Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cigarettes and Feathers

Atop Masada on a Cool and Cloudy Day
In my last post written from Israel, I took upon myself the foolishly large burden of promising to put together some concluding thoughts about my trip. In place of this grandiose task, please accept this post.

To a person, my Israeli friends - by the way, none of them "leftists" like me - support a two state solution and have no problem sharing Jerusalem. This is hardly surprising. There are basically three groups in Israel; those who are ready to cut a deal now, those who will never be ready, and in the words of Boaz Gaon and Jonathan Gurfinkel from their article Charge of the Left Brigade (Haaretz, March 25, 2011), a group who accepts a deal in theory "like a heavy smoker who wants to run a marathon 'someday.'" Side note: After "using" this line to explain Israeli public opinion to anyone who would listen, I actually met Gaon, a playwright, in Old Jaffa the night before we left. I confessed to him that I had "stolen" his line. His amusement did not stop him from asking for royalties.

After two weeks in Israel, I now understand why Israelis are "heavy smokers." Traveling from the North to as far south as Masada, I saw a burgeoning country. For many the standard of living has gone up noticeably and their sense of security has increased greatly. If you drive along certain roads, you see the security fence/wall showing where "they" (the Palestinians) are and where "we" (the Jews) are. You can argue about the wall's actual efficacy, legality or morality, but I think its palliative effect on Israeli nerves is well-settled. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, it's easy to see why they believe the status quo can go on forever.

On the flipside, from the United States, you are not able to sense the positive energy or experience the beauty of Israel. Because of this I would venture to say most progressive Americans are apt to view Israel through a political lens, as a problem to solve. I have on occasion been afflicted with this astigmatism myself - just look at the arc of my posts. (Meanwhile, those on the right have an entirely different set of issues, not the least of which, in the words of Peter Beinart, is the Disneyfication of Israel.) In fact, this differing lens was the first realization that got my synapses really firing. Not that I have been wrong with my diagnosis or prescription. It may very well be the contrary - that the distance allows us a better view of what's to come.

But it makes it more difficult to persuade Israelis that they better put out their cigarette if they ever want to run that marathon. To be effective we need to connect with Israelis on a more personal and fundamental level.

So a question I heard from my Israeli friends - and remember these are friends and people who agree on a two state-solution - is what right do we have to come to Israel and tell them what to do? They ask it not as an accusation but as a sincere and legitimate question. We don't live there. We don't send our children to the army. We haven't been touched by war and terrorism in the way that they have. They are right and they deserve an answer.

Here is my answer. I begin by telling them that I stipulate that Israelis and Israelis alone will decide their future for themselves, but that doesn't mean I have no right to express my opinions or advocate for them. I explain that my right to be heard is derived from my status as a human being - I have an opinion and I have a right to express it. But also my right comes from my status as a Jew, whose future is inextricably bound up in the State of Israel. Most importantly, I tell them that at this very moment Israel's existence as a Jewish democracy is slipping through our fingers. If we don't change course, we will then be in a position of owing future generations an answer to the moral question of what we did to prevent the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish democracy. Remaining silent for the sake of "unity" is no answer at all; and it is neither a Jewish nor Zionist response. So I will continue to fight for Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, even if I ruffle the feathers of a few chain-smoking Israelis along the way. I know a few of them and, trust me, they will understand.


  1. Just a quick remark on your contention that Americans are imposing things upon Israel. We are not unaffected by war or terrorism, as anyone who knew someone who perished on 9/11 or in Iraq or Afghanistan will tell you.
    You make the point that we as Jews are concerned by the future of the Jewish state of Israel. I would add that we as Americans have significant interests in preserving a state that not only shares our democratic and pluralist values, but also serves our economic, geopolitical, and strategic interests. What's good for Israel is good for the United States, and that is why we have no compunction, nor should we, about working to advocate for the two-state solution.

  2. Great photograph and thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing your experience and keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks - taken with my trusty Blackberry. And after quickly taking a look at your work, I'm going to pocket the compliment and run.