Where to put your finger?

Sorry for the hiatus (I’m still coming down from a couscous high, with my last box being eaten tonight, accompanying a veal and spinach dish I’ve yet to figure out, but I digress…).

Way back when, I promised to respond to questions left on the comments section of the site, and during the whole Trader Joe’s traffic blip someone asked a reasonable one regarding an off-hand joke on the description part of this blog made at the expense of ex-President Nixon. Why was I choosing to mock half my audience (i.e., conservative readers) who are supportive of Israel and loath divestment as much as I do?

In truth, I had no answer at the time (other than the commenter had a point, at which point I removed said cheap gag from the page). But as I’ve thought about it more, it seemed worth exploring why support for Israel tends to transcend party lines, even as it has become a major fault line in Left-Right domestic and international politics.

As previously noted, American support for the Jewish state derives not from some sinister “Jewish Lobby,” but from: (1) support for Israel among the American public hovering around the 80% mark (meaning it’s one of the few issues that actually unites most Americans, with politicians following, rather than leading, public opinion); and (2) the most critical base for each party (unions for Democrats, Evangelical Christians for Republicans) are among the most ardent supporters of Israel whose passion for Jewish statehood is broad, deep, historic and sincere.

Naturally, one can point to US administration’s from each party who have been less than friendly to Israeli and Jewish concerns (from George Bush Senior’s “Fuck the Jews, They Didn’t Vote for Us” State Department, to Jimmy Carter’s degeneration to Israeli-bashing apologist for his Middle East donors). And going back further, you can take your pick from left-wing and right-wing tyrants who wanted nothing to do with Jews, other than to kill them. Yet what unites these lower-case and upper-case Israel/Jews “dislikers” is not so much ideology, but the fact that they (like most of the “I-hate-Israel” crowd behind BDS) are a bunch of nasty losers.

This is not to say that left-leaning supporters of Israel shouldn’t ignore the fact that anti-Israel rhetoric is drawn almost exclusively from their progressive vocabulary, or that conservatives shouldn’t try to better understand Jewish sensitivity to Church-State issues. But as mentioned previously, more often than not the whole Left-Right critique of the Arab-Israeli conflict tends to serve as a surrogate for domestic political battles.

How many bad decisions vis-à-vis Oslo were made based on Israeli party political maneuvering vs. hard strategic thinking? Why do American Jews make campaign hay out of which presidential candidate swears to move the US embassy to Jerusalem first (a promise we all know they are going to break)? Are we making smart political choices based on hard facts, or are we primarily concerned about the choice of nostril one chooses to place his or her finger?

This last lovely image comes from a remarkable essay I read several months ago written by an online correspondent (it’s entitled Yes, but can he hit? Located a bit down this page). In this piece, the writer reflects on the fact that, as a society that rewards risk, America has produced a sophisticated set of tools for risk mitigation. In the case of economics, these are the business and government systems (contracts, insurance, regulation) we use to manage economic growth while trying to keep the economy from going into wild, unpredictable swings. Yet stability, in this setting, is deceptive since such stability is only achieved within a very narrow range. Once we leave that thin, seemingly stable pathway, we immediately fall into the “Here Be Dragons” territory of unknown danger (the mysterious economic landscape in which we now dwell).

In the case of politics, similar risk mitigation tools (in the form of campaign consultants, pollsters, computer voter models, role-playing media partisans, etc.) try to keep our debates from staying too far from predictable boundaries. I don’t think I’m the only person who feels like the last presidential campaign (despite new faces and supposedly new issues) seemed a hell of a lot like the last one, and the one before and the one before that. This is because honest discussion about real issues has been relegated to the sidelines (or the blogosphere), leaving the presidential candidates to debate poll-tested “issues” like Joe the Plumber (the surrogate for a comprehensive discussion of domestic issues) or who-will-sit-down-with-who-with-or-without-preconditions (the furthest we ever got to an actual discussion of hard foreign-policy choices).

In this world where Americans have sorted themselves into communities of the like-minded, where political “debate” consists of patting each other on the back for shared, unchallenged opinions while howling (or fleeing the room) when disagreement to our presumed VERITAS somehow manages to rear its ugly head, we are creating a political situation just as unstable as our economic one. When discussion of any issue (even ones as complex as the Arab-Israeli complex) boils down solely to figuring out what side the other guy is on (i.e., where they stick their finger), are we engaging in actual politics or neutering our ability to grapple with the real world (while all the time convincing ourselves that we’re actually engaged)?

I love a good partisan dust-up as much as the next person, but what passes for such debate these days seems a combination of cable TV consumer choice and torch-wielding vitriol against the un-like-minded. Yet, amidst this dangerous and highly unstable world of pseudo-politics, there is an issue that unites four-fifths of us: that Israel – with all its flaws – is a force of good in the world. Perhaps this unspoken common wisdom shared by most Americans should be the starting point for political reflection.

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