Faith-based foreign policy faces perils ahead

Ideology is fine for campaigners, bloggers and talk show hosts, but it often wreaks havoc in the real world, where effective policy requires flexibility, not rules dreamed up in think tanks and advocacy groups.

That lesson has defined Israeli policy for decades, but it is being eroded by Jerusalem’s acquiescence to a U.S. administration that has implemented a foreign policy based more on faith than pragmatism.

A stubbornly ideological administration has put the United States in a deep hole in the international arena — and a vulnerable Israel could pay a big price for playing along with the true believers in Washington.

While Israel has always taken a hard line on terrorists and front-line adversaries, it has traditionally remained open to peace feelers, however tenuous.

It wasn’t just U.S. pressure that caused the hard-line Yitzhak Shamir government to start talking to a blood-drenched PLO or to engage in the Madrid peace process in the early 1990s. Yitzhak Rabin, a celebrated general who could hardly be called a peacenik, signed the Oslo agreement and shook Yasser Arafat’s hand in 1993, not because he believed the old terrorist leader had suddenly developed a love of Zion but because of a conviction that Israel’s future was dependent on finding some way to talk to its enemies.

Syria has long been a fomenter and supporter of terrorism and a source of regional instability. But the Jewish state has never shrunk from talking to Damascus whenever its leaders believed there was even a glimmer of hope to advance negotiations and avoid war.

Israel has even maintained backchannel contacts with Iran, despite the fanaticism of its leaders, in the belief that such contacts could someday pay important dividends.

Israeli governments representing both the left and the right understood that you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, and that in the Middle East, every chance for peace is a long shot. That has been the U.S. view of the region as well — until now.

An administration driven by rigid ideology expects Israel to play by the same rules. Current U.S. doctrine says you never talk to terrorists or terror-sponsoring countries; therefore Israel must do the same, regardless of its very different circumstances.

When Syrian president Bashar Assad sent out tentative peace feelers last year, the Bush administration laid down the law to Israel: don’t respond, even though some analysts in the Israeli government believed there might be slight shifts in the Syrian position that were worth exploring.

Last week, those instructions became even more explicit; according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her recent Mideast visit, demanded that Israel avoid even exploratory contacts with the Assad regime.

The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not particularly inclined to start new talks with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, but there, too, the Bush administration has made its demands clear: don’t give Hamas or anybody connected to it the time of day.

Israel is in a straitjacket of American design, barred from employing its traditional hard-headed pragmatism, prevented from exploring possible new routes to peace. It is treated as a client state, not an ally; its politically weak leaders, afraid of angering a senior partner in Washington that believes talking to enemies is tantamount to endorsing them, meekly complies with U.S demands.

Jerusalem should look more closely at what these policies have done to U.S. interests and influence around the world.

President Bush’s black-and-white, good-versus-evil view of a complex world and his refusal to negotiate with those he deems unworthy have left the United States with almost no allies and little credibility.

That isolation has undercut U.S. efforts to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of extremists and increased, not decreased, the armies of terrorists eager to lash out against enemies real and imagined.

The Iraq war he started on the basis of ideology, not intelligence, has spread instability across the Middle East and strengthened Iran, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

Washington’s refusal to talk to Iran hasn’t slowed its quest for nuclear weapons, and may have rallied a restive populace behind an increasingly unpopular leadership. It’s refusal to talk to Syria hasn’t changed Syrian behavior for the better, and may have pushed Damascus deeper into the Iranian orbit.

So shouldn’t Israel’s leaders be alarmed that on key matters involving their nation’s security they are being dictated to by a government in Washington whose ideology-driven foreign policy has undercut vital shared priorities and added to the dangers Israel faces in a seething Middle East?

Faith-based foreign policy hasn’t worked for Washington, and now it threatens to compound the problems facing a Jewish state that once based its foreign policy on tough pragmatism, not theories and beliefs. Israel can’t afford to thumb its nose at its only real ally — but there could be a big cost to continuing to follow the dictates of an administration that remains pure in its beliefs but increasingly alone in its policies.

Your Letters

An Unkosher Affair

The selection of some swank country club or hotel venue (“An Unkosher Affair,” Jan, 23) — even when their management does not permit an outside caterer, i.e. a kosher one — at the cost of the excluding the more abiding, traditionally committed element of our community service questions the ultimate goals and the qualifications of the leadership.

Perhaps the time has come for all self-respecting Jews of every ideological stripe in Los Angeles to consider what steps need be taken to redeem and enhance our Judaic heritage — not erode it.

Rabbi Julian M. White, Los Angeles


Many of the kids who come back from Jewish summer camps each year are proud when they convince their parents to keep “kosher homes,” meaning they only use kosher meat, don’t mix dishes, etc. They always check the ingredients but they may not make sure that every food item had an “OU” sign. Are we now saying that their kitchens are treif? Are Conservative rabbis who dine dairy at Denny’s eating unkosher? Is the Reform rabbbic student, who makes a point of asking whether the soup has a chicken stock, wasting her energy because the restaurant serving the soup doesn’t have rabbinic supervision?

If I can ask for a vegetarian plate at a Jewish event, then my Orthodox brother should feel equally comfortable asking for a glatt kosher one.

In fact, we ought to applaud organizations that think carefully about what kind of food to serve at their functions. I was taught that keeping kosher reminds us to think about what we are eating, to appreciate and be grateful for the miracle of food. In a way, the decision to to use charitable dollars for educational programs or to feed the hungry, rather than on a hashgacha, can itself be considered a way of keeping kosher.

Jonathan Jacoby, Director Israel Policy Forum Institute

After Denominations

Thank you for such a well-written article (“Is There Life After Denominations?” Jan. 9). As a teacher of Jewish studies, I’ve often told my students (who come from every walk of Judaism) that labels cause division. We need to focus much more on our common bond and much less on the words Reform, Conservative, etc.

Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism have the ability, in many ways, to unite Jews around certain spiritual principles because they focus on the inner soul of Judaism and less on specific observances. It seems with the rise of interest in spirituality that we are at least headed (in some ways) in the right direction.

And when Mashiach finally comes, we can ask him which synagogue he plans to join.

Rabbi Max Weiman , St. Louis

Real Magic

David Marcus’ letter (“Real Magic?” Jan. 16) assails David Gamliel as an “illusionist or magician, which is why he performs at the Magic Castle and bar mitzvahs” (“David Gamliel’s Weird Science,” Jan. 9). Having seen Gamliel perform at a number of venues, I disagree. I witnessed my eyeglasses float off the table, and can attest to the surprise of many restaurateurs who had to pick up their utensils — in pieces — at the end of the night. I have seen Gamliel perform healings for family members, and can attest to the enormous physical strain that it takes to work intimately with another person’s pain. Add that to the wisdom, kindness and sly humor that pervades the man’s character, and go see him; decide for yourself what constitutes a true gift.

Michelle Holtzman, Sherman Oaks

Both Sides

Thank you for allowing the voice of Americans for Peace Now to be heard (“State of the Union Aftermath,” Jan. 23). Too often, it has seemed to me, The Jewish Journal publishes only articles unequivocally in favor of Israel’s policies. There are those of us who love Israel but do not agree with every decision its government makes. Thank you for giving us a voice, too.

Barbara Bilson , Santa Monica


If Israel ceases to exist, then it is open season on Jews everywhere (“Who Causes Anti-Semitism?” Jan. 9). George Soros can plead with Hamas that he was an opponent of [Ariel] Sharon, but they would turn him into a bar of soap in an instant.

These are very dangerous times. Maybe it’s not the 1930s, yet, but Europe has a grand tradition of being the killing fields of Jews. If Soros would have his way, we, as a people, are doomed.

Jason Meisler, Los Angeles

Greenberg Cartoon

I found Steve Greenberg’s satirical cartoon about Starbuchabads amusing and right on target (Jan. 23). Starbuck’s corporate vision is to bring quality coffee, slow-roasted according to traditional methods, to every corner of the globe.

Chabad Chasidism likewise strives to make traditional, Torah-true Judaism accessible to all without sacrificing quality. And just as some may rail against distributing sacred words or tefillin-wearing to those who do not yet savor Judaism; the paper cup will also always have its detractors. But the quality of the coffee inside the cup and its ability to win loyal customers, speaks for itself over time.

Chaviva Friedman, Los Angeles