Doves and hawks. Idealists and realists. We’re used to these dichotomies in politics, and eventually most of us choose one side or the other. Trouble is, when it comes to Israel, the dichotomy is not so straightforward. Israel’s security hawks — the defense establishment, former generals and the former heads of the Shin Bet — are almost all on the “dove” side, favoring real negotiations for a real two-state solution; an end to settlement activity, and a focus on both Palestine and Iran, rather than using the latter to distract from the former.
Israel’s so-called hawks, meanwhile, are pursuing an ideology-driven, religion-driven and illusion-driven strategy that favors annexation of Palestinian territory and an open-ended occupation that is projected to last 100 years. That’s not a hawk — that’s an ostrich.
Moreover, the ideology ostriches’ amen corner in the United States has repeatedly undermined the security-hawks’ (and doves’) ability to serve as advocates for the Jewish state. By ostracizing the pro-Israel, pro-peace camp, the ideological right has reduced intra-communal and on-campus debates to right and left, hawks and doves, nationalists and peaceniks. And then they wonder why college students choose the latter. How did we get to this place? The answers are different for Israel and America.
In Israel, films like “The Gatekeepers” serve as useful reminders that the mainstream of Israel’s defense and security apparatuses never favored an open-ended occupation, or settlement of the West Bank. The settlers and their supporters weren’t hawks; they were a wacky religious fringe, driven by messianic impulses to reclaim the biblical Land of Israel and to bring the redemption. Of course, there were outliers like Ariel Sharon: security men who favored settlements.
But the notion that the territories are “vital for Israel’s security” is spin, not fact. In fact, the opposite is the case; getting out of the territories is vital for Israel’s security.
The Israeli left shares the blame, in perception if not reality. Consider the political life of Shimon Peres, for example. This is a man who essentially created Israel’s nuclear program, and yet he is widely regarded — or depicted — as hopelessly naive and optimistic. Really? Peres may be part dove, but his policies have long been, well, Israel first.
Yet somehow the “peace camp” is seen as making peace only out of pity for the Palestinians rather than for the strategic best interests of Israel. As if justice for “them” and security for “us” were mutually exclusive — whereas in fact they are interdependent.
The ideological right is motivated not by security but by religious-nationalist zeal. Imagine if America’s foreign policy were dictated by evangelicals who believed the Rapture was imminent. The result would be pretty much like what the National Religious Party, and now Bayit Hayehudi, have long advocated for Israel: an ideologically-driven agenda that makes no sense as a security strategy. Because it isn’t one.
This is not some lefty American dove talking: This is what Israel’s security hawks say. If you haven’t seen “The Gatekeepers,” see it. Or read the hawks’ books. At least look at their résumés.
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.