Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update

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

July 18, 2021

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

  • Recent polling confirms that most Jewish voters understand that one can be pro-Israel and criticize Israel, most support aid to Israel and to the Palestinians, most support a two-state solution, and by nearly a 3-1 margin, most are more concerned about antisemitism from the right than from the left.
  • We need to do better educating our kids about Israel. For many college students, the issue is not the occupation, but Israel's right to exist. The simplistic talking points we've spoon fed our kids have failed them in college.
  • Teaching our kids the truth about Israel's rebirth--a truth some of their parents deny--will not turn them off from Israel, but will help them understand the real Israel, the Israel they are called upon to defend in college.
  • Read to the end for upcoming events and fun stuff.

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Let's start with the good news: You're not alone. Sometimes it's hard to hear ourselves think over the cacophony of a small minority of Republican Jews, but recent polling from the Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI) confirms that Jewish Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal/progressive.

Of special interest to readers of this newsletter, the JEI poll found that 87% of Jewish voters believe that it is compatible to be both “pro-Israel” and critical of Israeli government policies. Most Jewish voters support a two-state solution, aid to Israel, and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Nearly all Jewish voters are concerned about antisemitism, but by nearly a 3-1 margin they are more concerned about antisemitism originating from the right (61%) than the left (22%). Even intense criticism of Israel is not viewed as antisemitic by the vast majority of Jews unless it veers into denying Israel's right to exist.

How should we talk to our kids about Israel? 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. So when they are exposed to the hard facts about Israel, they either engage in denial and become ineffective advocates for Israel 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. The JEI poll found more critical attitudes toward Israel among younger Jewish voters.

The debate about how to talk about Israel's history and how to educate our children parallels the debate about critical race theory in the United States. Critical race theory is generally taught at the college level, but applications of the theory, which should be non-controversial, can guide teaching at all ages. Critical race theory "acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation." How can anyone deny that? As the ACLU notes, "our country needs to acknowledge its history of systemic racism and reckon with present day impacts of racial discrimination — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools."

But some people would prefer that we whitewash American history and do not realize that we cannot understand what is happening today without understanding how we got here. Similarly, one cannot understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without understanding the history of the conflict, including wrongdoing by both sides. American history is different from Israeli history. The parallel I'm drawing is not between the two histories, but between the reluctance of some supporters of both countries to teach truths that contradict the myths they think are crucial to the national narrative.

Alex Sinclair, in "Loving the Real Israel," 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 teach critical race theory to grade school kids, nor can we assign Tom Segev 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 even as we teach the importance of 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 have no 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.

The question then becomes how to address claims that because Israel's creation involved displacement of Palestinians, sometimes intentionally, sometimes violently, Israel is not a legitimate state. I spoke at length on this topic with Oren Jacobson, a local civic leader, progressive organizer, and friend who works extensively on this issue (and several others) nationally. He is the co-founder of Project Shema, which focuses on helping build bridges between the Jewish community and the progressive movement on these difficult topics. After our discussion I asked him to share some of what we discussed in writing:

“You can criticize Israel as an ethnic nationalist state. At the core, every state on earth is. You can criticize Zionism as an ethnic nationalist movement. So is the Palestinian national movement. You can claim the founding of Israel was violent. Every state’s formation was.

"You can criticize Israel for oppressing minority groups. While unacceptable, that’s not unique in the region or the world, and Israel’s human rights issues are far from worst in the region, let alone the world.  

"What is unique, based on the preceding criticisms, is that Israel is the only state defined by some as fundamentally illegitimate and Zionism is the only national movement defined as fundamentally racist. That’s a deeply problematic and flawed idea even if you believe that the reality of the current day Zionist project is deeply problematic and flawed as well. 

"Some claim that Zionism is 'settler colonialism,' but can an indigenous people also be colonists? Indigeneity is a tricky subject, but if you believe that Palestinians are indigenous to the land, and to be clear there’s no value in denying or dismissing the Palestinian narrative for those who want to solve this problem, it is hard to argue that Jews aren’t as well. Jews have maintained a continuous presence in the land for thousands of years and the archeological evidence that Jews originate there is indisputable. The existence of Jewish diaspora communities is a direct byproduct of the violent, colonial expulsion of the Jews from this land in the first place. That expulsion, and the many to follow, are part of this story. Not separate from it.

"There’s a word for people forced to flee from violence - 'refugees.' Not 'colonists.' No group in history has been forced to seek refuge more often, in more places, than the Jewish people. No group has been less likely to find permanent safety outside their homeland. Jews have experienced more than 500 expulsion events and endless cycles of state sanctioned and/or tolerated violence in every country we’ve ever lived. 

"Can we deny or minimize the violence the creation and evolution of Israel has brought onto the Palestinian people? Not if we want to be honest with ourselves or credible advocates for Israel. We should acknowledge the full scope of harm to the Palestinian people and work to repair that damage. But if we’re going to discuss violence we cannot deny, or let others erase, the inextricable violence against Jews that is central to this entire conflict. 

"We cannot erase the colonial violence which drove Jews from the land in the first place. Or the endless violence to Jews wherever we tried to find refuge over centuries, including in the Arab world before and after 1948. Or the violent efforts to end the Jewish state since 1948. Or the endless terrorism the Israeli people endure. Or the endless attacks Jews continue to face globally. We can claim that none of this violence justifies violence toward another, but we’re lying to ourselves if we don’t think this violence, and the intergenerational trauma and understandable fear it has created, isn’t a part of this situation. No progressive would dismiss the trauma to any other marginalized group and how that impacts people’s actions, and we shouldn’t let anyone dismiss ours.

"It’s tempting to view the American Jewish diaspora experience as proof we can find safety elsewhere, but this moment is the exception to a 2,000+ year old rule. The current American Jewish reality, which doesn’t match our past here and may be taking an ominous turn, is also the exception for diaspora Jews around the world today, and throughout history. For younger Jews like me, it’s important to remember that if our life occurred in any other period in human history, we’d be living in a hostile land no matter where or when. For Jews who present as white, and thus can blend into white America, we must not erase the voices and lived reality of other Jews, like those from the Middle East or North Africa, many of whom wouldn’t be alive without Israel.

"Yes, let’s criticize all of Israel’s harmful policies. Yes, let’s advocate for a different future for the Palestinian people, for an end to the occupation, for a form of restorative justice, and for their national self-determination. Our progressive (and Jewish) values demand that we fight for a different future for the Palestinian people, but there is nothing progressive about working to erase Israel and put Jews back into a position of total systemic powerlessness. There is nothing progressive about sentencing Jews to the endless cycle of violence of our past, living in constant fear of the next attack as permanent minorities in a world that has always been hostile to us and unwilling to ensure our safety. 

"For centuries before 1948 we lived in that endless cycle of violence as stateless people. Eventually, Jews got attacked wherever we were. The problem has never been where Jews are, but that Jews are there.”

Back to me: Jews in Israel will not accept a democratic one-state solution because that would mean the end of Jewish self-rule. The status quo will lead to a one-state solution, de facto or de jure, that is non-democratic. Israel would survive as a Jewish state in some sense, but at the cost of alienating most of the American Jewish community and losing U.S. support--as well as betraying the values of classical Zionism.

We can argue forever about who did what to whom when, or we can move forward. Only a two-state solution can provide both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples with the peace, security, and justice they need and deserve. It might seem out of reach now, but it is the only realistic solution that sustains Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and allows Palestinians to realize their national aspirations. At a minimum, we in the U.S. must at least discourage both sides from pushing that solution further out of reach. That is why it is incumbent upon all of us to advocate for a two-state solution and do all we can to keep it within reach while at the same time educating our kids and our allies on the legitimacy and importance of the real Israel, the Israel with which we do and must share an unbreakable bond.

Today is Tisha B'Av, which marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples. After 2,000 years, we are living in a world that includes a reborn Jewish State of Israel. We cannot take that for granted.

Tweets of the Week. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Nimrod Novik.

Twitter Thread of the Week. Gershom Gorenberg.

Video Clip of the Week. Previously: On a Drama.

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