further cooling off period from politics for having engaged in moral turpitude while serving as a cabinet minister. Therefore there was no legal reason why he should not be allowed to return to active politics. In other words, his rabbinical colleagues in the party were saying that unlike the British who say “It’s just not done,” they could say “Why shouldn’t it be done.”


Most other democracies also voluntarily adhere to and depend on principles such as majority rule, protection for minorities and an agreed set of debating rules that are designed to guide and regulate the step-by-step process of decision-making. When debates are held in Israel, the practice of the participants is usually to try to talk louder and longer than anyone else in the belief that a person must win the contest if he or she prevents anyone else from getting a word in edgewise.


Israel’s current system of governance is the product of an absence of all those things I have just mentioned. Throughout the pre-state period, and continuing up to the 1980s, Israeli politics was based on the supposition that there would be two large ideologically-based parties, each of which would be accompanied by and supported by a train of dependent, acolyte minority parties.


The large parties, because they were guided by comprehensive ideologies, were expected to provide intellectual umbrellas for decision-making. Specifically, one of their major tasks that they were assigned by the public was to balance national needs with available resources. The minor parties, which were usually guided by narrower dogmas, provided a vehicle for the public to express which items on the national agenda that did not affect the majority directly, should also be given priority. Because the minor parties were usually dogma-driven, not ideology-driven—in other words because they focused on a narrow set of belief-driven issues, not broad issues of concern to all—one of the major tasks of the major party was to moderate and even limit the influence that minor party coalition partners could have on policy-making.


However, in the wake of the 1965 economic recession, the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanese War, this system began to break down. Many acolyte parties, such as the Liberals and the Progressives on the liberal end of the political spectrum, and Rafi and Ahdut Avodah on the left, merged with a major party and disappeared. The National Religious Party switched partners from Labour to the Likud, and the ultra-Orthodox, Haredi parties, which had never been allied with either camp, eventually decided to join the government for fun and especially for profit.


As time passed, the minor parties grew in strength, and the large parties lost Knesset seats. When the major parties could elect a third or more of the Knesset members, they could control the minor parties. But once their representation fell to a quarter of the seats, that became almost impossible.


The end result was that Israeli self-rule became dependent on the formation of governments that were, de facto, federations of minority parties. In too many cases, government policy then became the product of deals made by the coalition parties after the elections. They were not the result of a real national debate that had taken place prior to the voting, as is the case in most other democracies.


In other words, the underlying premise of Israeli federalist politics, as it is practiced today, is that everything is negotiable. That principle, at least in part, explains why the country has never passed a full Bill of Rights and why not one of the Basic Laws—the precursor to a constitution—assigns to the judiciary the role of being the third branch of government. Too many Israeli politicians view the judiciary and its reliance on the law, signed treaties and precedent, as an impediment to their control of civil life and to negotiated political deals.


Diaspora Jews must surely shake their heads in wonder if, as often happens to me, Israelis ask them whether they think everything should be negotiable or judiciable.


Invariably, once cabinets are formed, the demands of those minority groups that are present in the government are given precedence over the rights and needs both of other minorities and even of the majority.


As well, Diaspora Jews seeking redress for their complaints in their home countries, have an address for their pleas. An Israeli has no such address. This elementary fact then has an enormous impact on the nature of the discourse between Israelis and their foreign co-religionists.


American Jewish leaders, for example, when talking about politics, invariably feel most comfortable talking about their governments—and especially what their elected representatives are doing. The phrase “I’m going to write to my Congressman about this,” is not an uncommonly used expression. That is because the congressman is known by name and has an address.


However, that’s not all that they can do. No political system is perfect, and so Americans have come to rely as well on several backup systems. For example, it is not uncommon for an American constituent to realize that he or she may have little leverage with the elected representative, and that his or her epistle may elicit nothing more than a form-letter response.


For that reason, American Jewish society is organized in such a way that it can take advantage of the American political tradition that has evolved to cope with issues of this sort. In the United States, any Jew can request that a community leader, who is often chosen precisely because he or she may have a great deal of leverage with the country’s political leaders, support the constituent’s brief if the subject at hand relates to the Jewish community as a whole.


Because average American citizens need these kinds of intermediaries, prestige and honour within America communities is doled out to those who can provide that intermediation. The measurement used by non-elected and non-paid community leaders, as they climb up the ladder of recognition and even fame, is the number and the names of people that the leaders can claim to have as their personal contacts.


In most functioning democracies, it is believed that deals can and should be struck by community representatives negotiating with “people in power” because this is a vastly more efficient way of dealing with the issues being raised by many people who would otherwise flood the politician’s office with individual requests.


Diaspora leaders, then, when seeking redress or seeking to promote a law or plan for action, usually approach their elected representatives in two ways: by massaging their egos so that the representative will be responsive to the requests being made of them and by the use of pleas and arguments based on the ideas and ideals set out in their constitution.


In other words, the framework for decision-making that Diaspora Jews, and especially constitution-fixated American Jews, are familiar with and know how to use is institutionalized government in all its forms.


Israelis, on the other hand, have a totally different perception of what self-rule entails. They vote for parties, not individuals. For that reason they never know who precisely is supposed to represent them. Any Knesset member they may choose to write to may turn out to be totally uninterested in dealing with the issue the citizen wishes to raise. And if the individual then chooses to pursue an issue, he or she may have no choice but to call upon the services of a “macher” or professional lobbyist and fixer, whose services may smudge the border of legality…and are usually very costly.


As a result, ordinary Israeli citizens long ago stopped expecting anything positive of their elected representatives. My all-time favourite statistic produced by the Israeli political system comes from the Sderot Conference’s annual poll. It shows that, consistently, only 13 percent of Israelis trust the party they have just voted for or are about to vote for.


For this reason, Israeli domestic political discourse is very often overwhelmed by urgent questions of how governance in the country can be made to work under the existing circumstances. After a long history of disappointments, Israelis have learned not to assume that they know how any particular government will operate, and what will be all of its policy-making priorities.


When I use the word “governance,” I am referring to all those persons and institutions that can bring influence to bear when national decisions are being made. In Israel, increasingly, ad hoc groups, when carefully created and nurtured, have shown conclusively that they can bring about significant political change even if they have no formal institutional base.


The trips that Beinart describes are an attempt by those seeking to control the communication pipelines to take advantage the asymmetry in the Israelis’ and the Americans’ perceptions of how systems of self-governance should and do operate. Usually, the format of these trips is determined by American organizers of the trips so that they will fit the American visitors’ needs and expectations. The Israeli organizers then provide the bodies needed and the texts to be used. The idea is to ensure that these events will be used as serious ego-massaging events. So, for that reason the schedule invariably includes meetings with celebrity civil servants, senior military officers and Knesset members.


Those officials who are chosen to appear before junketeers usually have nothing new or original to say. They simply repeat the list of talking points that they have been given. The real purpose of the meeting is to give the Diaspora leaders lists of names of people with impressive titles that the leader can then claim have become members of his or her personal treasury of “contacts.” The intent is that when these people return to the US, their conversations will include sentences such as “When I was last in Israel and met with….”


Now fill in the blanks.


One thing that almost certainly never comes out of those meetings between American visitors and Israeli celebrity officials is a detailed description of the real situations Israeli citizens are living through.


Invariably the talking points are formulated so that they will refer directly to those issues that the junketeers “know” in advance are important. These issues have been labeled “important” because the junketeers and the American organizers have been told they are “important” by the American State Department and the US media. Almost without exception, the most prominent issue that the visitors expect to hear speeches about is, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.


These expectations then produce any number of misunderstandings when ordinary Israelis and Diaspora leaders do meet. For example, the foreigners often cannot believe that the subject of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank does not preoccupy Israelis’ every waking moment.


But, to my mind, the greatest fault lines separating Diaspora and Israeli Jewry are the unseen aspects of Israeli society and culture that cannot be explained in words, but must be experienced personally.


For example, if an American chooses to join the US army, he or he is isolated from his or her family for the 6 months of basic training in order to socialize the new recruit into believing in and acting unquestioningly according to the mores of the military.


In Israel, the process of creating an effective soldier is totally different. Families are expected to be part of the socialization process, and to support the military and its objectives–especially if the child shows signs of being overcome by the military’ demands.


But in order for the families to function in that way, the families too must be socialized into the military. And that means creating ways for the families to show openly that they approve of the army’s objectives and ways of doing things.


In other words, in Israel, families are required to take part in ceremonies, such as reserve army duty, that express their faith in a set of beliefs that even the most devout, secular atheists can accept.


To show just how significant those ceremonies are and just how incapable Americans are of perceiving the impact those ceremonies have on large swaths of the Israeli public, I think it is significant that many Americans on both the left and the right, after hearing that peacenik writer David Grossman’s son had been killed during the war in Lebanon simply could not accept that Grossman had even allowed his son to serve in the army.


But, then again, they had never taken part in one very common ceremony, the reenactment of the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac—Akedat Yitzchak—as a majority of middle-aged Israeli parents do. Akedat Yitzchak is arguably the most literarily brilliant and most spiritually engrossing drama in the whole Torah. And while Diaspora Jews may be enthralled by the story, it is highly unlikely that any of them believes that it has any direct, immediate relevance to them.


That is not the case in Israel. In Israel, the tale is not merely chanted twice a year in the synagogue—during Rosh Hashana and when the story takes its place in the normal Torah-reading schedule as is the case in the Diaspora. For anyone in Israel who has a car and a child serving in a fighting unit in the army, it is a scene they probably personally reenact themselves every two weeks at 5:30 on alternate Sunday mornings. For it is then that they ritually deliver their child to the bus that will take him or her back to the army after a weekend of leave. It is a moment of great built-in ceremony and emotion.


At that moment, the parent, whether he or she is religious or totally secular, must, like Abraham, and in an extraordinary and sublime act of faith, hand their child over to an overwhelming and largely unknown power that neither the parent nor the child can see or control. Worse still, as was the case with the Biblical Isaac, that unseen power has not only demanded total possession of the child, it has even appropriated the right to sacrifice the child when and if it sees fit to do so.


Because of this experience and others very much like it that Israelis undergo on a regular basis, these embedded and internalized characteristics then have an enormous impact on Israeli behaviour patterns. And they are one of the main sources of confusion and even disillusion for many American Jews. The story about Shelly Yachimovitch being unable to elicit support for the notion that an army is needed not only to protect people, but to protect important humane and humanistic values, is but one case in point.





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