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Steve Sheffey's Pro-Israel Political Update

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

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December 31, 2023

Key Takeaways:

  • The generational divide on the Israel-Hamas war is not about values. It's about the prisms through which different generations view Israel, its place in history, and its relations with its neighbors.

  • We need to work across generations for a Zionist vision that makes us proud, which means working to reverse the policies of Israel's current government. For decades, right-wing Americans have funded institutions that helped elect the right-wing government that has demoralized not only our youth, but Zionists of all ages who realize that Israel can only survive as a Jewish, democratic state under a two-state reality that allows both Jews and Palestinians to realize their national aspirations.

  • The answer is not more right-wing talking points but teaching our kids to love the real Israel. Neither they nor we should expect that Israel, alone among all countries, emerged pristine, without violence and injustice. We must prepare them for the real arguments they will encounter in college, not strawmen. 

  • A New York Times investigation uncovered new details showing a pattern of rape, mutilation, and extreme brutality against women in the Hamas attacks on Israel. Read this article if you support a ceasefire that would allow Hamas to remain in power, armed and dangerous.

Read to the end for corrections, what you may have missed last week, fun stuff, and our upcoming event with Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA).

You're welcome to read for free, but if you want to chip in to help defray the cost of the newsletter, click here to pay by credit card or PayPal. Just fill in the amount of your choice. If you see something that says "Save your info and create a PayPal account," click the button to the right and it will go away. You don't need a PayPal accountOr you can Venmo @Steven-Sheffey (last four phone digits are 9479). You can send a check too. But no crypto or gold bars.

Hi Steve,

This is my last newsletter of 2023. Thank you for sticking with me, for reading, for clicking, and for all your support. Thank you for forwarding the newsletter to your friends and encouraging them to sign up and for your questions and criticism, constructive and otherwise. I read all of them even if I don't reply (see the fine print at the bottom of every newsletter). Let's do more than hope 2024 is better than 2023. Let's make it happen.

The reason for the generational divide on the Israel-Hamas war is obvious: Our kids are uninformed, easily manipulated by peer pressure, and have been brainwashed by TikTok and radical antisemitic Marxist college professors. The solution is more right-wing propaganda in our schools, two Noa Tishby videos for every TikTok reel, and since context is everything, immediate adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. And Bill Maher. Why won’t they listen to Bill Maher?

A law school professor of mine responded to wrong answers with “that’s a possibility” and moved on to the next student. Let’s grant that our kids might be manipulated and uninformed as a possibility and move on to better answers.

Different generations view the world through different prisms, which influence how they frame current events. Dov Waxman noted that each age group has a different “generational memory” of Israel and that beliefs about the world tend to form in our late teens and early 20s and often don’t change (that’s true of music too). 

The Washington Post cited Waxman’s explanation that “older generations, with a more visceral sense of the Holocaust, tend to see Israel as a vital refuge for the Jews, and see its story as one of a people returning to safety in their homeland after living for 2,000 years as a scattered diaspora facing persistent persecution.

"By the time millennials began forming their understanding of global events, the violence of the second Intifada had concluded in the mid-2000s with enhanced walls and barriers constructed between Israel and the West Bank, and then Gaza. This generation formed its idea of Israel from reports of Palestinians denied access to water, freedom of movement and fair trials, under the military control of what was by then a relatively rich, nuclear-armed power.”

When Rabbi Sharon Brous spoke with JDCA on December 6, 2023, she explained that the generations that remember 1973 and 1967 see Israel as David against Goliath. Israel is a vulnerable country always on the verge of annihilation. The October 7 attack proves again for them that Israel could be wiped out in an instant and that Israel’s Arab neighbors will never stop trying–and one day, might succeed.

The next generation sees Israel as a military power that repeatedly stretches out its hand in peace, only to be rebuffed. Their Israel is the Israel of Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and even Ariel Sharon when he was prime minister, an Israel led by powerful warriors turned peacemakers who might have succeeded in making peace were it not for the intransigence of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians’ refusal to compromise. Israel’s current government, to this generation, is an aberration, much as Trump was an aberration in the United States (we hope).

The under-30 generation sees Israel as a military power that does not want peace and whose goal is an undemocratic Greater Israel from the river to the sea, an Israel that has no desire for a two-state solution and is building more settlements throughout the West Bank to set the stage for de facto, if not de jure, annexation. Israel has ruled the West Bank for all of their lives and Israel has been governed by a right-wing coalition, mostly led by Benjamin Netanyahu, for nearly all of their lives. The racists, bigots, and extremists in Israel’s current government are to them the norm, not the exception. 

If you are in the oldest or maybe the middle group, you likely know that Israel controls the West Bank, but to you, it’s not Israel. The West Bank is something that Israel gained in 1967 in a war of survival and Israel has unsuccessfully tried to give back. You think it’s absurd that Israel is accused of apartheid: In the Israel you know, which does not include the West Bank, Palestinians have equal rights. They can vote, hold seats in the Knesset, and serve in the judiciary. 

If you are in the youngest or maybe the middle group, you most likely think of the West Bank as part of Israel. Since you think of the West Bank as a permanent part of Israel, accusations of apartheid make more sense: Palestinians in the West Bank do not have equal rights. Unlike Jews who live in the West Bank, they cannot vote in Knesset elections, let alone hold seats in the Knesset. They cannot serve in the judiciary.

The prevalence of proposed and enacted anti-BDS legislation that includes territories controlled by Israel validates this perception, as did false accusations of BDS against Ben & Jerry’s for announcing that it would continue to sell in Israel but not the West Bank. Ben & Jerry’s could only have been boycotting Israel by not selling ice cream in the West Bank if the West Bank was part of Israel.

The other side of the generational divide shares our values. We taught them well. We taught them to love the stranger. We taught them to love their neighbors as themselves. They see an Israel that is not living up to the values we taught them. Hillel asked “If I am not for myself, who will be?” The oldest group sees a weak Israel, isolated and alone in the world, and sometimes forgets Hillel’s second question: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” For the oldest group, you only get to the second question if you answer the first question–you can’t look out for others if you are dead. The youngest group sees a powerful Israel that can look out for itself and is oppressing instead of supporting others. 

Too many of our communal institutions are drawing lines in the sand that risk permanently alienating our youth. Shaul Magid said, “I think a lot of young people are fed up with the baseline you-have-to-support-Israel-whatever-happens. The establishment is pushing back very hard by saying, ‘If you don’t support the war or if you think it’s a genocide, you’re not really part of the Jewish people anymore, you’re an un-Jew, you are ‘self-ostracizing.’ It’s really throwing down the gauntlet to say Jewishness now is going to be dependent exclusively on how one views Israel. I think it’s a big mistake. It’s about creating a schism, policing boundaries. And as we know from history, those things never end well.”

These issues come to a head in college because Jewish education fails to prepare kids for college. The answer is not even more right-wing indoctrination from K-12. That's the problem. The answer is to teach our kids to love the real Israel, flaws and all. If we don’t, they’ll learn what we haven’t taught them before college from people who, to put it mildly, are not sympathetic to Israel’s cause. They’ll question everything we taught them, whether right or wrong, because they are hearing for the first time what we should have taught them and helped them to understand.

On some college campuses and among some young adults, Jewish and non-Jewish, the Israel debate is not about 1967 and the occupation but 1949 and whether Israel should exist at all. Some young adults are unprepared for this debate because the Israel they learned about before college was a simplistic, sanitized version of Israel's history that their parents and teachers did not recognize as myth. When they are exposed to the hard facts about Israel, they either engage in denial, disengage or, not having learned how to love Israel despite its imperfections, go to the other extreme and question Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Yet instead of loving the real Israel, some pro-Israel groups seem infatuated with an Israel that never was, except perhaps on the pages of Leon Uris's Exodus. They want Israel portrayed as fantasy rather than reality and are doing more harm than they realize. As Chemi Shalev wrote, "One of the main reasons for the growing disillusionment of American Jews, especially the younger generation, is the unbearable discrepancy between the idyllic Israel they were sold and their realization of reality on the ground." The kids on campus who complain the most about antisemitism are the kids who were sold this fantasy and lack the tools to respond to criticism of the real Israel.

Dr. Alex Sinclair, in Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism, compares teaching accurate history of Israel's founding to modern Biblical criticism. The case for following Jewish rituals is compelling if one believes that the Torah is the literal, never-changing word of God. If God says do it, that's a strong rationale. But what if we accept that people, numerous people over time, wrote the Torah? What if we accept that some narratives never happened or did not happen as described in the Torah? Without proper education, some will cling to denial and others will go to the other extreme and abandon Judaism completely, especially if they were taught at an early age that the stories are meant to be read literally.

We cannot assign Tom Segev or other historians who write about the real Israel to third-graders. But Sinclair argues that we should never teach myths. We can teach even young kids that there were Palestinians in the area when Jews from around the world attempted to reclaim the land, and as we teach the Jewish narrative, we can begin to teach that it conflicted with another narrative.

Instead of ignoring what Segev and other historians found in Israel's archives, we can put this part of Israel's history in context for our kids so that it does not hit them like a ton of bricks in college and beyond. We will not need to deal with busted myths if we don't teach them in the first place. Instead of giving our kids simplistic talking points, we should treat Israel's history with the same respect we treat other academic disciplines. Daniel Sokatch's Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted should be required reading for every kid before college and for every parent.

The question then becomes how to address claims that because Israel's creation involved displacement and murder of Palestinians, sometimes intentionally, sometimes violently, Israel is not a legitimate state. The answer is not to deny the facts but to point out that every nation is founded in violence and that every national movement, including the Palestinian movement, is almost by definition an ethnic nationalist movement. 

The answer is not to deny the Jewish nationalist narrative, which is legitimate even if realized imperfectly, but to recognize that justice requires justice for both Jews and Palestinians and since neither side will give up its national aspirations, that means two states for two people, not one state that masks the differences. 

Jews have the right to self-determination in part of their ancestral homeland and the Palestinians have a right to self-determination in part of their ancestral homeland. The problem is that Jews and Palestinians share the same homeland--hence the necessity of a two-state solution.

The answer to those who deny the Jewish right to self-determination is not to assert that Palestinians are not a people, which Sinclair says is "nonsense based on a misunderstanding of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jewish people were influenced by nationalism in the 19th century that began to flourish in all kinds of places where it didn't exist before. Jews got on that bandwagon in the mid to late 19th century. The Palestinians got on that bandwagon later," but that should not disqualify them from the right to self-determination, even if their nationalist movement emerged recently and was in part inspired by or a reaction to Jewish nationalism. 

The better approach is to engage--to ask why they think that Palestinians have a right to self-determination but Jews do not, and to go from there. Depriving either people of their homeland is an injustice. 

Author and peace activist Amos Oz explained the hard reality, morality, and necessity of Jewish nationalism in Israel with his parable of the plank: “[Zionism’s] justification in terms of the Arabs who dwell in this land is 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… But he has no natural right to push the others on that plank into the sea.”

Not quite the “a land without a people for a people without a land” myth that many of us were taught, is it? We have failed our kids not by insufficiently indoctrinating them but by failing to teach them what the rest of the world knows and leaving them unable to teach the rest of the world what it needs to know. 

The good news is that our kids share our values. They are bright. They have a different perspective. We can learn from them and they can learn from us. Antisemitism on college campuses is real and zero tolerance is the only answer to bullying and harassment. But what some students experience as antisemitism is harsh or unfair criticism of Israel that makes them uncomfortable but for which they have not been educated to address. Teaching them to love the real Israel will give them the tools to separate viewpoints that are offensive or wrong but not antisemitic.

In the end, as Amos Oz said in 2013, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearian way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian not a Shakespearian conclusion.”

That means two states. Amos explained that there cannot be one state because Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family (“they are not one and they are not happy.”) Centuries of persecution have taught Jews that they need a state where they are masters of their destiny. The issue is not safety per se; the issue is the ability to do something about it.

The kids are alright. The problem is the government in Israel that they've experienced all their lives. If you don't want them thinking that Israel's government does not want peace and seeks an undemocratic Greater Israel, the answer is not to deny that fact. The answer is to leverage whatever influence and resources we have to change the government in Israel. Our right-wing friends did it. We can and must do it too.

We need to bridge the generational divide and make that happen by working together to change the reality in Israel. It won't be easy and it won't happen overnight but it will never happen if we don't support Israelis who share our vision.

If you don't like people calling Israel an apartheid state, encourage Israel to find a way to leave the West Bank and oppose settlement expansion and settler violence. If you don't like people questioning Israel's commitment to democracy, oppose anti-democratic elements within Israel, including in its government. If you don't like people accusing Israel of fascism and racism, work to get rid of the fascists and racists in Netanyahu's cabinet. You can cover your ears and shout "la la la," but that strategy has failed (although some ostensibly pro-Israel organizations think it can work if we shout louder).

Let's distinguish the government of Israel, which we loathe, from the real Israel, which we love. Israel is no more Netanyahu any more than America is Trump (Netanyahu is less popular in Israel than Trump is in America). Let's reclaim the best of Zionism. For us and our kids. Can we all at least agree on that across generations?

Corrections. I'm entitled to my own opinions but not to my own facts, so I appreciate it when readers bring errors to my attention. No one brought any mistakes to my attention last week, so it looks like last week's newsletter was perfect.

In Case You Missed It:

  • New York Times: ‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.

  • Alon Pinkas: 2023 was the worst year in Israel's history--but now is not the time to despair.

Tweets of the Week. John Cleese and Orin Kerr.

Nikki Haley Mockery of the Week. Yes, she says something nearly every week deserving of scorn and derision. This week's winner is Don Lewis.

Video Clips of the Week. The Kids Are Alright, and in memory of Tommy Smothers (and generation gaps), the infamous Who performance, and his spot-on Johnny Carson impression.

Upcoming Event. Please Join Dana Gordon, Steve Sheffey, Jill Zipin, and

Democratic Jewish Outreach PA PAC for a Zoom fundraiser benefitting Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at 4:30 PM ET. RSVP here to get the Zoom link. This will be a close race and holding this seat is key to holding the Democratic Senate majority.

For those new to this newsletter. This is the newsletter even Republicans have to read and the original home of the viral and beloved 2022 and 2023 Top Ten Signs You're At a Republican Seder. If someone forwarded this to you, why not subscribe and get it in your inbox every Sunday? Just click here--it's free.

I periodically update my Medium posts on why Democrats are better than Republicans on Israel and antisemitism and on why the Antisemitism Awareness Act and the IHRA definition are the wrong solutions to real problems. You can read my most recent effort to define "pro-Israel" here (it's a work in progress, as am I).

I hope you enjoyed today's newsletter. Donations are welcome (this takes time to write and costs money to send). If you'd like to chip in, click here and fill in the amount of your choice. If you see something that says "Save your info and create a PayPal account," click the button to the right and it will go away. You don't need a PayPal account. Or you can Venmo @Steven-Sheffey (last four phone digits are 9479). You can send a check too. But no crypto or gold bars.

The Fine Print: This newsletter usually drops on Sunday mornings. Unless stated otherwise, the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of any candidates or organizations I support or am associated with. I value intellectual honesty over intellectual consistency, and every sentence should be read as if it began with the words "This is what I think today is most likely to be correct and I'm willing to be proven wrong, but..." Read views opposed to mine and make up your own mind. A link to an article doesn't mean I agree with everything its author has ever said or even that I agree with everything in the article; it means that the article supports or elaborates on the point I was making. I read and encourage replies to my newsletters but I don't always have time to acknowledge them or engage in one-on-one discussion. I'm happy to read anything, but please don't expect me to watch videos or listen to podcasts of any length--send me a transcript if it's that important. Don't expect a reply if your message is uncivil or if it's clear from your message that you only read the bullet points or failed to click on the relevant links. If you share an excerpt from this newsletter please share the link to the newsletter (near the top of the newsletter). My newsletter, my rules.

Dedicated to my daughters: Ariel Sheffey, Ayelet Sheffey, and Orli Sheffey z''l. Copyright 2023 Steve Sheffey. All rights reserved.

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