Point-Counter-Point with Yossi Klein Halevi

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - 20:00

Are American-Jewish liberals ignoring Iran's threat to Israel?

attack on Iran
American support for Israel
advocacy for Israel
Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Yossi Klein Halevi and Yehuda Kurtzer recorded a video response to questions from readers who responded to their column, in which they debated why some American Jews seem to be ignoring Iran's threat to Israel. Click on the image below to see that video now.
In this week's inaugural Point-Counter-Point, iEngage Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi talks with Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer over differing impressions of the Iranian threat to Israel. Dear Yehuda,   As we approach the moment of decision on preventing a nuclear Iran, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the nature of liberal American Jewish discourse on Israel.   I share the anguish of many American Jews over the occupation as a long-term existential threat to Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state.   But some American Jews seem so obsessed with the occupation that they are missing what could be an imminent existential threat. The convergence of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the virtual collapse of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, the tens of thousands of missiles aimed at the Israeli home front, and most of all the Iranian bomb – has created a sense of deep foreboding here. Israelis are speaking about May 1967 – less overt and dramatic, to be sure, but no less menacing. Ehud Barak recently said that the threat Israel faces is even greater.   Yet I sense a strange lack of urgency among many liberal American Jews. I fear that in some Jewish circles the survival instinct has been dangerously eroded – one more tragic consequence, perhaps, of the occupation.   Yossi   Dear Yossi,   Your question entails two assumptions that need to be unpacked. The first is that the issue of Iran is in some way splitting Israeli and American Jewry; I don't see it. I think it is splitting Jewry in both North America and Israel, but I know plenty of people and organizations here much more hawkish and vigilant than even members of the Israeli defense establishment. There is a vibrant debate about the prudency and legitimacy of an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran taking place within the Jewish people globally, and I tend to believe that this is a good thing. I think we learned this the hard way from the buildup to the second Iraq war - the muting of public debate did not serve the mission well. I believe that the existence of a serious opposition to this war from within the lovers and supporters of Israel will serve to strengthen the legitimacy of the ultimate choice, so long as it does not breed stubbornness and belligerence.   This leads to my second issue, which lies in your move from insufficient empathy for a possible Iran strike to the lack of a survival instinct. Here you must not mean that the act of politically opposing the strike necessarily entails the absence of this instinct, for the reasons discussed above. Reasonable people with different ideologies and different sources of evidence and authority have to be able to disagree, even on issues of grave consequence.   You specifically cite those "liberal" American Jews whom you see having an unhealthy preoccupation with the occupation. Put differently, it seems to me you are troubled by the obsession with Jewish perpetration at the cost of the genuine possibility of continued Jewish victimhood. But Yossi, I'm not sure that we can separate either these existential categories or the specific scenarios of Iran and occupation so easily. I don't mean to claim that Israel's isolation from the world and the conditions of Jewish and Zionist victimhood would end if Israel lived within the 1967 borders; I am neither naive or so self-critical as to believe that we can be blamed for our own misfortunes. I have no problem with the reasonable, ethically dignified assertion of power. What troubles me is the assumption, explicit in these public policy debates, that with power must come belligerence and bellicosity, that hawkishness is morally superior.   It is simply harder and harder to separate out the moments of Israeli bellicosity that are ostensibly defined by the need for self-preservation (e.g. Iran) from those with more ambiguous motives (e.g. the occupation). It is even difficult to separate out from this rising culture of bellicosity the explicitly immoral expressions of this abuse of power, as in the recent lynching in Zion Square. This accumulation makes me highly suspect of the use of a narrative of self-preservation in the service of greater and greater bellicosity - especially when the Israeli government makes no efforts to quell this rising tide vis-a-vis the Palestinians or within Israeli civil society. So my question back to you, Yossi, is how can Israeli society get back to its power equilibrium - strong and ethical in the value of self-preservation - without making even its friends suspect that its obsession with the use of power has gone off the rails?   Yehuda   Dear Yehuda,   Of course I agree with you that support for an Israeli strike against Iran is no fair measure of concern for Israel’s security. If it were, then the patriotism much of the Israeli strategic community would be called into question.   And Israelis need to take your challenge seriously about the need to rehabilitate our credibility on matters of national security. Do we, for example, use security as a pretext for settlement expansion?   Yet by failing to make a clear distinction between a preemptive Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities and the abuse of power that allows for settlement expansion, you reinforce my concern about the lack of clarity in much of the liberal Jewish discourse on Israeli security. If Israel does decide to bomb Iran it will be a decision reached after agonizing deliberation, with full awareness of the potential consequences, not least to the Israeli home front. Agree or not with an attack on Iran, the motives behind it would be pure, expressions of Jewish angst and self-defense.   During a talk I gave recently in Jerusalem to a visiting group of American Jews, a leader of a dovish Jewish organization said to me, “We don’t believe you about the Iranian threat.” I was stunned. Was Israel imagining an Iranian threat? The debate here isn’t over the seriousness of the threat – I haven’t heard any Israeli question the legitimacy of the government’s fears – but of how to cope with it.   My challenge to you, then, is: Can American Jewish liberals maintain their principled opposition to the abuse of the security argument as a pretext for settlement building, while remaining clear-eyed on genuine threats to Israel’s security?   Yossi   Dear Yossi,   Yes, you are right. There is a lack of clarity in this discourse. But I would counter your pinning this simply on liberal American Jews, and argue that it is endemic to all sides in this conversation. If we want to have a serious conversation in the Jewish community about issues of this significance and on matters that implicate our lives and our relationship with each other, we need to speak clearly about our expectations – and not wait around to be shocked by what is not being said (or worse, felt.)   You ask Jews to take the Israeli leadership on its word that its motives are pure: I wish it were so easy, that we were past this cynical era in which all the motives of politicians – even on matters of life and death – appear to be tinged with political considerations. It is a sad truth of the age of the “war on terror” that as existential threats have risen, the politics of the responses have become even more pronounced. The fact that this issue is getting tied into American partisan politics during an election year is not helping, either, nor is the opposition expressed towards an Iran strike by the opposition leader in Israel. If the whole issue is tainted – possibly even veiled – in political considerations and agendas, is it even reasonable to ask for the moral clarity (and specific tactical outcomes) that you are seeking from one side of the political spectrum?   But of course the larger and parallel issue is the continued question of moral equivocation. You ask that we clearly delineate between Israel’s response to the Iranian existential threat and its behaviors towards the Palestinians – which liberals tend to see as also constituting an existential threat, but this time to Israel’s moral and democratic character. On the substance of the issue, I think I can agree to this; the issues are not the same, and while they implicate each other, they require different solutions.   Still, I wonder whether the bullish and bellicose rhetoric on both fronts from the Israeli government actually undermines what you are asking of me. There is a long-standing belief that it is only the hawks who can be effective peacemakers (let’s call it the Menachem Begin theory.) Is it unreasonable or naive to expect that – in exchange for the clear-eyedness you want from the left on Iran – the Israeli hawkish establishment model a different consciousness and conscientiousness on these two issues? It is not an equivocation to say that moral authority can be earned on one front for the sake of credibility on another; it is both good morals, and good strategy. I don't think the haters of Israel will go away when there is a final status agreement in place with the Palestinians; but I think the moral clarity of Israel's own assertion of self-defense in all of its fronts will be much more self-evident.   I hope you recognize, Yossi, in spite of the muddiness of these issues and in spite of the awkwardness of the encounter that you describe, that on the actual existential issues I don’t think the Jewish people – with their political differences – are really that far apart. I think the culture of immo anochi b’tzara, that we stand together in trying times, is still pronounced and real; and that the pluralism on these issues may ironically mean that we are more secure as a people and not less. I just think that ultimately if we want total clarity among the Jewish people of the threats that Israel faces and total credibility on the specific responses for which our leaders are advocating, we need that moral clarity modeled by the leadership across the board – and not just on a case-by-case basis.   Yehuda   Dear Yehuda,   I am reassured by your sense that, in the event of an actual conflict, the Jewish people will still be capable of pulling together.   But I am haunted by the words of a prominent American rabbi, who told me not long ago that he fears that, this time, there will be Jews (many? some?) who will turn their backs on Israel, who will say that Israel brought war on itself. I worry about the attenuation of emotional identification with Israel, to the point of indifference or even contempt in time of crisis.   As for the trustworthiness of Israel’s leaders on the Iranian issue: I am troubled by the tendency in Jewish political discourse to doubt the integrity of those with whom one disagrees. I sense that same tendency among opponents of Netanyahu’s Iranian policy. By all means, question the wisdom of his approach. But not the authenticity of his commitment and his concern. Not on this one.   Finally, I agree that we need a different Israeli discourse on the Palestinians. I would welcome, for example, a renewed government freeze on settlement-building, for moral and also practical reasons: We need to focus on Iran and avoid divisive policies. And we need to help create an atmosphere in which genuine peace talks could one day happen.   Tragically, we are nowhere near that possibility. The primary fault for the impasse, I believe, lies with the Palestinian leadership, which has rejected three Israeli peace overtures in the last decade. I look forward to an exchange with you about that issue, too.   Yossi    Continue this discussion - or start a new one on Facebook or Twitter. Click on the Facebook icon to comment on this debate on the Shalom Hartman Institute Facebook page.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer

Yehuda Kurtzer

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, overseeing the Institute’s many educational initiatives for the leadership of the North American Jewish community.

Dr. Kurtzer's new book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, deals with many of the central challenges facing contemporary Jewry, and offers new thinking on focuses on how contemporary Jews can and should relate to our past.

Program Notes
Point-Counter-Point with Yossi Klein Halevi


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As a Jewish Liberal I find the framing of this debate offensive. This isn't a debate between conservatives and liberals as much as a debate between hawks and doves. It is most certainly not the same thing. I am a liberal. I am also a hawk. If you don't understand how they can be one in the same then you don't know too many liberals these days.
Jonathan Zucker

Times have changed as has the Democratic party. This institution is not the same political organization as existed in my youth some 60 years ago. It no longer speaks to my people either ethically nor politically. It is not that my views or values have changed but rather the Democratic party has redirected its focus to an alien place that is antagonistic to everything my youth admired and craved for. What better example then to see that "G-d and Jerusalem" were deleted from the the initial platform of the Democratic party this last convention. What other sovereign nation in the world is denied the right to name its' own capital? Anti-Israel has become the code word for anti-Semitism and every Jew in the United States must understand this whether they are proponents of Israel or not. To the Nazi government it did not matter whether you were a practicing Jew or a Jewish denier. you walked hand and hand into the gas chambers side by side.

Yet the majority of Jewish voters are still very much in the camp of the present day Democratic party. Is there a lack of critical thinking? Is there a sense of misplaced guilt? Is it a matter of inertia? I do not have the answers. What I do know is that all of us are living in perilous times. Whether Zionist or not, the fate of Israel is inexorably tied up with the fate of Jews world wide. Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe concomitant with the growth of the ISlamic communities in France, the Low Countries, England and Germany.

I am not certain what a Republican victory would mean for the future of the United States. I do know however what the present path means and that scares me beyond adequate words. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

Lot's of wasted words. There is no "occupation." Yehuda and Shomron are historically Jewish areas, which included vibrant Jewish communities that existed until being wiped out in 1948. Israel re-took those areas after being threatened with anhilation in 1967 and begging Jordan to stay out of the war. Jordan lost that war, and subsequently relinquished any claim to those lands. The most one can say is that those areas are disputed, but that certainly does not lead to the conclusion that they must be judenrein or that areas currently under Israeli control must be given away in order to fulfill some misguided ethical imperative and certainly not to enhance security.

A very polite and well-reasoned debate that is so fraught with artistic turns of the phrase that it gets lost in its own rhetoric. More visceral and gut-wrenching voices need to be heard. This is clearly a "Shas HaD'chak" - an emergency situation. This world, unfortunately, has a history of burying its head in the sand when it comes to taking on those who threaten to annihilate the Jews. The polite parlor room voices in this article are fiddling while Rome burns. We need to hear more clear, direct and strident voices - to paraphrase Dennis Miller last night on O'Reilly . . . This is Israel, the Jews we are talking about, for crying out loud! They are our best friends and allies in the entire world . . . let's stop screwing around with them and put it to Iran!

both sides make really good points. but i cant help but wonder, that if israel makes peace with the palastinians first, iran will have to stop threating israel or become isolated, because other arab countries will make peace with israel. but what disappoints me the most is that Iran is not just a threat to israel. what ever happened to creating a world free of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. the world does not need anymore nuclear powers.. especially radical nuclear powers who are stuck in a 2000 year religious war(shia v sunni v. jews). it is just a shame that israel is the only country that is making this point. thus the issue of a nuclear iran is bigger than the israeli/palastinian conflict.

The Arab Initiative offered Israel normalization of relations with all Arab Countries for a return to the 67 boundaries and a just resolution to the Palestinian refugees. A just resolution does not need to include a "right of return". Why has Israel ignored this, as this would make any Iranian threat moot? Israel's non-response to the initiative demonstrates that it prefers territorial gains to normalization of relations with it neighbors. Why are the two sides making retorical responses to each other, instead of addressing real issues that can provide security for Israel?

The very fact the Yehuda Kurtzer can refer to what, at worst, was an attack by a group of street hooligans against Arab youth as an Israeli "abuse of power" as if this were some Government ordered action, is of itself an obscenity and symptomatic of the twisted reasoning of liberal American Jews. As well, I question the refusal, even on Yossi's part to at least express vestigial understanding of any Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria.
JJ Gross

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