Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update

Calling balls and strikes for the pro-Israel community since 2006

November 7, 2021

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

  • "Can We Talk About Israel," by Daniel Sokatch, is the book on Israel that we have been waiting for. Plenty of books will confirm your biases and leave you unprepared to make sense of the facts; this book explains what the conflict is really about.
  • One lesson from Virginia is that Democrats must help Americans understand that the Republican Party is a fact-agnostic authoritarian party that uses racism to divide us.
  • Tuesday's election results confirmed that the Democratic Party remains pro-Israel and that support for BDS is a fringe position within the Democratic Party.
  • Donald Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, said last week that ten years ago, Israel literally owned Congress. He was met with not universal condemnation, but a collective shrug.
  • It's been 45 days since the House passed emergency funding for Iron Dome and Senate Republicans continue to block its passage. Do we care about Israel's security or not? If we do, it's hard to see how the GOP can be considered a pro-Israel party.
  • Read to the end for upcoming events with Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA) and Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) plus the usual fun stuff.

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If you could recommend one book on Israel to someone who wanted to understand the conflict; if you could give your college-bound kids one book to prepare them for the campus debates, what book would you pluck off the shelf? A hard question now has an easy answer: Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Perplexed, by Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund.

Sokatch told me last week that he wrote this book because he recognized that most books about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians fall into two categories: (1) books written by specialists for specialists or focus in-depth on one aspect of the conflict and (2) books that are advocacy efforts or screeds that argue the case for one side or the other with varying efforts to camouflage their bias through more moderate arguments in favor of one side or the other.

Sokatch's book is different because although it's written from the perspective of someone who strongly supports the right and the necessity of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, it does not make the case for Israel by knocking down strawman arguments, nor does it rely on inaccuracies or gloss over historical facts. If that's what you're looking for, you have plenty to choose from, including the new Noa Tishby book, which is great for anyone who wants to believe in a rah-rah version of Israel straight out of Leon Uris's Exodus and prefers to ignore inconvenient facts. But if you pack your kid off to college with a screed, don't be surprised if they come home confused or embarrassed.

Sokatch presents the strongest facts and arguments for both sides, resulting in a book that presents the legitimate claims of both Jews and Palestinians, which Sokatch believes is "a better way in for your kids to begin to wrestle with this. You could try to tell them that black is white, and that none of the things they hear [from critics of Israel] about Israel can be true, or you can offer them a way to engage with Israel and the tools to do it that allows them to navigate complexity, just like we do in our own country. My fear is without those kinds of tools to navigate complexity, kids are going to walk away from the whole thing or become entranced by the advocacy piece from the other side, the Israel is always wrong side."

But this is not a kids' book, although reasonably intelligent high school students can and should read it. If you're looking for a book that college-bound kids can read that won't leave them embarrassed and struggling for answers when they hear the criticism of Israel that our right-wing friends refuse to acknowledge, let alone address, this is the book.

Sokatch is a good writer, and while he often uses a light tone, he never insults the reader's intelligence. The first part of the book is a history of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. The second part of the book covers controversies about Israel's Arab citizens, the settlements, Israel's relationship with America's Jewish community, BDS, accusations of apartheid, and whether criticism of Israel is antisemitic (it's not "except when it is")--all in 300 pages total, followed by a lexicon of the conflict, bibliography, endnotes, and index.

Sokatch does not play the "both sides" game or draw false equivalencies. Understanding the Israeli narrative does not require rejecting the Palestinian narrative, nor does it require accepting misleading or inaccurate claims from either side. Often, disagreements result from different perspectives, not different facts. For example, Sokatch writes that "if you give me a group of intellectually honest and open-minded BDS sympathizers and let me take them for two weeks up and down the length and breadth of the State of Israel on the Israeli side of the Green Line...if those BDS supporters were truly intellectually honest, they would have to admit that what they saw in Israel in no way resembled apartheid South Africa."

But Sokatch continues, "if you give me a group of intellectually honest and open-minded right-wing supporters of Israel and let me take them for two weeks up and down the length and breadth of the Israeli-occupied West Bank on the other side of the Green Line...if those right-wing supporters were truly intellectually honest, they would have to admit that what they saw in the Israeli-occupied West Bank did resemble some of the more pernicious aspects of apartheid-era South Africa."

One book cannot cover everything, but reading a book that honestly presents the key facts and issues is better than reading a screed that glosses over inconvenient facts and uses talking points instead of logic to cut through the confusion. Some ostensibly pro-Israel organizations claim to want accuracy and honest reporting, but they really want hasbara--how many times have you seen these groups call out an inaccuracy that is in Israel's favor? "Never" might be a good guess. As Sokatch writes, sometimes "Israel doesn't have a [public relations] problem; it has a policy problem." And we need to recognize when it does.

Sokatch puts those in our community who deny that the Palestinians are a people, who deny the Palestinian connection to the land, on the same plane, he told me, as those "in the Palestinian community and in the Arab world who claim there was never a Second Temple, as Arafat claimed. Well, that is a non-serious argument. And I don't think we are under the obligation to entertain unserious arguments" from either side.

And, Sokatch told me, even if we put aside ahistorical claims that Palestinians didn't until recently "have any sense that they were a nation, what does that matter? What is there something that I missed in human rights law where we say human rights must be afforded to people only if they can prove that they're part of a nation? Saying that if they're just people, then they have no rights, would be a very ironic position for us to take."

The Jewish connection to the land is undeniable, and while the Jewish claim to the land is not grounded in the Holocaust, the Holocaust would not have happened--certainly not to the extent of six million murdered--if Jews had a homeland to return to. Sokatch quotes Amos Oz in his book, who wrote that Zionism "has the justness of the drowning man who clings to the only plank he can. And the drowning man clinging to this plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push others aside a little. Even if the others, sitting on that plank, leave him no alternative to force. But he has no natural right to push the others on the plank into the sea."

"This book is for you, "Sokatch told me, "if you're willing to take an honest hard look at the struggle between two peoples, both of whom are victim and villain in this story." To learn more, watch this fascinating interview of David Sokatch by Rabbi Sharon Brous.

Yes, Virginia, Democrats have a path to victory. Every election is unique. It is foolish to project the results of one election 12 months into the future on every election across the country.

I do know this: Political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote in 2012 that the Republican Party "is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

But we refused to believe them. Despite the evidence, we didn't want to believe them because that meant admitting that one of our two parties rejected basic democratic norms. Trump was not an aberration. Trump was supported on every vote and every position by the overwhelming, often unasinous, majority of Republicans in Congress.

In January, 120 Republicans joined a baseless lawsuit to invalidate millions of votes in four states, and 120 House GOP members shared incendiary social media content leading up to the Capitol attack on January 6. That's not a small fringe. After Trump's January 6 insurrection, 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election and validate the rioters. All but ten House Republicans (out of 211) voted against impeaching Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection. All but seven Republican Senators voted against convicting him.

The challenge for Democrats is persuading Americans who want to believe that we have two normal political parties that instead of a center-left and a center-right party, we have a center-left party and an authoritarian party. We also have to help them understand that even if Democrats can't deliver all that they promised, Republicans won't deliver any of it--the answer is to elect more Democrats who support Democratic policies, not to elect members of a cult whose agenda is little more than "cutting taxes for the wealthy and delivering deregulation to corporations."

But Democrats cannot win unless they counter Republican appeals to racism, which have evolved from welfare queens to Willie Horton to false claims about critical race theory. The problem, as Tory Gavito and Adam Jentelson explain, is that "racially coded attacks spur turnout among white voters without necessarily prompting a backlash among minority voters." Democrats must explain to voters that Republicans are using race to divide us and then pivot back to shared interests. We cannot ignore Republican appeals to racism or let them camouflage those appeals as "economic anxiety" or "extreme theories being taught at Berkeley" or "cancel culture gone haywire" and hope to win.

The other election lesson: Supporting BDS is not a path to victory. The outcome in the special Democratic primary election in Flordia's 20th congressional district is still too close to call, but we know for sure that Omari Hardy, the lone candidate who supported BDS, lost: He finished sixth, with 6% of the vote, proving that "BDS remains whatever the opposite of a selling point is for most Democrats." The winner of this primary will be pro-Israel and will be a lock to win the general election. Also on Tuesday, Shontel Brown, who defeated a Democratic candidate who was problematic on Israel in the primary a few weeks ago, became the newest member of Congress from Ohio.

Republican hypocrisy on antisemitism and Israel continues. Two years ago, one of the least senior of 435 members of Congress made the banal observation that one particular pro-Israel lobbying group (check your in-box--you probably have a fundraising email from them right now) spends money to influence politicians, and the Jewish world went nuts, leading to condemnations across the board.

A few days ago, the leader of the Republican Party, a former and possibly future President of the United States, said that ten years ago Israel literally owned Congress. The ADL's Jonathan Greenblatt said that "the accusation that Israel 'ever' controlled Congress is despicable and reeks of antisemitism. No friend of our community or the country speaks this way. This wasn’t a lapse of judgment or a misstatement. It’s a disturbing window into a bigoted worldview." The response from the Republican Party was a collective shrug.

Trump was outraged that he only won 25% of the Jewish vote. We should be outraged that he won any Jewish votes at all, and we should be outraged that Senate Republicans are blocking President Biden's nomination of Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, one of the world's leading authorities on antisemitism, to be Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism.

Last month, a handful of Democrats, aided by the entire Republican caucus, delayed Iron Dome funding by two whole days. Oddly enough, only the Democrats were called out, and they were accused of antisemitism (because they opposed the supplemental funding for Iron Dome, and Iron Dome saves Jewish lives).

Forty-five days later, Senate Republicans continue to block Iron Dome funding but no one is being accused of antisemitism or blaming Republican leadership for not joining with Democrats to quickly pass Iron Dome funding. Once again, a collective shrug from the GOP.

ICYMI. In July I wrote what proved to be one of my most popular newsletters--the new book from Daniel Sokatch reads as if it was written in response.

Tweet of the Week. Rocket Man.

Twitter Thread of the Week. If you understand why Zionism is NOT racism, how can you oppose critical race theory?

Video Clip of the Week. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

Upcoming Events. Dana Gordon and I will be hosting Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA) on Zoom at 6:45 pm on Thursday, December 9. Contributions are encouraged but not required. RSVP here to get the Zoom link.

We are hosting Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) on Zoom at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 9. Contributions are encouraged but not required. RSVP here to get the Zoom link.

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