U.S. Jews: Don't Fall Into the Trap of Fatalism

Leon Wieseltier no longer believes that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will happen in his lifetime. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is to leave American Jews, Israel’s most essential allies, dismayed, discouraged, and increasingly alone.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (L) and the New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (L) and the New Republic Literary Editor Leon WieseltierCredit: Reuters
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

There is a new development in how American Jews view the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forces of the center-left are embracing the folly of fatalism.

Exhibit A for this trend is the widely read and much discussed article by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, in which he states that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will not come in his lifetime (He is 60.)

Fatalism has long been the province of the right. The rightwing leadership in Israel argues, often in apocalyptic language, one or all of the following points: Peace is impossible because the “moderate” Palestinians don’t really accept us; Hamas wants to destroy us; the Arab world is in upheaval; the Europeans don’t truly care about us; American support for Israel is less reliable than it once was; and the Iranians back terrorist forces in the region and threaten us with their soon-to-be-developed nuclear weapons. And conservative elements among American Jews then echo these sentiments.

What makes Wieseltier different is that he is not a man of the right. He is a vigorous opponent of settlement expansion, an unequivocal supporter of a two-state solution, and a harsh critic of Benjamin Netanyahu. His most recent article reiterates each of these points, adding for good measure some harsh words about Avigdor Lieberman, whom he calls “the fascist face of Israel.” In short, unlike those on the right, Wieseltier recognizes that Israel bears some responsibility for the absence of peace.

But only some. As a “hawkish dove,” he reminds us again that Israel has real enemies - a simple fact that not every dove is prepared to accept. And he rips into Hamas for their devotion to fundamentalism and terror and into the Palestinian Authority for their cowardice and pettiness - and above all for their unwillingness to accept the less-than-perfect terms for a Palestinian state that Israel has offered. His conclusion: Since neither side is truly committed to solving the problem of Israeli-Palestinian peace, it will not be solved.

Wieseltier writes with humanity and unsurpassed elegance, and precisely because he is prepared to see the issues from both sides, American Jews, especially those with centrist inclinations, are listening.

But his position is misleading and dangerous.

The fatalism of the right is not only an ideological mindset; it is also a specific strategy, intended to encourage all the parties – Israel, United States, and American Jews – to leave things as they are for the foreseeable future. It has become an argument for the status quo. And Wieseltier, by saying there will be no peace and offering no alternative course of action, has now appeared to endorse the “do nothing” camp.

But doing nothing, of course, is a disaster. It takes a bad situation and makes it much worse. As settlements grow and creeping annexation continues, it will lead to a one-state solution, leaving the Jews a minority in their own country.

Far better advice comes from other quarters, such as Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Writing a few days before Wieseltier, Satloff too offers a glum assessment of Arab intentions; but he then notes that, even now, there is much for the U.S. and her Israeli partners to do. His agenda includes preventing Hamas from winning a political victory over the Palestinian Authority, encouraging moderate behavior from the Islamist leaders of Egypt, speeding the demise of the Assad regime in Syria, and preventing the collapse of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. And while Satloff does not lay out the details, it is clear that strengthening the PA means, for Israel, restraining settlement and showing an enthusiasm for negotiation and compromise that Israel’s current leadership has yet to demonstrate. This sensible list can provide focus for American Jews who are wondering what they should be asking the American government to do in the Middle East as well as what they should be expecting of Israel.

Wieseltier and the pessimists on the right are not wrong about everything. And surely it is absurd to say, as do some on the left, that the current situation is mostly Israel’s fault; Israel’s citizens have moved to the right not because of some plot by scurrilous leaders but because they have been pushed there by the forces of Arab intransigence. But it is equally absurd to promote a do-nothing strategy by Israel and her friends as a response to the current crisis. To do nothing is to give in to realities that will foreclose forever the option of peace. To do nothing is to lose the friendship and support of the forces of reason in the world. To do nothing is to leave American Jews, Israel’s most essential allies, dismayed, discouraged, and increasingly alone. Yet this is exactly where Wieseltier’s throw-up-my-hands fatalism leads. My response to the arguments put forth by Leon Wieseltier: Giving up and doing nothing is a trap, and American Jews must not fall into it.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

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