Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Does it Mean to be "Pro-Israel" in the Age of Trump?

The election of Donald Trump and his nomination of David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel portends a new phase in the U.S.-Israel relationship. During the campaign, President Trump boasted that he will be the most “pro-Israel” president in history. But what does that mean? In the case of Trump, it appears to mean paying little deference to past efforts at diplomacy and long-standing U.S. policy. Thus, Trump repeatedly criticized the U.S. government’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which re-affirmed international support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemned Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory as illegal and detrimental to peace. Many of Trump’s advisers and supporters openly questioned the idea of pursuing a two-state solution. The 2016 Republican Party platform eliminated any mention of a two-state solution. Iowa congressman Steve King (R-IA), an early Trump supporter, said that the two-state solution “has run its course.” 

The Israeli right rejoiced at Trump’s election. Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party in Israel, stated, “Trump’s victory is a tremendous opportunity for Israel to immediately announce its intention to renege on the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country. . . . The era of the Palestinian state is over.” In recent months, there has been increasing talk of “Greater Israel” and a one-state solution. At a joint press conference in Washington earlier this week, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in verbal somersaults to avoid endorsing a two-state solution. Netanyahu heaped public praise on Trump and the new direction in U.S.-Israel relations: “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump."

Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, a lawyer from Long Island with no foreign policy experience, has long supported the Israeli settlement movement and annexation of the West Bank. In an article he wrote for Arutz Sheva, he accused President Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” and described supporters of the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street as “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” When he was later asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic to clarify what may be among the vilest statements one Jew can say of another, Friedman said of liberal Zionists, “They’re not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel.” Although he attempted to tone down these past statements at his confirmation hearing last week, there is little doubt as to his true sentiments.

So, what does it mean to be “pro-Israel” in the Age of Trump? Does it require unquestioning acceptance of the policies of the current Israeli government (or at least no public criticism)? What about the contrary views of a majority of Israeli citizens? Should not the term “pro-Israel” be reserved to those who support policies that are in the long-term interests of Israel, its security, and its status as a Jewish and democratic state? For those of us who care about the future of the Jewish state and of liberal Zionism, is it right to worry about where the Trump-Netanyahu alliance is headed? Is there any realistic alternative to a two-state solution?

Before his tragic assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood that the visionary ideals of Israel’s Zionist founders, of a free and democratic Jewish state, remained in constant tension with the more expansionist religious and nationalistic claims to a Greater Israel. As the first Israeli-born Prime Minister who had fought for Israel’s survival and performed heroically in defending Israel during the Six-Day War, Rabin understood that the future of his beloved country, and of Zionism itself, could not withstand a permanent military occupation of land populated by millions of Palestinians.  

“Israel is no longer a people that dwells alone,” he said in 1992, alluding to the burdens of occupation. Rabin knew that to achieve peace great leaders must be willing to negotiate and compromise with their enemies. Even when destructive forces are determined to sabotage the peace process, Rabin said, “We must think differently, look at things in a different way.”

Rabin set Israel firmly on course to pursuit of a two-state solution, believing it was the only way to guarantee that Israel remained both Jewish and democratic. It is a framework that continues to be supported by two-thirds of Israeli Jews, according to a recent poll commissioned by J Street in Israel. The poll, conducted by a highly respected Israeli pollster on January 8-9, 2017, found that 66% of Israeli Jews and 68% of Israelis overall continue to support a two-state solution. Even 62% of Likud voters favor a two-state solution. These results should not be surprising. For those who live in Israel, the complex reality of life on the ground compels sensitivity to the tenuous nature of the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state.

The two-state solution is also overwhelmingly endorsed by former leaders of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, a group of experts who can hardly be accused of insufficiently understanding Israel’s security needs. Indeed, it is precisely out of concern for Israel’s long-term security that these military and intelligence experts support two states for two peoples.

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu has at times paid lip service to a two-state solution, in eight years he has made no serious effort to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict and has repeatedly defied U.S. policy by expanding the number of settlements in the West Bank. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently told The Axe Files, Netanyahu is “now the father of one-State Israel;... the Prime Minister of Israel-Palestine.” Friedman (the journalist) noted that the Israeli-right wants three things: (1) a state that encompasses all the land of Greater Israel (including all or most of the land encompassing East Jerusalem and the West Bank), (2) a Jewish state, and (3) a democratic state. In reality, given existing demographics and current birth rates, only two of these choices are achievable. Israel can have all the land of Greater Israel and be Jewish, but not democratic. Israel can have all the land of Greater Israel and be democratic, but not Jewish. Or Israel can be Jewish and democratic, but not have all the land of Greater Israel. These options are clearly delineated and immovable.

As the J Street-Israel poll demonstrates, most Israelis understand that Israel can remain true to its Jewish and democratic character only if it seeks a secure Israel within internationally recognized borders, side-by-side with a demilitarized Palestinian state. Any other solution is effectively the end of liberal Zionism. To be truly pro-Israel is to care about the long-term future of the Jewish state and to seek an Israel that permanently preserves its Zionist ideals and democratic traditions, while respecting the humanity and equality of Palestinians. The two-state solution is the only realistic path to a permanent peace that preserves Israel's Jewish and democratic character. Supporting the two-state solution, as do a majority of Israelis, is the most pro-Israel position one can take.

Admittedly, peace with the Palestinians may be a long way off. The Palestinians have a lot to do to get their own house in order. They must overcome incompetent and corrupt leadership, the Fatah-Hamas divide, and continued attempts by Hamas and others to de-legitimize Israel. But Israel's true supporters will continue to insist on policies (including cessation of West Bank settlements) that help preserve a Jewish homeland as a viable democracy within secure borders. Any resolution other than one that results in Israel and the Palestinians living side-by-side within internationally recognized borders irreparably undermines a future of peaceful co-existence and of Israel as a democratic homeland of the Jewish people.

I have no confidence that President Trump understands what is truly at stake in all of this. Some of his public comments ("I am looking at two-states or one state... I can live with either one") demonstrate a baffling degree of ignorance. But the question remains: Will Israel remain true to its Jewish and democratic values as it searches for a solution to its regional conflicts? We know where the majority of Israelis stand. I only hope that America under President Trump will remain pro-Israel in the truest sense of that term and not seek to undermine the majority sentiment of this Jewish and democratic nation.

Friday, January 27, 2017

An Act of Quiet Contemplation: Why Reading Matters

In 1968, when I was nine years old, my parents gave me the Prentice Hall paperback edition of From Ghetto to Glory by Bob Gibson, the great starting pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals. Although I was attracted to the book’s front cover, which displayed a picture of Gibson on the pitcher’s mound mid-delivery, From Ghetto to Glory was the first book I ever read from cover to cover. It was not great literature, or necessarily great writing, but it allowed me, a white suburban kid from central New Jersey, to better understand the inner life and struggles of a young, proud, black man in 1960’s America. Born into extreme poverty in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Great Depression, Gibson’s modest book described his coming of age as a ballplayer during an era of Jim Crow and segregation, and later, civil unrest and black power, when America was awakened from its history of racial oppression. By taking the time to read his story, I learned to look at the world from another person’s viewpoint, and gained in knowledge and empathy what I lost in my own narrow experience. Simply reading this one book made me a better person. In a small but significant way, it changed my life.

I was struck by the indispensable role books have played throughout my life when reading the recent interview of President Obama by New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani. Seven days before departing the White House, Obama sat down with Kakutani and discussed how reading had nourished and strengthened his tenure as President. “Not since Lincoln has there been a president fundamentally shaped – in his life, convictions and outlook on the world – by reading and writing as Barack Obama,” noted Kakutani. “During his eight years in the White House – in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions – books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.” There is something comforting in knowing that our nation’s leaders, at least until now, have taken books and the ideas they convey seriously.

For President Obama, reading about history helped him evaluate how past presidents handled major crises or navigated through difficult times – Lincoln during the Civil War or Franklin Roosevelt in World War II. Reading literature and fiction helped him to think broadly about humanity and the world. Obama has “a writer’s sensibility,” writes Kakutani, “an ability to be in the moment while standing apart as an observer, a novelist’s eye and ear for detail, and a precise but elastic voice capable of moving easily between the lyrical and the vernacular and the profound.” It is yet one more reason why I love the 44th president.

Books allow us to slow down and develop a sense of perspective. A good book opens our eyes to the complexities of the human race, the follies and frailties of life, the dark acts of cruelty and gracious acts of kindness. Books help us escape into another world and share with our children, as I once did, the seven books of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Reading about the trials and tribulations of Harry, Ron, and Hermione led to discussions with my daughters about trust and friendship, prejudice and evil, courage and the fear of death.

Classic non-fiction books like Night by Elie Wiesel or The Diary of Anne Frank can help us develop empathy and experience life from someone else’s shoes. To understand where other people come from, to learn of their dreams and aspirations, their hopes and fears, expose our common humanity. Regardless of one’s politics or religion, a touching novel or moving story shows that we are all part of the human race, we breathe the same air and inhabit the same planet; that our destinies are tied together.

Books are fundamentally about engagement, for they place us in the arena and allow us to experience another place and time through the lenses of another life. Through language and narrative, a good writer transports her readers into the emotional lives of her characters. I love giving and receiving books as gifts, because to select the right book for someone else requires time and thoughtfulness. Implicit in book giving is the message, “I have been thinking about you, what makes you tick, what inspires you or makes you laugh and cry. I believe this book will enrich your life.”

My two favorite rooms at home are my study, where I read, write, and think (and yeah, okay, watch a lot of Cardinals games), and the living room, which is filled with books I have collected and read through the years. Whenever I enter someone’s house, I can tell immediately by their books (or lack thereof) how well we are likely to get along, and where the conversation may ultimately be headed. Good readers make good conversationalists, for a world enriched by books is a world filled with ideas and thoughts that touch the heart and mind, that move us, make us think, question assumptions, and give us the tools to evaluate the events of history and trajectories of life.

Books allow us to enter intimately into the lives of our subjects. Although I tend toward non-fiction, there is nothing like a good novel to escape into another world. My interest in Judaism and Jewish history was born in The Chosen by Chaim Potok, which led me to My Name is Asher Lev, Davita’s Harp, and Potok’s other wonderful novels that explore the tension between tradition and modernity, love and obligation. For me, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald remains one of the great American novels, whose moral dimensions and social commentary are as relevant today as in the Gilded Age of the 1920’s. Trinity by Leon Uris helped me understand modern Irish history and the fundamental causes of the Catholic-Protestant divide. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean continues to offer quiet moments of beauty and contemplation.

And yet, I am mostly drawn to biographies and memoirs, history, religion and politics, and long-form journalism. I have loved most everything written by David Halberstam during his lifetime, including The Powers that Be, about the growth of the major media empires, Breaks of the Game, about professional basketball, and The Fifties, about the social, cultural, political, and economic trends of a seminal decade in American history. Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remains to this day the single best biography I have ever read. An incredibly well written book rich with insight, Schlesinger masterfully explains Kennedy’s evolution and growth as a man and a politician within the context of the 1950s and 1960s. David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama is for me the definitive work on Obama’s pre-presidential life, just as David Maraniss’s First in His Class captured Bill Clinton’s early life and career. These books are good not simply because their subjects are interesting, but because they are written beautifully and help us think and feel with the people we are endeavoring to know better.

I could go on about the many books that have influenced my thinking and intellectual development during the course of my life. It is one reason I so much enjoyed the movie Liberal Arts, a quiet film about Jesse, a 35 year-old college admissions officer in New York who longs for the days when he studied literature at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. In one scene near the film’s end, he meets Ana, his future love interest who works in a New York book store. He soon discovers that he and Ana share a love of books:

Ana: I love books. I do, in like the dorkiest way possible.
Jesse: Oh, me too. It's a problem.
Ana: Like, I love trees cause they give us books.
Jesse: Super cool of the trees to do that, Right?
Ana: I'm actually... this is weird. I'm actually trying to read less.
Jesse: Why?
Ana: I felt like I wasn't watching enough television. No, l just started to feel like reading about life was taking time away from actually living life, so I'm trying to, like, accept invitations to things, say "hi" to the world a little more.

When Jesse asks how Ana's increased socializing is working out, Ana reluctantly admits that, on most occasions, she would really rather be at home with a book. Such is the life of a good reader.

“Reading is an act of contemplation,” writes author David L. Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (2010), “perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” It is why I will continue to live life one book at a time, in a quiet corner and a comfortable chair, refreshing my spirit and recharging my mind.

Like Ana in Liberal Arts, I will always love books and thank the trees for giving them to us. For me, reading is the lifeblood of conversation, of thinking and learning and growing, one sentence, one page, one book at a time. Life is a work in progress. It always will be. A good book simply makes the journey more meaningful.