Towers sway. Seismic jolts rattle the realm. A mainstream epiphany is at hand: the extent of ideological and operational “twinning” of Israel and the United States. The diversionary benefits of an attack on Iran become ever more compelling–but Iran looms large in the epiphany. The blarney still runneth over, but it runneth scared.
Vintage Zionist bravado was uncorked by Benjamin Netanyahu during his closed-door meeting last month with American contributors to an Israeli military recruitment program targeting ultra-religious Jews. The American-educated former Israeli Prime Minister, now hardline opposition leader and magnet for the right, has called for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran. Netanyahu was the original recipient of the neo-con expansionist “clean break” blueprint in the nineties, which was eventually recycled back in the U.S. as the Program for a New American Century.
While appreciative of anticipated largesse, Netanyahu told the visiting heavy hitters that their vessel was sinking. With intermarriage and assimilation swamping the good ship Diaspora, there is “no future” for Jews living outside Israel. Journalists immediately took embarrassing note that the last Israeli politician to give public voice (in 2000) to that hoary backroom chestnut was President Moshe Katsav, currently accused of rape.
While survival is a thematic staple in Jewish organizational discourse, there’s a certain comic-opera quality to anointing Israel as guarantor of Jewish identity and well-being at a time when the state is sliding into quasi-pariah status on the international stage. But Israeli triumphalism cannot be laughed away. With an estimated 200+ nuclear weapons at its disposal, this graustark-on-steroids could threaten to unleash chaos if it felt unacceptably squeezed, the worst-case scenario involving the suicidal “Masada option.”
Israel’s own internal viability was called into question later in the month by the Israeli American mathematician and game-theory guru who won the Nobel Prize in economics last year. Professor Robert (Yisrael) Aumann, who moved to the United States half a century ago, told an audience at the College of Judea and Samaria, in occupied Ariet, that long-term continued existence of Israel is at risk due to insufficient appreciation of its uniqueness, aggravated by excessive sensitivity to war casualties.
Of course, triumphalism finds its natural home in religion, and the new chief rabbi of the Israeli military, Rabbi Avi Ronsky, is so confident of divine support, he’s willing to write off the earthbound kind. “I am not sure”, he sniffed, when an interviewer asked if there is such a thing as secular zionism. Meanwhile, from his base on seized Palestinian land in the northern West Bank, extremist Rabbi Yousef Falay provided the always salutary reminder that fundamentalist fever is an equal-opportunity affliction, with his call for Palestinian males to be “exterminated” if they refuse to flee Palestine. And, indeed, the “transfer” option has to be considered very much back on the table now that expulsion advocate Avigdor Lieberman has been brought into the Israeli cabinet.
Back in the United States, the pro-Israel lobby can feel the ground moving beneath its feet. Certainly, it can boast of continued success in maintaining the gloss on Israel’s public image while airbrushing embarrassing warts. 81% of Americans believe Arabs’ real goal to be the destruction of Israel, not the return of occupied land, according to a poll by the American Jewish Committee. The same poll also showed that for three out of four American Jews, concern for Israel is an integral part of their Jewish identity, although that sense of identification is dropping sharply with each succeeding generation.
But the lobby itself is blinking in an unaccustomed spotlight, its coy wink-nudge invisibility at an end. That its very existence–let alone its machinations–has come under public scrutiny is due largely to debate generated by the report published earlier this year (now being turned into a book) by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, of Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively. The lobby’s sway has received a public thumping by no less than Zbigniew Brezinski, national security advisor under Jimmy Carter (himself the author of a new book conflating treatment of Palestinians with Apartheid). Brezinski told a New America Foundation dinner: “Bush should say, either I make policy on the Middle East or AIPAC does.”
AIPAC, lobby linchpin, finds itself center stage in the unfolding (and unsurprisingly under-reported) espionage trial of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, former AIPAC policy director and an AIPAC Middle East analyst, respectively. As part of his plea-bargain, Pentagon staffer Larry Franklin admitted passing the documents (reportedly concerning Iran) to the AIPAC staffers. And the presiding judge, T.S. Ellis of the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, has ruled there existed “ample probable cause to believe” that the defendants were acting as “foreign agents” when the government wiretapped them. (In a congressional spinoff, the FBI and Justice Department are investigating claims of collusion between AIPAC and Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. In return for lobby support for her reappointment, Harman allegedly agreed to press the government to go easy on Rosen and Weissman.)
Meanwhile, Israel goes on creating unilateral “facts on the ground.” Just as the mainstream media were starting to wrap their minds around the devastation undergone by the physical and social landscapes of Lebanon, and the time-release followup of unexploded cluster bombs, Israel chose to run amok in Gaza, and Beit Hanoun joined the ranks of war-crime discourse. In these internet-facilitated times, the obscene disparity between Israel’s high-minded rhetoric and its depraved practice is too flagrant to be concealed. In most of the rest of the world a backlog of pent-up indignation is building to a breaking point.
Israel’s unconditional defenders hunker down in sulky, solipsistic denial, and more “liberal” Zionists squirm with increasing discomfort. But from the outset, Zionism has evoked conscientious disavowal in both secular and religious Jewish circles around the world, a relatively unknown dissident tradition embraced by many “recovering Zionists.” This tendency achieved notable expression in the United States in the months following initiation of the first Palestinian Intifada. In February 1988, eighteen professionally and intellectually prominent American Jews published “Time To Dissociate From Israel” as a full page ad in The Nation (the statement had picked up hundreds of additional signers by the time it was republished in the New York Review of Books). Listing particulars of Israel’s “tragically misguided approach” and “racialist ideology”, the signers of the statement affirmed: “We can no longer condone or be associated with such Israeli behavior, nor, do we believe, should our country.” Similar statements have appeared sporadically in the intervening years.
As always, the current surge in criticism of Israel will be countered by accusations of antisemitism, especially when prickly questions are raised about the dual American-Israeli citizenship of a number of pivotal neocons. And, eventually, the fallback of last resort, the Holocaust, will be invoked as all-sheltering dispensation for Zionist and Israeli misbehavior. However, this figleaf is overdue for closeup examination, something along the lines of the privately commissioned inquiry begun in 1980 and headed by Arthur Goldberg, former Supreme Court justice and ambassador to the UN. A hornet’s nest was stirred by this retrospective look at shortcomings in the way American Jewish organizations responded to the needs of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, and the project collapsed in rancor after a year. The wider and deeper issues of German Zionism’s symbiotic relation with the Nazi regime have been masterfully explored in Lenni Brenner’s groundbreaking Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (inexcusably out of print but available online by Googling up the title).
Given the fabled tangle of Jewish fractionalism, it’s often been said that the only thing holding American Jews together is Israel. What would it take for Israel to fall definitively from the graces of its putative overseas constituency? The mind shudders at the implied order-of-magnitude escalation necessary to overshadow everything that’s been perpetrated to date.
A collateral question suggests itself: What would fill the identity vacuum? Obviously, religious believers could embrace some form of traditional Jewish observance. But for the rest of us, what touchstone of Jewish spiritual identity could evolve after the “molting” process?
Many social justice secularists consider prophetic haranguing as some kind of quintessentially Jewish spiritual vector. And today it bumps up against a different spiritual vector that has made capacious headway among North American Jews, namely, the practice of Asian-derived systems of self-cultivation.
Can prophetic wrath coexist with transcendence of ego?
Could Amos and Buddha jam on Get Over Yourself?
DAVE HIMMELSTEIN is a writer and editor in Montreal. Reachable through firstname.lastname@example.org