David Friedman and the Parting of the Ways

Allen: Aron, at some point I’d like to turn our focus to the basics of Jewish thought– partly because discovering the nature of our human experience is a worthwhile goal in itself, and partly because, as I’ve suggested before, any progressive religious movement needs solid doctrinal ground to stand on.  Beliefs matter. We want to feel that the moral efforts to which we dedicate ourselves are in some way mean something. We want to know that our ideals are not illusions, that our story is not simply “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A sense of vocation, of calling, can elevate our political efforts from the muck of apathy.

But that conversation will have to wait for while, since Trump’s nomination of his new ambassador to Israel deserves a few minutes of our attention. David Friedman supports annexing the West Bank (though he appears to have no plans of granting citizenship to the Palestinians in his new state). He’s personally funded construction on privately owned Palestinian land. He’s accused our president of “blatant anti-Semitism.” Perhaps most disturbingly, he’s compared supporters of the two-state Israel advocacy group J Street to Jewish collaborators in concentration camps.

As much as I enjoy playing devil’s advocate, this one may be tough. I’ll try to at least make a hypothetical center-right case for Mr. Friedman so that we can clarify the issues involved. “Sure, I find the tone of the nominee’s comments uncouth and distasteful,” some of our acquaintances might say. “But we need to face the facts. Anyone who still believes in the political possibility of a two-state solution is deluding themselves. One hundred thousand Israelis live outside of the so-called ‘bloc.’ That population will never be relocated. It’s past time that the U.S. administration acknowledged the facts on the ground; Likud has implicitly done just that already. And the nominee understands the Iran deal as an existential threat to Israel’s security in a way the Obama administration never did.”

Aron, what are your thoughts? How would you respond to an argument of this sort?

Aron: Yes, the conversation about articulating a meaningful theology can wait while we work to counter the lunatic we’ve just elected, but let’s make sure to pivot back soon. We’ve both criticized Jewish institutions for ignoring Judaism while pontificating about Israel; let’s make sure we don’t end up doing the same.

In any event, I’ll outline a few different lines of argument against Friedman — security, Zionism, and the infeasibility of the two-state solution — though I don’t think anyone who reads this blog really needs to be convinced that he’s a bad dude:

From the Right (“Security”): Israel’s military presence in the West Bank poses an existential risk to Israel’s long-term security. First, communicating to Palestinians that Israel is not interested in peace destabilizes Abbas’ already fragile hold on the West Bank and emboldens Hamas. If we thought the wave of knifings was bad last year, imagine how much worse it would be if Israel officially killed the two-state solution. Second, the overwhelming majority of Americans and Europeans support a two-state solution. Throwing in the towel risks weakening Israel’s alliances, strengthening the boycott and sanctions movements, and losing the US’ veto on more UN Security Council resolutions. Finally, Iran. In order to effectively contain Iran’s influence across the Middle East, Israel needs the support of its Sunni neighbors. While those neighbors certainly care more about opposing Iran than about supporting Palestinians, they don’t have carte blanche when it comes to their citizens, even if they’re non-democracies. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, among others, can’t be seen to be working with an Israel that has no long-term desire for a withdrawal from the West Bank.

From the Center-Left (“Zionism”): Israel’s settlement project is the single greatest threat to Zionism, which seeks to establish a Jewish and democratic state. If Israel insists on permanently entrenching the occupation, it will no longer be able to claim that it’s a democracy. If it mires itself in the West Bank and ends up being pressured to grant Palestinians citizenship, it will no longer be a majority-Jewish country. There is an increasingly small window of time in which Israel will feasibly be able to extricate itself from this quagmire, and Friedman’s appointment is helping to close that door. On top of that, think of all the would-be-Zionist Jews who will become disillusioned with Israel’s unwillingness to pursue peace. At some point, we won’t have any young Jews who believe in the support the two-state solution.

(Note: Israel’s defense establishment – the former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, Defense Ministry, and the military – almost unanimously fall in between those two camps)

From the Left (“The Two-State Solution Is Dead”): Friedman and his ilk are right; there is no feasible way for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. With more than 400,000 settlers living in the West Bank and another 200,000 thousand or so living in East Jerusalem, the notion that Israel could or would carry out a large scale withdrawal is laughable. Even if we cut out the settlers living inside major blocs and the settlers who would move if given financial compensation, we’re still talking about tens of thousands of highly armed, ideologically motivated individuals with military training who will give all they’ve got in order to prevent the army from removing them (this isn’t even to mention the fact that significant percentages of the army’s officer corps and elite units are drawn from this demographic).

Just look at what happened a few years ago in Amona. In 2006, the IDF declared that it was evacuating nine homes in the settlement. That’s about 50 settlers. 4,000 protesters showed up to confront 10,000 police. Yes, you’re reading that number correctly. We’re talking about a police to evacuated settler ratio of approximately 200:1. From where is Israel going to draw the manpower to evacuate tens of thousands?

In the meantime, Palestinians live as a stateless, disenfranchised minority deprived of civil, economic, political, and water rights. Once we admit that the two-state solution is dead, we will realize that we have a moral imperative to immediately grant Palestinians the freedoms they have been denied. Accordingly, the only realistic option is a democratic, binational state that accords equal rights to Israelis and Palestinians. 

There’s truth to all of these approaches. You’ll notice that, rhetorically, I had the most trouble expounding upon the second one, despite the fact that it had long been my position on the conflict. As for now, I think there are parts of the “security” argument that are compelling (not least of which is the implicit assumption that there is a real security threat). There are also parts of “the two-state solution is dead” that resonate with me: the reality of life for Palestinians and the total absence of any realistic plan to withdraw from the West Bank (though an alternate plan would be to leave the settlements and have those Jews be citizens of a Palestinian state, but there are serious barriers to that option as well).

Anyway, now that we’ve laid out all the reasons that a wide variety of American Jews are upset with Friedman’s appointment, let’s ask a separate question: what do you think this portends for our community?

Allen: All good points – don’t see much to disagree with here. I’d only add that there’s another element behind the opposition to Friedman’s appointment: no one in America should be calling anyone a Nazi collaborator. It betrays utter disdain for others’ honest convictions and a disgusting trivialization of the Holocaust. As you said last week before things got crazy:

“We don’t need to go into all of the messy details of why we’re all calling each other assimilationists and fascists and self-hating Jews and heretics and Nazis and idiots and terrorists and oppressors and so on in order to realize that it wouldn’t hurt to set aside eight days to engage with Jews from different backgrounds.”

As for the nomination’s effect on the institutional Jewish community at large and the Conservative Movement in particular: I submit that we’ve reached an imminent parting of the ways in American Jewry. You and I learned with our alef-bet that the main part of American Jewry supported a two-state solution, and that our good-faith efforts as an honest broker were time and again stymied by Palestinian intransigence.  I’ve come to call bits and pieces of the accepted wisdom into question over the years, but I still wish I could believe it. Call me a sucker. Then along comes David Friedman, the man behind the curtain, who by his mere presence in the White House would put the lie to our old mantras. Our teachers were fond of saying that Israel had no partner at the negotiating table. That’s still true, but not in the way they meant it; by his own admission, David Friedman has no intention of sitting down with the Palestinians to sue for peace. So umbrella organizations like the AJC and Conservative groups like Masorti and the USCJ are now faced with the choice between walking the two-state walk or tacitly ceding Herzl’s dream to the far right.

It will be interesting to watch the politics of this play out over the coming months. I wrote about Bannon’s appointment:  “There will be plenty of opportunities for religious organizations of integrity, Conservative or otherwise, to step up to the plate before this ball game’s over.” Looks like the first inning’s just getting started. Aron, care to place any bets?

Aron: What we’re going to see in the coming weeks will be a more poignant version of what happened with Trump himself, Bannon, Sessions, and the rest of the Death Eaters. Mainstream Jewish institutions — AJC, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations — will refuse to criticize Friedman’s positions for fear of losing their ability to influence the administration’s policy on Israel.

An optimist might pause here to say, “Of course! They want to retain their ability to push the US to support the two-state solution, especially since Friedman doesn’t!” The reality is, though, that these institutions do not lobby on behalf of a two-state solution. They lobby for military aid, against the Palestinian Authority, and, as we saw last week, against criticism of settlements.

A skeptic might say, “Are you kidding? AJC did criticize Friedman’s appointment! Didn’t you see their statement?” To indulge the skeptic, let’s take a look at AJC’s statement:

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special U.S.-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord — which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict — and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives.”

Let’s compare that with JStreet’s:

“Friedman’s track record shows that he has the exact opposite of the diplomatic disposition needed to represent the United States in one of the most sensitive and complex postings in the world.”

Which organizations sounds like it’s committed to opposing policies that imperil the two-state solution?

This isn’t just a parting of the ways; it’s a changing of the guard. Young liberal Jews’ positions are much closer to JStreet’s than AJC’s. The only thing helping AJC is that “JStreet” is still a dirty word in some parts of our community.

I can personally attest to this — until a few years ago, I despised JStreet, and I was taught for most of my life that AJC was a paragon of moralism and thoughtfulness. The past few years have shown me how wrong I was. I worked at AJC a few summers ago, and I saw an organization more concerned with pacifying its right-wing donors than taking principled positions. Of those two organizations, only one speaks with a moral and thoughtful voice. Allen, AJC isn’t going to step up to the plate; it gave up a long time ago.



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