April 1, 2014

A deal, with or without Pollard?

Once again, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are locked in the endgame of...whether to continue talks. The Obama administration seems increasingly inclined to release the convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, to help incentivize Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's release of yet more Palestinian prisoners (to help Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas keep surviving politically) and to take a few demonstrable actions to hold down new settlement construction.

Reportedly, Pollard -- in federal custody since 1986 - has renounced any such deal, saying he doesn't want to be released as an inducement to Israel releasing convicted terrorists (many of them serving as long as himself). Will Pollard refuse to leave his Federal Correctional Facility at the appointed time?

More broadly, Pollard has actively promoted his own release as a cause celebre in Israel and within the organized American Jewish community. This has come at a cost to Israel's national security, by reminding the defense and intelligence community of his (and Israel's) past offenses, and even expressing pride on occasion. If Israel continues to rely on military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, to keep the Jewish state safe from terrorists and other threats, then Pollard has already let his case compromise the safety and security of Israelis.

I wouldn't blame Pollard, but I would also expect him to withhold his own sanctimony about this deal, which is no more or less perverse than the rest of the campaign for his release. Does he honestly believe his own legitimate fight for freedom hasn't come at a cost to Israel?

Many observers believe Pollard was unfairly sentenced to life and so far denied parole (but has he ever applied?). But unlike Gilad Shalit and other Israeli prisoners, he has not been denied due process or visitation, or review under the rule of law. And unlike Gilad Shalit, he will arrive in Israel with a well-developed agenda for Israel and for U.S.-Israel relations. And he won't be satisfied with writing on sports...

As for Netanyahu and Abbas, it's unrealistic to think either of them sees any chance of a substantive, final deal emerging from the current process. Each of them must now be focused on avoiding blame if/when the process collapses, and walking away with as many tangible and political deliverables as possible.

March 5, 2014

"I am AIPAC," and I have something to say.

I was fortunate to attend the main events at this week's annual AIPAC Policy Conference. One old-time friend was thrilled to see me, then asked why I'm "going after AIPAC". He was referring to my recent op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, anticipating the Policy Conference and its traditional grassroots mobilization on Capitol Hill. I had admonished AIPAC and other mainstream organizations to take some substantive steps to advance Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-peace rhetoric, which so far seem to be in short supply.

Why didn't I open my op-ed with this year's Policy Conference slogan, "I am AIPAC"? So, here it is: I am AIPAC. And I should be more careful to make this evident in all that I publish on Israeli politics. 

It should be evident that unapologetically pushing for proactive leadership in the cause of peace will advance U.S.-Israel relations and enhance Israel's long-term security. It should be evident that welcoming President Obama's very promising and tangible opening with Iran will advance the best chance for averting a nuclear-backed frenzy across the Middle East, as opposed to feeding a paranoid frenzy on Capitol Hill and throughout the Jewish community about the need for new sanctions added conditions, just as negotiations are bearing fruit.

It should be evident that full-blooded cheering and applause for attacks on the Administration are poor vehicles to advance AIPAC's brand, that allowing AIPAC to serve a platform for greater distance between the White House and Congress will not make Israel safer or AIPAC more effective.

I am very grateful that AIPAC exists, and I like to think I can have some input into the conversations. I do believe AIPAC and the organized Jewish community have missed some opportunities and made missteps over the past few years, and so do many of my professional colleagues across the Jewish community. I know many lay leaders are skeptical as well, but generally they have too much to lose personally to bother speaking up especially when it appears the final script has already been approved. 

While being at AIPAC makes me feel like the most liberal Zionist who still belongs in that room, I have never felt unwelcome, I have never felt like I was in the wrong place.

Some months ago, I blogged:

"For many years, I did my best to reiterate and promote the official policies of the Israeli Government, but then I realized that so many champions of Israel -- on the right and the left -- were using the Jewish State to advance their own ideological agenda in Israel and to score partisan points in U.S. politics. When I found myself free to speak my mind, thanks to politicized personnel decisions, I decided to seize the moment for as long as I could."

As I said at the time, "I don't especially like or dislike Prime Minister Netanyahu, though I would always give him my best advice with the goal of helping him make the most of whatever situation he chooses to seek for himself and for Israel. In the meantime, I will continue to speak my mind and try to listen to other views along the way."

AIPAC has always felt like home to me, its staff are true friends, and I have always respected what they do and they do it. If right-wing groups can attack AIPAC's very legitimacy and still be considered defenders of Brand Israel, I should be able to register my limited critiques, against a wall of apparent uniformity, without being considered outside the tent. And at AIPAC, this has always been the case. 

I should have reiterated my affinity for AIPAC's mission and people up front. It's that very affinity which drives my compulsion to advance my views.

It is unfortunate that many AIPAC supporters see any critique or dissension as an attack on the pro-Israel lobby and even on the State of Israel. More tragically, many of those critics who might otherwise be joining me inside AIPAC's tent now accept that as fact.

February 4, 2014

Has Iran answered Netanyahu on nuclear deal?

Israel and Iran may have just broached a new rapprochement, and it shouldn't matter if each side has ulterior motives.

It would be hard for anyone to know all the reasons and ramifications regarding Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's decision to remain in the hall when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif delivered his presentation. But there's certainly room to calculate the stakes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of his cabinet maintain that Secretary of State John Kerry's current negotiations with Iran are a "historic mistake". Staying to listen during the annual Munich Security Conference - which tends to be more about military cooperation than political grandstanding - seems like a good place to push the envelope and show some nuance. 

For Ya'alon, who rather publicly dismissed Kerry's framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace, this was also an opportunity to show that 1) he is not averse to all diplomacy; 2) he doesn't need any American prodding to act like an adult; 3) even one of Israel's most forceful opponents of diplomacy may be ready to play for the right price; 4) Israel faces more pressing existential threats than the Palestinians, namely Iran. 

January 13, 2014

R.I.P., Ariel Sharon - Israel's last visionary leader?

Ariel Sharon's passing is opening a flood of memories back to 1973, including a time when it seemed Israel had options, because its leaders were willing to think big and take risks - and not just for peace. That spirit, which Sharon embodied, still abounds among Israelis, but it seems to me (granted, from a distance) that it's been a while (say, eight years) since the leaders have channeled it. Sharon was the last of that breed.

(Israeli President Shimon Peres is a master visionary, but he serves in a figurehead capacity and will be retiring at the end of his current term.)

I remember, over a span of mere months, from July 1976 to early 1977, Israel liberated the Entebbe hostages and Maccabi Tel-Aviv defeated the Soviet Red Army basketball team, on its way to winning the European cup - a defining moment. 

Menachem Begin's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor was a bold stroke, and even the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon was audacious. As Defense Minister, Sharon had sought to decapitate the PLO in exile, in the hope that local West Bank leaders would somehow emerge to negotiate Palestinian acquiescence to permanent Israeli control.

There were subsequent moments as well, including Anwar Sadat's dramatic 1978 visit to Jerusalem, at the behest of Menachem Begin which culminated in the Camp David talks and the 1979 peace treaty, and of course Oslo in 1993 and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, led by Yitzhak Rabin. For anyone who remembers 1973, it's still difficult to absorb how much changed in just five years' time.

Sharon, like Rabin before him, was a general whose strategic vision eventually applied itself to securing Israel's survival off the battlefield and far into the future.

Improbably, especially in light of 1982, Sharon reclaimed the activist's mantle just a decade ago, as Prime Minister. He saw that Gaza was lost as an Israeli stronghold, a small piece of beach with well over one million Palestinians. Back then, the half-hearted U.S. peace efforts were actually lagging behind the Israelis and Palestinians, and besides, Sharon didn't see Mahmoud Abbas being able to deliver his side of a bilateral agreement. As Rabin did before him, Sharon realized that - if Israelis and Palestinians can't live together peacefully, then it's better to live separately, beginning with Gaza.

Around Sharon's funeral, numerous and interlocking calculations were being made. The official statements from the White House and State Department seemed careful not to underplay Sharon's significance, as a positive message to Israel's current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nor to shower so much praise that Netanyahu feels slighted by contrast. In his eulogy at the funeral, Netanyahu replayed his own mantras about the Holocaust and Iran. U.S. Vice President Biden, leading the U.S. delegation, extolled Sharon's bravery in evacuating Gaza and reiterated President Obama's unwavering commitment to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

In itself, the fact that Biden was there, eight years after Sharon left the scene under a massive stroke, underscored the abiding value and honor Washington attaches to Israeli leaders who are willing to take control of their destiny. At the end, it was Sharon's private secretary and a war buddy who evoked his personal tenderness and devotion in a way that truly transcended official protocol and convention. 

My biggest regret today was the ring of truth to Biden's closing quote from Shakespeare: We "shall not look upon his like again."

January 9, 2014

How political can Hillel be and still fulfill its mission?

Hillel’s warning that its Swarthmore College chapter must enforce a pro-Israel standard for speakers and events threatens to undermine its 90-year-old mission of cultivating Jewish life on campus.

Last year's Pew study on American Jews was just the latest snooze alarm on what has been obvious for decades. To highlight one perennial finding, we have failed to translate program spending into a sustainable sense of community among those Jews who would now be old enough to be full participants. Too many young adult Jews feel either negative or indifferent about their Jewish heritage and the community which seeks to represent and minister to them.

Hillel has long been the established vehicle for nurturing Jewish souls on campus, and - despite various newcomers, and a vibrant Chabad presence - so it remains. But the strength Hillel derives from its conformity with the priorities of the mainstream American Jewish community is also in danger of limiting and even undermining its core mission.
Israel advocacy is a proven tool to boost Jewish identity, Hillel's Israel on Campus Coalition has been competing and collaborating with AIPAC on campus. But in decades past, we alienated those who were critical or concerned about Israel's actions, and by alienating them from Hillel we probably undermined their Jewish affinity overall. A larger group of Jewish students was just oblivious to the whole pro-Israel tempest, and these unaffiliated Jews might have been reached by shifting funds back to traditional Jewish content and programming.

Between Israel advocacy and birthright-style "non-political" programs, the campus community has seen a substantive and symbolic emphasis on Israel as the premise and fulcrum for Jewish identity.

Out in Philadephia's liberal Main Line suburbs, where Swarthmore holds court, establishing a Hillel presence has been a long-running challenge, and not just because of dissonance over Israeli politics and policies. Israel has been as much a hindrance as a silver bullet for broader Jewish participation, and this is likely the case in other progressive enclaves across America. Are these really the young Jews we're prepared to alienate or miss entirely?

December 19, 2013

Scaremongering for dollars? 'Tis the season...

Just to remind me the end of the tax year is nigh, my Facebook feed just produced a new report titled, "Europe Turns Blind Eye to Anti-Semitism". The content doesn't even back up that outrageous claim.

In the waning weeks of summer, before the Jewish High Holidays, numerous Jewish organizations send out "the sky is falling" alerts, with a donation card so we can avert yet another second Holocaust.

Now, we're just days away from the end of 2013, so this is our last chance to save the Jewish people and the State of Israel from imminent destruction and claim a juicy tax deduction. 

A win-win? No.

In this particular case, there may be no fundraising tie-in, just a byproduct of the general climate of sensationalism left behind.

These appeals and alerts not only trivialize and undermine the very real challenges and real successes of real people, including Jews. They not only eliminate all sense of proportion by crying wolf on cue. They insult our intelligence at best, and help turn otherwise well-meaning Jews into human echo chambers of fear and resentment at worst. 

Non-profits that need to resort to such outrageous and reckless messaging, just to fulfill their budget benchmarks, should consider whether their actual mission is worthy to begin with. 

December 17, 2013

ASA vote dooms a generation of Jewish students

The latest decision by the American Studies Association to "boycott" Israel and its institutions unleashes much negative energy, and my personal experience leads me to regret its long-term impact on a generation of students.

Many of my pro-Israel friends regularly bemoan the amount of attention the mainstream media devotes to Israel's foibles, and to sympathetic portrayals of Israel's adversaries and detractors. This complaint has some basis in fact, though it's also true that Israelis and American Jews invite coverage, and that much of the coverage is positive. As well, many of the problem stories originate in Israel's own mainstream media.

Meanwhile, many thousands of Jewish students have been deployed as "shock troops" against a "sophisticated campaign to discredit Israel on the college campus." That was in the 1980s, and one of many slogans drilled into my head at the time. I took my mission seriously, and devoted untold hours -- often working through the night -- to assure that the evil anti-Israel students were held off at the ramparts. 

No doubt, thousands of impressionable minds were spared as a result of my brave sacrifice. 

After the Cold War ended and while Oslo still held promise, I asked one big-name Hillel colleague how the less contentious atmosphere was affecting turnout to his programs. He told me numbers were up, and for the first time in years most students were coming in just because they wanted to be Jewish, and they were learning about... being Jewish.

Fast-forward to today, when another defiant Prime Minister of Israel is making waves, dovetailing with the legacy of another arrogant U.S. former President, and the Jewish (sorry, "pro-Israel") community is again issuing general calls for mobilizing brigades of students for early warning and propaganda response.

With various studies like the recent Pew report reporting the obvious decline in American Jewish affinity, giving Jewish college students a compelling sense of duty is a good way to keep them engaged (and, maybe, to get engaged to fellow Jews). But it's a little like the mismatched couple who stay together "for our children's sake". 

Only later, I realized how many educational and social opportunities I missed, in order to be a tuition-paying activist for Israel, along with a few other nice Jewish causes. Only later, I realized I might have learned something from all those disagreeable anti-Israel speeches, had I listened to their substance rather than red-flagging them for the Q&A and long reports back to HQ.

Yes, the American Studies Association has disgraced itself, and so many American studies scholars who have better things to do than wasting their time on ideological conferences and sloganeering. And yes, some Israeli academics will be unjustly inconvenienced and be denied proper recognition.

What I will lose sleep over is how this decision will generate ever more momentum for young Jews to forgo the campus experience, to shut their perceptive faculties, as they hunker down for full-fledged pitched battles in lecture halls, campus media, and student senates. Along the way, they may strengthen their identity as defensive, combative and doubt-free supporters of Israel. They will be encouraged and funded by our major organizations and lauded back home in their parents' congregations. 

Many will outgrow that phase, and many will not. Still more will only watch all this from the sidelines, later recalling Judaism as a pro-Israel answer to a potent but marginal group of academics. And then, 25 years from now, the Pew Center will call them up and ask whether they feel attached to the Jewish people. Spoiler alert...