Jewish victimhood gets in the way of peace


When nations go abroad to fight, their wars inevitably come home to haunt them, changing politics and society on the homefront too. Gershon Gorenberg applies that insight to Israel, perceptively and compellingly, in a recent op-ed in the S unday New York Times. The right-wing Israelis’ drive to dominate the Palestinians — and indeed all opponents of their intolerant ideology — is most obvious in the West Bank settlements, which are beyond Israel’s borders. But the same drive for domination is increasingly played out within Israel itself, as Gorenberg shows, in ways that are changing the very structure of Israeli life.

The growing power of the Israeli right is indeed a tragic spectacle that we Americans who care about Israel watch with sorrow, apparently helpless to do anything about it. Of course we are not Israelis. some say we have no business getting involved in their politics anyway, and that may well be true.

But we surely have a right, even an obligation, to influence our own government’s policies. We know that Washington could put much more pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion and negotiate a two-state solution in good faith. Indirectly, such pressure might help derail the right-wing shift within Israel too, as Gorenberg implies. Yet when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict the Obama administration, like most of its predecessors, has been long on words and depressingly short on constructive action.

Many U.S. progressives have given up even trying to move the administration toward a more just and even-handed approach. They are content to heap up the critiques of both Obama and Israel, with no hope that anything will ever change. They will welcome Gorenberg’s article as more grist for their mill and let it go at that.

But those who know how much power the U.S. can wield over Israel, if it wants to, might not give up so easily. Even those who don’t care what happens in Israel may still be moved to political action when they see such obvious injustice in our government’s biased policy.

Those who still have the energy to wage this political battle would do well to read Gershon Gorenberg’s other recent article, which appeared in the American Prospect. It’s the one I wish the New York Times had printed, because it speaks about the issue that matters most in this country: not what’s happening in Israel but what’s happening here in the U.S., and its Jewish community in particular.

The U.S. Jewish community has no control over U.S. policy, and it’s probably not even the strongest force shaping Obama’s positions on the issue. There’s a powerful Christian Zionist lobby, and beyond it a broader Republican political machine ready to pounce on Obama for any hint of pressure on or even criticism of Israel.

But the Jewish community holds the key to changing U.S. policy. If Jews strongly voiced their support for an end to settlement expansion, a fair two-state solution, and U.S. pressure toward those goals, it would mute much of the Republican critique. How could Christians convincingly support policies of the Jewish state that Jews themselves consistently oppose?

And the Jewish community is the place in the U.S. where pressure for changing opinion can be most successfully applied, because the Jewish community here is changing so fast. Gorenberg’s American Prospect piece inadvertently illustrates the point. He focuses on the continuing right-wing slant of many Jews, drawing evidence from his recent speaking tour in the U.S. But he mentions in passing that he, a progressive peace advocate, was repeatedly speaking in synagogues where no one had ever been allowed to voice the peace perspective before.

That’s just one of a mountain of anecdotes I’ve compiled in the last few years pointing to a sea change in the U.S. Jewish community. Support for a two-state solution and opposition to the West Bank settlements, once considered absolutely taboo in organized Jewish life, is now hotly debated. But the very fact that it’s a well-established position in a contentious dialogue shows how far the U.S. Jewish community has come in just the past few years. The shift continues and may well be accelerating.

That’s why I say the Jewish community is the place where pressure can be most fruitfully applied to change the climate of public opinion in general. If that change reaches a tipping-point (which often comes when we least expect it), a president would have enough political cover to take more even-handed positions, which would clearly be in the national interest.

How to promote such a change? This brings us to the heart of Gorenberg’s American Prospect piece, the paragraphs that I wish every American interested in the issue could not only read but memorize:

“victimhood is part of the story that Jews tell about their past. In that story, a besieged, endangered Israel is the sequel to the Holocaust. … The victimhood was very real. But for most Jews living today in America, the trauma is a taught memory, passed on by previous generations, out of sync with their current condition. And seeing Israel as the symbol of victimhood is discordant: Zionism was a rebellion against Jewish powerlessness, and present-day Israel testifies to the rebellion’s success.

However, Gorenberg continues, “when you challenge a group’s narrative, some members will take that as a denial of their identity. They’ll get angry. They will repeat their story more loudly. They may accuse you of telling falsehoods.” In fact they will accuse you, I would add, based on plenty of personal experience.

This is the essential message that all U.S. Jews – and indeed all Americans – need to hear, over and over again. Since the Six-Day War of June, 1967, American Jewish identity has been massively dominated by a fiction-laced story of victimhood and powerlessness. In recent years it has begun to unravel at the edges. But it still holds a powerful command in the public mind, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

And it’s reinforced almost every day by journalists who assume it, and thus give it credibility, as they supposedly report just the facts. A recent example: Two New York Times reporters file a story from Jerusalem stating that “Hamas rejects Israel’s existence,” stating it almost in passing, as if it were an obvious fact that needed no evidence or justification.

Never mind that the Times itself published an interview with the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, two and a half years ago, in which he clearly stated his acceptance of a two-state solution. Never mind that Meshaal has said the same in many sources for years now. Israel must be presented as a little nation facing a fierce enemy sworn to its destruction, and someone must play the role of the enemy. Facts must give way to the power of the story.

American supporters of the Israeli right use their story as a bludgeon, fending off anyone who suggests a meaningful shift in U.S. policy. As long as that story remains so widely believed, it will continue to be an effective weapon dominating the political landscape. no matter how much ugly truth about Israel progressives offer, Israel’s defenders will merely repeat that nation’s favorite mantra: “For the sake of security.” It’s all justified, they’ll say, to keep the Jewish state secure against supposedly (but in fact non-existent) enemies who are dedicated, and powerful enough, to destroy Israel.

So no matter how high the mountain of morally disturbing facts about Israel’s policies and behavior, those facts alone can never constitute a strategy for changing U.S. policy. The story framing the facts, the story that Gorenberg lays out so concisely and accurately, must be confronted head on and debunked. That should be the spearhead of strategy for anyone hoping to see a more even-handed policy coming from Washington.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.

One thought on “Jewish victimhood gets in the way of peace”

  1. ‘Many U.S. progressives have given up even trying to move the administration toward a more just and even-handed approach.’
    Who died and made Ira Chernus judge and jury of what is ‘just and even-handed’?
    It is obvious in the first paragraph of Chernus’s article, that he is unqualified to be fair and even-handed. He asserts that Israel has a ‘drive to dominate Palestinians’, an ‘intolerant ideology’, and then he repeats the phrase ‘drive to domination’. Israel, nor any other nation, should receive that kind of prejudiced, hostile assessment. It is obvious that higher education in America is in steep decline when incompetent professors, like Chernus, are spewing bitter nonsense in their classrooms.

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