There’s a media drumbeat growing for Barack Obama to treat the Israeli leadership like addicts: stop waiting for them to help themselves, recognize that they are powerless to do it on their own and start telling them what they must do if they want to save their nation. It’s a faint drumbeat now, but you can hear it if you try and you can count on it to grow.
Robert Wright, a blogger on New York Times.com, urges Obama to support a UN move to “create a Palestinian state now … define the borders, set the timetable.” Wright knows that a UN plan will be, in effect, a US plan, since the Security Council can act only with US approval. So, he recommends a column by Daniel Levy, who sees the breakdown of direct negotiations as an opportunity for a more constructive approach: “Wiser heads in Israel, in America and in the pro-Israel community inside America [are] advocating an assertive US push for peace … a US plan … deploying US leverage.”
In Israel, prominent peace educator Gershon Baskin wants the administration to bring Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to the US “for intensive negotiations for as long as it takes, with the US mediator setting the agenda, assigning tasks and drafting the agreement.” Israeli analyst Avi Isacharoff sees it coming: “If Netanyahu does not show willingness for a historic compromise, then he is expected to receive Obama’s framework for a solution, which the sides will have to accept or refuse.”
An Israeli “senior government official” sees it coming too: When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the US will “offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate,” he’s convinced that “the bridging plan is in fact a peace plan.”
But few progressives seem to expect a US plan. Most agree with Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, who argues that since Obama was “unable to get Israel to bite on a temporary freeze on settlements,” he is now “further than ever from his goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace during his first term and bereft of a coherent strategy to achieve it.”
Both sides in this debate are right. Obama could and should present his own plan; his administration is edging slowly and cautiously in that direction – but so slowly and cautiously that it looks like no movement at all. Why should Obama resist using his power – and he does have power over Israel – to get the peace deal that he says is his number one foreign policy goal?
The obvious answer is his fear of the much-dreaded “Israel lobby” – which should actually be called the “Israel can do no wrong lobby,” to distinguish it from the rising pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby. J Street, the most prominent pro-Israel, pro-peace group, is now calling for pressure on the administration to focus on mapping the borders of the new Palestinian state. And “if the sides are not able to reach agreement on borders within a specified time period,” says J Street, the US should present a proposal of its own. There’s that faint drumbeat again.
But still so faint, still leaving the question, Why does the “Israel can do no wrong lobby” strenuously resist the very idea of a US peace plan? The answer they give is that the parties should be left to work out their own peace, with no foreign interference. Translation: Let Israel go on dominating Palestinians forever, because “the Palestinians” (or, some still say, “the Arabs”) pose such a grave “existential” threat of destroying the Jewish state.
Israel, with infinitely greater military power than any of its neighbors, afraid it will be destroyed by the powerless Palestinians? That’s about as reasonable as an NFL linebacker worrying that the little girl next door will beat him up. Too many Jews “have moved into the realm of paranoia,” as Israeli historian Daniel Gavron writes in Newsweek.
What a sign of change in the US mass media that Newsweek would publish Gavron’s column. It’s as startling as The New York Times publishing, a year ago, an op-ed by Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, labeling fear of another Holocaust as “pathological.”
Zionist theologian Emil Fackenheim once praised what he called the Israelis’ “Holocaust psychosis,” their penchant for seeing all opposition to Israel as Nazi-like anti-Semitism. He called on Jews everywhere to adopt that view because, he claimed, they would then fulfill God’s command to support Israeli military violence in order to prevent another Holocaust.
If these writers have it right, then many US Jews, especially politically powerful Jews, are afflicted by a psychiatric malady and that’s why Obama is not offering his own plan and map for peace.
Yet, while many Jews do stress fear of another Holocaust, many (sometimes the very same people) insist that they have other, more powerful motives for supporting Israel’s right-wing policies.
Indeed they do – though not, I suspect, the motives that they claim. When we are dealing with fear, the layers go deeper and deeper and it’s often the outsider who can see them most clearly. (Why else would we pay psychotherapists all that money?)
But who would ever have thought that we’d be guided into those deeper layers by a famous anti-Semite like Richard Nixon? Well, truth does turn up in unexpected places, like the recently released tape on which Nixon says, “It’s the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things.”
I would have dismissed such a sweeping generalization as mere bigotry if I had not come across the quote in an article by a popular writer on Jewish moral values, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, with the revealing title, “On Nixon’s Allegation That the Jews Have No Pride.” For Boteach, apparently, being insecure and having to prove things equals having no pride. He went on to explain: “It’s simply not news that Jews often seek non-Jewish legitimacy.”
In other words, his argument goes, Jews are often insecure about how gentiles view them. That’s why they feel they have to prove their legitimacy. That feeling is proof that these Jews lack pride. And lack of pride, this expert on Jewish values claims, is a grave sin: “Which is why, even as an Orthodox Jew, I believe passionately that Jewish pride is more important than Jewish observance. Jewish self-esteem is the body within which the soul of Jewish observance must reside.”
Boteach finds what he thinks is a happy ending, though: “A prouder, less insecure generation of Jews is replacing us. …They fight for Israel on campus, even when marginalized for doing so.”
Which just goes to show – and I never thought I would ever write these words – Nixon was right, sort of. Some Jews (emphasis on “some”), like Boteach and the fighting students he admires, do feel they have to prove things. Their obsession with Jewish pride and self-esteem shows that they are actually just as insecure as their ancestors – perhaps even more so, because what they fear is not physical harm, but the psychological pain of doubting their own worth.
On the very day Boteach’s gloss on Nixon was published, two columns appeared in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, dealing with the same issue. Both urged the Israeli government not to apologize to Turkey for killing nine Turks on a ship headed toward Gaza last May. And both gave the same reason: national honor.
“The notion of ‘honor’ characterizes backward cultures and believe me that talking about ‘Jewish honor’ makes me feel unwell. It smells of primitivism and even of fascism,” Assaf Wohl admitted. However, he concluded, there’s something more important than such moral sensitivity: “If we wish to survive here, we need to conduct ourselves this way vis-à-vis some states and societies. They must internalize that Jews too have respect.”
At the very birth of Zionism, the first great Zionist writer, Leo Pinsker, based his argument for Zionism on the need for Jews to have respect – not from the gentiles (who would always despise Jews, he assumed), but from themselves. “You are despicable,” he told his fellows Jews, “because you have no real self-esteem and no national self-respect.”
The lack of self-esteem, the fear of being weak and thus unworthy, is what now haunts Israeli right wingers. “For some years now, Israel had been conducting itself in the world like a typical weakling at school who conveys a sense of desperation, pleading with others: ‘Love me, even though I’m not worth it.'” Uri Elitzur wrote, explaining why Israel should not apologize. “And just like a typical weakling, Israel is subjected to growing disparagement and sustains one slap in the face after another…. When it comes to the global political jungle, as is the case among prisoners at a violent jailhouse, honor is a substantive, top-priority interest.”
The same fear of weakness, leading to the same obsession with pride and self-esteem, drives the “Israel can do no wrong” lobby in the US, too. I know, because I grew up with these people. It’s impressive how many Jews have escaped from this psychological trap and can support Israel out of emotional strength – which means supporting rapid moves toward a two-state solution, by any agency that can make it happen, including the US government.
It’s depressing, though, to see that the Jews who remain trapped in insecurity, having to prove their self-worth by showing their strength, still have the president of the United States politically trapped, too. Sure, I’d like to see Obama break out of that trap on his own, just because he wants to do the right thing. But his profession is politics. He and the world measure his professional success by his ability to win elections.
It’s really we, the people of the United States, who let ourselves remained trapped by the fears and insecurities of a small, but powerful, group of Jews in our midst. As long as we go on this way, we have reason to doubt our own self-esteem. When enough of us demand that our own government assert itself to end the long-standing injustice in the Middle East, we will make it politically safe for the president to do just that, and we can feel proud.