As­sess­ing Barack Obama’s brand of lib­eral Zion­ism.

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Front Page - Andrew Silow-car­roll Andrew Silow-car­roll is the ed­i­tor in chief of JTA

Dur­ing his cam­paign for pres­i­dent in 2008, I wrote a col­umn sug­gest­ing that Barack Obama was strug­gling to con­nect with Jews be­cause they weren’t sure that he sup­ported Is­rael’s cause in his gut – that is, in his kishkes. I may have been the first to ap­ply the term “Kishkes Fac­tor” in re­la­tion to Obama’s pol­i­tics and Is­rael.

In some ways, I’ve come to re­gret the fram­ing, which sug­gests that had Obama only worn his sup­port for Is­rael on his sleeve, he would have won over the cen­trist and right-wing pro-is­rael groups that dogged him all his pres­i­dency.

In fact, the ten­sion be­tween Obama and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu – and by ex­ten­sion, be­tween the pres­i­dent and the pro-is­rael main­stream – was a mat­ter of pol­icy, not emo­tion. Obama rep­re­sented a way of be­ing pro-is­rael – call it lib­eral Zion­ism – that was no more pop­u­lar among the pro-is­rael main­stream than it was among the Is­raeli ma­jor­ity who backed Ne­tanyahu and his right-wing gov­ern­ment.

Lib­eral Zion­ism sup­ports Is­rael as the home­land and na­tion-state of the Jewish peo­ple, but as­serts it can­not live up to its found­ing prin­ci­ples as long as it re­mains in con­trol of the mil­lions of non-cit­i­zen Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank. This con­vic­tion – that the only way to solve the Mid­dle East con­flict and pre­serve Is­rael’s demo­cratic char­ac­ter was the sep­a­ra­tion of the two peo­ples – was be­hind Obama’s deep an­tag­o­nism to the ex­pan­sion of Jewish set­tle­ments.

Com­ing from two such dif­fer­ent places, Obama and Ne­tanyahu were per­haps des­tined to never get along. Obama gam­bled – in his 2013 visit to Is­rael and in his ap­peals to Amer­i­can Jewish au­di­ences – that he could by­pass Ne­tanyahu and con­vince the Is­raeli peo­ple and Jewish vot­ers that the logic of the sit­u­a­tion made his po­si­tion unas­sail­able. And Ne­tanyahu pinned his hopes on the Repub­li­cans, some­times openly col­lud­ing with GOP law­mak­ers and donors in cast­ing tra­di­tions of bi­par­ti­san­ship aside. It’s a gam­ble, one can ar­gue, that Ne­tanyahu ul­ti­mately won.

The strained re­la­tion­ship be­tween Obama and Ne­tanyahu rep­re­sents splits within the Jewish com­mu­nity it­self, and be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­raelis. Amer­i­can Jews are solidly be­hind a twostate so­lu­tion and am­biva­lent, at best, about the ex­pan­sion of set­tle­ments. Slight ma­jori­ties of Is­raelis show at least an emo­tional pref­er­ence for two states, but the ma­jor­ity feel­ing is that the idea is a pipe dream given the Pales­tini­ans’ re­cal­ci­trance, in­cite­ment and in­ep­ti­tude. The re­sult in Is­rael is a right-wing gov­ern­ment adept at main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo.

Most of the big Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tions are in the po­si­tion of de­fend­ing this sta­tus quo. In the last eight years th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions have com­mit­ted them­selves to com­bat­ing what they say are the symp­toms of the world’s re­fusal to ac­cept Is­rael’s re­al­ity. This re­fusal takes the form of a one-sided boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment that in its more mil­i­tant ver­sion re­jects the very no­tion of a Jewish state.

Lib­eral Zion­ists, mean­while, also re­ject BDS while ar­gu­ing that Is­rael, as the undis­puted mil­i­tary power in the con­flict, could defuse the crit­ics and write its own fu­ture if it made bold moves to­ward sep­a­ra­tion. They warn that young Jews are be­com­ing more alien­ated to­ward Is­rael pre­cisely be­cause the val­ues of oc­cu­pa­tion and set­tle­ment no longer re­flected the mil­len­ni­als’ be­lief in tol­er­ance, democ­racy and hu­man rights.

Lib­eral Zion­ists have their cham­pi­ons at J Street, in Peter Beinart and Ge­orge Soros, and in legacy or­ga­ni­za­tions like Amer­i­cans for Peace Now and Ameinu. But they don’t have an Is­raeli ma­jor­ity on their side, nor an Is­rael gov­ern­ment, nor even a ro­bust op­po­si­tion in Is­rael to val­i­date their views.

They did, how­ever, have an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, who could speak emo­tion­ally about the Is­rael they grew up on and still be­lieve in while of­fer­ing tough-love rhetoric im­plor­ing Is­rael to grab the op­por­tu­nity for peace be­fore it is too late.

By the end of Obama’s sec­ond term, it be­gan to look like time was run­ning out. Don­ald Trump and his party no longer talk about a two-state so­lu­tion, and Trump nom­i­nated a U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael, David Fried­man, who fully sup­ports the set­tle­ment en­ter­prise.

It’s not clear what Obama could have done to buck th­ese trends, not with­out a com­mit­ment from Is­rael, the Pales­tini­ans or their sup­port­ers to bring some­thing new to the ta­ble. Obama could have wrapped him­self in the Is­raeli flag and danced the ho­rah on In­de­pen­dence Day – and in some ways, he did – and still would have found him­self on the wrong side of the Zion­ist de­bate.

Per­haps sens­ing this, Obama of­fered a du­bi­ous part­ing gift to the lib­eral Zion­ists in the form of a U.S. ab­sten­tion on a largely one-sided U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­dem­na­tion of the set­tle­ments. Even a few of the ma­jor lib­eral Zion­ist groups here were am­biva­lent about the move – either be­cause they have learned to dis­trust the United Na­tions or be­cause they knew it would hand the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­other cud­gel with which to beat up on Democrats.

The right seized on the ab­sten­tion as proof of what they had been say­ing all along: that Obama was an­tag­o­nis­tic to Is­rael and per­haps even anti-semitic.

More likely, how­ever, the ab­sten­tion was the frus­trated part­ing ges­ture of a lib­eral Zion­ist scorned. You can fault Obama for a rosy, ide­al­is­tic and ul­ti­mately naive view of an Is­rael that no longer ex­ists, but if the pres­i­dent was stuck in the days of hardy kib­butzniks and self­less so­cial­ists, he’s not alone. A plu­ral­ity, if not a ma­jor­ity, of Amer­i­can Jews prob­a­bly share a vi­sion for Is­rael’s fu­ture rooted in a fast-fad­ing past.

Wil­liam Safire once wrote that the great­est thrill a writer can ex­pe­ri­ence is “to coin a word or phrase that fills a lin­guis­tic void and be­comes part of the his­tory of the era.” Kishkes, I am afraid, is not that word. Obama wasn’t too “cool” for pro-is­rael tastes. He was merely the wrong kind of pro-is­rael for the times.


Barack Obama in Is­rael in 2013.

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