Israel and the Diaspora: a Humpty-Dumpty relationship

The Left in Israel and in the American Jewish community finds itself on the verge of at least partial realization of its dream of dismantling Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza. Ironically, the instigator of this dramatic policy shift is not any of the Labor Party doyen, but their bete noire, the "father" of the settlement movement, Ariel Sharon.

And yet on the brink of triumph, they face the disturbing prospect that Israeli soldiers may refuse to carry out the evacuation orders. In typically hypocritical fashion, the left is in high dudgeon at the undemocratic, unpatriotic, and destructive notion of soldiers disobeying orders. Substantively, they are correct; however, they did not feel the same way just a year ago when they were enthusiastically supporting "refusenik" soldiers whose consciences told them to refuse service in the territories.

As an aside, it is interesting to note how recent events have once again totally discredited the left's political analysis. After all, Abbas is pushing for peace before a single settlement is removed, once again disproving the canard that they are the obstacle to peace. The American Jewish left (as well as the Democratic party and foreign policy establishment) has also once again been proven wrong about the necessity of U.S. engagement in the peace process. All of the momentum that exists has been generated by the parties themselves, and the initiatives of the Shabbateans inside and outside the State Department have been relegated to the dustbin along with their predecessors' peace plans.

Sharon also destroyed the left's contention that Israel had to capitulate to Palestinian demands because terrorism could not be defeated by military force. It took four years, and many lives were lost, but Israel did win the war and defeated the intifada thanks to Sharon's uncompromising pursuit of the terrorists and the construction of the security fence. Whatever progress may now be made could not have occurred without bringing the violence to a "tolerable" level.

The right certainly is not blameless in Israel (or America). At this difficult moment when the government has decided to take the very risky step of disengaging from Gaza, threats of violence, and actual assaults on public figures, are damaging Israeli society, not to mention Israel's image. The degree of lawlessness that is being demonstrated can at least partly be attributable to the negligent attitude toward settler misbehavior up to this point. It's actually something the left did not act against either, but the right was far more culpable in creating the perception that settlers were cowboys settling the Wild West and subject to little or no restraint in how they chose to deal with the local Indians. Had settlers who attacked Arabs, or set up illegal outposts, been hauled off to jail and prosecuted to the full extent of the law over the last decade, they would not be so bold today in challenging the army and the government. The silence and rationalization of the American Jewish right is also appalling.

The more fundamental issue, however, is the lasting damage to Israel and the American Jewish community done by the left's abandonment of the principle of supporting the elected government of Israel. At the General Assembly in Jerusalem in 2003, several Israeli speakers called on American Jews to be "more pluralistic"; that is, oppose the policies of the government. When Naomi Chazan suggested this during one panel, fellow panelist Zalman Shoval pointedly observed that she didn't have much interest in pluralism when her party was in power.

Of course divisions have always existed, but the consensus within the American Jewish establishment was that the people of Israel, who have to live every day with the consequences of the government's policies, should make decisions on peace and security, and those of us sitting comfortably in our suburban homes six thousand miles away should publicly support the government's positions.

The beginning of the breakdown in Jewish unity and comity began in the late 1980's, during Shamir's term, when Labor supporters began to openly campaign against the Prime Minister not only in Israel, where it was completely appropriate, but in the U.S., where it had long been considered taboo. As is the case today with soldiers resisting disengagement, the left was shocked, yes shocked, when the right subsequently came to Washington to denounce Rabin and Oslo. I don't condone the right's behavior, because their action gave legitimacy to dissent and disunity.

When the Likud returned to power, again, rather than reverting to the traditional policy of supporting the government, the left continued down the slippery slope toward chaos by mounting another public campaign and celebrating the "refuseniks."

The American Jewish community is now confused, divided and sending mixed messages to policymakers whose decisions may determine Israel's destiny. The Conference of Presidents, supposedly the community's unified voice to those decision makers has largely been paralyzed for more than a decade by its internal commitment to a consensus among groups that represent the left-right fault line that Israel helped export here. Today, the Conference can't manage what should be a routine statement in support of the government's disengagement plan.

Now American Jewish organizations are calling each other names and attacking each other's leadership. It gets uglier every day, and increasingly reminds me of the divisions that led to the downfall of the original independent Jewish state.

Fortunately, AIPAC continues to be effective in conveying at least an illusion of Jewish unity on core issues, and exercising political power on behalf of the pro-Israel community. More important, however, President Bush has a clarity of vision that is consistent with the current government's policy and therefore not easily swayed by the cacophony of Jewish voices.

I'm sure some will argue that debate is healthy and positive, but the ones making that argument usually only believe it when their opponents are in power. I see no evidence that Israel, the American Jewish community, or the U.S.-Israel relationship has in any way benefitted from this dissension. Worse, the political fragmentation of the American Jewish community is the tip of an iceberg that is now reaching deeper below the surface to the local level, where recognition of the value of Jewish institutions is declining.

Some people may believe that the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will solve the problem, but even if that happy day arrives, we are likely to have all new (and not so new) arguments over issues relating to the nature of Israeli society and the secular-religious divide. The American Jewish community and Israel are looking more and more like Humpty-Dumpty, and it is not clear that anything can be done to prevent a final crack, and then we'll be wondering why we can't put Israel-Diaspora relations back together again.