When I first came across J Street’s #2statevalentines social media campaign last night on Twitter, I didn’t know what to make of it. And that’s a sure indication of failure. If your social media campaign isn’t almost instantaneously comprehensible then you’re pretty much sunk. And this idea, as far as I’m concerned, sunk like a lead balloon.
This project consists of a series of retro graphic images of happy couples with snappy two-state “romantic” captions full of sexual innuendo. So what’s wrong with mixing romance with Middle East politics? First, I couldn’t tell what they were trying to say. Second, I couldn’t tell, since they were largely being retweeted by people like Max Blumenthal and Ali Abunimah, whether these were deliberate parodies of J Street.
So I went to the Buzzfeed site where the images are hosted to take a look at all of them. They’re a pretty sorry lot. I won’t bother you with even wasting your time looking at them–except for one that is truly offensive. It consists of a man offering a woman sexual relations with all his friends if their relationship “works out.”
While not wanting to over-analyze an obviously silly set of social miscues which this campaign represents, I do think it’s important to trace the root of some of the phobias and taboos to which this graphic alludes. And they are not trifles.
When liberal Zionists like those of J Street and ultra-nationalists as well, cling so desperately to the notion of an exclusivist Jewish state, they’re expressing deep seated psychological fears which ought to be examined. Here we see the fear of Jews being overwhelmed by the Arab hordes represented by the other 22 Arab nations. Turning to a one-state solution means, in this deep-seated Jewish psychic representation, Jews becoming mongrelized. The Jewish woman will be sexually overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of both Israeli “Arabs” and their cousins in the surrounding region. In this conception, the Arabs are one huge mass that will swallow up Jews, their identity, and their progeny. Not to mention the allusion to Jewish miscegenation with Arabs, a notion that obsesses many Israeli ultra-nationalists represented by groups like Lehava, which campaign against the menace of Palestinians recruiting innocent Jewish girls into a sort of life of ‘white slavery.’
To anyone who argues that I’m making two much of the sexual connotations of the graphic, I concede that its ultimate meanings go beyond the Arab sexual menace. Of course, it alludes to the sense of Israel being a small, vulnerable country in a sea of Arab states. So there is a political and ethnic connotation as well. But even this aspect of the cartoon is offensive, since it paints a picture of Arabs as a huge sea of unindividuated menace, when the reality is anything but. There is just as much indivduation among various Arab states and ethnic groups as there are among Jews. Probably even more since there are many times more Arabs and they represent greater religious and ethnic diversity than Jews. To view “the Arabs” in such a way betrays massive ignorance, fear and racism.
UPDATE: A pro-Israel tweep pointed out to me that the likely intent of the graphic was to encourage Israelis to agree to a two-state solution so that it could have diplomatic ‘relations’ with the 22 states of the Arab League. While this is a possibility I hadn’t considered, I need to point out that if that was the intent it was wholly lost on me or any reasonably well-informed observer. Making it yet another example of failed social media messaging. Without revealing himself as such, a J Street national board member also took me to task for not recognizing what to him was the obvious reference. His claim was that this should be self-evident because the J Street website contains a petition calling for support of the Arab peace initiative. I suppose everyone seeing the social media campaign is going to get the reference instantly or do a Google search to find it on their site!
Unfortunately, this campaign illustrates the worst impulses of liberal Zionism: the inchoate, barely repressed fear of the other. The primitive need to retain tribal loyalty in the face of a perceived existential threat. To be clear, I am not arguing that Judaism or Jewish identity is a negative quality. On the contrary, it is what makes our religion, when practiced in a tolerant, ethical and spiritual manner, a true joy. But Jewish identity espoused in the context of fear of the other is wholly objectionable.
This sort of J Street campaign indicates an organization with so much funding it doesn’t know what to do with it. In this way, it’s very much like the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose corporate Jewish chieftains shower it with millions. Every two years we’re treated to ads declaring the time of the Democrats owning the Jewish vote is over and the era of Republican ascendancy is at hand. And every election cycle the answer is the same. The millions were wasted and the GOP made no new inroads among Jews. In the meantime, the Jewish 1% assuaged its conscience by emptying its wallet in a lost cause.
Similarly, the same set of fatcats (Adelson, Steinhardt, et al) have poured $1-billion into another major Jewish morale booster, Birthright. In return for their bucks, they’ve sent 300,000 Jewish youth to Israel on trips designed to inculcate pro-Israel values. They’ve made a few thousand shidduchim, produced Jewish babies, and sent a olim to bolster flagging Israeli morale. But the fatal flaw in this strategy is that it confuses pro-Israelism with Jewish identity. There is no doubt that Israel should be part of Jewish identity. But the thin gruel that is fed Birthright participants contains none of the richness of those traditions and values. It merely serves to bolster the notion of Israel as a beleaguered Jewish bastion in need of our protection at all cost. In this context, it’s useful to read this surprising, plaintive call by a local congregation rabbi to examine the false premises underlying Birthright. In this Ynetnews article, an Israeli demographer of world Jewry has this compelling evaluation of the overall effectiveness of Birthright:
Starting in the 1990s, attempts have been made to boost US Jews’ affiliation with the State of Israel (for example, through the Taglit initiative). According to Ferziger, “These initiatives did increase the participants’ positive emotions towards Israel, but did not prevent the assimilation trend.
In other words, the raison d’etre of the program–that increasing identification with Israel will lead to strengthening of overall Jewish identity–was not borne out by research or evidence. That $1-billion? Down the drain.
Another example of the pro-Israel community having so much funding it doesn’t know what to do with it is the impending Securing the Jewish Future initiative of the Jewish Agency, by which they plan to spend $1-billion to strengthen ties between the Diaspora and Israel. Specifically, the project is designed to strengthen Jewish identity outside Israel, build stronger ties to Israel (i.e., make Jews abroad pro-Israel), and increase aliyah. It’s being hailed as a revolutionary collaboration because the relationship between these two entities is almost always one way: running from the Galut to Israel. This, supposedly, is a carefully planned project that incorporates the views of both parties. In a few days, the Jewish communal Politburo will begin a 72-hour Jam (Hebrew), in which they’ll invite the participation of hundreds of Jews throughout the world who’ll be asked to paint a picture of how they’d like this money spent.
You can’t participate unless you register at the site. When you do, you not only have to provide your name and address, you even have to provide a picture. No picture, no registration. When you do register, you can’t see anything on the website. You can’t read any of the papers prepared by any of the multiple panels of “experts” to address the issues outlined in the promotional material. Instead of reaching out in an open-handed way as it’s being touted, this seems like a very calculated and managed exercise designed to recruit ideas of a self-selected group of the previously initiated.
Like the J Street project above, this is a bloated attempt to be hip and cool, adopting the social media milieu but adding nothing innovative that marks a change from the faded ideas of the past. Just as two states are an ideas whose time has passed, so the Jewish Agency is an organization that lost its way and deserves institutional extinction.
Finally, the real purpose of this initiative seems to be a desperate attempt by the Jewish Agency to search for some relevance in the changing Jewish world. It’s not a secret that its funding and staffing has been cut drastically over the past decade. It is a floundering agency in search of a mission. Unfortunately, it’s still left with far too much money to burn. So it throws it into such empty projects as Securing the Jewish Future.
The Jewish Future doesn’t need beached institutional whales like the Jewish Agency or Birthright to ensure continuity. It needs tolerant, thoughtful, measured projects designed to build strong Jewish identity here in the Diaspora. That should include a healthy relationship with Israel, but one that rejects the worst extremism and ultra-nationalism represented by too much of contemporary Israeli society. It also means distinguishing between the needs of Diaspora and Israeli Jews when these values seem to be in conflict. It means we travel together when we’re on the same path, and diverge when we’re not. That is a concept that scares the bejesus out of our self-appointed Jewish communal mandarins.