Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bravo B'nai Jeshurun

Desperation can lead to bold and hoped for game-changing moves.  The Palestinians are, and have good reason to be, desperate.  And make no mistake; were the roles reversed, Israelis would most certainly have done exactly what President Mahmoud Abbas did in seeking an upgrade in United Nations status.  Instead the Netanyahu government, sadly joined by the United States, voted “no” contending that the Palestinian Authority’s gaining nonmember observer designation stands in the way of the peace process.  Well, if that’s the argument, then isn’t it fair to ask, what peace process would that be?  Endangering the peace process was precisely the argument put forward in 2011 when Abbas originally hoped for a UN vote.  Putting it off then clearly had zero impact because the peace process has seen no revival in the intervening period. 

One can put forward all the whys and wherefores, many of them totally valid, but the bottom line is that Palestinians remain subjects of a multi-decade occupation.   Yes, ample fault for the ongoing impasse can found on all sides, but that doesn’t change the uneven reality.  On one side stands a fully sovereign and relatively prosperous state, on the other a subject subject nation in effective limbo.  If that doesn’t lead to a sense of desperation, it’s hard to imagine what more would be needed.  The only mystery is why West Bank Palestinians haven’t demonstrated more and why, in contrast with their Gaza counterparts, they have remained largely non-violent in recent years.  So far nothing that can be called an Arab Spring has come to the West Bank.  But, as suggested in an earlier post, that can’t last forever.

For it’s part, Israel retaliated almost immediately.  Dissing not only Abbas but also (and perhaps more significantly) President Obama, Bibi dipped into his settlement tool kit by announcing a provocative step forward toward profoundly changing the facts on the ground.  The proposed 3000 new housing units in the E1 area near Jerusalem would essentially undermine, if not preclude, the two-state solution that he professes to support.  If you had any doubt, Israel is firmly in the hand of right-wingers who speak for and in the voice of its radical settler community.

We hear a lot of lockstep bluster from the Sheldon Adelson and AIPAC crowd who have used their checkbooks and implied or expressed threats to exert political influence.  Democrats and Republicans alike seem equally afraid to cross them.  But these are hardly the only voices or views of the American Jews for whom they claim to speak.  Just read Leonard Fein’s excellent piece in the Forward on the content rather than myth of the UN resolution.  His voice has been consistently both highly supportive and constructively critical of Israel.  But perhaps far more significant comes the news that the rabbis and lay leaders of New York’s 187 year old Congregation B’nai Jeshurun issued a statement in support of the United Nations vote.  That individuals like Fein speak out is not uncommon, that such a high profile institution takes a stand and in such a public way is unusual.  It’s about time.

I applaud B’nai Jeshurun’s leaders for speaking with the courage of their conviction and join them in seeing the UN votes as “ a great moment for us as citizens of the world.  Indeed, it's "an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition".  The statement was emailed to their congregation and signed by, among others, the three rabbis and board president.  It got mixed reactions from members of the congregation and most assuredly was not welcomed by many in the organized Jewish Community.  That said, and despite no figures to back it up, my guess is that a very large number of American Jews — especially the young — stand with B’nai Jeshurun.

Israel’s ultra-conservative politics today are out of sync with those of most American Jews.  An overwhelming majority of them vote Democratic and probably consider themselves politically liberal.   Netanyahu made it clear that he supported Mitt Romney in November and is generally more confortable with Republicans, especially those who share his rightist views.  Leaving aside how inappropriate it is for any foreign leader to insert himself into our election process, that Bibi blatantly and regularly disses my President is nothing short of despicable.

The United States went out on a limb in support of Israel’s untenable position on the Palestinian Authority's request.  As Secretary Clinton described it, we were "covering Israel’s back".  Bibi’s “thank you” was essentially a slap in the face.  He knows that we oppose this settlement expansion.  Much as he did during Vice President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem a few years ago, the Prime Minister figuratively stuck his middle finger in our eye.  That’s right not just the President’s eye but the eye of all American citizens including Jews.  

Israel has been able to count on the support of the United States and most especially of American Jews.  There are good reasons for that support, both moral and geopolitical.  Israel is a strategic ally, a democracy that has risen out of the Holocaust’s ashes.  But the current leaders of Israel are making a big, and potentially costly, error if they take that support for granted or if they assume it will always be there.  Even great friends and family have a breaking point.  America’s national interest in the face of a changing Middle East is for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute sooner rather than later.  I believe Israel has the same national interest, whether its present political leaders see it that way or not.  The clock is ticking and insofar as American Jews are concerned, Bibi should see B’nai Jeshurun’s action as a crack in the wall and, more important, know that they are hardly alone.    The clock is ticking.

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