Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update

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

May 16, 2021

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

  • Firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians, as Hamas did last week, is a war crime for which there is no excuse. President Biden and Democratic leadership have condemned these attacks and affirmed Israel's right to defend itself.
  • The first duty of any state is to safeguard its citizens. No country would tolerate the rocket attacks that Israel endured, and Hamas is responsible for any lives lost in Gaza due to Israeli efforts to stop the rockets. Israel's response is legal and proportionate.
  • Standing with Israel against terrorism does not mean remaining silent when Israel or the Palestinians push the two-state solution they both need further out of reach, including by settlement expansion and eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
  • Criticism of Israel must not imply that our commitment to Israel's safety and security is diminished, nor must we allow acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering and aspirations to be deemed antisemitic or anti-Israel.
  • There is no contradiction between commitment to Israel's safety and security and justice for Palestinians--properly understood, the two go hand in hand.
  • Tonight is Shavuot. Chag Sameach!
  • Read to the end for upcoming events and fun stuff.

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Last week began with all of us horrified by the violence in Jerusalem and some of us questioning Israel's actions in Jerusalem and ended with rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, which groups as far to the left as Americans for Peace Now condemned as "deplorable" and "terrorism." I am not going to summarize it other than to say that the rockets fired by Hamas and the issues that led to the violence in Jerusalem should be viewed separately, and if you want to understand why, read Michael Koplow's summary and analysis.

Emotions are running high. Many of us have family and friends directly affected by the violence; this is not abstract or academic. Now might be a good time to remind ourselves of what Zionism is and what it means, or should mean, to be "pro-Israel," because once the rocket fire pauses, the conditions that led to the violence in Jerusalem will remain, and with it, our discomfort about how Israel is managing the conflict and our fears for the safety and security of Israel's citizens.

When I hear criticism of Zionism, I am reminded of the reply ascribed to various religious believers to atheist criticisms of religion: "The God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either." My definition of Zionism is from Israel's Declaration of Independence: Zionism stands for "the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State." I am a Zionist.

The standard Israel should be held to is the standard it set for itself: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

Many of us were raised to believe that Israel could do no wrong, that for every seeming offense there was an explanation, and that to the extent Israel did do something wrong, the standard we should hold Israel to was not the standard it set for itself in its Declaration of Independence, but the standard of the "the neighborhood" in which it was situated, as if "well, at least it's not as bad as Saudi Arabia" was a defense we could be proud of.

Some ostensibly pro-Israel organizations still hew to this standard, as if Israel is the one country in the world incapable of doing any wrong. That's one way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of potential evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah. At the other extreme, some groups reject Israel in its entirety, casting all the blame on Israel, as if Israel alone can solve this conflict and as if the Palestinians have no moral agency or free will and simply react to what Israel does.

In America, Israel has become a large part of our Jewish identity, and we sometimes fail to distinguish between the biblical Land of Israel and the modern State of Israel. Jewish day school educations often culminate with trips to Israel and prayers are said for Israel and its armed forces in synagogues on Shabbat. But when Israel--not the concept, but the actual country--becomes a substitute for religion, then seeing Israel failing to live up to its ideals creates an unbearable tension that can result in denial or rejection.

In addition, those who privately recognize Israel's flaws worry that publicly acknowledging them, "airing our dirty laundry," will fuel antisemitism and weaken support for Israel to the extent that the existence of Israel itself will be threatened. Israel no longer receives economic assistance from the U.S. All of our aid is military aid, and Israel faces major military threats from outside its borders and has legitimate security needs. Must Israel be perfect for the U.S. to provide aid necessary for it to survive? We sometime act as if it does, which is why we bristle at any criticism.

Firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians, as Hamas did last week, is a war crime for which there is no excuse. It should not be hard to say, nor should it be hard to understand, that the first obligation of a state is to defend its citizens and end attacks from across the border. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), among many others, including the Biden administration, have made this clear. Biden also said that Israel has not overreacted to Hamas missile attacks and the Biden administration has blocked attempts by the U.N. to condemn Israel. Yesterday, Biden spoke with Netanyahu and "reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza."

A handful of Democrats have not been supportive of Israel, and while those who seek to politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship have amplified their voices, the record shows that both parties overwhelmingly have voiced strong support for Israel.

No country would tolerate rocket attacks that force millions of its citizens into shelters, and any government that did tolerate these attacks, in any country, would quickly and justifiably be removed from office by its constituents.

David French explains that not only is Israeli's response in Gaza legal and proportionate, but Israel is using less force than it is legitimately entitled to use. If civilians are unavoidably killed, then that is tragic, but the fault lies with Hamas for launching the attacks, not Israel for attempting to end the attacks. We in America have a right to our emotions, and when places we've visited, places where friends and family live, are attacked, it's personal, and we can strongly disagree with Israel's government on other matters while strongly backing its right to self-defense.

Jews marching through Jerusalem shouting "death to Arabs" should be condemned unequivocally, regardless of whatever grievances might have prompted the chants. Remember how we reacted when marchers in Charlottesville chanted "Jews will not replace us" and the President of the United States called them "very fine people"? Imagine how Arab Americans feel when Jews shout "death to Arabs." Imagine how Palestinians feel when, regardless of the cause, Israeli missiles kill Palestinian children in Gaza--even in response to rocket attacks. It is not antisemitic or anti-Israel to sympathize with Palestinians who are suffering, and if you can't imagine it, read this from Muhammad Shehada.
Science tells us that there may have been a mitochondrial Eve, a common ancestor of all humanity, but whether one believes that the biblical Adam and Eve and the Tower of Babel actually existed, the scientific and moral reality is that we are all humans even if we speak different languages. Humans have been fighting since Cain slew Abel, and it won't end until we acknowledge that yes, we are each other's keeper, even if we from different nations and even if we have competing national claims. No nation, not even the United States, emerged ex nihilo--there was always someone there before, all the way back to Eve.

Jews and Palestinians both have claims to all of the West Bank and Israel. Neither side can be expected to give up their narrative, but both sides must give up their claims to land they believe is rightfully theirs if there is to be peace. Neither side is ready for peace. Neither is either side a monolith.

The millions of Jews who live in Israel aren't going anywhere, nor are the millions of Palestinians who live in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Jews need and deserve their own state; not a state with a lot of Jews (we already have that--it's called New York), but a Jewish, democratic state, and that is only possible if Israel relinquishes the West Bank and works toward the creation of an independent, Palestinian state.

I am not aware of any benign occupations. Regardless of the chances for peace the Palestinians missed, regardless of the opportunities Israel missed, regardless of Palestinian terrorism, regardless of Israeli settlement building, the fact remains that right now, Israel is granting Jews rights in the West Bank and Jerusalem that are not granted to Palestinians. As long as this continues and more important, as long as it seems permanent rather than temporary, the more likely the violence we saw last week will repeat itself, and it doesn't matter how many Gulf states Israel develops economic relations with.

Asking both sides to exercise restraint is not anti-Israel. It's common sense. This statement from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and these threads from Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) are good examples in tone and substance of how to make this point. Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu said, “To the citizens of Israel I say that I do not care if your blood is boiling. You cannot take the law into your own hands. You cannot grab an ordinary Arab citizen and try to lynch him – just as we cannot watch Arab citizens do this to Jewish citizens."

Peace requires a triumvirate of leaders in the United States, Israel, and among the Palestinians with the political will and desire to make peace, similar to the combination of Carter, Begin, and Sadat that achieved the peace deal with Egypt. The best we can do until then is encourage all sides not to make the situation worse and to take whatever confidence building measures that they can, because both sides need a two-state solution to realize their national aspirations. Neither side has the political will to move forward now, but both sides must preserve the prospects for a two-state solution. As Tamara Cofman Wittes points out, what we saw last week is the horrific alternative to a two-state solution.

Demonizing one side or the other will not help. We should continue to support Israel and we should continue to marvel at all that Israel has achieved against incredible odds, but if we want to credibly advocate for Israel, we should both acknowledge when Israel errs and keep the situation in perspective. A good place to start is by reading Matti Friedman's advice on how to consume news about Israel.

Israelis are understandably nervous about making peace with the Palestinians. Threatening to condition military aid to Israel that Israel legitimately needs to defend itself will not help, and many Israelis see the Palestinians not as an oppressed minority, but as enemies who seek to eliminate Israel and from whom Israel cannot extricate itself. This is not France in Algeria or the U.S. in Vietnam. The West Bank is right next to Israel and Jews too have historic and religious ties to the land. When conflict occurs, the Palestinians can look to 20 Arab countries for support; Israel has only the U.S., and if Israel feels abandoned, extremists in Israel will feel emboldened.

Israel can and should take steps to pave the way for peace, such as freezing settlement construction, dismantling illegal settlements, and halting evictions in Jerusalem. At the same time, Palestinians should vocally eschew violence and recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state--not once, but again and again if the goal is to reassure Israelis that peace is possible. Both sides have a shared interest and a shared responsibility to move forward.

But what about Iran, our funding of the Palestinian Authority, and conditioning aid to Israel? Today's newsletter is way too long already, so briefly:
  • Biden has not yet lifted Trump's sanctions. Any funding Iran provided to Hamas has occurred while Iran is under Trump's sanctions, some of which violate the Iran Deal, and Israeli officials have discounted Iran's influence on Hamas. Imagine what the current situation would be like if Hamas was under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. Iranian funding of terrorism is a problem that must be addressed. A potential nuclear-armed Iran is a bigger problem that must be addressed first.
  • Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are enemies. It is no coincidence that no rockets are fired at Israel from the West Bank. Nothing that happened last week is a reason not to resume humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.
  • The Biden administration is opposed to conditioning aid to Israel. Iron Dome has saved countless Jewish and Palestinian lives in Israel, and without Iron Dome, Israel would have already been forced to launch even heavier attacks on Gaza. If anything, events of the past week reinforce the importance of security assistance to Israel and of not conditioning aid.


Tweet of the Week. Jacob Kornbluh.

Twitter Thread of the Week. David Rothkopf.

Video Clip of the Week. Senator Hawley responds to haters.

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The Fine Print: This newsletter usually runs on Sunday mornings. If you receive it as an ICYMI on Wednesday it's because you didn't open the one sent on Sunday. Unless stated otherwise, my views do not necessarily reflect the views of any candidates or organizations that I support or am associated with. I reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more. Intelligent, well-informed people may disagree with me; read opposing views and decide for yourself. A link to an article doesn't mean that I agree with everything its author has ever said or that I even agree with everything in the article; it means that the article supports or elaborates on the point I was making. I take pride in accurately reporting the facts on which I base my opinions. Tell me if you spot any inaccuracies, typos, or other mistakes so that I can correct them in the next newsletter (and give you credit if you want it). Advertisements reflect the views of the advertisers, not necessarily of me, and advertisers are solely responsible for the content of their advertisements. I read, value, and encourage replies to my newsletters, but I don't always have time to acknowledge replies or to engage in one-on-one discussion. Don't expect a reply if your message is uncivil or if it's clear from your message that you haven't read the newsletter or clicked on the relevant links. © 2021 Steve Sheffey. All rights reserved.