“It is with regret that I say that in some communities in the United States, the divide between left and right has become so bitter that they avoid discussion of Israel altogether,” Daniel Shapiro, our new, proudly-Zionist ambassador to Israel, said recently.
I thought of Shapiro’s remark often last weekend, which I spent at the second houses of friends and relations on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. For there is a pronounced divide between privileged non-Jews and Jews when it comes to the issue. The non-Jews all talk about it, the Jews don’t. And consequently, the Jews seem unaware of the sharp new currents in American privileged life.
Here are some of the things non-Jews said about the issue:
–“Is it true that Israel is the only country in the world run on a religious basis?” This from a very proper woman I had known when I was a kid, coming up to me in the public library. I said I didn’t think that was the case.
–“I always thought it was a mistake. What a boneheaded move—to put a Jewish state down in the Arab world!” –A friend of my wife’s, when I said she only began criticizing Israel recently.
–Another old friend of my wife’s, answering a yoga girl’s question on a Sunday morning, when the yoga girl dropped by before going to a farmers market: “Why is there such an intimate relationship between the US and Israel? Because the British established it with the Balfour Declaration. And then we took over after World War II and now rich Jews make sure that our politicians say nothing against the idea.”
–From my wife, in the same conversation: “We met people over there [East Jerusalem] that are just like us. A guy with an Oxford degree in history, working for a university. Another friend with a degree in architecture from Cornell. And all they talk about is when they have to renew their papers in order to be in Jerusalem legally. Then you understand, this is exactly what Jim Crow must have felt like.”
Of course Israel/Palestine isn’t the sum of these people’s political concerns. They are all good liberal Democrats. They want to talk about Obama and health care and mock Bachmann and Perry. But when our foreign policy comes up, and the Middle East, they express rage.
Now compare that to my Jewish friends. OK, I know; many Jews are afraid to talk to me. They’ve heard I’m an ultra. But they’ve known me a long time and they can’t help bringing the topic up by the corner, like a rug with something under it, and dropping it quickly. “You would like this book the Finkler Question,” an old girlfriend said to me one night. “Every character in the Jewish scene is represented. There is someone very much like you, someone who cares about the Palestinians. It is a good portrait.”
I nodded and smiled and said I had to get the book. I just ordered it. But I know what author Howard Jacobson says about people like me in his book—we are self-hating Jews. My old girlfriend’s sister was with us, at 10 o’clock, drinking red wine in the cabin-like house where I almost lost my virginity, and she is in a liberal synagogue. Her rabbi brought Combatants for Peace to the synagogue a few years back, she told me. I told her I had seen the same tour, with Elik Elhnanan, whose sister Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber.
But I didn’t tell her anything about where Elhanan is now, about Jewish Voice for Peace. It felt too pushy; his politics are too progressive for these American Jews to try and come to terms with. “The vast majority of American Jews care deeply about Israel and want the United States to be Israel’s partner in ensuring its future as a secure, democratic, and Jewish State,” ambassador Shapiro said, truly, the other day. They really don’t care about Palestinians.
This belief in Zionism is not something most Jews can hold up and examine. It is not about Israel really, but about a collectively-constructed identity that I sense strongly even in the privileged beach town: we are liberals, outsiders, exceptional minds, achievers, victims of anti-Semitism, analytical intellectuals and talkers (we’re smarter), dedicated to civil rights and feminism. We are a very distinct group. Like all social identities, some of it is chauvinistic, some of it real, but the greatest weakness in it is our sense of our relation to power. I don’t know how you can claim to be an outsider at a time when the Democratic National Committee lists cultivating Jewish donors as its thirdmost priority after discussing healthcare and jobs. I don’t know that most Jews understand the extent to which Zionism has become an Establishment value. That is the only way to look at Dan Shapiro being our new ambassador to Israel and calling on American Jews to throw themselves into Zionist education. Or Rick Perry’s love of Israel, or the 81 congresspeople’s summer recess there. Or Ethan Bronner’s unimpeachable status at the Times, when his son served in the IDF; the Times wants a Zionist to represent it in Jerusalem. Or the Times’ promotion of neconservatives David Frum and Bill Kristol even after they plotted the Iraq disaster. Zionism is an establishment value. You have to not criticize Zionism or you won’t get anywhere. Look what a standing joke Ron Paul is in the MSM.
Still the argument is happening behind closed doors. Privileged east coast non-Jews don’t care for Israel. They sound like outsiders when they talk about the issue. And the Jews sound as entitled as Rockefeller Republicans.