Israel and the Distortion of American Politics
SEATTLE, June 5 – “This is a moment,” my friend Todd Shea said over lunch here, two days after Israel attacked the flotilla trying to enter Gaza with relief supplies. “And if he blows this moment, he’s not going to get it back again.”
“I just hate it when he tries to be bipartisan,” said another friend.
“There’s times to be bipartisan,” said Todd, “and there’s times when right is right and wrong is wrong.”
President Obama’s credibility was already wounded before the Gaza incident, and his failure to condemn it personally and forcefully is only the latest in a string of disappointments for many of us who voted for him. But the killings in international waters, in the context of Israel’s longstanding centrality to the entire planet’s fate, bring all actions and evasions into sharp relief. And the moment’s urgency compels us to acknowledge that if we continue to look for leadership to the President of the United States, the failure will no longer be his but our own.
This isn’t about Obama. We get the leaders we deserve, and what we’re willing to tolerate is a measure of our character. And what we should no longer tolerate is politics as usual – especially given how influential Israel is on politics as usual in America.
I’ve never been to Israel, and I’ve long made a point of not writing about it. It’s too far from my own bailiwicks, and too close to the bone. (I did co-edit a collection of writings narrating events in the Middle East between September 2000 and mid-2002, in a range of voices including right-wing settlers, trainee suicide bombers, Jewish and Arab Americans, and Desmond Tutu, among many others.) But as the author of two books that emphasize the human dimension of a self-consciously Muslim country, I’ve come to see Israel as the elephant in the global living room that it is. And I’ve come to see that, as an American, I do have a dog in this fight.
The first reason any of us should care about Palestine is that we are human beings. “Her primary concern is that the 1.5 million people of Gaza get their humanitarian needs,” Jennifer Sheetz, the daughter of my friend Kathy Sheetz, told me on Thursday, when Kathy herself was still unreachable because the Israelis had confiscated her cell phone. Kathy is a registered nurse who lives in Richmond, California and was on the flotilla. “She feels that the situation has to change, and it’s in Israel’s best interests too,” said Jennifer.
Muslims have views on Israel that are both predictable and understandable. “The Jews are doing to the Palestinians what Hitler did to them,” a woman told me last year in Hyderabad, India. “I have no personal thing with Jews. I admire them, I know some of them. They made the desert bloom and this and that. But how did they do this to people? My aunt went to the Gaza Strip. She said every day people are being taken away, people are dying.”
Jews who choose to criticize Israel have a certain standing. That is what makes Peter Beinart’s extremely timely New York Review of Books article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” so powerful. “In the American Jewish establishment today the language of liberal Zionism – with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise – has been drained of meaning,” Beinart wrote, before the attack on the flotilla. “… Of course, Israel – like the United States – must sometimes take morally difficult actions in its own defense. But they are morally difficult only if you allow yourself some human connection to the other side. Otherwise, security justifies everything. The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents Conference should ask themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make them scream ‘no.’ … If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?”
I’m grateful to Beinart for the use he’s making of his standing as an American Jew. I couldn’t have written the article he wrote. What I can write is an article that claims my own standing, as an American who is neither Jewish nor Muslim.
Being human should be enough, but I want to emphasize the specificity of what I’m claiming. I object, as an American, to the severe distortion that Israel’s behavior and presumption have inflicted for far too long on the politics of my country. And I decline to be bullied by the claim, whether implicit or overt, that Jewish suffering is somehow unique. If you want power, then you sacrifice the moral high ground; it’s not feasible to hold both. Taboos are inevitable in every society, but there are moments when we must allow or even force ourselves to see the truth. This is such a moment.
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010) and co-editor, with Paul Hilder, of Peace Fire: Fragments from the Israel-Palestine Story (2002). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans Email: firstname.lastname@example.org