Mar 29th 2011

The Blind Leading the Blind

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

It is difficult to be an American Jewish organization advocating support for Israel today. On the one hand, there is the staunch belief that Israel must be defended at all costs, and that any division will expose a weakness in the united Jewish front. On the other, American Jews traditionally advocate progressive policies in domestic and global affairs, which seemingly contradict their hard-line stances in support of an Israeli government that is apt to reject such liberalism. At a time when Israel is led by a government that is steering it toward unending conflict, and whose actions are threatening Israel's Jewish and democratic nature, much of the American Jewish community today is merely echoing the Netanyahu government's talking points. While unity has kept the Jewish world strong throughout the Diaspora, if it is perpetuated through blind support of misguided policies, it could severely undermine Israel's national security in the name of misplaced sense of unity.

The instinct to unify is one that is ingrained in Jews the world over. This heritage of unity goes back not only generations, but millennia. Divisions among the early Israelites are cited as key factors leading to the destruction of the First and Second Temples of ancient Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Hebrews from the Holy Land, and their dispersal throughout the Middle East and Europe, provided the impetus for the elevated importance of Jewish community for centuries. Whether by choice or by force, Jewish communities banded together to survive the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, of course, the Holocaust and the eventual creation of the Yishuv in what would become the State of Israel. Jewish holidays like Hanukkah and Purim celebrate the success of the Jewish people being saved from the threat of destruction, others like Tisha B'av and Yom Ha'shoah commemorate those periods when Jews failed to do so.

The psyche of a people with a history under almost constant siege has served as the key unifying agent between Israel and the American Jewish community. The narrative of the Jewish people surrounded by hostile enemies, and needing the constant support and vigilance of its brethren to survive, is indeed a powerful one. Today, when faced with the threat of a nuclear Iran, Israeli and American Jewish leaders are often quick to compare the current period to 1939 in an effort to demonstrate the urgent need to safeguard a Jewish people under the threat of annihilation.

Of course, the State of Israel was supposed to change all this. The Zionist ideology was about Jews not cowering in fear of those who would threaten them, but rather about binding together in strength to create a great nation that would proactively serve to protect and defend the Jewish people. And build a great nation they did. Nearly 63 years after the creation of the modern Jewish state, Israel enjoys one of the world's greatest militaries, strong economy despite the worldwide downturn, most advanced technologically and an unprecedented partnership with the global superpower, the United States. In short, today the Jewish people may be more secure, and better off, than ever before.

But the sense of vulnerability within Israel, and among Jews worldwide, has become so deeply engrained that it is hard to recover. Even dissent against Israeli policies which threaten to upend its remarkable accomplishments is intolerable. Those that do so have often been shunted, sidelined and all but discredited completely within their communities. Rather than face such 'excommunication,' many Jews choose therefore to be silent when it comes to Israel-but their silence is in turn interpreted as acquiescence and even support. This cycle has, at times, become so out-of-hand that Jewish advocates of Israel have surpassed even Israeli hardliners in their defense of the Jewish state and their support for misguided policies. In the past decade, American Jews have contribute over $200 million to West Bank settlements whose more than 500,000 inhabitants-many with American passports-serve as central obstacles to a two-state solution that would secure Israel's democracy as a Jewish state. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is known to have questioned whether he would obtain support from American Jewish leaders in launching the Oslo peace process in 1993. In the midst of pursuing a peace process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was met with a proposition by the World Jewish Congress demanding that any negotiations on Jerusalem be approved by the Diaspora Jewish community. And, while American Jews do have a measure of influence in Congress, advocates of the Jewish state vociferously deny the often-inflated extent of their influence, while at the same time using the specter of such power to advance their agenda.

This strategy is backfiring against Israel and the United States. Take the recent United States veto of the United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. Israel and the Jewish community have considered the veto a major victory for Israel, and for the U.S.-Israel relationship. But in truth, it is a defeat. Had Prime Minster Netanyahu been truly committed to a two-states solution, he could have used the resolution as cover to press forward a new peace agenda, with the support of the United States. Or, American Jews could have promoted that the United States support the resolution but ensure that it would serve to oversee its implementation as step toward jumpstarting the dormant peace process. Instead, Israel-and the United States-is even more isolated than it was before, and the mediation and influence of the United States, Israel's most critical benefactor and ally, is being questioned as never before. Even more, as a result of the veto, the notions of Jewish power and conspiracy have again reached a fever pitch, providing fuel to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.

In truth, the U.S. decided to veto the resolution for its own reasons. The Obama Administration recognizes that an Israel on the defensive is one that is unlikely to take courageous steps toward peace. It is also true that the United States vetoed the resolution with an eye toward domestic politics. However, those who point to a supposedly all-powerful Jewish lobby as the key source of the Administration's concerns are mistaken. In a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans indicted that they sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians, the highest ratings of support for Israel since 1991. American Jews makeup only 2.2 percent of the United States-support for Israel is an American interest, certainly not strictly a Jewish one.

Even so, American Jews have an important voice, and they are failing to use it effectively. To be sure, while a united Jewish people is important, and even critical for the continued survival and growth of global Jewry and its relationship with Israel, this relationship should be based on a shared vision of the future, not on the vulnerability and fears that have characterized the past. American Jews should use their voice today to communicate a different path for the future of Israel's relations with the United States and the Diaspora-and there is no better time to start than now.

With the Arabs of the Middle East rising up against their corrupt dictators and demanding freedom and opportunity, the Arab world will be increasingly more confident and forward-looking than ever. Israel's neighbors clearly will continue to lag behind the Jewish state for the foreseeable future, but as they regain their footing, they will eventually look again to the continued conflict with Israel. That is why Israel, and its brethren in the Diaspora, should not be caught obsessively preparing for the challenges of the past when it could be grasping the opportunity being presented today by the changes occurring in its neighborhood.

American Jews must open their eyes-and help Israel to do the same-to witness the unpleasant realities of the region and the state, and to recognize that they will not disappear simply because they are wished away. Israel and world Jewry today are acting like a reckless gambler, unnecessarily risking the future even though Israel already has the chips it needs to realize all its dreams-if both sides could only open their eyes and grasp them.

*This piece was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 3/18/2011, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=212614

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."