July 18, 2019

The Great Moral Challenge Debate Club

Martin Luther King Day is an appropriate occasion to write about Israel’s shortages. I guess any day is an appropriate occasion to write about Israel’s shortages. And any place is appropriate, too, especially places in the United States, such as New York, where civil rights activist Michelle Alexander recruited King — posthumously — to her anti-Israel campaign, which she calls “one of the great moral challenges of our time.” And since her Jan. 19 New York Times op-ed didn’t mention any other “moral challenges of our time,” her readers must remain in the dark. What on earth can possibly match the Israeli horror? 

Morality aside, it’s interesting that Alexander aimed her op-ed at one group: American Jews. Like Michelle Goldberg a few weeks before her, Alexander made an effort to convince the Jews that battling Israel doesn’t amount to anti-Semitism, not even when one wants — as she does — “to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes” (that is, in practical terms, to end the Jewish state enterprise). 

It’s difficult to know how American Jews are reacting to the recent concerted campaign of the delegitimization of Israel. Some clearly encourage it; some see through its bias. But what about the silent majority? 

Many critics of Israel hang their hopes on the position of the American-Jewish community. Some of them believe that a Jew, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), could be “the guy” who “might have the guts” to stand up “to the ally to whom the U.S. always gives groveling, uncritical, slavish, immoral support.” Peter Beinart has similar hopes for a Sanders’ campaign “if only for one reason: to change the debate inside the Democratic Party about Israel.”

It’s not clear if Israel will occupy much space in a Democratic campaign next year. For such predictions, a reader must turn to sober analysts — Ron Kampeas is a good option — rather than partisan advocates. Kampeas, in response to a BuzzFeed article predicting that Israel will be front and center in the Democratic primary season, called this “wishful thinking of some of the interviewees.” The way he sees it, the party of “Chuck and Nancy” (Senate Minority Leader Schumer [D-N.Y] and Speaker of the House Pelosi [D-Calif.]) isn’t going to turn against Israel. At least, not at the moment.

Whatever the case, this debate takes place in a parallel universe. In Israel, it barely registers. Surely, one can have an interesting debate about King and how he’d view Israel if he were alive today, but the relevance of such a debate is small. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that King would dislike Israel — would that change the Middle East? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the entire American-Jewish community will be convinced that Israel’s behavior is indeed “one of the great moral challenges of our time.” Do you think the result would be that Israeli Jews would pack and leave?

Everybody understands that Israel will resist any arrangement that it deems a threat to its existence. Everybody understands that what the Alexanders and the Beinarts and the Fisks aim for is pressure — great pressure on Israel. Pressure hard enough to make Israel take what it considers to be grave risks. Everybody also understands what happens if the Alexanders and the Beinarts and the Fisks are proven wrong — that is, if Israel is gravely harmed by the arrangement forced upon it. For them, this will be just another lousy article. For Israelis, this could be a life-changing terror. 

So, at some point, every Jew in America who feels uncomfortable with Israel’s actions must consider the following dilemma: When the Jew discovers that sophisticated articles don’t change Israel’s actions (they won’t), and sermons of certain boasting rabbis don’t sway Israelis (they won’t), and derogatory tweets from radical congresswomen are met with an Israeli shrug (as they should) — then the Jew must answer the questions, “How far am I willing to go against Israel? How much damage do I aim to inflict on U.S.-Israel relations? How ready am I to push the snowball of Israel bashing down an uncontrollable political slope?”

Do you really want to push hard? Are you really convinced that your assessment of the risks is better than Israel’s? As you ponder these questions remember: For many U.S. participants, this is no more than a high-minded debate club. For Israelis, it’s not.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.