Passover, now a week away, occupies a unique place in the hearts of American Jews. It’s the holiday that most poignantly combines the warmth of family, the pageantry of tradition and the power of Judaism’s universal message of human dignity. More than that, it’s the holiday that most affirms our sense of place and belonging in this society. Passover reminds us that the core values of Judaism and of America are one and the same, beginning with freedom. The holiday’s very symbols are the stuff of American myth. The flight from slavery. The parting of the Red Sea. “Go Down, Moses.” In this season, more than any other time of year, we are aware that to be Jewish is to be American.
This year, alas, it’s a bit harder than usual to summon up that sense of secure belonging. This past week, as the traditional month of Nisan began, signaling the countdown to Passover, we found ourselves bombarded with a barrage — unprecedented in recent memory — of high-visibility media attacks by critics questioning the very place of Jewish activism and advocacy in this country. And not just any critics: The Economist, the world’s most soberly thoughtful newsweekly, in a commentary provocatively titled “Taming Leviathan.” Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof, leading columnist of the nation’s most respected newspaper, the man whose devotion to human rights put Darfur on the map. George Soros, the iconic liberal philanthropist, a Holocaust survivor who spent hundreds of millions of his own dollars in the past two decades rebuilding civil society in post-communist Eastern Europe.
Their critiques differ in many particulars, but their underlying message is the same. It is, first, that America’s relationship with the Middle East and the Muslim world is catastrophically damaged. Second, that no thaw in that relationship is conceivable without a credible effort to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, easily the most charged issue on the Arab street. Third, that honest discussion of America’s options in the Middle East is stifled by the heavy-handed actions of Israel’s overzealous defenders in this country. Fourth, that these heavy-handed lobbyists are not representative of the broad majority of American Jews, but that most Jews inexplicably remain silent and allow the hawks to speak in their name. And that it’s time for the silent Jewish middle to speak up.
The response from Israel’s most zealous advocates was swift, and telling. The staunchly pro-Israel New York Sun argued, in an editorial, that Soros and Kristof were peddling a new version of the blood libel, the monstrous medieval myth that Jews murdered Christian children during Passover and baked their blood into matzo. The editor of The New Republic, in a brief entry on his Web log, resurrected his charge from a month ago, during a different spat, that Soros had been a Nazi collaborator (he called him a “cog in the Hitlerite wheel”) in wartime Hungary, a reference to the 13-year-old Soros’s riding along with a Nazi unit as it inventoried Jewish property.
The defenders may have intended to discredit the critics, but they only ended up proving the critics’ point: that Israel’s strongest advocates tend toward bluster and intimidation in place of honest debate.
Not all the defenders were so ham-fisted. David Harris, the soft-spoken executive director of the American Jewish Committee, showed the dignified side of pro-Israel advocacy in a Jerusalem Post essay replying to Kristof. Without stooping to mudslinging, Harris dissected the columnist’s claims that America and Israel are missing opportunities for peace. His point was that the opportunities are illusory, that Israel can only stand firm until a credible partner emerges.
And yet Harris, too, inadvertently bolstered his opponents’ claims. Kristof had argued at length that debate over Israel’s options is far more robust in Israel than it is here. Harris may think Israel has no credible partners for dialogue, but an awful lot of Israelis disagree. They include centrist politicians, Cabinet ministers, top security figures and, not incidentally, a clear majority of the Israeli population. There is nothing blind or naïve in arguing that Israel has other options. It’s simply an accurate reading of Israel’s security debate. Honorable people may take either side.
The question is, what prevents the other side from being heard in this country?
In a sense, there’s something absurd about the question. The debate is raging here, and has been for years. The critiques of Soros, Kristof and countless others published in recent years — in minor and major media outlets, on radio, in public lecture halls — are proof of that. Free speech still reigns.
It’s also true that reasonable critiques of Israeli policy aren’t heard as much as the critics would like because they’re overshadowed by unreasonable critiques. From the anti-war movement to the alternative media to the halls of academia comes a steady drumbeat attacking not just Israel’s policies but its very legitimacy. To an alarming degree, the attacks spill over into the rankest antisemitism. And when reasonable critics like Soros or Kristof weigh in with arguments for a pro-Israel alternative, the Internet lights up with applause from the anti-Israel left, delighted that one of “them” finally sees the light.
No wonder reasonable Jewish critics of Israel fear to speak. They don’t want to feed the flames of hate. And who can blame them? Soros himself, in this week’s essay, admits that this fear deterred him for years from speaking on Israel..
But the real complaint of the critics is not that they aren’t heard. It is, rather, that their critiques aren’t translated into policy. Alarmed at the deteriorating fabric of international relations, they identify what seem obvious solutions, yet policy-makers march in the opposite direction. The critics search frantically for some explanation, and they find it in the activities of pro-Israel lobbyists, who block sensible ideas from reaching the chambers of government.
What they forget is that the pro-Israel lobbyists are only doing what they’ve been doing for decades, and yet the dramatic deterioration on the world scene is only six or seven years old. It is the explosive emergence of violent religious extremism as a dominant force in the Muslim world, coupled with the wrong-headed, triumphalist response of the Bush administration, that created this toxic stew threatening to engulf us.
Yes, Israel’s policies helped in some measure — though not as much as its enemies insist — in feeding the despair and anger spreading on the Muslim street. Yes, years of permissive American policy toward Israel’s settlements — abetted in some measure by pro-Israel lobbying — helped plant seeds of frustration on the other side.
But none of that prevented at least five administrations — Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton — from keeping the dialogue going and nudging the parties patiently forward. It wasn’t until the fall and winter of 2000 and 2001 — with the fateful coincidence of the al Aqsa Intifada, the Bush presidency and the September 11 attacks — that hope began to die and the flames began to rage out of control.
Even after that, Israelis and their foes continued seeking a way out. Israel moved, clumsily, belatedly but genuinely, to embrace Palestinian statehood as a clearly stated goal. The Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, offered full recognition of Israel as part of its stated end game. What was missing was an American president who was willing and able, like his predecessors, to step in and bridge the sides.
What’s to be done, then? Are we merely hostages to the madness of this side or the recklessness of the other? Passover reminds us that we are not hostages but free people, and freedom means the power and duty to choose. The Exodus was not merely a flight from bondage but a journey to Sinai, with its straightforward pledge to a life of honor and justice. In that sense, Soros and his allies are right: Jews have choices to make. We are commanded to choose life.