Analysis from Israel

I’ve given up expecting peace-process zealots like Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union to pay any heed to mainstream Israelis (i.e., the 83 percent who think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But recently, even Israel’s far left has become too “right-wing” for these zealots. That begs an obvious question: Since any peace deal requires two sides, how do they expect to close one by adopting positions so extreme even Haaretz columnists won’t support them?

Two regular Haaretz contributors and long-time peace advocates wrote columns this month decrying the current approach. First, former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau blasted Kerry for treating veteran Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as “settlements.” Next, psychology professor Carlo Strenger explained why the Syrian crisis makes a full West Bank withdrawal impossible.

Much of Landau’s piece restated what has long been obvious: the “indiscriminate lumping together of Jerusalem suburbs with far-flung” settlements has encouraged mainstream Israelis to do the same–and therefore oppose a construction freeze in either–and made it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate without a total freeze, because he can’t demand less than Washington does. But Landau also added a new twist: “Kerry’s ham-fisted lumping together of Ramot and Gilo with West Bank settlements” has even forced Israeli leftists to side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Washington (and, he might have added, the EU as well). It is “veritably forcing myriad moderate Israelis, who long for peace and the two-state solution, to bridle, with the Netanyahu camp, at the entire admonishment.”

Strenger’s piece, however, tackled a broader problem: the ongoing implosion of Syria. Peace activists have long advocated a deal with Syria, he noted, but “most Israelis now shudder when they think what would have happened if Israel had returned the Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups would be at the shore of the Kinneret, creating an unbearable security risk.”

This lesson matters for the West Bank, he wrote, because despite his conviction (incidentally not shared by most Israelis) that Abbas truly wants peace, “Israelis ask a simple question: do you have the ability to prevent a takeover of Palestine by extremists?” And the obvious answer is no:  Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and Abbas can’t guarantee it won’t take power following an Israeli pullout.

“After all, Hamas once won the elections in Palestine,” Strenger recalled. Hamas also routed Abbas’s forces in less than a week when it staged a military takeover of Gaza in 2007–a fact Strenger bizarrely omits, but that most Israelis haven’t forgotten. Hence the inevitable conclusion:

In the Middle East’s current situation no Israeli government will renounce security control of Palestine’s eastern border and no Israeli government will return to the 1967 borders in the foreseeable future, when there are chances that radical Jihadist elements might attack Israel from there.

But another failed push for a deal demanding exactly that won’t merely increase distrust on both sides and thereby reduce the chances of peace in the future–a point both Strenger and Landau make. It also means diplomats aren’t pursuing interim measures that could defuse the conflict and actually increase prospects for future peace–measures that, as political scientist Shlomo Avineri noted in this insightful analysis, are routinely employed in other conflicts where final-status deals aren’t immediately possible, like Cyprus or Kashmir. Thus by pushing a final-status deal now, Kerry and company are actively making things worse at the expense of steps that could make things better.

And if that’s what even Israel’s far left is saying, isn’t it time for international diplomats to start listening?

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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