Anger In A Pre-Trump American Zionist: A Rabbinic Response To The Obama Administration's UN Abstention

John Kerry's Speech Only Serves To Further Marginalize The Israeli Left
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US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 31, 2014.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 31, 2014.
AFP via Getty Images

Careless diplomacy was never John Kerry’s trademark. Yes, his sometimes aspirational language was deemed “messianic” by critics, but a more consistent hallmark of his curated American international relationship-ing has been careful phrasing. This career-long commitment to international sensitivity was abandoned Wednesday morning, and the effects will be deeply felt for years to come, to the detriment of all.

A colleague, Rabbi Ben Goldstein, put it quite well:

“What did Kerry offer other than oratory and wonderful rhetoric? ...As a vision for the future, there were some great pieces in the speech, but it will have the opposite of its desired effect. It will change no one’s mind in Israel, it will further the cause of those who think that the Obama administration has not been a friend to Israel, and it will give Israelis and the [political] right more reason to be excited for a Trump presidency. Does anyone think [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu will be more likely to give in when he is isolated and pressured by the international community, or is it going to merely give him and his followers more ammunition to believe that it’s them against the world? What good comes from that speech?”

I subscribe to the worldview of Progressive Zionism, where Jewish humanism and Jewish self-determination are one and the same, where democracy and Jewishness are mutually strengthening, where pro-Israel and pro-Palestine are compatible, and where American self-interest and Israeli stability do not come at the expense of human rights and international legitimacy. This vision was hurt, not helped, by the United States’ abstention on the United Nations resolution condemning Israel for expanding settlements.

(It should be noted, as J.J. Goldberg expertly does, that this condemnation of Israel is far from the worst the UN has passed through American strategic inaction. There are dozens of examples throughout Israel’s 68 years of existence, spanning Democratic and Republican administrations.)

President Obama’s decision, executed by Ambassador Samantha Power at the United Nations Security Council this past week, accomplished three of the worst things possible:

  1. embolden the Israeli right (who have never trusted the Obama administration);

  2. further marginalize the Israeli left (who have come to the regrettable conclusion that American intervention is the surest way to stymie the peace process);

  3. paralyze the American Jewish community (currently caught in a moment of deep fear at the rise of white supremacy and fundamentalist nationalism within the emerging Trump Administration).

Wednesday’s speech by Secretary of State Kerry did nothing real to advance the cause of peace. As U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch posted on Facebook:

Even as a vibrant, often heated, debate over the best way to achieve peace takes place every day in Israel’s government and its media, with widely different approaches across the political spectrum, the threats Israel faces and the challenges with Israel’s negotiating partner remain.

Wednesday’s speech was a terrible political move by a statesman who should have known better. By giving in to Netanyahu’s taunts, a Secretary of State with 23 days left in his term effectively positioned President-elect Donald Trump as “the good guy” in the eyes of American Zionists. This undermines the truths of Progressive Zionism and endangers Israelis and Palestinians.

Furthermore, this venting of the Obama administration’s accumulated frustration with the Netanyahu administration places American Jewish leaders in the uncomfortable position of choosing between remaining silent (thereby becoming co-opted into the diplomatic war against Israel) and condemning President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s decision (thereby becoming co-opted into supporting President-elect Trump).

Basically, if you love America, if you love Israel, and if you champion wise statecraft, Wednesday was a God-awful day. The good news is: tomorrow could be worse.

What is a Progressive Zionist to do now? Resist the urge to wallow in despair, acknowledge this day’s dreadful mis-step, and do more than cry out on social media. Judaism’s recurring decision to hope against history’s likely outcome is the way forward. We dare not accept reality as it is, nor stand immobilized by fear in our uncertain times. Hopelessness, after all, is a betrayal of all who have come before us and an abandonment of all who are to come. We’ve gotten this far by resisting the presumed inevitable.

As the father of Modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, prophecized, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”

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