Monday, December 14, 2009

American Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Jews are not the tail wagging the dog of American policy

"Support for Israel is another part of this worldview," writes Kevin Phillips. "In mid-2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another survey taken for the Pew Center found 63 percent of white evangelical Protestants calling the state of Israel a fulfillment of the biblical policy of the second coming of Jesus, whereas only 21 percent of mainline Protestants did so. (pg. 364, Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century)"

Henry Herskovitz, a long-time friend from whom I am now estranged, leads a Saturday morning vigil at Temple Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Mi., protesting Jewish support for Israel's theocratic state and illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Years ago, Henry came to the conclusion that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unjust and largely the result of scheming and manipulation by Jewish neo-cons in the Bush administration and Jewish organizations like AIPAC (the American-Israel Political Action Committee). Jewish communities in the United States were further implicated, in Henry's estimation, by the millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel raised by Jewish organizations around the country. Further, Henry saw analogies to the now defunct South African system of apartheid in Israel's denial of certain rights and privileges to its Arab citizens and its confinement of Palestinians behind roadblocks, checkpoints and walls. American Jews, Henry noted, were a significant presence in the American domestic opposition to apartheid. Why, Henry wondered were American Jews so absent from public opposition to the oppression of Palestinians?

After trips to Iraq and to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, Henry returned to the U.S. with photographs, stories and a fervent desire to speak to Jewish congregations about the injustices visited on Palestinians by the state of Israel, injustices occurring, at the very least, with the silent acquiescence of American Jews. His overtures to three Ann Arbor temples and synagogues were rebuffed, sometimes rudely, by the rabbis who maintained absolute control over access to their congregations. So Henry, supported by a few other reliable vigilers, began his Saturday morning silent protest (with signs), a protest that continues some four years later.

The vigil has provoked much debate in Ann Arbor. The City Council has condemned the vigils as an affront to religious freedom and Henry has found himself much reviled in a variety of forums, including the pages of the Ann Arbor News (RIP). Powerful disagreements over the vigil tactic and message have also divided the sizable peace community in town. From time to time, Henry and his allies extend the protests to major fundraising events within the Jewish community and to public events focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At every opportunity, Henry calls on high-profile visitors to Ann Arbor who support, or claim to support, Palestinian self-determination to express their support for a one-state solution in Palestine and their opposition to a Jewish theocratic state.

Henry seems to believe that his tactics work. Or, at the very least, believes that the dire state of the Palestinian people justifies his activism, even if he, himself, is demonized and neither he nor his colleagues seem able to engage local Jewish congregations in dialogue.

It seems to me that the basic problem with Henry's strategy is the assumption that without Jewish neo-cons and Jewish organizational support there would have been no invasion of Iraq and no significant and continuing American political support for Israel. But self-identified Jews make up only one percent of the population of the United States, while the evangelical Protestants cited in the Kevin Phillips quote that leads off this post make up as much as a third of the population--fifty times the Jewish population of the country. It may be an unhappy irony that American Christian fundamentalists, long indifferent to or unhappy with the presence of Jews in American society, are enthusiastic supporters of Jewish rule in Palestine, but only in places like Ann Arbor, where fundamentalists are less evident than Jews, could it look to an observer as though Jews are the whole problem.

Make no mistake, the attitudes of a sizable number of American Jews are an obstacle to a workable Middle East peace. And American military support for Israel has helped to build a garrison state in Israel that would have otherwise been bankrupted by its own military spending. That same support has allowed Israel to divert funding from other domestic needs to the construction, in violation of international law, of housing and settlements on Palestinian territory. The settlements, in turn, have become both the passion of increasingly fundamentalist Jews who see all of biblical Israel as territory promised to the Jews by God, and the anguish of Palestinians who see them as an obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

It is a further irony that the polarization in Ann Arbor has come to resemble the deadlock in Palestine. But both situations seem a symptom of a larger problem in the politics of the US. Our inability to move toward reasonable and just outcomes in virtually all policy areas, health care, climate change, quality public education, market regulation, reliable public transit and reduced dependence on fossil fuels to name just a few, seems endemic. And ultimately traceable to the politically expedient marriage of religious fundamentalism and corporate interests. When oil companies, weapons manufacturers, Big Pharma, insurance interests, hospital corporations and the Southern Baptist Convention find themselves working together against broader social interests, we are all in trouble.

Under the circumstances, doing nothing seems profoundly dysfunctional. Doing something, even vigiling at a single Jewish temple in Ann Arbor must seem better than acquiescence. Certainly, relying on a Democratic president and a Democratic congress seems risky. So far, we have a possible shot at health care reform without a public option, a possible withdrawal from Afghanistan after a Bush-like surge, a near-trillion dollar bailout of unregulated banks, and a continuing and appallingly large military budget. But I continue to believe that in the Obama administration, at least, there is hope. Activism aimed at being heard, at repeating essential truths, at calling for less militarism and more justice, and at insisting on dialogue, is essential. I believe that through such activism we can reach this administration and slowly change policy. But activism that polarizes communities and eliminates any chance for dialogue is hopeless, and part of the problem. It is not enough to speak out. The will to dialogue must be present and powerful.


  1. A few other things to note about Henry's protest. You report that some of the rabbis didn't treat him kindly when he asked to speak, but the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation is one that did treat him well. It seems no good deed goes unpunished.

    Furthermore, the rabbi of Beth Israel has called for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He has also hosted rabbi Arik Asherman, head of Rabbis for Human Rights, to speak at his congregation from the bima (pulpit). This is a guy who has been arrested by the Israeli Defense Forces for standing in front of bulldozers in the West Bank.

    Yes, the rabbi and most of the congregation are Zionists. They love Israel as a Jewish state. I don't think that many American Jews will give up on that framework anytime soon (whether or not they should is a different discussion). But, they are willing to criticize Israeli policies, to listen to Palestinian voices, and to be concerned about Palestinian well being. It seems to me that these are the types of voices we want to support in the Jewish community as a counterpoint to the most reactionary voices in AIPAC that have tended to define the conversation, which is why I find Henry's protests so counterproductive.

  2. Thanks for your response, Chuck. I'm a little hazy about who said what and when, but even if the rabbis were originally cordial, it seems that they were also the individuals who decided that Henry could not be allowed to share his experiences and perspective with their congregations. That's not good. Henry may not have been an observant Jew, but his identification with the Ann Arbor Jewish community was real and any forum would have allowed dialogue. The rabbis absolutely share the blame here.

    Though I too find fault with Henry for an activism that I consider unproductive, I belive that American Jews have to consider the possibility that the creation of a Jewish theocratic state on Palestinian territory is the original sin that needs to be addressed here. The fact that many Jews believe that the state of Israel was created as a safe place for Jews after the Holocaust is neither an accurate reading of history or a justification for visiting catastrophe on Palestinians. This is difficult stuff, but until it is the subject of open, frank and continuous dialogue within the mainstream Jewish community, the goal of a just and equitable peace for Israelis and Palestinians will be difficult to approach.

    Of course, there are other large historical considerations, like the role that Israel played as a US client state during the cold war and after. There are also political realities, like the fact that oil continues to drive US policy in the Middle East and that fundamentalist, apocalyptic Christians in the US, who wield enormous political power, are not at all concerned about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.