J Street: An Open Letter by Michael Omer-Man
After the Gaza Flotilla tragedy, American-Israeli Michael Omer-Man wrote the following letter to a friend in the U.S. who expressed concern about publicly criticizing Israeli policy.
I have not lived in The States for a handful of years now, so I’m no longer completely confident in my ability to gauge the direction of American or American-Jewish political leanings. I can, however, give an Israeli perspective.
In the past few years, I have seen a slow – but very significant – shift to the right in the Israeli public’s political inclinations. Before I get into the implications of that, I find it necessary to explain a thing or two about the Israeli right that most Americans fail to grasp. The Right in Israel is much further right than most American Jews are able to comprehend. They outright reject the two-state paradigm for peace and see no need to come to an agreement with the Palestinians at all. The idea of human rights doesn’t apply to non-Jews for them. I cannot tell you how disturbed I was to be invited to join several facebook groups in the past week, some of which were calling to kick out all of the Arab members of Knesset, another calling for the assassination of Arab members of Knesset. One of the largest political parties in the last election had two main propositions in their platform, one of which was to require loyalty oaths from 20% of Israel’s citizens. A law making it illegal to mention/commemorate the “Nakba” came scarily close to being passed earlier this year, and it is still a threat to freedom of speech.
All of those points are almost anecdotal, but to me, they reflect the denial that American Jews live in regarding Israel. In my (self-discredited) opinion of American Jewry, I think most believe that regardless of the day’s current events, most Israelis (and more importantly their government) are aiming towards peace at some level or another. I can no longer say that this is the case. It may be that this is a result of the disappointment from nearly two decades of failed peace processes – of which a great deal of the blame lays on the shoulders of Arafat and the Palestinians. However, today – the day that matters most – I do not see an Israeli government that is working towards, let alone is interested in, attaining peace. The “peace process” is always there because it is necessary to keep the world on our side. But the existence of a peace process is not necessarily indicative of official efforts to make/attain peace.
Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni all came to the realization – at different times – that the perpetuation of the occupation will lead to either an apartheid state or a bi-national state. Both of these situations take away one half of the “Jewish-Democratic” nature of Israel, something that is vital for the idea of Zionism that I understand and believe in. I fear that the current government does not see the urgency in dealing with these issues, or even worse, is not bothered by the outcomes.
The constantly expanding settlement enterprise is one of the policies that most devastatingly damages the prospect of Israel remaining both democratic and Jewish. They are not just putting Jews in Palestinian areas, they are making Palestinian areas Jewish; this is a huge demographic problem in the context of a Jewish democracy. The current government – a great portion of their constituents are from the settler movement – has promised that they will go back to building at full speed once the almost laughable 10-month moratorium is over. In other words, they are serious about expanding settlements, not about controlling or reigning them in. While this may seem like a small issue from the outside, it is in all actuality, one of the biggest hurdles in the way of a two-state solution. I don’t intend to go issue-by-issue to explain why I dislike Israel’s current government, but I want to make the point that Bibi’s government is not just a nudnik, they are working against peace and they’re doing it well.
The messages that are broadcast in English and the messages that are broadcast in Hebrew are very different. There has been this idea growing lately in Israel that the source of all of its problems are its bad “Hasbara” (PR/making the case for Israel). To this I say: it’s not the message, it’s the policies. That the occupation of the Palestinians has gone on for 43 years now is too much to be able to fix with better spokespeople. The flotilla incident is merely a symptom of this larger issue. While those activists may have been protesting the blockade of Gaza in this instance, for them it is all in the context of the ongoing occupation and military control over the Palestinians.
It is my opinion that American Jews are so obsessed with defending Israel’s right to exist (which is important, necessary and legitimate) that they are all too willing to overlook what Israel has become. I am in no way advocating that American Jews stop defending Israel’s right to exist. However, I think that liberal American Jews need to make the extremely difficult decision to realize that the country they are constantly defending is slowly becoming (I hope that it’s still repairable) a state which their conscious wouldn’t allow them to support were it not Jewish.
I believe that because of the direction Israel has been moving in in recent years (both the public and the governments it has elected), the only way for positive change to come about is through outside pressure. This is uncomfortable for any Jew, even those furthest on the left; we all fear the fine line between criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism. However, the reality is that if most people personally saw the effects of the occupation, they would be appalled. This is not the Israel that most American Jews support, and they are in the strongest position to affect change. It is extremely uncomfortable, but I believe it is the reality.
You mention that you believe Meretz is in the best position to provide leadership to bring change for the better to Israel. You say that you wish they had better leadership. Unfortunately, their leadership is only a very small part of the problem. Israeli society has moved to the right in a much more extreme way than most people are willing or able to understand. I just came back from a Peace Now rally, where the loudest and most prominent chant was, “Ohevim et HaMedina, Mitbayshim b’Memshala” (“We love our country, but we’re embarrassed by our government”). A police force of thousands was required to protect the participants, not from terror attacks, but from other Israelis. In the middle of the rally, a military-grade smoke grenade was thrown into the middle of the crowd. I was called a traitor for wearing a shirt that said only, “Shalom Achshav” (“Peace Now”). I was scared – not for my personal safety, but for the state of Israeli society.
I feel the need to insert the obligatory, “but the Palestinians are crazy too” statement; it is a true statement. I don’t think that there can be peace without fundamental change within the Palestinians, but we are dealing with the most palatable Palestinian governing body that the world has ever seen. American Jews need to recognize that the Israelis need to be pushed to honestly work towards peace because time is running out. American Jews are in the best position to make this clear; I believe that J Street is attempting to play this role. I completely understand and share your fear of such movements being hijacked by radical pro-Palestinian elements that deny Israel’s right to exist, but those voices will always exist – just as those Jewish voices that deny the necessity of peace will always exist. I don’t think that ongoing public demonstrations are the answer, but something has to change.
The point of all this is that the status quo is not acceptable and it is not sustainable. If American Jews truly care for the Jewish state, they need to realize this and work towards affecting change.