The Shifting Israel Debate

Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border

It’s hard to recall now but Tony Judt was once ostracized and vilified for writing this (among other things):

We can see, in retrospect, that the victory of Israel in June 1967 and its continuing occupation of the territories it conquered then have been the Jewish state’s very own nakba: a moral and political catastrophe. Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified and publicized the country’s shortcomings and displayed them to a watching world. Curfews, checkpoints, bulldozers, public humiliations, home destructions, land seizures, shootings, “targeted assassinations,” the separation fence: All of these routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority of specialists and activists.

Today they can be watched, in real time, by anyone with a computer or a satellite dish – which means that Israel’s behavior is under daily scrutiny by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel. Until very recently the carefully burnished image of an ultra-modern society – built by survivors and pioneers and peopled by peace-loving democrats – still held sway over international opinion. But today? What is the universal shorthand symbol for Israel, reproduced worldwide in thousands of newspaper editorials and political cartoons? The Star of David emblazoned upon a tank.

For these heterodox views, Judt was banished from the New Republic masthead, and targeted by the ADL and American Jewish Committee. He subsequently sighed: “I didn’t think I knew until then just how deep and how uniquely American this obsession with blocking any criticism of Israel is. It is uniquely American. Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life”.

No longer. I doubt Judt would recognize the kind of debate now raging – that so many tried to stop. I offer one example today – Matt Yglesias attributing the lockstep support in Congress for anything Israel does as a function in part of donors whose litmus test is support for Greater Israel. The leaked internal documents of Michelle Nunn’s campaign for the Senate – which show that she has to adopt a maximalist pro-Israel stance if she is to get anywhere with Jewish donors – is the latest proof. Money quote:

Jewish donors are very important to Democratic Party finances, some of these donors have strongly held hawkish views on Israel, and the financial clout of AIPAC is the stuff of legend. At the same time, talk of rich Jews throwing their financial muscle around to influence policy in favor of Israel touches far too many anti-semitic tropes to be regularly mentioned in political discourse. But the concrete world of political fundraising doesn’t leave a ton of time for beating around the bush, so we get a little window here into how it looks to the finance people: if Nunn wants to maximize her donations, she needs to take the right stance.

Note the core point: not so long ago, anyone saying that Jewish donor money made an even-handed approach to Israel-Palestine a pretty dead letter would be deemed ipso facto an anti-Semite.

More to the point, such a view would not be allowed into print in any mainstream outlet. It would be regarded as an anti-Semitic trope – even if it were factually true. It’s as if a libel law did not allow for the truth as a defense! Heads we win; tails your career is over. Now of course these distortions of the fundraising process are not restricted to Israel. Think of the Cuba lobby, for example, another toxic force against a sane foreign policy. But it strikes me as a good thing that the truth can now be told and a more normal set of rules for debating the state of Israel is beginning to take shape. And so the extreme anomaly of the US Congress can come into greater relief:

While much of the rest of the world watches the Gaza war in horror and scrambles for a cease-fire, U.S. lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to take no action that puts pressure on Israel to halt its military operations.

There aren’t many military actions that kill scores of children that the US Congress is enthusiastic about. But at least the incongruousness of this – and the moral coarsening it reveals – can now be better exposed. And the web surely has something to do with this. At Vox, Yglesias does not have to answer to a bunch of boomer editors still traumatized by the self-censorship of the past, and has grown up as a writer with the kind of freedom of expression that blogging allows for. And reporters from the scene can actually express in real time – outside the usual pro-Israel self-censorship that has existed for years at the NYT and WaPo – what they are actually witnessing. David Carr has a great reflection on all this – and how the sight of such unbelievable carnage and cruelty has altered the global debate, intensifying Greater Israel’s international isolation.

It’s also a matter of record, I think, that there is no way I could have written or published anything along these lines before the blogging era. Having my own space to think out loud, outside the parameters of an existing institution, without all the caution around the subject that was baked deep in Washington journalism, was critical to my changing views in response to changing facts. The intimidation had an effect. It was designed to. And one huge benefit of a site like this – now entirely funded by readers – is that I am only accountable to you, and fear only being wrong.

(Photo: An Israeli soldier seen walking in the dust near the Israeli-Gaza border on July 25, 2014 near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. By Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images.)