Israel’s Angels in America

When I was a very little kid growing up in New York City just after World War II, my mother took me to the Imperial Theater in the heart of Broadway on W. 45th Street to watch a new musical comedy, “Annie Get Your Gun.” Held spellbound by Buffalo Bill introducing Ethel Merman to her new life in “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” I was hooked for life after my first theater experience in 1946.  I was transformed by a picture-book story, the story about frontierswoman Annie Oakley, coming to life before my eyes. Teased by my family for being a “tomboy,” I understood what that meant for the first time—and I was proud! Stella Adler, the famous theater teacher, once said, “The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. “

Forty-seven years later I entered the Walter Kerr Theater in New York to see theater history being made again. Using the AIDS epidemic as a metaphor for an America on the march to a new millennium worn thin by the ascendancy of the Reagan revolution, a young gay Jewish playwright, Tony Kushner, forged a searing vision of the possibility of community in an age of moral and political deformity.  “Angels in America” didn’t run as long as “Annie” (367 vs. 1,147 performances), but it won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama, and the Tony Award for best play, rewarded for how it captured personal and political decay and renewal in an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing America.

Celebrated and honored for more than a decade because of his profoundly humane, compassionate, and hopeful view of our survival in a complex world, Kushner accepted an invitation in 2006 to receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University.  Attempting unsuccessfully to have the invitation rescinded, the Zionist Society of America savagely and publicly attacked Kushner for his expression of alleged anti-Zionist views.  They noted his publication of Wrestling With Zionism, which Kushner had co-edited a few years earlier, presenting a case for the so-called “one-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestinians and Israelis living together with equal rights in one democratic state.

Facing a growing storm of criticism from Zionist Americans who feared the Arab demographic majority in the one-state scenario, Kushner subtly protected his notion that the most important task of any artist is “to tell the truth.”  He did his best to mitigate damage to his reputation and defend his position as a friend of Israel, protesting that characterizing his position as supporting the “one-state” solution was a misreading of his feelings:

“There’s a very strong democratic tradition in Israel–a secular, pluralist, democratic tradition in Israel. I believe that there’s a great deal of jurisprudence and legislative history and executive action in Israel that supports a vision of Israel as a progressive, democratic, secular, pluralist state. I don’t know how you reconcile that with the notion of Israel as a Jewish state and that’s always been a question that I’ve had about it, but I leave that to Israel to work out.”

Tony Kushner’s contorted mea culpa was emblematic of the task facing many conflicted Jews in America, bleeding on the horns of a much-discussed dilemma:  how to publicly speak out against the most egregious excesses of Israeli government policy and America as an enabler in those excesses.

Until the publication in 2006 of Harvard Academic Dean Stephen Walt and U. of Chicago Political Scientist John Mearsheimer’s landmark attack on the power of AIPAC, America’s pro-Israel lobby, to influence U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, Jews in America who valued their public image, with very few exceptions, were afraid to voice any opinions that countered the pro-Israel party line.  Followed closely by the publication of former President Jimmy Carter’s book examining the plight of the Palestinians, Palestine:  Peace, Not Apartheid, the dam of silence at last burst open.

There are good reasons for American Jews to organize resistance to America’s unexamined support of Israeli impunity. Institutions built on fundamental inconsistencies – whether companies such as Bear Stearns or countries such as Yugoslavia –tend to have a relatively short shelf life in the marketplace of history.  History does not progress in a linear fashion, and the most successful nations, institutions and individuals are those best able continually to reexamine and reduce the inconsistencies between their historic myths and their guiding realities.  The Israeli myth of Zionist settlement in a dry and dusty land empty of people and agriculture is collapsing under the weight of young Israeli historians detailing a different story, one based on facts and data unearthed in recently-released Israeli archives.  The “new historians” recount the story of the Palestinian exodus from their lands in 1948 in chilling detail, noting forced removal of Palestinians by a superior Zionist armed force often resorting to mass murder.

Living in hope past the horror of the Holocaust, most recently highlighted once again by President Obama’s visit to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, many American Jews watch the grisly news accounts coming from Gaza and the Occupied Territories and grieve for the loss of the closely held Jewish values that survived the Holocaust, including social justice, peace, and freedom from oppression.  Combined with the efforts of the post-Zionist Israeli historians and the Administration’s tough line on the West Bank settlements, unprecedented media attention to Palestinian suffering has shifted the mental models of many American Jews, resulting in a profound reassessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an eagerness to revisit America’s strategic relationship with Israel.

A national organizing effort spreading across America’s Jewish Diaspora is approaching critical mass, still underappreciated by reporters and bloggers.

I was asked to facilitate the public discussion following a recent rollout of a local organizing effort in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live.  The new group, comprised mainly of New Mexico Jews, named itself “Another Jewish Voice.”  It promotes an unapologetic mission that goes beyond the common vision shared by innumerable “peace” organizations around the world to end the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and affirm the national aspirations and human rights of the Palestinian people.  AJV states that it  “recognizes the powerful role of U.S. policy in the region and believes that the United States’ unconditional support of Israeli government policy is profoundly harmful to the cause of peace with justice. We will work to promote a U.S. policy that is consistent with international law and human rights. We will work to combat the myth of American Jewish consensus in support of Israeli government policy.” This mission statement would have been unimaginable just one year ago.  It is a call to direction action, and it is gaining traction across the country.

The Santa Fe meeting unexpectedly attracted 75 public attendees to learn about Another Jewish Voice. Held in the community room of the Santa Fe Public Library, I led a discussion among folks who were mostly Jewish and surprisingly angry at Israeli policies and U.S. government complicity.  The average age in the room was about 55, Jews of a generation who had internalized the Zionist story from early childhood.  And yet they expressed over and over their anguish about losing Israel, destroying itself by its political decisions and military actions, assisted in the suicide by U.S. military aid.  They left the meeting hall ready to take the next step beyond confronting the pro-Israel lobby.  They left ready to storm the halls of Congress to stop the $30 billion in aid to Israel over the next ten years.

A few months ago on the stage of the New York Theater Workshop, Tony Kushner had his second chance.  Leading an audience discussion after the performance of playwright Caryl Churchills’s emotionally explosive ten-minute play, Seven Jewish Children, and later in an article written for “The Nation” magazine, Kushner summed up the troubling and complex structure of a play about Jewish children questioning the ambiguous responses of their parents:

“This is a powerful trope in Jewish culture; it’s the questioning child around whom the Passover Seder is built. We’re left to hope that this girl we’ve never seen, the last scene’s girl, won’t become one of the Israeli teenagers who recently gave the truly frightening Avigdor Lieberman the highest share of the votes in a high school election poll….Perhaps she’s realizing that their repression of the truth has become not only misguided and immoral but fatal; for nothing survives on lies, on a denial of reality; eventually, reality wins. Perhaps she’s found out about a relative of hers, mentioned earlier: ‘Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.’ Perhaps this girl will grow up to work for justice.”

Perhaps the American Jews who are now, at last, allowing themselves to speak out, will become Israel’s Angels in America, assisting young Israeli girls to work for justice in their own country, and helping to save Israel from it’s fatal flaw of denying the Jewish imperative of truth and moral conduct.

MERLE LEFKOFF, Ph.D. is President of The Madrona Institute, applying the science of Complexity to the transformation of peacemaking and diplomacy.