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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Another Jew who doesn't get it

Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, has published an article in Religious Dispatches called "Time for Jews to Abandon the Old Foundation Myth of Israel?"

The article assumes that Barack Obama's speech was a major impetus for Jews to abandon the "myths" of Israel, which he defines as
Our enemies threaten our very existence; we are wholly innocent, having done nothing at all to evoke such enmity; we will maintain our self-esteem and self-respect by inflicting enough defeats on our enemies to prove to them—and ourselves—our indomitable strength.
Chernoff offers an alternative, provided by the far-left Jews (he calls them "moderate") of "Brit Tzedek V'Shalom:
* Jews and gentiles have to live together; they are inextricably woven together in a single web of relationship, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a single garment of destiny.
* Within that web, there will inevitably be both conflict and cooperation; cooperation is perfectly possible, so it pays to make serious efforts to promote it, which means being responsive to the changing concerns of everyone else in the web.
* There are rights and wrongs done on every side; it makes no sense to measure how much blame accrues to any one side, because finger-pointing blocks the way to cooperation.
* Self-esteem comes from promoting cooperation; if self-esteem must depend on showing one’s strength (an open question), the way to show strength is to show understanding of others, respond to their concerns, and find paths of mutual benefit.
As with all reasonable-sounding arguments, one has to realize what the underlying assumptions are and where they are wrong.

Let's start with his statement of the Israeli narrative "myths."

1. "Our enemies threaten our very existence."

There are two definitions of "threaten" - a threat that is existential or one that is verbal. There is no question that our enemies do indeed verbally threaten our existence, and anyone who claims otherwise is willfully blind - just visit MEMRI or Palestinian Media Watch.

As far as whether Israel is under existential threat at the moment, the answer is probably not. The reason has everything to do with Israeli strength and nothing to do with the peaceful intentions of Israel's enemies. Any objective look at history shows that Israeli concessions have not increased its enemies' desire for peace; quite the contrary - and this applies to Egypt as well.

2. "We are wholly innocent, having done nothing at all to evoke such enmity"

This is a lazy straw-man argument. Very few Israelis would say that Israel has never done anything wrong. But Chernus' framing the argument this way implies the far less accurate viewpoint that both sides are equally right and equally wrong - a very skewed view. If one side is 90% innocent and 10% guilty that does not mean that it should be treated exactly the same as the side that states even today that their ultimate goals is the destruction of the others.

3. "We will maintain our self-esteem and self-respect by inflicting enough defeats on our enemies to prove to them—and ourselves—our indomitable strength."

This is an odd projection, apparently of Chernus' upbringing in a typical American Jewish home during the 1960s and 70s. He is confusing understandable American Jewish pride in Israel with the supposed Israeli need for "self-esteem." It is also apparently the lynchpin of his entire view of the conflict - entirely the opposite of the truth. Israel's victories are not due to a need for self-esteem; they are because of a need for self-preservation. Israel reacting to rocket fire is not to bully Hamas; it is to stop Israelis from being traumatized by Qassams. If he doesn't understand this basic fact, he doesn't understand Israel at all.

But Chernus completely ignores the huge role that pride plays in the Arab narrative. He somehow assumes that Israelis have the same honor/shame culture that Arabs do. The Arab side indeed looks at the very existence of Israel, and its inability to defeat it militarily, as an open sore on its collective psyche. To ascribe that mindset to Israelis betrays Chernus' biggest blind spot.

He cannot distinguish between national pride and the desire to shame your enemies - something that the Arab world indeed cannot distinguish between but that Israelis cannot find any relationship between. For Israelis, winning a war is a reason for pride, but pride is not a reason for waging a war.

Now we can look at Chernus' alternative myths, framed as if it is diametrically opposed to his initial assumptions of Israeli myths:

" Jews and gentiles have to live together; they are inextricably woven together in a single web of relationship, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a single garment of destiny."

It is unclear what Chernus is implying. Jews and Arabs live together in most Israeli cities. Jews live together with non-Jews in many cities worldwide. Who is saying anything otherwise? Does he think that most Israelis are Kahanists?

"Within that web, there will inevitably be both conflict and cooperation; cooperation is perfectly possible, so it pays to make serious efforts to promote it, which means being responsive to the changing concerns of everyone else in the web."

Again, is there anything in Netanyahu's speech that implies otherwise? Why is this being stated as an opposition to what most Israelis believe?

"There are rights and wrongs done on every side; it makes no sense to measure how much blame accrues to any one side, because finger-pointing blocks the way to cooperation."

The fact that there are rights and wrongs on every side does not imply that each side is equally right. These words sound soothing but they only work when both sides have a real interest in working things out - when one side is only interested in taking without giving anything in return, and the other side takes the attitude Chernus describes, the negotiations become a surrender. Israel cannot become a doormat in order to placate the Chernuses of the world. He would better spend his time trying to talk to Mahmoud Abbas - who already has said he is not interested in negotiations at all and would rather wait for Israel to be pressured to give him everything for free.

"Self-esteem comes from promoting cooperation; if self-esteem must depend on showing one’s strength (an open question), the way to show strength is to show understanding of others, respond to their concerns, and find paths of mutual benefit."

Again, Chernus clearly doesn't understand that the role of self-esteem is close to meaningless to Israelis in making policy decisions. He doesn't get that Israel's strength is a reason for self-esteem, not a result of the quest for it. If selfish pride was as important an Israeli attribute as Chernus believes, then Israel would still be holding onto Gaza and South Lebanon.

There are many American Jews who just don't understand the dynamics of the Middle East and, with the best intentions, believe the underlying myths that Chernus falls victim to: that both sides are equally to blame, that illogical pride drives both sides, that both sides are equally interested in real peace, and that both sides have the same mindset. Chernus would be better served to examine the truth of his own set of assumptions before pretending to understand Israel's.