Meta-Response

07.12.13

Open Zion Should Not Mean Open Season on Israel

I know that after reading Peter Beinart’s essay critiquing Ron Dermer I should feel outraged that Bibi Netanyahu’s next choice to represent Israel in Washington is a neocon whose writings “would have fit snugly into the pages of The Weekly Standard,” with his “disdain for Palestinians” reflecting “his cartoonish view of their and Israel’s shared history.” Instead, Beinart’s essay—which was, characteristically, well-researched and well-argued—captured the problem of Progressive Zionism today, and more, specifically, the challenge Open Zion faces to provide something more positive than declaring Open Season on Israel.

Beinart describes a Netanyahu loyalist and a right-winger—which is what the Israeli electorate endorsed twice. But Beinart shortchanges Dermer’s patriotism. He is a proud Zionist, a fulfilled Israeli immigrant, who delights in his homeland and will convey that love of Zion. Moreover, only a “cartoonish” reading of history would ignore Israelis’ valid reasons for mistrusting Palestinians. Semantic games, mocking Dermer’s claim that “Palestinian Arabs…have never mounted a non-violent campaign to achieve their goals”—because Palestinians supported boycotts and strikes—miss the centrality of terrorism in the Palestinian strategy, which was Dermer’s point, writing as he was amid the Palestinan suicide bombing campaign of 2002, which killed Oslo.

My worries about Open Zion and Progressive Zionism are further confirmed by the pile-on against Israel’s seemingly sole culpability for Oslo’s failure. Noga Tarnopolsky’s “20 Years After Oslo, What's Happened to the Israeli Left?” claims: “To understand the reigning disaffection among onetime voters of the Israeli left, observers should turn their attention to a small, overlooked scandal now unfolding in the Meretz party in Jerusalem.” She uncovers a reprehensible example of cronyism, elitism, and vote finagling which reflects some Israeli Leftist shortcomings. But putting this issue in the context of Oslo, without mentioning the Left’s failure to explain the failure of territorial withdrawal as a strategy for stopping terrorism, rocket fire, and delegitimization, insults the reader’s intelligence. It would be like a medical student emphasizing a terminally ill patient’s nasal congestion when summarizing a cancer patient’s medical chart. It’s annoying, contagious and irrelevant.

Emily Hauser’s Oslo analysis is equally myopic. She writes, “Before long, and given all the violence on all sides, it became very easy for official Israel to exploit those flaws for its own purposes and essentially turn Oslo against itself.” Such “evenhandedness” ignores Yasir Arafat’s decision, after Camp David 2, to turn from negotiations back toward terrorism, which led to Bill Clinton’s famous denunciation of that arch terrorist, "I'm a colossal failure, and you made me one." We are all so clever, and there are so many sides to this complicated story that we could spin anything every which way, but we all must provide some judgment, some proportionality.

The problem goes far beyond what one colleague calls the Middle East’s perpetual “whodunnitism”—which, I add, most frequently blames Israel and dishonors Palestinians by not holding them responsible for their actions. Progressive discourse about Israel is just too churlish. In June, as I finished a glorious Shabbat after a fabulous week in Jerusalem, I clicked onto my Open Zion newsletter. The weather in Israel was glorious. There were conferences galore and excitement as headliners like Bill Clinton and Barbra Streisand headed to the Holy Land. Jerusalem was buzzing about the two-day Formula One race, roaring around the Old City. It may have been the most boring sporting event I ever witnessed, but it attracted nearly 250,000 spectators over two days, with Jews, Muslims, and Christians mixing easily and peacefully—the Israeli police said not one violent incident was reported amid the crowds.

Still, in the misanthropic spirit of the BBC, which buried the non-violence in literally the last line of its article “Formula 1 racing cars cause controversy in Jerusalem,” the Open Zion newsletter just offered a chorus of crankiness.

Peter Beinart’s grumpy article about “Cory Booker’s Rabbis” snapped: “How could rabbis so blind to injustice against Palestinians forge such a close bond to a politician who has built his political persona on impassioned pleas for justice?” The article assumed that friends must agree about everything and that the positions of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht were so immoral they polluted all their allies, including Newark’s pop-star mayor Cory Booker.

More outrageous was the article accusing the thoughtful, subtle writer Shmuel Rosner of “Justifying Segregation in the New York Times?” That headline caricatured Rosner’s analysis of the Superland amusement park, whose policies of separating Jewish and Arab student groups on trips was widely denounced in Israel, including by Dermer’s boss Netanyahu. Rosner ended his article, which acknowledged the problem of occasional violent clashes between Arab and Jewish groups on outings by saying the policy “had to be condemned. That official Israel did just that is the single bit of solace to be found in this depressing situation.” Actions that a writer deems “depressing” and contemptible have not been “justified” by him or his publication.

Such crankiness, churlishness and moral equivalence reveal a stunning failure to express the kind of patriotism Dermer clearly has. In his classic 2008 speech in Independence, Missouri, Barack Obama said that while “dissent does not make one unpatriotic…there's nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America's traditions and institutions.” He said his “gut instinct…that this is the greatest country on Earth survived not only because, in my mind, the joys of American life and culture—its vitality, its variety, its freedom—always outweighed its imperfections, but because I learned that what makes America great has never been its perfection, but the belief that it can be made better.”

Similarly, Progressive Zionists and Open Zion’s stable of talented writers should acknowledge Israel’s “vitality,” “variety,” and “freedom” more. Just seeing Israel through the Palestinian prism is as distorting as just reading American history as racism. An imperfect America had poetry, glory, and grandeur, too.

Admittedly, Ron Dermer is vulnerable to the opposite criticism of only seeing Israel through a patriotic, blue and white prism, as am I. Ignoring Palestinian suffering or Israel’s mistakes risks creating an equally false Herzlian fantasy. We all must seek balance, politically, diplomatically, historically.

Having written for Open Zion for over a year, and being committed to continuing to do so, I do not question Peter Beinart’s Zionism or patriotism. I acknowledge his openness to a range of voices—and echo his call for more to join this vigorous, wide-ranging debate about how to make Israel the best country it can be, truly fulfilling many Zionist dreams. But I question whether we have achieved the proper balance of patriotic expression tempering dissent that Obama championed.

Existentially and pragmatically, I prefer the cushioning of collective pride—which risks complacency—to the toxins of self-hatred—which risk nihilism. While extra helpings of humble pie and self-criticism could benefit both sides, peace will not be achieved by Israelis adopting what Samantha Power prescribed for the U.S.: “a doctrine of the mea culpa.”

Peace through strength may be too Cold War, but peace through apologias is too Neville Chamberlain. We need peace with pride. Making peace with your enemies can be pragmatic and lasting; making peace by ignoring their enmity is foolish and sterile.