For Israel, there are no good options now
10/30/2023 // News Editors // Views

How badly are Israel and Israel’s defenders screwing it up right now? Let me count the ways.

(Article by Andrew Sullivan republished from

At home, Israel’s supporters are engaging in a frenzy of defensive cancel culture. And that’s never pretty. If you’ve spent the last few years decrying woke intolerance, you might express some smidgen of hesitation before doxxing, hounding, firing and naming all those who have taken the side of the Palestinians in the current Hamas-Israel war. But this is a Republican Senator, Tom Cotton, in a letter to the DHS secretary, this week:

I write to urge you to immediately deport any foreign national — including and especially any alien on a student visa — that has expressed support for Hamas and its murderous attacks on Israel. These fifth-columnists have no place in the United States. Swiftly removing and permanently barring from future reentry any foreign student who signed onto or shared approvingly the anti-Semitic letter from the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee on October 7 would be a good place to start.

That letter was indeed repellent in its timing and moral obtuseness. But its core point was not to champion the horror of the Hamas attack but rather to blame Israel entirely for it, the way Israel blames Hamas for every child killed by Israeli bombs. That may be ugly and reductionist, but broad contextual argument falls well within the scope of the First Amendment, and that applies just as much to non-citizens as citizens, as Cotton well knows.

Others were on the hunt. Zillionaire Bill Ackman demanded a blacklist of students who’d been protesting Israel, so he and others would not inadvertently hire them in future. A mobile placard went around Harvard Square with the names of students who’d backed the Palestinians even as Hamas’ atrocities were unfolding. “We need to make sure these students pay a price and that their neighbors, friends, and employers know that they harbor these beliefs,” explained one CEO.

Those mobile billboards then appeared in front of the students’ private homes — to intensify the shaming. In the usual gyre, this kind of tactic has led to more and more public demonstrations where the protestors are creepily masked and anonymous. And so the corrosion of liberal democracy — in which ideas are debated openly without coercion or intimidation — takes another step toward Weimar. And Israel’s supporters have ceded the high ground.

A whole plethora of utterly unrelated Palestinian cultural events have also been canceled or rescheduled:

A concert of young Palestinian musicians was indefinitely postponed in London. The Boston Palestine Film Festival decided not to hold live screenings and went online. A German literary organization called off an awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair to honor the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli … London’s Southwark Cathedral cited security concerns when it canceled an Oct. 11 concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of PalMusic UK, a charity based in London that supports young Palestinian musicians … A Hilton hotel in Houston canceled the annual conference of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights planned for later this month, citing “escalating security concerns in the current environment.”

And on and on it went. A Jewish editor at a science journal was fired for retweeting an Onion article. A Berkeley law professor said he wants law firms to ask students “what organizations they belong to” before hiring them. He continued, “Ask if they support discriminatory bylaws or other acts and resolutions blaming Jews and Israelis for the Hamas massacre. If a student endorses hatred, it isn’t only your right but your duty not to hire him.”

Companies are also being targeted. The Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce successfully pressured Hilton hotels into cancelling a US Campaign for Palestinian Rights event in Houston, where Rashida Tlaib was slated to speak. Governor Greg Abbott backed them: “Texas has no room for hate & antisemitism like that supported by Hamas. No location in Texas should host or sponsor USCPR.” DeSantis has pushed the envelope, as usual, banning a student group for calling Hamas “the resistance” and echoing horrific sentiments that imply the end of the Jewish state entirely. But rhetoric is not a crime in America, and no violence was defended outside Israel itself.

Anti-wokester, Josh Hammer, wrote of those protesting outside the Israeli embassy: “Every single person here who is seen supporting Hamas and who is not a US citizen should be deported posthaste.” Dave Rubin, a darling of the IDW, also called for deportations. My friend Jamie Kirchick, after cheering the cancellation of a job offer for a law student, opined: “For too long, people have been allowed to get away with anti-Semitic remarks and still have their careers intact. And I think there needs to be a higher social cost — not a legal cost — there needs to be a higher social cost for the kinds of things we’ve been seeing over the past week.”

Should companies be free to disassociate themselves from employees with views they abhor? Sure, they have that freedom. But do we really want to turn every aspect of our lives and workplaces into a political struggle that operates increasingly by tit-for-tat?

Some pro-Israel anti-wokesters insist they’re consistent, of course. “These students are different,” argued Ben Domenech. “They didn’t make a casual comment. They all signed on to a letter expressing an actual position that may have negative consequences for them … it’s a political position.” So taking a political position justifies cancellation now? National Review went full-on woke: “‘Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence’ is an oft-repeated phrase by proponents of cancel culture. Though sometimes misapplied, the statement is obviously, on its face, true.” I.e. when people we don’t agree with are speaking.

Supporting terrorism is the exception to the cancellation rule, we’re told. But “supporting terrorism” is a mighty nebulous concept. Countless political arguments about armed struggles around the world — South African apartheid, for example, or the Irish question — have involved rival, disputed claims of “supporting terrorism.” Should those debates never have happened? At least one right-winger was honest: “They canceled conservative speakers … and now we’re supposed to take it easy on the very bullies that sullied our culture with their totalitarian methods. No, mutually assured destruction is the only way forward.”

What about protests that involve destruction of property? Prosecute the perpetrators for destruction of property; don’t punish them for poisonous opinions. The only thing more pathetic than lefties ripping up posters highlighting Hamas’ child hostages is righties filming it and trying to get the lefties fired from their jobs. Ditto the appalling projections of Jihadist slogans on the walls of a GW University building. No one was physically harmed; no property was permanently damaged. If the stunt broke college rules, discipline the kids for that. But not for their views, however foul. If we are to insist that words are not violence, and we should, we cannot suddenly change our tune when the words are coming from the “decolonizing” left.

And this new burst of cancel culture from the Israel lobby is, of course, far from new. In some ways, Israel’s defenders were the original pioneers of cancel culture, and they are a kind of proof of its dangers. Deploying the smear of anti-Semitism against anyone critical of Israel’s policies has long been a time-honored tactic in the arsenal of the ADL, AIPAC, and much of the pro-Israel media. And it meant that a healthy, open debate about Israel was kept at bay.

The result? The chilling of serious debate in the US and the prevention of any real American pressure on Israel — from George HW Bush to Barack Obama. This enabled the Jewish state’s worst instincts, entrenched and extended its indefensible settlements, and kept any possibility of a two-state solution out of reach. Yes, the Palestinians repeatedly choked at the prospect of a deal as well. They bear the lion’s share of responsibility. But the settler program, a war crime, was proof that Israel had moved way past sincerity on a two-state solution. And Washington was too weak to say no. And anyone who did was targeted for personal destruction in the Beltway.

You think anti-Semitism was kept at bay by policing the debate in this way? Look around you. As always, suppressing legitimate criticism means the debate went underground where the extremists flourish. The result, after decades of this dysfunction, is an Israel in the 21st century that is morally corrupted by brutal occupation, led by the extremist right, and now committed to causing thousands of collateral civilian Palestinian deaths in order to rid Gaza of a group Netanyahu only recently saw as a useful way to keep the Palestinians divided.

To put it bluntly, it’s not a good look. And the optics are worsening by the day. Tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza are now living in a terrifying blitz, as Israel pummels the strip with the most intense bombing this century. Whole neighborhoods have been turned into literal ash. Countless civilians have been buried under rubble. And the Gazans have nowhere truly safe to go; and they are being hit even in the south. This is a PR nightmare for Israel, as well as a moral catastrophe. And yes, you can argue that Hamas is truly responsible for the bombs; but the longer the carnage continues, and the gruesome images percolate around the world, the harder it will be to convince anyone else of this.

If this were not enough to wreck the country’s international image, radical Israeli settlers, newly emboldened since October 7, are ramping up their ethnic cleansing of non-Jewish residents on the West Bank. I linked a few weeks ago to a NYT piece on October 3 about the anti-Arab pogroms by settlers that are unchecked on the West Bank. Check out Graeme Wood’s fresh account here. He reported a WhatsApp message sent from the settlers to the local Arabs: “You started a war, you’ll get a Nakba! … We’re giving you a chance to flee to Jordan now in an organized fashion, because we will exterminate the enemy and expel you by force from our land.”

This is despicable. But it’s a sentiment now at the heart of the Israeli government. The most influential man in Netanyahu’s cabinet, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, is the author of a 2017 manifesto aiming for full Israeli control of the occupied territories, and an option for Palestinians to leave Israel or become a “politically neutered resident.” If you believe that Smotrich doesn’t want full ethnic cleansing, you’re more trusting than I am.

I wish I had some sane idea of what happens now. We can only grieve for all those innocents trapped in this hell. All I can say is that if Israel continues to wage war in Gaza with this level of civilian casualties, and continues to expand its footprint on the West Bank this aggressively at the same time, and responds to Western requests to take a pause and think things through with anger and defiance, it will be hard to sustain Western support indefinitely.

The Democrats are splitting. The woke movement, now the core ideology of the American left, sees Israel entirely as an exercise in “white supremacy” just as passionately as the Christianist right sees it as a way to hasten the apocalypse. Biden has seen his support from Democrats drop a sharp 11 points in the past month, primarily among the young, indoctrinated in critical theory, utterly unaware of the tortured and complex history of the conflict. His overall approval rating is at 37 percent. He’s facing a new primary opponent. The ground is slipping from under him.

Israel has every right to take out Hamas. But at what price? And for what future? These are tragic choices in a tragic place. That tragedy has many authors, but Israel’s American supporters are among them.

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