Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not Even J Street Is Polarized Enough for the HuffPo

Yep, you heard that correctly. Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, has penned a new article criticizing J Street for not criticizing Israel enough at its upcoming national conference. To refresh your memory, this is the same man who opened one of his earlier articles by addressing "apologists for Israel’s occupation of Palestine." Anyway, here is his main gripe:
"The narrative of Israel as a brave but insecure little nation, constantly forced to fight for survival. As long as that narrative frames American public conversation about Israel, nothing J Street or anyone else does to change U.S. policy will make much difference."
In short, Professor Chernus is upset that many Americans and Israelis still perceive Israel as being under threat from external enemies, to the point where they let that influence their politics and the way that they approach peace negotiations. Prof Chernus believes that because these Americans are so foolish as to actually believe that Israel's enemies want to destroy them, they become too willing to give a pass to Israel's policies in the territories, that he doesn't like.

First off, let's take a look at the counter-narrative, which he calls "obvious facts."
"Israel is by far the Middle East's strongest military power; no nation in the region has even the slightest chance of defeating Israel, as it has shown in every war since 1948; while we're bombarded with fears about a fantasy of a single Iranian nuclear weapon, Israel's 100 to 200 nukes are ignored; Palestinian violence against Israel has virtually ceased, since both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are enforcing a nonviolent approach to the conflict."
I appreciate that Professor Chernus provided such straight forward and specific points. It helps him make his argument better, and it also helps me refute them.
-Sure, Israel has a strong military. But having the strongest military in the world didn't protect America from the 9/11 attacks or other terrorist activities. And would Prof Chernus really say that Americans shouldn't be worried about attacks of that sort?
-Ditto with the "defeating Israel" argument. Hamas doesn't need to defeat Israel in combat in order to destroy daily life there and win many battles. It's very difficult for any military to counter Qassam rockets and other guerrilla tactics of that sort, yet Prof Chernus would ask us just to ignore them as "not a significant threat." Easy for him to say, Colorado is pretty far out of rocket range.
-The Iranian nuclear weapon argument is interesting. He dismisses it as a "fantasy," and then changes the subject back to Israel. Does that mean he doesn't think that a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel? Or does it mean that he just doesn't care, since it undermines his narrative?
-And his last point is simply ridiculous: There is no proof whatsoever that either Hamas or the PA has a "nonviolent approach" to anything. They simply know that remaining peaceful at this time works to their advantage, and that is why they keep the peace. If the Palestinian leadership was really turning over a new life when it comes to violence, they would have said so.

Later down the article, Professor Chernus gets to his main point, "pathological fear."

He cites many examples of Israelis and American commentators talking about Israel's security concerns (with scare quotes of course). And here is his big counterargument:
"As long as pathological fear passes for fact, none of the arguments presented by J Street and other peace groups will make much of a dent in the American political scene, no matter how logical and well packaged they are....Or it can change direction and attack the insecurity narrative head on. That won't guarantee a shift in administration policy. But it will open up the possibility for J Street to do what Ben-Ami says he wants to do: replace the debilitating narrative of fear with a narrative of hope that is the only road to a lasting peace. And at least it will guarantee that we can have, for the first time, an honest and meaningful public debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict."
I'm sure in Professor Chernus' mind this sounds well balanced and makes sense. If only everyone else can be as wise about Israel's issues as him, sitting up in the mountains of Colorado. But as his own words reveal he is speaking just like another polarizing talking head: Spotlighting what he wants to see and ignoring what he doesn't.

Let's just take the two recent military threats to Israel: Rocket attacks from Gaza and suicide attacks seven years ago. Neither of them were going to destroy Israel, nor had even the slightest chance of destroying it. But they killed and wounded hundreds of civilians and virtually destroyed daily life in the areas most common affected by them. Yet Professor Chernus would want his audience to believe that they somehow "don't count" because the state itself wasn't threatened and because it wasn't done by a real army. Well, sorry Professor Chernus but maybe when you've had a couple of family members and friends killed by suicide bombers you might feel differently about how threatening they are and whether the Israelis have a right to be concerned.

J Street has figured out that people who pooh-pooh bombed homes and discotheques as inconsequential aren't taken very seriously by those who are truly pro-Israel and don't just pretend to be. Like many of these new organization, they have to choose between taking a more extreme position and lacking support or gaining more support at the cost of moving toward the center. That's what J Street did, and not unsurprisingly the Huffington Post bloggers don't like it. And neither do the talkbackers. But as I have said, easy for them to say.

1 comment:

  1. It takes very little to paralyze a country. You don't need a conventional army to do it any more. Ira Chernus is a complete idiot. He lectures to Israel about living in fear from the safety of the Colorado mountains. He would have a different reaction if his own family was placed in danger every day. And he forgets the overwhelming sentiment in the Arab World is one of deep hatred of the Jews and a wish to see Israel disappear. This is a fact that cannot be wished or explained away. Couple that with Iran's vow to wipe out the Jewish State and Israel's feeling of existential dread is very real. No other country in the world lives under a permanent shadow of death. Its so easy to talk about Israel being strong while being oblivious to the reality of all the nations in the world, that its people live under every day.

    Chernus would not wish that on his own country but yet he dismisses Israel's peril. That's a subject you won't find extensively addressed at HP or even at J-Street.

    Go figure.


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