One thousand Jewish liberals gathered in New York on December 13 for what was billed as a “new Israeli American discussion” about Israel and its future, sponsored by the liberal Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz together with the New Israel Fund.
The event was a day-long seminar, addressing such hot-button Israeli issues as Palestinian rights, religion and state, U.S.-Israel relations and grass-roots organizing power. More than 70 speakers appeared — Israeli, Palestinian and American lawmakers, journalists, academics and activists — in nearly three dozen panels, roundtables and TED sessions. Opening the program with salutes to the attendees’ “commitment to Israeli democracy” were President Obama, in a video message, and the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, fresh from his own Oval Office meeting.
Keynote plenary speakers included the former Israeli foreign minister-turned-opposition firebrand Tzipi Livni, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and the charismatic new Israeli Arab political leader, Ayman Odeh. All three delivered fiery denunciations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies and urgent appeals for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. All three were received with repeated cheers and standing ovations.
And then there was the reception given during the day’s closing session to keynoter Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and renowned human rights campaigner. Speaking for the Obama administration, she delivered a grim survey of the ongoing threat of global anti-Semitism. She segued from that to the persistence of Arab-led mistreatment of Israel at the U.N. and the U.S. battle against it. She described Israel’s key contributions to the fight against Ebola and earthquake relief in Haiti. She reviewed the Obama administration’s “unparalleled” security aid to Israel. And she recalled America’s continued support for the two-state solution and opposition to Israeli settlements.
The audience response: utter, stony silence. Except for polite applause when she began and finished, you could have heard a pin drop in the vast hall. She might as well have been talking to an empty room.
Delegates I questioned afterward were variously defensive, indignant or sheepish about the silence. “That’s not what I came here for,” said one, who (like everyone else I questioned about Power) asked not to be quoted by name. “I get enough of that everywhere else,” said another. “She didn’t know her audience,” said a third.
A better insight into the crowd’s response to Power might be sought in the day’s final talk, shortly after Power finished. The closing program was a dialogue between Haaretz columnists Ari Shavit and Peter Beinart. Both are known as left-leaning pundits. Both write pessimistically about Israel’s chances for survival as a democratic Jewish state if the occupation of the West Bank continues. But Beinart generally puts the blame squarely on the right for resisting Palestinian statehood. Shavit is critical of the left for failing to convince Israeli voters.
On the substantive issue of the occupation, Shavit told Beinart, “we on the left were right. But one of the reasons that we are stuck is that we did not appreciate the fears of the moderate, middle-of-the-road Israelis.”
Those Israeli fears, Shavit said, are “not just Jewish paranoia. Not when they’re living in a Middle East that’s collapsing. We on the left are perceived as detached from reality. Until we understand that, we won’t succeed.”
Today, he said, Israel “is still a democracy. In a democracy, you have to convince the majority.” But “in 10 more years there will not be a Jewish democratic state. And the battle for the Jewish soul — we are losing it.”
Shavit was speaking about a generation-long record of obliviousness and arrogance on the left. But he could just as well have been speaking about the day’s program.
In session after session during the eight-hour gabfest, when the topics of Palestinian statehood and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank came up, they were framed in terms of Palestinian rights and interests. Israel’s needs — even the basic argument that separating from the Palestinians would make Israel safer — came as an afterthought if at all.
Curiously, there were no speakers present from the snowballing movement of retired Israeli generals and intelligence professionals who advocate a two-state solution on grounds of Israeli security. Indeed, the only conference speaker who was there specifically to discuss military affairs — a central fact of Israeli life — was a representative of Breaking the Silence, the controversial military veterans’ organization that reporting on Israeli army human rights abuses.
Except for a panel discussion about the Iran deal — which focused on the deal’s impact on U.S.-Israel relations, not on Israeli security — and one small round-table session on future borders, there were no sessions on the security challenges and threats facing Israel internally and externally. One panel discussion of the impact on Israel of events in the Middle East ended up focusing on food and music. When the moderator asked panelists to address how Israelis should respond to ISIS and Syria, one panelist responded: “Rise above our fears.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).