Mic Check

10.18.12

The Best Way to Achieve Nothing

Here we go.

Some non-Jews have questioned the morality of Israel’s army and are working to undercut US military aid to Israel. And American Jews are losing it.

Major American Jewish organizations said Wednesday they have cancelled talks with liberal Protestant leaders after the churches sought an investigation of US military aid to Israel.

…The church leaders said in an Oct. 5 letter to Congress that Israel was guilty of widespread human rights violations against Palestinians that violated U.S. legal standards for recipients of military aid.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism called the claims "repugnant, regrettable and morally misguided."

Sigh.

I am of at least two minds (if not five or twelve) on this whole turn of affairs, but let’s start here:

First of all, no, Rabbi Wernick, with all due respect (and I speak as an active member of your movement), there’s nothing “repugnant” nor “morally misguided” in saying that there are “widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians.” It’s factually accurate (if you don’t trust me, ask the United Nations. If you don’t trust the UN, ask Israeli human rights NGO B'Tselem. If you don’t trust B'Tselem, ask the US State Department), and there’s absolutely nothing morally misguided about spiritual leaders calling on political leaders to stop abusing the lives and dignity of those under their decidedly un-democratic rule. Indeed, that’s kind of the spiritual leaders’ gig, as I understand it. If you don’t trust me, ask Isaiah.

And just so we’re clear: The church leaders in question also condemned “the horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings, [and] the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society,” adding “each party—Israeli and Palestinian—bears responsibilities for its actions.”

But yes. There is a “regrettable” aspect to the letter: The fact that many American organizations feel comfortable taking issue with Israel’s actions without turning a similar light on abuses perpetrated by other U.S. aid recipients. There is a paragraph that reads

While this letter focuses on U.S.-Israel relations and the Israel-Palestine conflict, these are laws that we believe should be enforced in all instances regardless of location. All allegations regarding the misuse of U.S. supplied arms should be investigated.

But I don’t know: Have there been a lot of letters about military aid to Egypt or any other countries?

In this regard—though I’m certain many of my co-religionists will cry “anti-Semitism!”—I think we’re better served looking at two more positive sources for the focus on Israel: Israel’s openness (Egyptian human rights activists don’t enjoy quite the same freedoms that B'Tselem does), and the close Judeo-Christian relationship.

We Jews forget: The Holy Land really is, actually, holy for Christians, too. Our Scriptures really are their Scriptures. Our cultures are intertwined. And people everywhere tend to register greater anger towards those to whom they are, in some way, close. I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m saying it happens.

But if American institutions want Jews to listen when they criticize Israel, they might try applying their opprobrium more evenly—and as Christians in dialogue with Jews surely know, calling for limiting military aid to Israel is exactly the kind of thing that makes Jews very nervous.

Israel’s military serves two different roles, one as the defender of the state from outside threats, the other as as an occupation police force. The former is absolutely warranted, and Israel’s military advantage is a big part of why the Arab League has twice offered a peace plan in the past decade. As American Jews are painfully aware, that advantage is wholly bound up in Israel’s relationship with the U.S., and people hoping to engage with the community need to be honest about this sensitivity.

The IDF’s latter role, however, is a direct result of Israel’s ongoing occupation of land that belongs to someone else, and kicking seven year old children and beating and detaining innocent men is neither defensible, nor in the service of Israel’s security. Investigation of these activities is justified, because they are wrong—and the fact that they are bundled up in the IDF’s larger mission is, frankly, Israel’s fault, not that of American Christians.

Rather than forever leaping to the defense of anything and everything Israel does (an approach that posits an Israel outside of human history, in that, unlike any other nation ever, it can do no wrong), I believe that America’s Jewish leaders would be wiser to engage not only with what’s laudable in Israel, but also with what’s questionable. If we cannot say that beating innocent people is bad, what’s left of our heritage?

I don’t know how to resolve this impasse. I can see too clearly the imperatives felt on all sides (not least, those of the Palestinian people themselves).

But I will say this: As much as I may equivocate on the value of the letter, I’m pretty clear that the one sure way to make sure there’s no forward movement is to stop talking.

And I am very uncomfortable with the fact that my community’s go-to response for people they don’t like is to cut off their mic.