How To Talk Candidly About Israel

Categories: Israel

By Dan Fleshler

How to Talk Candidly About Israel

Steven Wise Free Synagogue

New York, NY

June 21, 2007

What follows is slightly expanded version of remarks made by Dan Fleshler, who was on a panel with Anne Roiphe and Philip Weiss. The moderator was JJ Goldberg. The event was co-sponsored by Ameinu and Meretz USA. This is the written text, which was not delivered in its entirety due to time constraints:

Let me start by establishing my street cred as someone who has been speaking out against the Israeli occupation and some Israelis policies for years.

On the current web site of the Forward, there is an article by Rebecca Spence about the vitriol in the Jewish blogosphere. Someone named “Jenny” has commented:

Dan Fleshler is just another anti-Israel leftwing wombat willing to sacrifice Israeli civilians for his deluded idea of how to achieve “peace”. He’s willing to fight to the last Israeli to give “palestinians” what they want. He seeks to get the US to treat the Middle East “even-handedly”, meaning allow the Arabs to destroy Israel…. He clothes his pro-jihad politics with chants about being “progressive”. Israelis who shoot back embarrass him.

I’ve been called a self-hating Jew and other names before, but this is the first time anyone has compared me to a wombat, which is a burrowing animal from Australia that eats bugs. Now that is a badge of honor.

Tonight we are talking about the obstacles to candid conversation about Israel. And it is well known that American Jews and other Americans who criticize Israeli policies are often lambasted by people like Jenny. Anne Roiphe just talked about the right wing muzzlers quite eloquently.

But there are other forms of muzzling. Right wing Jewish activists are just one of the obstacles to more open, public conversation about Israel, which is a conversation that I want to happen. I’ll get to those other obstacles in a moment.

But first, I want to ask, what’s the point of this conversation about a conversation? If we were just talking to provoke or entertain or even educate, I wouldn’t be participating. I’m here because what we say about Israel in public, and how we say it, has political consequences. The rhetoric about the occupation and about Israel, including rhetoric on the blogosphere, doesn’t exist in a pristine, intellectual vacuum.

What we choose to say about Israel shapes the political environment in which American policy-makers operate. And Americans who openly criticize Israeli policies and want to change America’s Middle East policies are helping to set that political context.

Let me do a little left-wing cartography here. There are, broadly, two camps of activists who are left-of-center on this issue. One question that lingers in the air these days is, “Is it possible for these camps to make common cause? Is it a waste of time for people in both camps to talk to each other?” I am, frankly, not sure. But I hope one reason we are gathered here to tonight is to at least start addressing those questions, to determine if we can possibly speak the same language.

People in both camps believe the Israeli occupation needs to end and Israel settlement expansion needs to stop, once and for all. Both want to help end Palestinian suffering. Both are equally appalled when Palestinians at checkpoints need to wait for hours to move from one village to another within the West Bank.

But the first camp, my camp, includes people who care deeply about the Jewish state and want it to survive and thrive. We support the Israeli peace camp, the so-called Zionist left. For years, we have believed that the two-state solution is the only way for Israelis and Palestinians to wake up from their shared nightmare. I don’t think the recent civil war in the Gaza Strip has changed that conviction, although it has certainly made our work much more complicated.

My camp doesn’t just include Jewish peace groups like Ameinu and Meretz, USA. It also includes Arab American groups like American Task Force on Palestine. It includes Churches for Middle East Peace and other relatively moderate church groups. All of us want to be sure that America is more actively engaged without selling either Israelis or Palestinians down the river.

The second camp, broadly speaking, is either unwilling to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or it is agnostic about it. This camp contains a large, vocal contingent who believe the very concept of a Jewish state is inherently evil, that Israel is a criminal state, and there is no way to redeem it.

The first camp wants to make Israel better. The second contains people who are quite willing for the Jewish state to disappear. It also includes those who won’t commit themselves to publicly supporting a 2-state solution, who devote their time to fighting the occupation without committing themselves to a specific end-game. United for Peace and Justice and Jewish Voices for Peace are in this category.

Let me drill down just a little deeper. Within the second camp, there are a considerable number of pragmatists. There are people who, in their heart of hearts, acknowledge that Israel is here to stay. They understand the Jewish state is not going to disappear, and that some accommodation needs to be made with it…even though they may not believe it has any moral justification. Many of them do support a two-state solution but have chosen, for tactical reasons, not to push for it. Jewish Voices for Peace, for example, includes people like that. I may be a minority in my own camp, but I believe it is possible to make common cause with some of these pragmatists. There are issues and political goals that we can agree on.

But right now, the two camps are in conflict. And that conflict is the context for today’s panel.

I looked up the word “candor” in my OED. It comes from Latin “candidus” –and has the same root as “candle.” It originally had a connotation of something bright, something clear, something that shed light on the truth. To be candid about a person does not necessarily mean that you say anything and everything you happen to feel about them. The best kind of candid talk is honest, but it has a positive purpose, it is productive.

That is not the kind of candor we are hearing lately from much of the anti-Zionist or anti-Israel left these days.

I’ll give you a few examples of rhetoric from people who want to be candid, who think they are helping to end Palestinian suffering, protect human rights and fight oppression. And then I’ll explain why I believe they are harming their own cause. Here are some examples of destructive candor:

Item 1: At the anti-occupation rally in Washington two weeks ago, some of the signs read “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” and “All Israel is Occupied Territory.”

Item 2: Tammy Shapiro, who runs the student group, Union of Progressive Zionists, tells me that on many American campuses these days, if you want to be accepted by the so-called progressive community or work against the war in Iraq, you literally have to say something nasty about Israel. You have to be destructively candid. Students who object to many Israeli policies are getting ostracized if they say anything the least bit positive about Israel.

Item 3: I recently Googled “Israelis are Nazis.” There were about 1 million, 130 thousand entries. From my random sample, close to half of them were asserting precisely what I’d entered into my search engine: the Israelis are no better than Nazis, Palestinians live in concentration camps, they are victims of genocidal policies meant to destroy them as a people.

This kind of rhetoric is not new. One could hear it from the New Left in the 1970s. . What’s different today is it is increasingly fashionable. It is not produced by a few fringe characters. It is spewed all over the blogosphere. Tamer versions of these assertions are published in academic papers. And, all too often, more responsible people on the left are reluctant to criticize them.

My purpose here is not to argue on the merits and dispute these assertions. I find them offensive but even if I didn’t, I would find them politically tone deaf. I would believe they are harming the cause of peace.

If there are people in this audience who believe Israelis are no better than Nazis, it’s a waste of time for me to argue with you. But I do want to point out that you are not helping the Palestinian people, with this rhetoric. Neither are more moderate lefties, the pragmatists, who might cringe at what you’re saying but don’t do enough to stop you. You are not going to end the occupation or help Palestinian refugees with this rhetoric.

Instead, you are actually inhibiting criticism of Israel, not encouraging it. And, in the long run, you are hurting the Palestinian people. Here is why:

One reason I care about this rhetoric is that my camp has a very concrete, very specific political objective. We want to create an atmosphere in which American policy makers have the political leeway to jump into the fray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without looking over their shoulders and fearing the reactions of the organized American Jewish community.

We think the only way this conflict can possibly end is for the U.S. to have the ability to criticize both sides when necessary. To lean on both sides, rather than just one side. To present sticks and carrots to both sides.

So what does that have to do with our topic this evening? It has everything to do with it.

American policy makers will not take a balanced diplomatic approach unless they get vocal support from more left-of-center American Jews who don’t feel that AIPAC speaks for them. That’s the political reality, like it or not. And now comes my most important point:

American Jews will be much less likely to speak out for evenhanded diplomacy if think they are playing into the hands of a hard-core left wing that wants Israel to disappear.

They will be much less likely to raise a peep about the occupation if they believe they are just contributing to a chorus of people who either enhance or ignore outright anti-Semitism.

That is why the vitriol of the anti-Israel left is an obstacle to peace.

We need to activate American college kids who care about Israel and also care deeply about human rights and justice.

We need to wake up the sleepy, silent, confused American Jewish majority that just doesn’t get actively engaged on this issue. Above all, we need American Jews who are involved in the mainstream organizations to stop muzzling themselves. To object more forcefully to Israeli policies that appall them. To stop publicly backing targeted assassinations but privately rooting for Meretz.

There are many, varied reasons for the reluctance of the American Jewish majority to stop forward and make their voices heard. But that is the psychological reality that helps to shape the political reality. So, the last thing anyone who has a problem with the occupation should do is give American Jews even MORE reasons to keep quiet.

And too much of the far left, the anti-Zionist left, ignores this reality.

I mentioned the A-word, anti-Semitism, and want to come back to that now. Because there is another form of destructive candor that not only inhibits criticism of Israel, it is frightening.

Criticism of Israel can be harsh without being anti-Semitic. Criticism of American Jews can be brutal without being anti-Semitic. I’ve been harsh and sometimes even brutal when talking about both. Remember, I’ve been called a “self-hating Jew” much more frequently than I’ve been called an “anti-Israel wombat.” But critics of Israel and its lobbyists need to be aware of the historical forces they are playing with. They need to take care not to fling around casual accusations that would make Henry Ford happy.

There is a whole industry now devoted to exposing AIPAC and the Israel lobby as a bunch of powerful fifth columnists, who, for the sake of a foreign power, have hijacked American foreign policy. My fellow panelist and old friend Philip Weiss has joined this industry. They all post on the same blogs and talk to each other and refer to each other. They are like a cabal of cabal-watchers.

Now, of course there is a lot of truth in some frequently voiced accusations against the Israeli lobby. Mearsheimer and Walt got a lot of things wrong, but they also got a lot of things right. I’ve been trying to undermine and counter-act that lobby for the last 25 years. So, believe me, I’ve seen firsthand how AIPAC and its allies have imposed constraints on what Presidents think they can get away with in the Middle East. I know how they strike fear in the hearts of Congressional Reps who might want to criticize it.

But what is happening is that valid criticisms are quickly being transformed into a wholly imaginary case for Jewish control of just about everything… from the White House to the foreclosure of small farms.

For example, it is not just a few Jewish neo-cons from the Bush Administration who are being blamed for promoting a war in Iraq mainly for Israel’s sake. It is not just the few American Jewish organizations who actively pushed for the invasion –and there really were very few that did so. It is the entire pro-Israel, American Jewish community that is being held responsible.

The pros- and cons- of the “War-for-Israel” theory are still being debated. I don’t happen to think there is much to that theory, but we don’t have enough time here to weigh and measure it. What is important to me is that those who propose it clearly understand the history of anti-Semitism when they make their case.

There has been a virus in Western history for thousands of years. It’s the same virus. It often lies dormant. And then, in times of great suffering, especially in times of war, it revives and spreads. April Rosenblum has written a fascinating pamphlet on anti-Semitism on the left. It’s called “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere.” She notes that “somebody should write a pamphlet for activists about how to respond every time Jews get blamed for war. It happens so regularly you can set your watch to it.”

But listen to the casual, almost off-hand way a lefty pundit named James Blankfort sums up his evidence.

From, the perspective of the Israelis and, one must assume, the lobby, it is better that American and foreign soldiers do the shedding of blood, Iraqi and their own, rather than those of Israel, the world’s fourth largest military power.

It’s a very small step from that kind of assertion to the writings of someone like Joe Sobran, who claims:

It was once considered “anti-Semitic” to impute “dual loyalty” to Jews — that is, to assert that most American Jews divide their loyalty between the United States and Israel. This is now passé…Dual loyalty nothing! Dual loyalty would be an improvement!

You don’t need to be an expert on Jewish history to understand how easily such claims about American Jews and “the lobby” can be used to encourage people to believe in a very ancient allegation: that the notion that there is a Jewish conspiracy to control nations and turn the wheels of history.

If you completely ignore this when you “candidly” espouse the “War for Israel” theory, what you are doing is encouraging a very ancient form of oppression. Sure, intellectual inquiry should not be stifled. Poke around and look at the evidence and see if the theory holds up. But when you do, the least you should do is take the trouble to say, “Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle did not represent most American Jews. And this particular war, this Iraq war, should not be laid at the feet of the entire American Jewish community, in the way that other wars have often been blamed on Jews throughout history.”

But I never, ever, hear any of the war-for-Israel theorists say that. I never hear them acknowledge that they are venturing into dangerous, sensitive territory here. When I get on the lefty blogs and complain about that, I’m told that I’m just trying to divert attention from Israel’s crimes. I’m told that I am being over-sensitive. I’m told I am a Mossad agent, or a useful idiot for Likud.

Worst of all, I’m told that anti-Semitism is not a problem anyone should be worrying out now. Because the right wing Jewish thought police ALSO invoke anti-Semitism and use it as a weapon, anyone else who worries about it is reflexively lumped into the same category. Well, excuse me, folks. I hate the Iraq war as much as you do. I marched against it just like you did. And I’m also worried when more and people sound like they are turning to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for an explanation of the universe.

Here is how April Rosenblum analyzes the consequence of this mentality:

We often fight campaigns by making our opponents look as bad as possible. The Left doesn’t have tons or money, or muscle on Capitol Hill. One of the strengths we do have is moral power to make the other side look bad enough that the world shames them into reversing their policy. In campaigns for AIDS funding, fair housing, prison rights, you name it, one of our main tactics is to make our opponents to be cold, cruel and inhuman.

But when you use tactics like that on a group that’s historically been portrayed as evil and inhuman, where that image has been used for centuries as a tool to incite mass violence against them, you tap into a larger historical power. A power that’s bigger than the Left, and has its own momentum.

But the question remains, how should we talk about these topics? How can anyone denounce the racist behavior of Hebron’s settlers, or the route of the security barrier, in a way that is politically productive? How can anyone publicly scrutinize the conventional Israel lobby without resorting to the same ideas as classical, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists?

To change America’s approach to the Middle East, Americans who are unhappy with Israeli policies need to be able to speak frankly. We need candor that shines a light in the truth but does not do more harm than good. What are the rhetorical red lines?

It’s a very complicated, free speech issue and I certainly don’t have glib solutions.

One basic, very broad guideline that makes sense to me is to accurately describe specific actions and policies that you don’t like. Provide a critique of those actions and policies. But do not say or imply that an entire people, or an entire nation, is inherently evil.

Object fiercely when Israelis violate human rights. Reject the excuses of Israeli soldiers that they were just following orders. But your candor can become destructive when you speak and act as if you believe that Israel is the worst human rights violator in the world. Or when you throw around words like “genocide” or “holocaust” to describe current Israeli military actions. However brutal those actions might be, at times, the Israelis are not aiming to destroy an entire people.

Your candor can be destructive when you ignore or discount the many people in the Zionist left or the so-called “post-Zionist” left in Israel who are fighting against these abuses. Or when you speak and act as if most Israelis want to continue the occupation, want to maintain the current power relationship, which is simply not true.

Above all, as Rosenblum writes, “When people suggest that they see targeting of Jews in something you’re saying or doing, don’t shoot them down; seek out useful information in what they’re saying that might help you give more message more clarity and impact.”

But those are just a few among many ideas that ought to be scrutinized and discussed. We aren’t going to solve that problem this evening. I’m sorry to disappoint you. This evening’s panel is mostly devoted to raising tough questions, and starting a conversation that I hope will continue. At least I hope it will continue with the moderates and pragmatists in both camps. I can’t offer you a Ms. Left-Wing Jewish Manners Guide to lambasting the occupation. Even if I could, I’ve already run way past my allotted time.

But the first thing the left needs to do is recognize that there is a problem.

This not exactly a matter of yelling fire in a crowded theater. I want to try a different simile, a more complex one.

Right now, the theater is already on fire. It’s been burning for 100 years but now it’s engulfing the West Bank and Gaza. A band of mostly well-intentioned leftists are standing outside the building, in a circle. They are screaming loudly about who set the fire. They are assigning blame for the fire. They are protesting against it. They are demanding that the fire stop. But they are not doing anything to put it out.

Another group, my camp, comes with firefighting equipment and tries to put it out. But the people who ring the building won’t let them help. In fact, they obstruct the firefighters. They won’t let the firefighters pass. They scream, “You set the fire! Admit that you set the fire! You set the fire!” Those who are more politically sophisticated call out “Your little, pathetic hoses and ladders won’t do any good. They haven’t worked before so don’t try them.”

And meanwhile, Gaza and the West Bank keep burning. The fire is getting hotter. And I don’t see anyone else but those firefighters who have a prayer of putting it out. There needs to be many more of them.

It may well be too late. Maybe there is no hope. But what the left says about Israel can help to determine whether there is any chance to quench those flames.

About Dan Fleshler, Board Member

Dan Fleshler, a New York-based media and public affairs strategist, is a board member of Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation. His book, "Transforming America's Israel Lobby-The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change"(a new release from Potomac Books) published in May of 2009 has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. He blogs at Realistic Dove (
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