Time to Talk: Israeli and American Progressives Need to Communicate

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In the cold light of January, Israeli and American progressives have awoken to a harsh new reality, in which right-wing interests have gained power and are preparing for permanent war. How did we get here? Like a couple who have been stressed by circumstances and who suddenly realize the sheets are cold, Israeli and American Jewish progressives linger awake in bed, talking past each other. But at least we’ve finally started talking.

Israeli pundit Chemi Shalev of Haaretz first broke the silence. Feeling cornered by the right and unsupported by the left, Shalev articulates “the cries of anguish emanating from Israel’s peace camp.” He takes his frustration out on American progressive Jews themselves: “By staying silent, by refraining from the kind of forceful, game-changing protest that the current situation warrants, American Jews are not only abandoning like-minded Israelis, they are betraying Israel itself.”

And just like that, we’re finally talking. But to show how little communication we American and Israeli progressives have ever had in our cold romance, Shalev seems totally unfamiliar with the barriers American Jews have faced for decades. Shalev’s words suggest that he thinks American Jews have been “staying silent,” not protesting the ascendancy of the right. To be sure, this accusation is quite false. As an activist with nearly 20 years’ experience in American Jewish progressive advocacy on Israel, starting here at Tikkun when I co-founded a Politics of Meaning chapter in Boston, I think most of my grassroots colleagues would agree that we’ve been tiring ourselves out to make modest tactical gains every so often, like the Iran deal. American Jewish progressives have stared down opprobrium and ostracism in our own communities, unsure exactly how to help but unwilling to let the right wing get away with its claim to represent us. Our efforts have not yet succeeded in turning the tide, so Shalev’s frustration is understandable, but his accusation is misinformed.

In that context, it is easy to see how American progressive Jews could have been offended by Shalev’s accusation of betrayal. But unfortunately The Forward’s editor-in-chief Jane Eisner took Shalev’s “cries of anguish” personally, coldly lashing out against Shalev: “We cannot and should not be expected to save Israeli Jews from themselves.” Eisner not only declines to help but even to recognize a progressive movement within Israel worthy of help. Instead, she offers only the stony truism that “in the end, all we can ask is to be highly knowledgeable and engaged witnesses to each other’s stories.” In the end of what? In the end of a cataclysmic humanitarian catastrophe that we American Jewish progressives might have prevented if we had taken more risks back in January 2016? Let us not join Eisner as a dispassionate “witness” to the death throes of the Israeli left.

While Eisner’s defensiveness is unconstructive, her frustration gets us somewhere. She would like to “be convinced that my complaints from New York might have real consequences in Jerusalem,” but she is not so convinced. “Instead,” she writes, “I see a demoralized Israeli left that needs to get its own act together before it demands more from us.” Just as Shalev misdiagnosed American Jewish progressives’ troubles, Eisner misdiagnoses her Israeli counterparts, imagining that they are not trying hard enough. Perhaps with more communication, American Jewish and Israeli progressives could create a working relationship, but Eisner only channels Netanyahu by setting impossible, subjective preconditions for putting any effort into the peace process. Shalev is drowning and admittedly sputtering, and Eisner throws him an anchor instead of a life preserver.

Shalev was taken aback. In a rambling, often sarcastic response, Shalev grapples with his disbelief that American Jews would not even try to help Israeli progressives “before turning their backs and looking the other way.” If Israeli-American progressive Jewish collaboration goes no deeper than Eisner’s pious disengagement, Shalev rages, “my relationship with American Jews was built on a lie.”

One of Shalev’s many return volleys hits home: “Right-wing American Jews certainly don’t feel any such compunctions. They are completely immersed . . . [in] advancing their causes in Israel, with all their heart and far too much of their money.” Indeed. As much as anything, today’s twisted Israel is a product of right-wing American engagement and left-wing American disengagement.

New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch would know. He entered the fray three days later, observing that “the current state of political affairs didn’t just happen.” Sokatch traces Israel’s path away from democracy through recent settler advocacy, underscoring Shalev’s point that the left has not matched the right wing’s engagement, and making the case that greater progressive participation in Israel’s political processes might lead to better results. He argues for confidence and investment in “the new beginning of a progressive infrastructure,” including “think tanks, media monitoring, online organizing, and other progressive institutions.”

No doubt Sokatch is right. But while I can’t agree with Eisner’s formula for disengagement, Israel does need a homegrown left wing with its act together. Not even Sheldon Adelson, proprietor of Israel’s most-read newspaper, the money-losing free right-wing daily Israel Today, has done the right wing’s job himself. Without homegrown Israeli leadership like Netanyahu and Shaked, Naftali Bennett and Moshe Ya’alon, strong settler grassroots movements and strong ultra-Orthodox parties, even Adelson’s money could not have dictated the agenda. Shalev makes Eisner’s central point in his first article: “‘We need a leader, we need a leader,’ is the mantra” of the Israeli left, he writes, and although it is true, “it is also an excuse to continue sipping lattes and . . . doing nothing. If Israelis themselves aren’t up in arms, why should American Jews be bothered?” Sokatch’s optimism is helpful, but the tactical programs of the New Israel Fund cannot answer Eisner’s or Shalev’s deep questioning of the Israeli-American progressive relationship.

I’d like for Edo Konrad, deputy editor of the progressive Israeli +972 magazine, to have the last word in our review of the Jewish left’s sudden transatlantic quarrel. “American Jews who are reading this,” writes Konrad, “must understand why this is all happening now. . . . International pressure . . . [has] brought the attacks on those who wish for a peaceful, just solution to the conflict to a fever pitch. In a sense, all of this was inevitable. But your silence isn’t. The American Jewish establishment . . . must take a look in the mirror and decide whether this is the Israel it identifies with. If it isn’t, it should speak up. Urgently.”

What a confused set of misguided accusations, mistaken assumptions, and misdirected imperatives. Shalev wants the American progressive grassroots to “cry foul and raise hell” in “the kind of forceful, game-changing protest that the current situation warrants.” Konrad wants “the American Jewish establishment” to “speak up.” Eisner wants the Israeli left to “get its own act together,” while Sokatch asks for your support. (Do please donate to the New Israel Fund before continuing to read. I made a gift to them before continuing to write.)

Instead of Israeli and American progressives each accusing the other of not doing enough, what we need to do is to talk. While stormy, the Shalev-Eisner exchange is a start. For one thing, as Shalev correctly notes, Israeli and American Jewish right-wingers are peas in a pod. For proof that Republicans have been sharing high-level political strategy and tactics with the Likud for decades, consider that Israel could take a high-level Republican political operative, make him a citizen, and send him back to the United States as Israel’s ambassador. If Ambassador Dermer’s failures (like this and this) indicate that Israeli right-wing overreaches have jumped the shark in Washington, Netanyahu’s continued closeness to Dermer shows just how important the Republican Party apparatus remains to Netanyahu. That’s partly because whatever happens in Washington, the Likud-Republican collaboration pays off for Israel’s right wing domestically in its formidable competence at political operations, message manipulation, and strategy.

But the American Jewish left and the Israeli left are not peas in a pod. There is very little skills transfer, very little operational or message coordination; indeed, outside the important but politically limited work of activist NGOs like the New Israel Fund, there is barely any communication at all. If that statement appears overwrought, look no further for proof than the exchange between Shalev and Eisner, whose disconnect traces a lack of communication so total that the two thought leaders show no evidence of attempting to address the same audience. Indeed, they barely manage to address the same reality.

Let us return to Shalev’s zinger: “By staying silent, by refraining from the kind of forceful, game-changing protest that the current situation warrants, American Jews are not only abandoning like-minded Israelis, they are betraying Israel itself.” Shalev is wrong three times and right once.

First, American Jewish progressives are not silent at all, but have been beaten down by decades of right-wing intimidation and ad hominem attack, from synagogue Israel committees to campus to Jewish communal organizations. The American Jewish left has enjoyed greater success recently, mainly because of Ambassador Dermer’s unforced errors on the Iran deal and the bizarre debacle of Netanyahu being hosted by then-Rep. John Boehner. Still, Shalev seems unaware of the amount of effort American Jewish progressives have put into the two-state solution.

Shalev cannot offer his American readers any constructive ideas because the vague notion of “game-changing protest” is entirely theoretical. It is a political conceit of the Israeli left that people are moved by displays of pathos. If we disengage and turn our backs, so this idea goes, others will be moved to catharsis and will relent and embrace us. In their separate ways, Eisner and the right wing both give the lie to that. It also comes through in the BDS movement – today’s best effort at “forceful, game-changing protest” from the left – whose proponents insist that their efforts to move the Israeli GDP by a zillionth of a percent are indeed “game-changing.” (From Israel, I see no effect of BDS except as an easy political target for Netanyahu, allowing him to play the nation’s defender and distract the conversation from his disastrous human-rights and economic failures while suffering no actual economic consequences.)

What Israel and the American Jewish organizational community need now is not “forceful, game-changing protest” but forceful, game-changing communication. The right wing does not fear our protests. They fear that we might get involved and pull a synagogue Israel committee leftward. Netanyahu welcomes the opportunities BDS gives him to make a grandstanding speech. He fears that Arabs and progressive Jews will turn out to vote. Rhetorically, too, protest sets up the other side as normative and the protesting side as non-normative. Protest has its place, by all means, but the tendency to assume that protest is the only tool available, and the illogical and incorrect corollary that it should be assumed to work rather than to backfire, has been the Achilles heel of the Israeli left for too long.

On both sides of the ocean, progressives are too enamored of tactics and too often lack a strategic focus or even a strategy. In Israel, I can discern no evidence of any political strategy on the left at all. Israelis are broadly unhappy about the economy and broadly favor a two-state solution even today; maybe if pundits, philosophers and politicos could take a break from despair and put our heads together with the kind of high-level permanent campaign tactics the Likud has used to win, we might break Netanyahu’s fragile 61-seat coalition apart next time.

We forget that despite Netanyahu’s iron fist, he rules from the flimsiest possible governing coalition, cobbled together on the last legally allowable day. I cannot, therefore, believe that all is lost. The despondency on the Israeli left is deep and existential, but strikes me as not very different politically from what Democrats felt in 1994 when Republicans ended a generation of liberal rule in Congress, or in 2004 when George W. Bush was reelected by a wide margin. I worked for the Democratic Party during the latter period, and in future posts in this space I’ll share some specific thoughts about how the Israeli left can move forward. With a broad brush, I can say that Democrats made a careful study of successful Republican tactics like door-to-door outreach, voter registration, and the effective use of data and technology to enable person-to-person grassroots conversations. What I can’t do from America is to dictate a strategy to Israeli progressives, but I can point out that we need a strategy. On the tactical side, however, we can make headway refocusing on grassroots, common-sense techniques that are proven to work and that, as someone who volunteered for the Zionist Union and for Jeremy Bird’s independent V15 effort in the 2015 Israeli elections, I can confirm are not yet being used effectively by the Israeli left. I don’t think we can legitimately give up until we have tried tactics that are known to work.

Shalev’s third misstatement is the most powerful and the most telling: that American Jewish progressives “are betraying Israel itself.” Here is the terrible truth that Shalev does not imagine: Israel has never been that important to American Jewish progressives. Look, don’t shoot me as the messenger; I’m a citizen of Israel because I believe in the potential of Israel. But most American Jews of my political persuasion, and most of my generation, do not see it the same way right now. We progressives have a lot of issues on our plates: Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, educational justice, consent awareness, you name it. Israel is not high on most of our lists. Those of us 40 and younger have probably grown up experiencing an almost entirely right-wing representation of Israel in America. Those of us who grew up with Ronald Reagan, heavy metal, and “Just Say No” were told to “Just Say No” to anyone who challenges the settlement movement. Our Hebrew schools taught us about Israel on maps lacking the Green Line. After a while those of us who did not buy into the right-wing political agenda realized we had been lied to. This is one of my generation’s defining stories, whether it’s about the war on drugs or the war on Palestinians. The notion of betrayal presupposes that American Jews have ever felt much affinity for Israel, and for a lot of us, that simply isn’t true. That is scary – I think we should care about Israel – but recognizing this political reality is a starting point.

There is a certain dark undercurrent in the American Jewish progressive discussion that also needs to be addressed. A certain line of thought holds that American Jews should let Israel fail, pivoting to the Diaspora to create a safe, progressive Jewish space in North America. “Post-Zionism” is a term that gets utilized. While the issue deserves at least its own blog post, it’s important to note that Eisner shows evidence of post-Zionist thinking in rejecting the idea that Israel ought to be relevant to American Jews. Indeed, the Netanyahu administration’s policies have become so nasty and so dangerous that American Jewish progressive disengagement is easy to understand: it’s made of the same material as Israeli despair, especially the notion that the situation is out of control and cannot be fixed. The same despair gives rise to Shalev’s panic and to Eisner’s coldness. For two urgent reasons, we must reject despair.

First, progressive despair is the stuff of right-wing victory. The right wing is playing mind games with us. They know how to do this. Every new outrage, every light sentence or lack of sentence for Jewish terrorists, every new settlement, every home demolition, every attempt to silence Jewish students on campus, leads progressives to imagine that we lack power. We do not actually lack power, but if the right wing can convince us we lack power, then they win.

Second, and Eisner seems to have forgotten this, American Jews have power. We have power with respect to Israel because our country funds Israel, not the other way around. And for what it’s worth, American politicians listen to the Jewish community on Israel. There is therefore a non-negotiable moral imperative upon American Jews to ask how we can help, not whether we should. May Eisner’s life be long: perhaps she is willing to live the rest of it looking into her cold mirror knowing that she actively encouraged people to disengage from efforts to prevent a cataclysmic humanitarian catastrophe. Not I.

And make no mistake: the only result of failure to achieve a two-state solution soon will be a cataclysmic humanitarian catastrophe, and if it happens, it will have been preventable. Political circumstances currently preclude a two-state solution agreement, but we’ve all known for 20 years what such an agreement would look like. Netanyahu’s attempts to physically block that solution with new settlements serve to underscore rather than to undermine the fact that a framework solution is right in front of us. And the alternative is dire. American Jews are not powerless to prevent the catastrophe that will result from failure to separate Israel and Palestine into two sovereign states.

Indeed, Shalev was right once. He was right to accuse American Jewish progressives of “abandoning like-minded Israelis,” which is exactly what Eisner then went and did. History will not forgive us for fiddling with pedantic justifications for inaction while Jerusalem burns. Shalev’s outbursts were in many ways ill-informed and in some ways ill-considered, but he made it sufficiently clear that his intention was to plead for help – to which the only acceptable answer is, “How can we help?”

To paraphrase Konrad, all of this confusion probably was inevitable, but your silence isn’t. Cold silence was never a remedy for cold bedsheets. Now that we’ve traded our outbursts and “cries of anguish,” our defensiveness and demands, we might at least have open eyes to see the ideological and emotional thicket in which we’re caught together, and we might with effort find a way to work the transatlantic quarrel out. My main suggestion for now is that we determine to communicate with our Israeli progressive colleagues. If you are involved in the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, when was the last time you spoke one-on-one with an Israeli colleague? We have technologies now to make such communication and collaboration possible, and I think if we find a way to shrink the ocean between us, we might prevent misunderstandings like the Shalev-Eisner exchange, and devote our energies more effectively to achieving real political change. I invite you to join me in giving some thought to that.

Above all, despair is not a morally acceptable option for us. We have a duty to try to do what we can before giving up. American and Israeli progressives share this duty together. As we think together about how to use proven grassroots political tactics, and as we think together about a strategy for the Israeli left, we must above all not capitulate to the right-wing narrative that the left has lost the struggle. Now would be the worst time to give in. Shalev and Eisner may not have communicated effectively, but at least they started communicating. Let’s hear each other as we figure out how to win together.

Jeremy D. Sher is a rabbinical student expecting ordination April 3 on the Harvard Divinity School campus, where he is Ministry Fellow and Harry Austryn Wolfson Fellow in Jewish Studies. Former Director of Technology for the Washington State Democratic Party, former CEO of what is now ActBlue.com Technology Services and a dual Israeli and American citizen, he practices voluntary simplicity and is an avid all-weather cyclist.