Thursday, August 18, 2011

Liking Israel is not the same as Loving Jews

Since we've been speaking about religious Christian Zionism and how this is, well, kind of awkward, I thought it would be interesting to dissect a few new pieces on this, specifically focusing on Glenn Beck. The Jewish Journal had a point/counterpoint series on Beck's rally and whether it is, to use a cliche, Bad for the Jews. Defending Beck was a former Dennis Prager employee named Sammy Levine:
About a year ago, when the flotilla incident occurred, Beck was out in front, reporting on Israel’s right to self-defense, while so many others in the mainstream media were ambiguous or hostile toward the Jewish state. I decided to watch Keith Olbermann on one of the nights following the incident, and his entire coverage was relegated to a biased interview with one of the “peace activists” on the ship. 
Conversely, Beck did two consecutive shows devoted to defending Israel’s actions in the flotilla incident, as well as educating his audience about the creation of Israel, the history of the Jewish people and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, during the last several months,  Beck has devoted large segments of his shows to discussing how the tumultuous uprisings in the Middle East will affect Israel’s security. Unlike many in the liberal media who blindly cheer these revolutions, Beck — with the fate of Israel on his mind — is engaging the issue with a healthy dose of skepticism. Beck understands that Egypt, under the ousted President Mubarak, kept peace with Israel for 30 years. Now, the virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take power. In addition, Egyptian presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei — the lauded “progressive” among Western leftists — said: “If Israel attacked Gaza, we would declare war against the Zionist regime.” It looks like Beck’s skepticism about the fate of Israel vis-a-vis the Egyptian uprising is well founded.
On his Fox News show, Beck repeatedly stated that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that shares America’s values of freedom and human rights. In March, Beck began the show with the statement, “Tonight I stand with Israel,” and then asked: “Tens of millions of Arabs have suffered atrocities at the hands of their own countries … but Israel is the evil one — that is the obstacle to peace? … How many homosexuals have been stoned to death by the Israelis? … How many terrorists are wearing a yarmulke?”

And here is where Levine loses me. Simply put, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, I don't disagree that there can be areas where Glenn Beck is (from my perspective) factually and politically correct. Yes, there is a lot of anti-Israel misinformation out in the world. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself, and yes, it is legitimate to wonder how the Arab Spring toppling various governments will wind up affecting Israel.


Beck is not a historian, nor a journalist. He is not unbiased. He is a cheerleader. And I do not think that Israel needs cheerleaders. What Israel needs is people that give it a fair shake and stand up for it when it is in the right, not pretend it has zero problems or issues of its own. To use just one example from Levine's article: there are, indeed, terrorists who have worn yarmulkes. Their methods, structural organization and victims list is not comparable to terror groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP or Al Aqsa. However, the reality is, yes, there have been (and still are) Jewish terrorists. For Beck to insinuate otherwise is a lie. It signifies that either he doesn't know enough about Israel to know about groups like the Jewish Underground or deranged, hateful individuals like Goldstein, Amir or Natan-Zada, or that he doesn't care because he's busy pushing a narrative.

Israel doesn't need people to lie for it. It needs people to tell the truth about it.

Israel needs people to support it, not at the expense of everyone and anyone else, but in the pursuit of being a protected state at peace with its neighbors. I'm certainly not saying I have the magic solution that will make peace happen. But that is my ultimate goal for Israel and its citizens, and I'm unconvinced that Beck and his cohorts have the same goal. I think, honestly, they want to see Israel annex the territories, expel its Arab citizens, and, in a dream scenario, expand its territory to the boundaries of Greater Israel. They would like to see Netanyahu become an Israeli Ronald Reagan (the conservative, idealized version, of course). And the reality is that this is magical thinking, supported with little to no thought given to the impact on the ground for the real people who actually fight these wars and suffer from terrorism. In the last few years I worked to take a step back from being an armchair Prime Minister because the reality is, I am not the person at risk, the Israelis are. I have opinions, I have things I would like to see happen in Israel, but at the end of the day, it's something they need to sort out.

Here's another sticking point:

On his program during the week of Passover, Beck played the part of a rabbi giving a sermon or a Hebrew school teacher giving a lesson as he spoke beautifully about the seder. In fact, he sat down at his own authentic seder, complete with matzah, gefilte fish, maror, karpas and more. 
He then explained why supporting Israel is a moral imperative: “The world wonders why it is that most Americans sympathize with the Israelis in their continual battle with the Palestinians and the Arab world. I don’t think it’s that hard to understand. Israel is a democracy. It’s the closest thing to what we understand as freedom in the entire Middle East. We relate to that. But maybe more importantly, we share common values.” 
Beck also compared the story of the Jews leaving Egypt with the story of the Pilgrims coming to America, as they both faced hardships to escape oppression: “The story is the same for America and Israel and all over the world. … With Israel, Americans have a shared culture, shared history and values. We have been close allies since their inception. … There have been occasional bumps in the road with our relationship with Israel, but we have stood by them when no one else would. But now I fear that seems to be changing.”

First of all, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of Beck essentially putting himself in the "role" of a Jew or a Jewish teacher for the purposes of his TV show. There is a difference between educating people about another group of people and playing dress-up, and this is right on the edge of that line. This is not to say that educating people about other cultures is a bad thing. (I say this as someone who hosts seders every year where the majority of participants are not Jewish.) But, to put it bluntly, I don't think Glenn Beck understands Judaism particularly well (certainly not liberal Judaism), and so I'm really not all that keen in him playing the part of "rabbi" to millions of Christians who have never met a Jew before. Glenn Beck is not the person I want representing my identity or religion to others. It's like asking your accountant to fix your refrigerator: not really their area of expertise.

(Edit: looking at the clip all I can see is Beck poking some gefilte fish and talking about the symbolism of matzah. This seems to be more of a case of Levine casting Beck as a rabbi than Beck actually claiming that for himself.)

Second point: if Beck were honestly looking at Israel's and America's history, he would find that while there are lessons and parallels, there are also challenges. Ironically, these challenges are known quite well to American Jews.

For instance, to the question of values, it would be more accurate to say that America and Israel share some common values, as one of Israel's foundational principles is that it is a nation-state, whereas America is not. This is kind of a big difference. Separation of church and state, a major and significant issue in American legal and cultural history, is not even on the radar in Israel. (By the same token, Israel is far more progressive on things like LGBT rights than the US, certainly more than Beck.)

Should Israel be pilloried for areas where it doesn't "measure up" to the US? I don't think so. Is Israel, on any of these fronts, "as bad" as its neighbors? Not by a long shot. Their situations are different and any examination of these issues needs to start with understanding that premise. However, by pretending that Israel is "just like" the US and that all of their values are the same, Beck is spreading misinformation right as he purportedly works to fight it.

Same thing with talking about the two countries' "special relationship." For the record, America has not always supported Israel, and Israel has not been exclusively helped by America. In fact in the early days of the state it was working with the Soviets. That detail may not make any difference in terms of present-day politics, but Beck's whole approach operates with a disturbing disdain for history and facts. Anything inconvenient (or even just inconclusive) gets minimized in favor of sweeping narrative that focuses on Divinely-inspired exceptionalism.

This is the danger in allowing people like Beck, people more interested in their own agendas than understanding the facts of Judaism and Jewish history, to tell our own stories for us. I would much rather have a conservative like Dennis Prager or an opportunist like Shmuley Boteach, who at least know what they're talking about, represent the conservative and Orthodox perspectives on Judaism or Israel. At least I understand why they're there. For Beck to do it is frankly uncomfortable. (Imagine my surprise to find that there are even some right-wing Israelis who agree with me.)

Back to Levine:
The truth is that if one wants to find consistent pro-Israel coverage, Beck is the person to listen to. The problem is that, for so many liberal Jews, hate of the right overwhelms their love for Israel. As such, they marginalize Beck, even though he is without question the media’s most outspoken supporter of Israel. This is unfortunate, as in this time when Israel is isolated internationally, decried as an apartheid state on college campuses and constantly threatened with annihilation, Beck’s voice is so necessary and precious.
Here we have it in spades: for Levine, what matters is that Beck is pro-Israel. Everything else is secondary. What he doesn't consider is that many Jews are not interested in someone who is "pro-Israel" if they lie or obfuscate to get there. The fact that someone is a propagandist for "the right side" doesn't change the fact that they're making propaganda. When you make propaganda and get caught, it undermines your argument. Israel should not be in the propaganda business.

When Glenn Beck misrepresents Israeli history, he is doing Israel a disservice. When he attacks liberal Jewish rabbis, he is showing he does not respect most Jews' religious beliefs. When he labels Jewish intellectuals and moguls as "the worst people in the world," he shows that he is dramatically opposed to most Jews' political positions. When he promotes antisemitic writers on his show because they share his politics, he is showing his true colors. Not as an antisemite, but as someone who cares about conservative values, not Jewish ones, and whose politics have historically been championed by white Christians whose view of Jews were far from charitable. And he's also showing that in his list of priorities, a person's attitude towards Jews ranks far below their attitude towards liberalism. So forgive me if I don't think Beck understands American Jews very well and that Jewish concerns aren't that important to him.

Glenn Beck supports Israel. Fine. So let him support Israel, let him be a Zionist. But if nothing else, he has to at least recognize that most Jews do not agree with the vast majority of his positions, and vice-versa. If Beck and his cronies are going to ask for a little faith and goodwill from Jews, they might need to start reining in their rhetoric a little. You can't have it both ways. You can't attack the vast majority of us for our values and politics one day and then claim you "love Jews." On behalf of the world's Jews, let me say it right now: please stop loving us. Let's work on being "friends" first. And the first thing you can do to make friends is to stop abusing Godwin's law and accusing rich Jews of running the world. Trust me on this one.

1 comment:

Antigonos said...

It may interest you to know that Israelis don't know who Glenn Beck is, and don't care. We don't really know to which audience he's playing to -- certainly not Israel, and I guess not many Americans either, except the minority who think like he does. Nearly all the Israelis I know are genuinely puzzled as to why he's coming here.