How to talk about Israel

How to talk about Israel

Meretz USA and Ameinu jointly sponsored a public program in New York, June 21, “How to Talk Candidly About Israel: A conversation among progressive American Jews.” The spirit of this event was unusually civil and well-intentioned.

The one minor exception was an individual with a Scottish or Irish brogue who could only see Jewish identity in religious terms and pontificated from the mike on how he considers Israel a “theocracy.” I had hoped to find him after to suggest that he learn more about Israel and the nature of Jewish identity before telling Jews how to define themselves.

But then we noticed Phil Weiss’s Weblog posting the next day and were shocked by what he wrote. The following was typical:

The Zionist left doesn’t want to include non-Zionists or anti-Zionists (I’m not entirely sure which camp I’m in). Yes, they gave me a microphone, and I am grateful, but I think they have no more desire to empower us than AIPAC and the Israel lobby do. When push comes to shove, the Zionist left is by and large going to line up with the Zionist center and right, and invoke the great threat to Jewish life in the Middle East, a threat they perceive us anti-/non-Zionists to be abetting.

That he was invited on the panel in the first place, that we reached out to “progressive” non-Zionist opinion by advertising on The Nation’s Web site, even the fact that we framed the evening in the way that we did, belie his first point. But It’s clear from his posting and the course of the program last week that Weiss does NOT see Jews (whether here, in Europe or in Israel) as subject to any real threat as a result of the previously dormant virus of antisemitism having re-emerged – abetted by grossly exaggerated and sloppily formulated claims ascribed to Jewish power and influence. He’s correct that our concern for Jewish well-being and safety – given the tragic history of world Jewry of being welcomed and comfortable in various places and then being hated, oppressed, expelled or massacred in these same places (e.g., Spain, Britain, Poland, Germany) – is part of our disagreement with him.

It’s also telling, both in his blog and in the course of our forum, that Weiss doesn’t even know his own mind enough to declare if he’s a non-Zionist or an anti-Zionist. His repeated antipathy or indifference to our concerns indicates that he’s anti-Zionist, but as a member of the audience commented the other night, this is a very large matter for him not to even know where he stands. I’m afraid that Mr. Weiss is one very confused dude.

His blog entry seriously distorted what fellow panelists Dan Fleshler and Anne Roiphe said and what Meretz USA and Ameinu intended in sponsoring this dialogue with him. Weiss completely ignored Anne Roiphe’s initial words recounting how she had walked out of (along with Michael Lerner) a panel they sat on with Cynthia Ozick and other right-wing Zionists, when they made it impossible for them to speak.

Dan spoke of the need to reshape a discourse that regards Israel as “evil” into one dedicated to “making Israel better.” And Dan never equated the suffering of Palestinians at a checkpoint with that of the soldier. He pointed out that the soldier and Israeli society are damaged and undermined by the morally repugnant burdens of occupation. This is one of our arguments as Zionists in the Jewish community that the occupation must end. If anything, this concern should bring him and us closer together.

The “hunkered down self-involvement” he charges us with is precisely what we are acting against. He just can’t reasonably expect us to give up on our core value of defending the existence of the State of Israel. Yet, like him, we want to see “reform” there.

He deplores “nationalism” and exaggerates the extent to which it’s on the wane internationally. But progressive Zionists are not chauvinistic “nationalists.” We don’t argue for nationalism as such, but in a world inhabited by many more nation-states today than existed before the fall of the Soviet Union, he can’t expect us to surrender the right of the Jewish people to self-determination before most other peoples do or before antisemitism disappears as a reality on the world stage.

We can discuss why and in what ways the Jewish people are a nation (one of the world’s oldest) and not merely a religious group (as the gentleman with the brogue assumes). Finally, Weiss should listen to us before he assumes that we don’t work for equal rights for Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel and for the right of Palestinians who are not Israelis to have a state of their own. This guy neither hears nor sees us for who we are, for what we really believe as opposed to what he thinks “Zionists” believe.

By | 2007-06-25T05:41:00-04:00 June 25th, 2007|Blog|7 Comments


  1. Abbie Lipschutz June 27, 2007 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    Though no longer a Zionist, I was a machal volunteer in Israel’s War of Independence, 1947-49. I figured that 2000 years of persecution had been enough.
    I served a samal mahlaka in Gdud 42. I saw atrocities committed by both sides (if asked, I will supply details.) Redemption came with Independence. And, as all redemptions, it has borne bitter fruit. Psychologically, the victory in the 6-Day War has been a disaster for Israel. It has turned many of us into fascists.

    I have a deep investment in Israel and its existence, but my heart bleeds when I visit.

    Abbie Lipschutz

  2. DFrom June 28, 2007 at 1:10 am - Reply

    Dear Abbie Lipschutz,

    I’ve read your entry with great interest. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to clear up some confusion on my end: what exactly do you mean by the phrase “no longer a Zionist”? I can’t tell from the rest of your posting, particularly when you also write that you “have a deep investment in Israel and its existence…” Please explain–and if possible, do share what you remember from the war.


  3. DFrom June 28, 2007 at 1:13 am - Reply

    I should add that I am not Dan Fleshler, referred to in the posting above.



  4. davidr June 28, 2007 at 8:15 am - Reply

    Thank you, Abbie for your thoughtful response. But Dan, why so surprised about her desire to move away from identifying as a Zionist? Maybe she’s (and many others of us) no longer want to identify with a political ideology that gives priority to one ethnic/religious group – it’s not a kind of political system that should be acceptable anywhere in the twenty-first century, including Israel. I would be more interested if Abbie would share her memories of the atrocities committed in 1948. To my mind, a full accounting of the events of 1948, and a resolution of all injustice committed during those events, is the only way to seek peace in Israel and Palestine.

  5. DFrom June 28, 2007 at 4:51 pm - Reply


    Appreciate your response.

    Let me know if I’m understanding your position (and Abbie’s?), or putting words in your mouth:

    For you, Israel can and should exist as a non-Zionist country, meaning an open, free country, without preferences–either in law or in practice–for Jews over non-Jews.

    Would you say this is a fair, albeit short, summary of your position? If it is, maybe we can generate a discussion over the potential benefits and potential disasters that might follow if Israel were to adopt non-Zionist policies.



  6. […] met Weiss several times.  First at a joint Ameinu-Meretz USA event in which we attempted to dialogue with him, but made zero headway.  Then, at a couple of J Street […]

  7. […] met Weiss several times.  First, at a joint Ameinu-Meretz USA event in which we attempted to dialogue with him, but made zero headway.  Then, at a couple of J Street […]

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