The occupation and the Iran nuclear issue have swallowed up Israel. Unless you live there, the only sense you get of that country is that it is obsessed with Iran, maintaining the occupation, and exploiting the Holocaust to keep critics of its policies on the defensive. No wonder a billionaire-financed organization has to pay for college students to visit Israel. Without the "subsidy," who would voluntarily go to a place that its advocates portray as a combination war zone and Holocaust memorial?
I was lucky. I started going to Israel as a teenager. All my friends did, multiple times, and, if anyone paid our way, it was our parents. By now I have been there, on trips of varying lengths, some 35 times. So I know the country well, which means that I am not deceived by propagandists (pro-Israel and anti-Israel) who dedicate themselves to describing a country that does not exist.
Because anti-Israel types have little, if any, influence on perceptions of Israel in America, I'll focus on the ones who think of themselves as pro-Israel. Also, I would not expect those who are anti-Israel (and, by that, I do not mean those merely opposed to Israeli policies) to present a full picture of the place.
But one should expect that of Israel's advocates. However, few of them make any effort to present the real Israel. They are too busy selling Israel's policies toward Iran and in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem -- and trying to silence policy-makers, journalists, academics and others, who do not march in lockstep behind Binyamin Netanyahu's policies.
Even on college campuses, pro-Israel students are trained to defend policies that they would find indefensible elsewhere and that will never fly on an American campus (or anywhere other than amongst the fringe of young Jews who are right-wingers).
That is why author Peter Beinart, who wants Jewish young people to care about Israel, is so worried about the ever-growing number of young Jews who are either indifferent to or turned off by Israel. For them, Israel is no more, and no less, than the sum total of its policies.
If I were running Israel's "hasbara" (public relations) efforts on campus or among people under 40, I'd use the slogan, "Israel, Yes: Occupation, No."
Unfortunately, that approach will never be adopted because the people involved in selling Israel care more about promoting the government's policies than the country itself. They are engaged in a political battle designed to garner support for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's policies, not Israel. And, even more, advancing their own influence and power.
They tend to be indifferent to the extraordinary happenstance of living at a time when there is a thriving Jewish country in which some 7 million people speak a language that was dead for two millennia. They don't know much about its history; they don't speak its language; they don't know about its geography. They are people who do not enjoy eating an ice cream on the promenade along the beach in Tel Aviv one-hundredth as much as pressuring some Congressman to oppose humanitarian aid for Palestinians and any dealings with Iran.
You will see this approach on those quasi-official tours of Israel (including the trips for kids) that focus heavily on Jerusalem and very little, if at all, on Israel's largest metropolitan area, Tel Aviv. Yes, I know that Jerusalem is Israel's capital and spiritual center. But it is the secular liberal beach town of Tel Aviv that shows Israel's most appealing face.
Jerusalem is black and white. Jews here, Arabs there. Secular Jews here, religious Jews there. Jews don't go to East Jerusalem; Arabs don't go to West Jerusalem. Two cities divided by an invisible yet impenetrable wall. The tension in the air is palpable, and so is the fear.
Tel Aviv, in all its rich color, is what Zionism is all about. It is a Jewish city (built in the 20th century by and for Jews) adjacent to the wonderful, ancient Arab, and now mixed, town of Jaffa. It abuts the Mediterranean and is a place one goes to escape the Arab-Israeli conflict, unlike Jerusalem that is at the heart of it. Jerusalem -- with its beautiful vistas built long after Jews left for the Diaspora -- would be a gorgeous and fascinating city even if the Jews had never returned to Palestine after 1,900 years. Tel Aviv exists because they did return.
With its beaches, bars, art galleries, gay neighborhoods, theaters, and high-fashion scene, T-A is often criticized as a "bubble" because it provides the illusion that it is possible to escape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while in the heart of Israel. It is an illusion, but a good one, and the very opposite of the ugly and hopeless reality offered by the fanatics in Jerusalem.
I understand the contradiction here. I am saying that the best place in Israel is an all-Jewish city rather than a de facto binational city like Jerusalem. But this is not a political prescription.
It is, however, what I believe. There is nothing wrong about a Jewish city, just as there is nothing wrong (and plenty right) about a Jewish country (which the 20th century taught us is essential to Jewish life).
But that equation does not apply beyond the 1967 borders. The settlements and outposts in the West Bank -- "legal" and "illegal" -- are essential only to prevent Palestinians from having their own state and to make their lives as difficult as possible. (The hundreds of checkpoints that divide one Arab town from another and not from Israel proper exist primarily to punish Palestinians.) That is the prime purpose of the settlement enterprise. As for Jerusalem, which is now divided by walls of hate, it will only become one city when it is shared with the Palestinians.
That is why the two-state solution is critical.
Unfortunately, its condition is also critical, which means that Israel's is too. It does not take a genius to know that time works against Israel. If the land is not divided, it is Israel that will lose (perhaps everything) while the Arabs (the overwhelming majority in the region and, within a few decades, the majority in Israel) will win. They can simply wait the Israelis out and watch the Zionist enterprise disappear. Without the two-state solution soon, the one-state solution is unstoppable. (No, the "one-state solution" does not refer to "pushing the Jews into the sea." It refers to Palestinians and Israelis living together in a single entity, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, under governance by the majority, probably Palestinian.)
Those of us who want to preserve the Jewish state are determined to prevent the one-state solution coming about. In fact, those of us who fight against a status quo that will make one state inevitable are the ones entitled to claim the label "pro-Israel." Those others, the political apparatchiks, should find themselves a new one, like maybe "political player on Israel issues" because "pro-Israel" most decidedly does not apply.
Being pro-Israel means caring about Israel. It does not mean using it as an excuse for power brokering and suppressing dissident voices.
Israel is more than its most strident supporters here seem to understand. If they understood how much more, they might be less cavalier about advancing policies that would ultimately deliver doom.