Why is it so hard to discuss politics? Why has the topic of Israel become a lightning rod of sorts for many?
To begin to answer these questions, I am reminded of Andrew Sullivan’s piece from this past December, in which he argued that politics have become the new religion. “We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong,” wrote Sullivan. “And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.” For Sullivan, both the right and the left have “religionized” (I made up that word) politics. If politics has become a religion of sorts, then we are put in a position where discussing issues, debating ideas and thinking differently about something becomes heretical when the idea is at odds with the community.
While the Torah never demands of the Jewish people to become politicians, all Jewish people are commanded to be teachers.
As such, it is our responsibility to rebel against the idea that talking and teaching about the hard topics with Israel should be avoided. Instead, we will lean in to the challenge, and embrace the difficulty. The question is how.
Read on as we break down the past two weeks, as well as provide discussion questions and classroom tips to Unpack it all.
On August 15, Israel’s Interior Minister Arye Deri announced that Israel would bar entry to U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib due to their BDS support and planned independent trip run by the anti-Semitic group Miftah. PM Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed this decision. The two congresswomen were planning a visit to Israel that Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, had assured would take place. However, U.S. President Donald Trump then tweeted that Israel’s letting the two women into the country would “show great weakness.” Following that tweet, Prime Minister Netanyahu denied them entry. Debates raged about the wisdom of this decision.
The story does not end there. Tlaib subsequently requested permission to visit her grandmother, who lives in the West Bank, with the promise of a politics-free visit; Israel granted her request, but Tlaib chose to cancel her trip, saying she would not “bow down to their [Israel’s] oppressive and racist policies.” Deri (perhaps riffing off of Golda Meir) replied that “Her hatred for Israel is greater than her love for her grandmother.”
In the aftermath of all this, President Donald Trump declared: “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Why Does This Matter?
1. Bipartisanship – A key aspect of the Israel-U.S. relationship is that it is supposed to transcend partisan lines. To varying degrees and perspectives, U.S. support for Israel has remained consistent under both Democratic and Republican presidents. While many people in Jewish communities love President Trump for his proactive support for Israel, some worry that Trump is turning Israel into a partisan issue, and that Netanyahu is stepping into a dangerous trap that could harm future Israel-U.S. relations. Indeed, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to assure her, and Americans at large, that Israel-U.S. ties “are not dependent on the relationship with one particular party.”
2. Jewish “loyalty” – In the aftermath of these events, Trump used a trope all too familiar to Jews when he stated: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Questioning Jewish loyalty (regardless if he meant to Israel or the Jewish people) hits a sensitive spot for many Jews, who, as a group, have a long-standing history of questioned loyalty (though usually to their host country, while Trump is questioning loyalty to Israel and the Jewish people). Let’s remember that it is not just President Trump who is guilty of this. Congresswoman Omar invoked the issue of Jewish loyalty back in March shortly after claiming that America’s Israel support is “All about the Benjamins.” AJC CEO David Harris responded to Trump’s statement: “This is a free country. Jews aren’t a monolithic bloc, nor single-issue voters. Some will vote Democratic, others Republican. As Americans, that’s their right. Please keep loyalty out of it.”
3. Politics, politics, politics – As our friends at Makom pointed out, “All four politicians involved in this situation have come away with a win for their domestic constituencies.” How so?
- Omar and Tlaib showed that Israel is a “secretive oppressive regime” without even stepping foot there.
- Trump managed to place Israel on the “list of wedge issues to divide the Democratic vote.”
- Netanyahu demonstrated that he is “strong against Israel’s enemies, and a friend of America’s President, in the lead-up to the elections.”
While all four politicians secured their own current agendas, time will tell what long-term impact, if any, this episode will have.
Diversity of Perspectives within Israel
Let’s go beyond the American Jewish perspectives and understand how Israeli leaders feel about this incident.
Some supported: Likud MK – and former Jerusalem mayor – Nir Barkat supported the move. He stated: “Instead of striving for peace and coexistence between Jews and Arabs, you have chosen a policy of hatred and boycott. With attitudes like those, you will never be welcomed here.” Former MK Einat Wilf supported the decision to ban Omar and Tlaib in principle, although she lamented that it came not from a place of principle but of “response to external pressure.”
Some disagreed: Netanyahu’s main political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, criticized Netanyahu and said, “The decision to refuse entry to Israel caused damage internationally… The decision to refuse their entry… Not only goes against our national interest, but also fuels the BDS movement.” Politicians more to the left of the spectrum criticized the decision as well.
Two leading American-Israeli authors and lecturers issued strong statements: Yossi Klein Halevi criticized Netanyahu’s damage to bipartisan support for Israel, “a precondition for a thriving American-Israeli relationship.” By barring these congresswomen, he argues, “Netanyahu did not weaken our enemies; he humiliated our friends.” Daniel Gordis maintains that Netanyahu made an unwise, short-sighted decision here, but that this particular moment will blow over. What will remain is the relationship, which he argues needs dialogue and a maintained connection, rather than disengagement. He reminds us that Israel’s purpose was to save the Jewish people: “Could we perhaps first acknowledge that, so that even when we are appalled, we remain deeply committed, even reverent, of all that Zionism has wrought? We need to learn to do that, for the alternative is a rupture in our people from which we might never recover.”
American-Israeli journalist Caroline Glick argues that the true sufferers from the BDS movement are not, in fact, Israelis but American Jews. She maintains that the movement’s goal is “to silence them as a political force in America” and further remonstrates, “by attacking Trump, the main politician supporting them, while giving a free pass to the Democrats who are facilitating discrimination against them, American Jews are disenfranchising themselves.”
Israeli journalist and Israel Prize winner Yaakov Ahimeir argues that all things considered, Netanyahu couldn’t have acted differently. He explains: “Netanyahu’s personal relationship with President Trump is arguably the most significant national political asset Netanyahu possesses for Israel.”
- David Brooks reminds us that “most debates are debates between two provisional truths.” Which “truths” or values do you think are in conflict with each other with the Israeli decision to bar Tlaib and Omar? Five values to consider: Democracy, Security, Freedom, Sanctity, Authority.
- Encourage your students to identify what specifically they oppose or support with the decision to bar entry, figuring out their operating principles. Should those who support BDS be allowed into Israel, or would the entry of those who support BDS be detrimental to Israel? Should famous leftist, anti-Israel activists like Linda Sarsour be allowed into the country? If you’re upset with the Israeli decision, is it because these women are congresswomen? Zone in on the principles of the dispute.
- Perhaps you, or someone you know, is a Jewish Democrat. How do you feel right now? What does it mean that your loyalty is questioned? Do you understand where Trump is coming from? What would you like to say to him?
- Discuss with your students the concept of dual loyalty. Have you encountered this idea before? Why is it particularly sensitive for Jews? (See this New York Times article for some background.)
- Philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “A party of order or stability, and a party of reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Night and day, winter and summer, land and sea, are not enemies, but are complementary to one another. What are ways that liberals and conservatives can begin to view one another as complementary, as opposed to enemies?
Practical Classroom Tips
- Use our previous article “Disagreeing, Agreeably” as a guide to discussing topics that are subject to disagreement. Here is one key: Discuss the merits of each issue without resorting to ad hominem attacks.
- Use this article on Israel’s purpose for existence, and show this video on understanding the history of Zionism as well as this one on the need of a Jewish state, to remind yourself and students about Israel’s reason for being.
- Use this article on the heels of the GA from last year to take a deeper look at the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Discuss: Will this episode affect the relationship?
- Use the 6 Thinking Hats Approach and go through each hat to weigh in on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision. Allow students to argue charitably in favor of the decision. Allow students to show the holes in Netanyahu’s decision.
- Read chapter 7 of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and then ask students to consider which moral values are in conflict with one another in the decision to bar Omar and Tlaib. For extra fun, go through Haidt’s morality quiz to help your students understand themselves, and each other.
In Other News…
- An Israeli organization, Haifa 3D, is working to build hands, arms and other accessories using relatively inexpensive 3D printing. It has already serviced 60 adults and children (who need less expensive equipment since they grow out of it quickly; the latter often choose superhero designs for their new limbs!
- 242 new olim from North America arrived in Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight last week. Read some of their stories here.
- Sara Netanyahu created a minor scandal when she arrived in Ukraine with her husband; the two were greeted ceremonially with traditional Ukranian bread, which the prime minister ate and his wife promptly dropped on the floor. Bibi later responded to the moment jokingly, saying “I doubt this historic visit would have gotten this media upgrading without the bread incident.”