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America’s ideology ostriches are similar to Israel’s, but even less connected to pragmatism. Americans don’t send their children to patrol the territories. Heck, they don’t even send their children to visit the territories. Most American right-wingers wouldn’t know Abu Dis from Abu Shukri, and they don’t want to know. They use the language of toughness, but the Israel they care about is a myth, set to the music of Naomi Shemer, and best visited on the holidays.
Yet thanks to American meddling, the myth is taking precedence over reality. Often, one hears the view that American Jews should simply support Israel’s democratically elected government, whatever its policies. As if Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom tabloid isn’t taking sides. As if the American funding of the Hebron Fund, the One Israel Fund, and similar organizations isn’t taking sides. The fact is, the American hard right has been distorting Israeli politics for decades now by a massive infusion of cash. The winners? The hard-right settler fringe, which appears to be calling the relevant shots even in the new Israeli government. The losers? Well, the Palestinians first of all, but right after them, the millions of normal Israelis who want normal lives rather than mythic ones.
The same hard-right meddling has hurt Israel on the American scene. Here’s the paradox. Israel’s best advocates, particularly on college campuses, are critics of the occupation who nonetheless support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. We progressive Zionists have credibility that The David Project and its ilk lack. We agree with Israel’s critics that the policies in the territories are wrong, but we disagree with Israel’s delegitimizers that the entire state is suspect. In other words, we are exactly whom you want your college-aged children to meet. And yet, thanks to the American hard right, we are scared into submission. We have lost our funding from prominent philanthropists. We have been banned and stigmatized. We are outgunned and outfinanced by an American Jewish establishment that tilts way to the right of the American Jewish community.
See the irony? The Jewish establishment wants to support Israel, but it mutes Israel’s most effective advocates. I am not making this up. I have met tenured professors, successful not-for-profit directors and highly motivated young Jewish leaders — all terrified to speak their minds about Israel, to come to a J Street conference, or to be associated with anything that isn’t glatt kosher. They approach me the same way that closeted gay men and lesbians do, asking if I have a minute “to talk.” They applaud my “courage” and wish they could be as open as I am.
These are exactly the people who should be emissaries to college communities and other spaces in which Israel’s delegitimizers are gaining ground. If all we offer to moderates are the extremes — flag-waving nationalists on one side, anti-Israel activists on the other — we’re going to lose more than we win. Indeed, creating a new generation of flag-wavers, via Birthright or other mechanisms, may even be counterproductive, as it reinforces the perception that to be pro-Israel is to know nothing of the Palestinian narrative — to be, in other words, an ostrich.
Israel’s supporters ought to be zealots for ambivalence, prophets of nuance. This isn’t about doves and hawks; it’s about pragmatic realism over ideological delusion — one propped up by Jewish messianism, Christian Zionism, American billionaires and, yes, a pro-Israel lobby that often treats any deviation from the ostrich-right as a wavering loyalty to Israel itself. Israel’s security hawks already understand this. Why don’t we?
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.