By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A few days after after the US was the only country to stand by Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council, an ostensibly shocking survey was released that showed that large numbers of “highly educated, high income, publicly active US Democrats” have negative views of Israel. As usual in this contentious period of US-Israel relations, where every pin dropping has the sound of a wrecking ball, the social media has exploded with discussion. One of the major findings was that “47% of Democrats agreed Israel [is a racist country], as opposed to 13% of Republicans.” But the new survey should be taken in stride, if not greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulders.
Here are some reasons:
1) The survey feeds a self-fulfilling prophecy
Frank Luntz, a well known pollster and consultant often linked with Republicans, told media “Israel can no longer claim to have the bipartisan support of America.” This fits the narrative that feeds several lobbies. One lobby is the center-left lobby in Israel that argues Netanyahu has harmed US-Israel relations. The other lobby argues that the Democrats are increasingly anti-Israel and that Jewish Americans should vote Republican. It is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people want the Republicans to be seen as more pro-Israel, Republicans in turn cater to pro-Israel voices; Israel seems more partisan and Democrats are told to be more critical of Israel.
2) The survey is foggy and fuzzy
The survey was not conducted of Democratic members of Congress or mainstream Democrats. It was conducted among “802 members of the opinion elites.” What are opinion elites? Well they are whatever the surveyor apparently thought they were. Opinion “elites” might be more left of center than normal democrats or more attuned to views critical of Israel than the average. Because they are “opinion” oriented, their natural tendency is likely to be sensitive to issues like “racism.” These are the kind of “opinion elites” who probably talk about “white privilege.” That’s ok. They are sensitive to racism.
We don’t really know what it means that Israel is a “racist country.” Do they mean its policies are racist? Its treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank is racist? Its treatment of minorities, including Jewish minorities, is racist? Its public is racist?
3) Israelis agree, Israel is a racist country
A 2014 survey in Israel found that 95% of Israelis think that at least one group in society suffers racism. According to the results, “79% replied that Ethiopians suffered from racist attitudes and 68% said they believed the Arab population was subject to racism. More than two-fifths (41.8%) named the ultra-Orthodox population and 34% said Sephardi Jews and immigrants from the former Soviet Union suffered from racism.” Basically Israelis agree, Israel is racist. Among the Left in Israel the view that Israel is racist is a normal talking point. One can barely read Haaretz for a day without a discussion about racism in Israel, let along claims Israel is a fascist and apartheid state. Other major Israeli newspapers also routinely discuss racism in Israel. The Ethiopian Jewish protests that exploded this spring revealed that many people in Israel feel they are victims of racism. So why are you afraid that several hundred “opinion elites” among Democrats in the US think Israel is racist, if Israeli think tanks, Israeli academics, Israeli politicians, Israeli NGOs, Israeli activists and basically everyone in Israel agree that there is a racism problem in Israel?
4) Americans think America is a racist country
According to a recent poll around 50% of Americans think that police killings of black men are part of a racist pattern. 66% of white Americans think racism is a problem, whereas 84% of black Americans believe it is according to a 2006 poll. So Americans agree, America is racist. The real question that the Luntz poll should have asked Democrats is how many view America as racist. Why should they view Israel as less racist than America? Should Israel be held to a different standard than they hold their own country?
5) Americans view Israel through a US lens and they find Israel lacking
The buzzword in debates in the US about Israel in recent years has been whether US Jews who tend to be liberal and progressive in the US and support liberal causes in the US, should abandon those liberal values when it comes to Israel. The various debates about J Street, the New Israel Fund, Peter Beinart or Open Hillel all boil down to this issue. Open Hillel notes “We recognize that there are many young Jews who believe that their Jewish values bring them to criticize Israeli policies, or find boycotts to be an effective non-violent tool for achieving social change.” Jewish Americans involved in “social justice” programs routinely support varies causes such as Rabbis for Human Rights or fighting for the rights of African asylum seekers in Israel. The larger milieu of these Jews who also tend to be Democrats is found in a democratic party that often looks to pro-Israel liberal Zionist voices to explain Israel. This was at the heart of Michael Oren’s critique of American Jews that earned him the ire of the ADL, former and current Reform Jewish leaders Eric Yoffie, Rick Jacobs and Leon Wieseltier. What’s the mystery here? Even Michael Walzer has urged “personal boycotts” of Israeli politicians he finds distasteful. There is nothing new in the view that Israel should embody the values of American Jews, and by extension the American values of many Democrats. Since the country’s inception this has been an issue that divided the US and Israel. Would Israel be mini-America in the Middle East, or a kind of European nation state? Israel never wanted to be mini-America, but it has always been critiqued for not having American values. This didn’t start in 2015; but in 1948. Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein among others had qualms with the way Israel was becoming too “nationalist”, read racist in modern parlance, even in the 1950s. America has come a long way from the 1950s in its understanding of racism and diversity. How can anyone expect an American “opinion elite” who looks at US values of diversity and democracy, and not expect them to be dismayed by Israel’s policies inside and outside the Green Line.
6) Don’t be scared of confronting Israeli racism
Some of the responses to the “Democratic think Israel is racist” or “Israel is losing Democrats” has been an outpouring of conspiracy theories and outright angry contempt. “So called Democrats have become the modern day racist extremists”; “we should vote Republican”; “Democrats are becoming anti-semitic”; “Democrats have been radicalized by President Obama”; “Obama has poisoned their minds over 8 years”; “Democrats wrote the Jim Crow laws, who are they to talk”; “Obama wants to transform US views of Israel.” There is no introspection in the reaction, just blame. Why are people sacred of admitting Israeli racism? Americans have tended to think that the US is a racist country and sought to improve it. The Israeli response tends to be the opposite. Deny there is any racism and attack anyone who says there is. Polls show large numbers of Israelis hold racist views. In one, fully 74% said they didn’t mind separate roads for Jews and Arabs in the West Bank; 59% felt Jews deserve preference for government work, and 49% wanted the state to treat Jews better; while 42% didn’t want Arab neighbors. Polls showed both Jews and Arabs don’t want foreign workers as neighbors.
Racism manifests itself in numerous forms. Hatred is directed at black people in Israel, racism is rampant on the left and right, and politicians on the left, center and right all express common fears of having more “Arabs” in the Knesset. Institutionalized racism also exists in Israel, from acceptance committees to segregated education. So there is racism. Why not confront it and try to make it better rather than just pretending it doesn’t exist?
7) Are Democrats holding Israel to a different standard than other countries?
One pertinent question, if one is truly concerned about the “Israel is a racist country” answer, is to wonder whether this critical view of Israel is unique. If some Democrats think that Israel and the US are racist, what do they think about other countries. There is no doubt that most other countries have racism problems as well. Just today a crowd of Turks attacked Koreans while protesting against China in Istanbul. They randomly assaulted “Asians” because of a racist view that all Asians are the same.
8) Does criticism of Israel necessarily mean a total lack of support?
Surely most American “opinion elites” would agree that Saudi Arabia abuses human rights. But most of them would also agree the US has many mitigating reasons to be allied with Saudi Arabia. The US-Israel relationship is based on more than whether Israel meets the values embodied in the US Constitution. So maybe Israel is racist? So what? Maybe that doesn’t matter in terms of US overall support for Israel’s qualitative military advantage, which is a cornerstone of policy. Why do Americans have to have wall-to-tall uncritical support for Israel? Why is it threatening to have even a tiny bit of acknowledgement that Israel is not the most perfect country in the world. Yes, Israel is racist. Ok, now let’s move on. Israel needs to fix its racism problem. Israel can still work with America on other issues. America doesn’t have to dictate what to do about racism within the borders of Israel. If America feels Israeli policy is discriminatory in the West Bank, America is correct. Do Israelis seriously think that that policies in the West Bank are not racist? Maybe the problem is not so much then with some Democrats, but with Israel’s own inability to question its actions and work on improving its policies?