Jeff Jacoby has been an op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe since February 1994, when he left his position as chief editorial writer at the Boston Herald. The Boston Phoenix has dubbed Jacoby’s twice-weekly essays ”a must-read,” describing him as ”the region’s pre-eminent spokesman for Conservative Nation.”
A former political commentator for WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate, Jacoby is a frequent radio talk-show guest throughout North America. He serves on the board of the New England chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and is a director of the Ford Hall Forum, the nation’s oldest free public-lecture series.
In 1999, Jacoby became the first recipient of the Breindel Prize, a $10,000 prize for excellence in opinion journalism. In 2004, he received the Thomas Paine Award of the Institute for Justice, an award presented to journalists ”who dedicate their work to the preservation and championing of individual liberty.”
Jacoby spoke with the Ledger about how tenacious myths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stand in the way of real peace.
Q: Your June 14 talk is entitled “The ‘Peace Process’ and Other Myths of the Middle East.” We usually don’t see “peace process” and “myth” used in the same sentence. Please explain.
A: My view has been that there are an awful lot of things people “know” about the Middle East and the Israeli-Arab conflict that aren’t true. So an essential step toward making any sort of progress is distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not real, and trying to dispel some of the myths.
In my talk, I’ll try to clear away the idea that the root of the conflict is Jewish or Israeli “occupation;” that all the Palestinians want is the homeland that was “stolen” from them; that there’s a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; that, in the words of Yitzhak Rabin, you have to make peace with your enemies, not your friends. I don’t believe that’s true. These are themes that get expressed over and over, that countless people accept without thinking about. But if you look closely at these themes, they don’t stand up to scrutiny.
There is not a peace process worthy of that name and the more the world pushes for a peace process – including the Israeli government and the American government – the more real peace recedes.
Instead of peace, Israel’s goal should be victory. Victory in this case doesn’t mean a military triumph. It means that the Palestinians and the wider Arab world accept Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish state as a permanent fact of life. It means getting the Palestinians and Israel’s other Arab enemies to give up their goal of ending Israel’s existence. The Palestinians want an end to the Jewish state; the Israelis want that Jewish state to be accepted by its neighbors. This is a case where only one side can win. I want it to be Israel.
There are some myths that go to the very roots of the conflict itself. The myth that Jewish occupation caused the conflict is extremely easy to debunk. In 1967, when Jordan, Egypt, and Syria set out to eradicate Israel, there was no occupation of the Golan or Gaza or Judea and Samaria. And yet the conflict blazed. The PLO was founded in 1964, three years before the Six Day War. Clearly it wasn’t created to liberate the “occupied territories” – there weren’t any in 1964! The conflict is about the existence of a Jewish state, not about Gaza or the West Bank.
Q: How can Israel achieve the “victory” you describe? How does it get the Arab world to accept Jewish sovereignty?
A: Israel needs to return to its policy of deterrence and strength – to making it clear to friend and foe alike that nobody and nothing can hurt the Jewish state with impunity. Instead of constantly talking about concessions and withdrawals and wanting to negotiate peace, the Israeli position should be to impress on its enemies one overriding reality: The Jewish state is here to stay.
Q: If there is no legitimate “peace process” in the works, how do you digest/interpret Pres. Obama’s speeches in May, calling for negotiations to begin with the ’67 lines?
A: It is clear to me that Pres. Obama, unlike his two predecessors, feels little instinctive warmth for Israel. Between picking fights over housing starts in Jerusalem or insinuating that Israeli policy in Gaza endangers U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president seems at times to go out of his way to telegraph an aloof coolness toward the Jewish state.
In my view, that is why Obama’s talk of an Israeli retrenchment to the pre-1967 lines – which are really the 1949 armistice lines – provoked such a strong reaction. It reinforced what many friends of Israel see as Obama’s lack of empathy for Israel’s security predicament. It suggested that he is a lot more interested in a “peace process” aimed at getting Israel to change its shape than in getting the Palestinians to change their behavior. Obama later backtracked, but he knew those words would spark a firestorm, and he insisted on saying them anyway. Clearly he intended to intensify the pressure on Israel. I don’t think he counted on being outmaneuvered by Prime Minister Netanyahu – and I don’t think he counted on such a strong grassroots American reaction in Israel’s defense.
Q: What and who have helped to form your philosophy regarding the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation?
A: Among Middle East scholars, I especially admire Daniel Pipes, who is very sharp and very good on these issues.
I start from Zionist first principles: If there is room in the world for 22 Arab states and 55 Muslim states and countless Christian states, there ought to be room in the world for one Jewish state. The survival and safety of that Jewish state remains a goal very much worth fighting for.
The very word “Zionist” or “Zionism” has become tainted over the years. I was once on a radio talk show in Boston together with Minister Don Muhammad, the local head of the Nation of Islam. The host began the program by asking me, “Would it be fair to call you a Zionist?” — as if to say, who would pin such a label on himself? When I replied that I certainly would call myself a Zionist, Don Muhammad said, “I don’t think many Americans would regard that as a very good thing to be.”
But in fact, poll after poll shows that Americans – not just Jewish Americans – are the most pro-Israel people in the world, and very supportive of the Zionist project. I hate to see friends of Israel shun the “Z-word” as if it isn’t something to be proud of.
Q: With the recent protests along Israel’s borders, we’ve seen a change in strategy on the part of the Palestinians and their supporters. What do you make of this?
A: Among the Palestinian Authority, and among Hamas and Fatah – they’re not significantly different from each other – we see a turning away from terrorism and the “armed struggle” and, instead, an effort to defeat Israel through delegitimization.
What’s happening is this worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel, to paint it as illegitimate, to demonize it, to hold it to a completely different standard than other states are held to. The idea of the recent protests is to march across the border and commemorate the “catastrophes” of 1948 and 1967. But the real “nakba” [Arabic for “catastrophe”] in 1948 was that the Arabs went to war to defeat the UN plan to peacefully create a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state. The only “naksa” [Arabic for “setback”] in1967 was that once again, the Arab world failed in its effort to annihilate Israel. Instead of accepting the existence of a Jewish state and living peacefully with it as a neighbor, the Arab countries keep trying to eliminate it. In 1948, 1967, and 1973, that goal was expressed militarily, and now it’s increasingly a diplomatic and psychological effort.
Q: In your talks, do you give specific ideas as to how best to advocate for Israel?
A: I’m often asked about Israel’s “media problem” — why does Israel have so much trouble getting a fair shake in the media, and what can supporters of Israel do to correct the problem?
Of course, if there were an easy way to fix it, we wouldn’t be talking about any of this. There isn’t some easy to-do list. That said, there are things that friends and supporters should do on behalf of Israel.
One example was the response to the Goldstone Report. The overwhelming reaction in the pro-Israel community was — quite properly — to treat the report as outrageous and indefensible, and not to back down from that position. Eventually Goldstone himself became something of a pariah in pro-Israel circles. The Israeli government reinforced that stance: At every opportunity, it explained why the whole investigation had been a sham and why the report it produced was completely dishonest. A clear line was drawn. The result was to severely discredit the whole Goldstone project. I think that’s a good model for how we can respond to incidents of anti-Israel demonization.
Just as we shouldn’t be afraid of the “Z-word,” we also shouldn’t be afraid of the “A-word” – anti-Semitism – when it is justified. We’re all familiar with the sort of “reverse McCarthyism” that claims, “Oh, anyone who criticizes Israel is dubbed an antisemite.” That’s totally false. Israel isn’t above criticism, and the pro-Israel community would never claim otherwise. But a lot of what passes as anti-Zionism is antisemitism – Jew-bashing masquerading as opposition to a Jewish state. Natan Sharansky came up with the “3D Test:” When criticism of Israel resorts to delegitimization, demonization, and double standards, that’s antisemitism.
If somebody said, “I love the Polish people and Polish food and the polka is my favorite music and the Polish language is beautiful — but really, I think that Europe would be better off if Poland didn’t exist,” would anybody have trouble calling that anti-Polish bigotry?
The same is true with Israel. One hundred years ago, it might have been acceptable to say, I don’t think there should be a Jewish state. But today, that state is the largest Jewish community on earth and to say it shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state is, quite simply, antisemitic bigotry.
One more item that perhaps goes to this question of why Israel gets such a bad rap is that there are so many Jews and Israelis who trash Israel publicly.
If you go to Ramallah or Gaza you’ll hear one point of view, because the Palestinian Authority is a dictatorship and doesn’t tolerate dissent. By contrast, Israel is a free country and criticism by Israelis of their own government is normal. But there are some Jewish critics of Israel who take it to a destructive extreme.
At an official dinner in 2007, former Ha’aretz editor David Landau told Condoleezza Rice that his “wet dream” was for the U.S. to “rape” Israel by forcing a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the editor of a prominent Israel newspaper says such a thing, he makes it more acceptable for media voices elsewhere to be equally unbalanced in condemning Israel. A lot of damage is done by Israel’s harshest internal critics – they open the door to a lot of other attacks.
On the other side of the balance, one more thing I would urge American Jews who care about Israel is to get over their mistrust or suspicion of Christian Zionists. There are millions of American Christians who are passionate supporters of Israel – often far more demonstrative than pro-Israel American Jews. Yet a lot of American Jews treat that Christian support as if it is awkward or creepy; they’ll start telling you all these theological reasons that Christians supposedly have for supporting Israel – the Rapture, the Second Coming, and whatnot. I once asked Pat Robertson about Christian Zionism, and whether it was true that evangelicals who back Israel do so because they believe it will advance the Second Coming. Without hesitation, he said: “There are some Christians who believe that, but I’m not one of them.” I think that is the norm among pro-Israel Christians.
I’ve met many Christian Zionists and have found them to be genuine and sincere and loving people. When they talk about their love for Israel, there’s no sense I get of an ulterior motive. It bothers me when Jews treat American Christian support of Israel as if it is somehow suspect, somehow not quite respectable.
Q: Why is it that “Christian Zionist” sounds more acceptable than just plain “Zionist?”
A: Christian Zionism has a distinguished pedigree in this country. One illustration is William Blackstone, a very successful 19th-century Christian businessman, who became enamored with the idea that America should lead an effort to restore Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. He led a petition drive asking President Benjamin Harrison to use his powers to convene an international conference to advocate for the establishment of a Jewish state. It was signed by some of the most prominent Americans of his day – John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the publisher of the Boston Globe, the famed inventor Cyrus McCormick. So Christian Zionism is very American. And those of us who care about Israel’s welfare should be thrilled to have such a large and dedicated group of fellow citizens in our corner.
And remember – you don’t have to consider yourself an ally with someone on every issue in order to find common cause with him or her on a particular issue.
Take Sarah Palin. Many American Jews can’t stand her. And they may indeed disagree with her on nine out of 10 issues. But she ardently supports Israel – on one of the stops during her recent bus tour to historic sites, she was photographed wearing a Magen David necklace. She always kept an Israeli flag in her office when she was governor of Alaska. You don’t have to agree with her on abortion or welfare or taxes or any other issue in order to welcome her support for Israel. I want to see pro-Israel activism span the political spectrum from left to right – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.