It was the first AIPAC conference that I ever attended and it was probably one of the most talked about ones in the press, and in capitals around the world, leaving me speechless, not because I had nothing to say, I just didn’t know how to articulate the state of flux I was left in. The conference limned President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but before either of them appeared at the conference they were engulfed in controversy stemming from the Obama State Department speech on the Arab Spring as well as Netanyahu’s rebuttal the following Friday morning. The presentations of Obama and Netanyahu each represented contrasting views of Jewish history, Zionism and the Jewish psyche as well as highlighted the polar differences within the Jewish community. The issues surrounding the approach to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians as expressed by these two tectonic leaders crystallized two different worldviews.
I was stunned at the emotional whirlwind I found myself in during the two and a half day policy conference and its powerful undertow in its aftermath. There were times that I understood and appreciated what Obama was trying to present, believing in his sincerity and genuine will to be the peacemaker who brought the struggle between two people to a reasonable conclusion requiring great sacrifice on both sides culminating in a two state solution. The current status quo is unsustainable and Israel is becoming more and more isolated. At other times I was a convinced that Bibi’s approach, that which required Israel to hang tough even at the displeasure of the president was the wiser path: it was the path that a determined people who suffered indignation, rejection and persecution at the hand of its neighbors and enemies for too long would no longer suffer again by being placed in such a tenuous and precarious position. Never mind that the status quo was unsustainable, our righteousness would prevail. Perhaps we would suffer from isolation but that too was temporary: the world we live in is so fluid, changing from minute to minute. Perhaps world opinion would shift once again in favor of Israel due to other yet unknown world circumstances. Who would have predicted one year ago the nature of the Arab spring of 2011; and we aren’t even sure of its outcome and how that will impact on the Middle East? Thus crucial life and death decisions affecting the state ought to be decided upon by principles not expediency.
On each side of these two contrasting world visions the Jewish community has chosen sides. In a fairly simplistic way one could say that those more conservative, less trusting and more obsessive with Israel’s security were those that support Benjamin Netanyahu’s position. Those who tend to be left of center, concerned with Israel’s security but willing to try hard compromise because of their need to be champions of social justice and global human rights lined up behind Obama. Anyone desperate for peace at any cost, wishing to satisfy their urgent obsession for social justice couldn’t resist the Obama approach. On the other hand those that are less trusting of other governments and promises are more concerned with Israel’s survival, stand firmly behind Netanyahu not discount human rights, but believing that Israel’ security is foremost and trumps human rights.
While AIPAC’s role isn’t to take sides but to lobby for Israel’s security, one couldn’t help but take sides at a conference where the issues were so clear-cut. For those people with a clear vision of how the future should look the issues are fairly straightforward. It is those caught in between who have the most difficult finding a pathway that would bridge these two competing views. The issues for this group are the following: The status quo isn’t sustainable simply because of the demographic time bomb resulting from the high growth rate among Arabs versus Jews who are experiencing low birthrate. The status quo isn’t sustainable because they can’t justify Israel as occupiers, ruling the lives of millions of people in the absence of a democratic process applied to them. The status quo isn’t sustainable because the painful prospect of seeing Israel isolated more every day is detrimental to her existence; a manifestation of this isolation will be the vote in the UN this September, which will encourage those seeking BDS.
At the conference it was clear to me that Benjamin Netanyahu received enormous warm support as opposed to Obama whose reception was tepid. Add to that the support that Congress afforded to Netanyahu was a repudiation of the Obama approach. On the other hand, when I turned to the Israeli press I was smitten once again with the doubt of the wisdom of Bibi’s approach. The arguments coming out of the Israeli press was compelling to say the least, limned by the fact that these opinions were being proffered by those who had the most to loose – Israelis living in the land. One of the most compelling arguments put forward was that it didn’t really matter who was right and who was wrong. Nor did it matter if our security was a little better or a little worse. What mattered was that if we were to maintain our edge as a country rooted in what was right, ethical and moral, it was up to us to find the creative means by which to offer the Palestinians a pathway to peace that would sustain both countries. It was our responsibility, not the Arabs; it was us that had to take the higher ground. Not because we would be accepted by our neighbors, or liked more by the Europeans but because it was the right thing to do.
These arguments reminded me of the message of the prophets of old which has been echoing in my mind as the strong undertow in the aftermath of the conference continued to flummox me. How can one argue with such a message? It seemed therefore that Obama’s approach was one that took the higher moral ground, the one espoused by our prophets versus the one articulated by Netanyahu: a message evoking cynicism and mistrust. But with all the good intentions of the prophets, the first commonwealth came to an ignominious end, as did the second commonwealth. Does history have anything to contribute to the issues? How are we to understand history and what are we to learn from it?
I haven’t the answers to these questions unfortunately, however I do have an observation regarding the left’s quick rush to social justice and global human rights at the expense of Israel: It would appear that we Jews have a genetic predisposition that has been the seeds of our destruction at times, and at other times have actually helped us prevail when the odds were against us. Our sense of social justice in some quarters tends to trump our own survival. Thus there are rabbis in the liberal community that fast for the downtrodden Gazans being crushed under the Israeli boot and support BDS. On the other hand there were times that our sense of social justice was precisely the cause that gave us hope and inspiration, to transcend and to be transformed. The trick today is to determine which is it for us?