Archive for category Sandbox

Unspoken reasons for the American Jewish distancing from Israel

This post first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on April 14, as a response to an essay by Elliott Abrams.

Golani Brigade graduation ceremonyElliott Abrams put his finger on the main cause of American Jewish “distancing” from Israel, and the answer is discouraging. He picks up on this passage from one of the two books he surveys, Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel:

Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples…. Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel.

Abrams rightly calls this the “crux of the matter,” and the evidence he musters from surveys is unequivocal. With a 50-to-60 percent rate of intermarriage, Jewish communal solidarity in America is steadily eroding, with regard both to religious practice and to engagement with Israel. The children of intermarriage are less in touch with everything Jewish; their “sheer indifference” to Israel, in Abrams’ phrase, has nothing to do with the “occupation.”

But let me introduce two additional demographic explanations for the “distancing,” even among American Jews who do remain affiliated and committed. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, there were six million American Jews and 700,000 Israelis: a proportion of nine to one. Israelis were those feisty little cousins, and while American Jews admired their grit, they didn’t let Israelis forget who had the numbers (and the money). When American Jewish leaders talked, Israeli leaders listened—and when the two parties disagreed, the burden of proof fell on the Israelis.

What a difference 70 years have made! Over that time, the number of American Jews has hardly budged, due to low fertility and intermarriage. In Israel, by contrast, the number of Jews has increased almost tenfold through immigration and high fertility. The result is that today, the ratio of American to Israeli Jews is one-to-one—about six million in each country. In another twenty years, there will be well over eight million Jews in Israel, and probably fewer than six million in America. And these Israelis are economically prosperous and militarily powerful in ways no one could have foretold in 1948.

American Jews are rightly proud of the important role they played in Israel’s transformation, and Israelis are grateful for it. But as Abrams admits, American Jewry “is in significant ways growing weaker.” Demographic stagnation and geographic dispersion aren’t just taking their toll within the community; they are eroding Jewish political clout more broadly.

So it is hardly surprising that, from the prime minister down, Israelis entrusted with the exercise of sovereign power are less attentive to what American Jews think Israel should do. Israeli Jews have worked out a successful survival strategy, and while it’s not perfect, the numbers don’t lie. The American Jewish survival strategy is struggling. As Abrams concludes, the day won’t be long in coming when the Jewish state will have to assume the direct burden of sustaining Jewish communal identity in America, “for Israel’s sake and for ours.”

Old patterns in relationships die hard. It’s not easy for many American Jews to recognize the stupendous shift in the balance, and when they don’t, this is often expressed in disappointment, disillusionment, and even dissociation from Israel. These are the discontents of gradual decline. Israelis should empathize with the deeper dilemma of American Jewry, but it should surprise no one that they discount some of its symptoms, and certainly don’t intend to change their own national priorities in a futile attempt to alleviate them.

There is another demographic reason for “distancing.” In 1948, American and Israeli Jews were landslayt. They or their parents had come out of the same cities, towns, and shtetls of Europe. American Jews looked at Israeli Jews like family, and often they were: almost everyone in Israel had some (allegedly rich) uncle or cousin in America. True, other Jews began to arrive in the 1950s, as refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. But they were mostly out of sight in immigrant refugee camps and development towns. As for the political leaders, most were born in Russia or Poland—from David Ben-Gurion through Golda Meir, Menachem Begin through Yitzḥak Shamir. Levi Eshkol could hardly refrain from slipping into Yiddish in cabinet meetings. They all hailed from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers.”

All that has changed. Today, over half of all Israeli Jews identify themselves as being of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent; less than half, of European or American descent. (Were it not for the immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Ashkenazi share would be closer to a third.) Israelis today just don’t look as much like family to American Jews, 90 percent of whom are of Ashkenazi descent.

Because Israeli Jews are drawn from a wider spectrum of cultures, everything else about them is more diverse. Jewish religious practice, despite the formal monopoly of Orthodox, is more varied in Israel than in the United States. Nor are the historical legacies that inform politics limited to the Holocaust, so central to American Jewish identity. The forced Jewish flight from Arab and Muslim lands is just as relevant, and explains much of the present skew of Israeli politics with regard to the Palestinian Arabs.

On top of this, about 70 percent of Israeli Jews are Israeli-born. Israel is no longer primarily a nation of immigrants. The hybrid Hebrew-language culture nourished by native-born Jewish Israelis isn’t easy to pin down in a sentence, but it’s a lot edgier than the dominant culture of the blue-state suburbs where most of American Jewry resides.

One reason is that those suburbs are more peaceful and stable than any environment in the history of humankind since Adam. Israel, in contrast, sits on the crust of the world’s most active geopolitical fault line. It isn’t that American Jews are from Venus and Israeli Jews are from Mars. It’s that they reside on opposite ends of planet Earth, one nearing perpetual peace, the other leaning toward perpetual war.

So an American Jew, disembarked at Ben-Gurion airport for the first time, might have to stretch his or her imagination quite a bit to see Israelis as “my people” and Israel as “my homeland.” For some significant number of American Jews, indeed, this is precisely what makes contemporary Israel so exhilarating. If there is any meaning to ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, it is solidarity not with Jews who look and think like you, but precisely with those who don’t.

But other American Jews, seeing shifts in Israel that suggest to them the neighborhood may be changing, begin, as it were, to move out. Israel has become too this or too that, things seem more black than white, the people there sound too uncouth. The next thing you know, “progressive” American Jews are moving their Jewish identity elsewhere—to some place where they never have to rub elbows with people whose “Jewish values” differ from their own.

It’s not tragic: Israel will make good the loss elsewhere, through its own spectacular growth and the forging of new friendships. But it’s sad that there are Jews in America, however few or many, who do not stand in pure wonder that they live in a time when there exists a Jewish sovereign state. They would like a different one.

They must have millennia to spare.

Leave your comments at the original article or on Facebook.

Photo credit: Golani reconnaissance unit graduation, 2014, IDF Spokesman.

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Was “Censored Voices” censored?

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on November 24.

Censored Voices posterCensored Voices, the manipulative documentary film by Israeli director Mor Loushy on the Six-Day War, had its U.S. theatrical release last Friday. It’s now playing in Manhattan and Bethesda, Maryland, and it will open in Los Angeles this weekend. Loushy, it will be recalled, resurrects conversations among Israeli soldiers recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War. Some of these testimonies were published a short time later in a book called Soldiers’ Talk. But Loushy retrieved material which had been omitted from Soldiers’ Talk—according to her, by order of the Israeli military censor, partly because the soldiers discussed Israeli war crimes. These weren’t just a few redlined paragraphs: the censor, Loushy alleges, cut seventy percent of the original testimonies.

As I showed at Mosaic Magazine over the summer, this quantified claim is entirely bogus. It’s an out-of-thin-air “statistic” that seems to have been fabricated in order to boost the marketing of the film. And it still works. See, for example, the latest review by film critic Daniel M. Gold in the New York Times: “The Israeli military permitted only about 30 percent of the material to be published then.” What’s the evidence for this claim, aside from the bald assertion of the filmmakers? None whatsoever. I won’t repeat my forensic analysis of who did censor the voices—go to my Mosaic piece for the full story. It matters because the relentless repetition of this mythical number is exemplary of the filmmaker’s propensity for elision and distortion in her spin of the Six-Day War itself.

Now that the film is out, I want to pose a different question. Was Censored Voices, the film now on the American big screen, censored by the Israeli military censor? Loushy suggested as much to New York Times correspondent Judi Rudoren, who reported on the film in a news piece back in January, after the film premiered at the Sundance film festival:

She [Loushy] was deep into the project before she discovered that the film, too, would be subject to censorship, she said.

Israel forbids the filmmakers to reveal how much they were forced to change, and the military censor’s office refused to discuss it.

“For us as a society to mend and to improve ourselves, we can’t censor,” Ms. Loushy said. “I think it’s important that we look the truth in the eyes.”

Rudoren’s wording suggested that the censor had indeed “forced” changes; the only question was “how much,” and that couldn’t be known because Loushy was gagged and the censor wouldn’t talk. Critics of Israel immediately seized upon this passage to claim that Israel was still censoring some of the same voices it had allegedly censored nearly fifty years ago. At the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, far-left academic Stephen R. Shalom wrote this:

Rudoren’s article also provides the significant information that even Censored Voices was censored and hence doesn’t tell the full story of the war crimes that occurred: “Israel forbids the filmmakers to reveal how much they were forced to change, and the military censor’s office refused to discuss it.”

Loushy’s next reference to censorship of her film came in a March interview:

Unfortunately, I had to submit my film to the censorship, like all filmmakers in Israel. Luckily it was only minimally censored. Maybe Israeli censorship has become much more liberal since 1967.

According to Loushy, then, the “much more liberal” censor still had compelled her to take some small amount of material out of the film. In some way, however “minimal,” Israel continued to silence voices.

So it stood until this fall, when Loushy began to talk about her encounter with the censor. In an October interview at a London film festival, she said that she couldn’t say much about it, but “the film wasn’t censored at all, eventually” (here at minute 3:00). Then this month, at another film festival in New York, she gave a fuller account. Setting aside the unverifiable details in her dramatic telling, the bottom line was this: “Eventually, the film was not censored at all” (here at minute 19:00). Not only did the film make it past the censor with no changes. According to Loushy, this outcome was settled before the Sundance premiere—and, so, before Rudoren’s article appeared.

If so, then why did Loushy lead Rudoren to believe that the censor might have “forced” changes in the film? (That prompted Rudoren to put in a query to the censor.) And why did Loushy say, in a subsequent interview, that the film had been censored, “minimally”? Why has she not consistently repeated this simple sentence: “The film was not censored at all”? I haven’t an answer to these questions.

I do know that the notion of Israel as the ever-vigilant censor, forever “silencing” voices, is the convenient bogeyman of Censored Voices. Israel censored then, and it censors now. But in truth, both then (as I showed in my long piece) and even more so now (as Loushy admits), censorship in Israel isn’t a diktat, it’s a negotiation. If you’re savvy and pushy, and don’t traffic in military secrets or classified information, you can get nearly everything approved (the case of Soldiers’ Talk, the book), or even the whole thing approved (the case of Censored Voices, the film).

Despite the doubts that envelope this film, it keeps marching on. Reviews in the American Jewish press have been admiring, and Jewish reviewers have gushed enthusiastically in the Washington Post (“an essential documentary”) and the New York Times (“an essential amendment to the historical record”). All of which is more proof that liberal American Jews remain vulnerable to bedtime stories of Israeli misdeeds and cover-ups, provided they’re accompanied by we-have-sinned chest thumping and end-the-occupation agitprop.

Censored Voices has qualified for the big field in the running for an Oscar. Stay tuned.

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Do you know the Mufti man?

During the brouhaha surrounding the “Mufti speech” of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I tweeted a photograph. It purported to show the Mufti Amin al-Husseini seated alongside David and Paula Ben-Gurion. I’d first seen the photograph during a lecture (in Hebrew) on Ben-Gurion delivered by Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s most distinguished historians, at Shalem College in February 2014—a lecture I myself chaired. When the photograph flashed on the screen above the podium, a gasp of recognition went through the audience: The Mufti with Ben-Gurion! Yes, said Shapira, that’s who it is.

Later, Shapira selected the photograph for inclusion in her (wonderful) new biography of Ben-Gurion, both in English and Hebrew. The Hebrew caption surmised that it was taken in the mid-1930s, apparently at an event under the auspices of the British High Commissioner. She credited the photo to the Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which apparently didn’t preserve any identifying information. Shapira didn’t make anything of the encounter—the caption noted that Ben-Gurion and the Mufti never had a meeting—but the image of the two of them seated side by side hinted at one of those alleged “missed opportunities” that litter the historiography of Israel.

So when the “Mufti speech” made waves, I tweeted the photo, giving Shapira credit for discovering it.

Mufti Tweet

This became the most retweeted and favorited tweet I’d ever posted. Many of the retweets added sarcastic commentary, some of it amusing, some less so. But one set of Twitter responses troubled me, from a Palestinian journalist, Ibrahim Husseini:

Ibrahim Husseini tweets

Looking closer at the photograph, I could see the problem. Setting aside the improbability that the Mufti would place himself in this position, he didn’t look quite like himself. Yes, the iconic headgear was there, but that wasn’t at all exclusive to the Mufti. Yes, the facial hair looked approximately right, but that was also standard grooming. (Actually, the Mufti did have white tufts on the chin of his beard, but this could have been lost in a photograph, depending on the lighting.) It was the eyes, or more specifically, the bags around them, and the slightly sunken cheek, that seemed anomalous. The Mufti had a smooth and full face. Here he is after testifying to the Peel Commission in January 1937.

Mufti in 1937, Peel Commission

Was this the same man as the one in Anita Shapira’s photograph? It started to look doubtful. So I wrote to Shapira, who is a friend of long standing. She replied by thanking me, and told me that after publication of her book, a retired employee of the Israel State Archives told her that this wasn’t the Mufti. “Pity,” she added.

Since I played a supporting role in disseminating this photograph, I felt more than the usual obligation of a historian to set the record straight. If not the Mufti, who was this man, who was of sufficient stature to warrant a place next to David Ben-Gurion? So I started posting queries on Twitter and the Facebook pages of Israeli and Palestinian archives and research centers. I got a lot of agreement that it wasn’t the Mufti, but didn’t get any leads. I even heard from someone who had known the Mufti. “Perhaps acceptable for a Hollywood rendition,” he wrote, but definitely not the Mufti. Yet he had no suggestions as to who it might be. An archive director in Israel sent my query to all his peers. No answer.

The person most likely to have known the answer died on November 1 of last year. He was Shabtai Teveth, author of a (never completed) multi-volume biography of B-G. He’d actually been silent for much longer, having suffered a debilitating stroke twelve years before his death. Teveth had been my good friend, and I’d published an appreciation of him earlier this year. I knew that, were he alive and well, his eyes would have twinkled at the question, and he would have provided an on-the-spot answer, because he loved detail, and no detail of Ben-Gurion’s life was too small.

I began to wonder whether there might be some clue in Teveth’s voluminous writings. His biography of B-G had nothing. I had slightly higher hopes from his 400-page book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, which appeared in Hebrew in 1985 and also in an abbreviated English translation (which I helped him prepare). Alas, nothing there, and no photographs in either the Hebrew or the English editions.

Stymied, I began to run Google searches of Teveth with improbable search terms—long shots, because I was quite sure I’d consulted everything Teveth had written on Ben-Gurion and the Arabs. During one of these desultory searches, I stumbled across the pdf of a Hebrew article by Teveth entitled “Ben-Gurion and the Arab Question,” which, to my amazement, I’d never seen. It appeared in the journal Cathedra in March 1987. I couldn’t imagine why Teveth wrote it, since he’d already published a whole book on the subject. As I scrolled down through the piece, I saw a few images—Cathedra illustrates its articles. Then suddenly, close to the end, I came upon this:

Here was the image, published for the first time not by Shapira but by Teveth, more than twenty-five years ago! And apparently, unlike Shapira, he had the “metadata” for the photograph. His caption reads: “Ben-Gurion alongside Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi, president of the Supreme Muslim Appeals Court, before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, 1946.” It was as though I’d asked Teveth my question, and he’d found a way to lead me to the answer.

Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi wasn’t comparable to Ben-Gurion in any way. He’d served as a qadi, or religious judge, from 1920, working his way up through the Islamic courts around the country before reaching Jerusalem. In 1940, he became president of the appeals court; he fled for Lebanon in 1948. As far as I can tell from the records of the Anglo-American Committee, he didn’t actually testify. (The testimony of three other “Moslem Religious Dignitaries” is recorded.) And the text of Teveth’s article said nothing about him. It turns out there isn’t much of a reason to include this photograph in any biography of Ben-Gurion. Lots of other interesting photographs could fill that prime real estate.

If this story is worth telling at such length, it’s to serve as a reminder to historians (especially me) that first instincts can mislead, and that in history, as in investing, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But above all, it’s an encouraging story of how historians never go silent, even when they’re gone. You just have to ask them.

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Commentary symposium: The Jewish Future

Commentary CoverThe November 2015 issue of Commentary magazine is comprised of a symposium entitled The Jewish Future, in which “70 Jewish Leaders, Thinkers, and Clergy Respond to the Question: What Will be the Condition of the Jewish Community 50 Years from Now?” Below is my contribution. Download the entire symposium (pdf) here.

The phrase “Jewish history” is misleading. There is only history, of which the Jews are a part, sometimes as movers, other times as objects, too often as victims. The Jews of Europe were destroyed because a force arose that nearly destroyed all of Europe in a total war. The Jews of America have prospered because America has prospered, thanks to its mastery of democracy and capitalism. The Jews of Russia were freed because all of Russia freed itself from Soviet Communism. World-historical forces have made “Jewish history” as much as the Jews have made it, if not more.

Those forces made it in 1948 as well. The 600,000 Jews who created the State of Israel showed incredible grit. But they never would have succeeded had the Arabs not been debilitated and divided. Israel arose at an opportune moment, when the Arabs were still reeling from colonialism. That weakness has persisted to our very day and has manifested itself in our time in an Arab civil war. But by 2065, the Arabs will be a full century into postcolonial independence. Is it possible that they might finally be poised to destroy Israel, perhaps with the help of other Muslims, such as Iran?

“Israel is indestructible,” former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has said time and again. “I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.” This is true—for now. But as Halevy has repeated again and again (in the debate on the Iran nuclear deal), “10 years is an eternity in the Middle East.” Israel has enjoyed a widening advantage over its adversaries since its establishment, especially since 1967. It is the inherent advantage of the West over the East. But might 50 years—Halevy’s eternity multiplied by five—be enough to erode or overturn it?

This is certainly the Palestinian-Arab view of Israel. According to a recent poll, more than half of Gazans and almost 40 percent of West Bankers think Israel will no longer exist at all in 30 to 40 years. They are about evenly split between those who think that Israel “will collapse from internal contradictions” and those who expect that “Arab or Muslim resistance will destroy it.” Ask them if Israel will exist as a Jewish state in a century, and the percentage of those who answer yes falls almost to single digits. This is the persistent idea of Israel as a Crusader outpost, fated to dissipate as a reunited Islam recovers and recoups its losses.

Over the next 50 years, Israel by its actions must show, decade after decade, that it is the Arabs, including the Palestinians, who have the most to fear from the future, unless and until they recognize Israel’s durable permanence. They are only halfway there. Two states bordering Israel have made a grudging peace, but Islamists, Sunni and Shiite, still think they can whittle down Israeli sovereignty by a thousand cuts. These are the people whom Israel must defeat and demoralize over the next 50 years. Forty years ago, in January 1976, Bernard Lewis accurately predicted “The Return of Islam” in these pages. The retreat of Islam as a radical political force is something that Israel must work to effect, by causing it to fail as thoroughly as Arab nationalism failed in 1967.

Because the Jews are now fully sovereign, they can act on history in ways once unimaginable, and Israel has the potential and the imperative to make history for others. It must plan to bend the arc of the Middle East yet again, in its favor. If Israel is to be secure, let alone flourish, it will have no choice.

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Mecca: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Today is Eid al-Adha, culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, now marred by yet another tragedy that has left hundreds dead in a stampede. (Earlier, it was a crane collapse.) In a new photo gallery, I offer some commentary on the stupendous transformation of Mecca in our time. If you haven’t followed it closely, and (like me) you don’t have any plans to visit Mecca anytime soon, the images (and the numbers) may astound you. The effect on Islam? Unpredictable. Follow this link.

Mecca photo gallery

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