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Interview'All Israel can do is get its own act in order'

New Israel Fund CEO’s book is a toolbox for US Jews to discuss Israel-Palestine

In ‘Can We Talk About Israel,’ Daniel Sokatch provides readers of all ages and backgrounds with history and information they can use to engage intelligently about the Jewish state

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, at his office in Jerusalem, June 4, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, at his office in Jerusalem, June 4, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch had originally wanted to call his new book “Israel WTF: Why One Small Mediterranean Country Drives So Many People Completely Nuts.”

Sokatch had to tone down the title, but the heated nature of Israel-related discussions is still front and center in the renamed “Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused and Conflicted.”

Out on Tuesday, the accessibly written tome covers Israeli history from biblical times through the formation of the latest Israeli government in June 2021. It also deals with hot-button issues, including the settlements, the status of Arab Israelis, Evangelical Christian support for Israel, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Sokatch knows that people who take issue with the New Israel Fund — a 42-year-old, US-based nonprofit funding Israel-based civil and human rights organizations and initiatives, as well as reconciliation and conflict resolution efforts straddling the Green Line — may not be inclined to read the book.

“If you have preconceived notions and a hardened opinion — left or right, pro or con — probably you are not going to have a lot of patience for the book, which is steeped in nuance and has empathy for both sides of this debate,” Sokatch said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel from his home in San Francisco.

According to Sokatch, the audience for “Can We Talk About Israel?” is those who want to understand what causes an emotional explosion every time the subject of Israel and Palestine is raised. Although the 384-page book, illustrated by Christopher Noxon, is for all ages, Sokatch especially hopes to reach older teenagers and young adults among the liberal American Jewish majority.

‘Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted’ by Daniel Sokatch, illustrated by Christopher Noxon (Bloomsbury Publishing)

“They say that they have a basic relationship with Israel, but what they read and hear makes it very difficult. I did write the book with that particular demographic in mind. I wanted to capture their attention and give them a way to get into this conversation,” Sokatch said.

Sokatch tackles the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state, as it is often labeled in left-wing, progressive circles. While Sokatch emphasizes that there is no apartheid within the Green Line, he writes that even “truly intellectually honest” right-wing Israelis and Israel supporters would admit that life in the West Bank “resembles some of the most pernicious aspects of apartheid-era South Africa.”

In a chapter titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About BDS,” Sokatch explains the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, and lays out various related considerations.

Sokatch does not support BDS, claiming it is “the wrong set of tools” to be used in Israel’s case.

“The recent election results prove that Israel is a country, like America, that is balanced on a knife’s edge. So you don’t need a sledgehammer like in South Africa. You just need to support the people who are pushing for change,” he asserted.

Supporters of a boycott against Israel protest in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Protesters urging a boycott against Israel in Melbourne, file photo (CC-BY SA Takver/Wikimedia Commons)

That being said, Sokatch is against the demonization or criminalization of people who use BDS tactics, which he views as non-violent means to bring about change and justice. He is also against conflating calls to boycott settlements with calls to boycott Israel, and sees no problem with the European Union’s “meaningful differentiation” policy, whereby it prohibits products made in the settlements from being labeled as “made in Israel.”

“[This] is an effort to leverage [the EU’s] trade relations with Israel to support the two-state solution and to signal to the Israeli people that they may have to choose between the settlements and annexation on the one hand and its warm and beneficial economic relationship with the European Union on the other,” Sokatch writes.

The following is an interview with Sokatch, edited for brevity and clarity, about his new book and some of the issues it highlights.

You are neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and in the book’s introduction you say that you cannot speak for either side. So why should people listen to you?

Being from a place offers an important perspective, but by no means should it ever be the only perspective that helps us understand that place. When we are from a place we have a level of expertise and we are immersed in the culture, but we also don’t always see it as an outsider sees it.

This notion of perspective is super important… I think the whole point of a liberal education approach to any issue is that perspective is critical… I am American telling the story to other Americans. My hope is that my readers will say, I trust this guy, he isn’t trying to propagandize us in any direction. He’s trying as best he can to scrupulously hold to something that looks like the truth, even though the truth is that there are two narratives which have real legitimacy and they have to exist side by side.

Delegates to the Fifth Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1901, where they established the KKL-JNF. (Courtesy KKL-JNF)

Why did you devote two-thirds of the book to historical background?

This was very intentional. A huge part of the problem is that people feel incredibly strongly. They have deeply held, profoundly emotional relationships to a narrative about this issue, but in reality they really don’t know the facts. If you want to have an informed understanding and informed opinions about Israel, you need to know the history.

You will have people asserting that Israel has no right to exist, or people who assert that Israel has the only legitimate claim to Judea and Samaria — and they have no idea what they are talking about. At best they have a spoon-fed tribal narrative that reflects only one iota of the story of what actually happened.

You repeat throughout the book that Israel must safeguard its democracy and be true to its founding principles. But do you not think that Israel is scrutinized more than other countries in this regard?

Liberal Zionists sometimes react to criticism of Israel with “what-about-ism.” I do say in the book that the singularity of focus on Israel, the opprobrium leveled on Israel that is not leveled on other bad-actor states, convinces us that there is something at play beyond criticism of Israel’s policies.

On the other hand, we don’t want to measure Israel in comparison to China, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, North Korea, or Sudan. Israel claims it is part of another community of countries. All the Jews of the world, except for a few on the extreme right wing, want Israel to be part of the community of liberal Western democracies.

Israeli and American officials meet to discuss the 10-year defense aid package given by the US to Israel in Washington, DC, on June 20, 2016. (Department of Defense/US Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen)

I raise not one, but two, eyebrows, when Jews accuse me of singling out Israel. It’s maybe a hard thing for a lot of us to wrestle with, but those non-democratic countries don’t receive more American aid, which is American taxpayer money, than all other countries in the world combined.

The [official Israeli] reaction any time anyone internationally — even Israel’s friends — tries to make a distinction between the settlements and Israel proper reveals the problem on the Israeli side. Israel can’t do that and then complain that people focus on it.

But do critics of Israel understand the geopolitical and security issues of the region?

The Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, allows occupation. Occupation is not illegal if you do not have someone to talk to (and we could argue about that). But you are not allowed to take your civilian population and move it into conquered territory. That is the crux of the problem on the Israeli side, in my opinion.

Yes, Israel is located in a very rough neighborhood, but nobody said it had to move 700,000 Israelis into territory it conquered in the [1967 Six Day] war. That more than any other thing I believe is in disorder on the Israeli side.

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

So what should Israel do?

I would argue that the Israeli prime minister get up tomorrow morning and announce a total freeze on settlements because Israel believes in a two-state solution. That Israel is willing to withdraw as it did in Gaza and Sinai, but only if the conditions are right. And until then, Israel will continue to have a military presence in the West Bank and will continue to guard the [security] wall, but it will not put one more brick in one more settlement that is causing the erosion of trust in the Arab world and the rest of the world.

There are things that Israel can do to affect what happens, and there are things that are out of its control. All Israel can do is get its own act in order. It can’t be responsible for rejectionism on the Palestinian side.

Then you believe that the two-state solution is still alive.

The vogue is to say that the two-state solution is dead. All I can say is that everything I have experienced through my work with NIF and living in Israel in the 1990s, as well as through reading, studying and researching this book, makes me believe that the biggest obstacle is not a lack of political imagination about how the conflict can be resolved. It’s a lack of political will.

I think there are things that an Israeli government can do to build trust and reduce hostility to see what potential is out there… Separation [from the Palestinians] is the only way forward. Furthermore, the idea of [merely] managing, containing or shrinking the conflict is not a way to solidify Israeli-American ties.

Young American Jews participate in a Birthright event in Jerusalem (illustrative photo: Dudi Vaknin/Flash90)
Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)

Do you think there is hope for connecting young, progressive American Jews with Israel going forward?

I never think there is nothing that can be done. If young American  Jews saw a sincerely different attitude on the part of Israeli leadership toward the settlements, the Palestinians and the occupation issue, that would go some way toward repairing the relationship between young American Jews and Israel. But even if that happened, we don’t live anymore in a world where American Jewry will say that their most important issue is Israel.

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