Israel’s young for a country — it’ll turn 70 this May — but old enough to have amassed a significant history. (And that’s just the state of Israel, of course; the Jewish people have a few millennia of backstory.)
Many other significant anniversaries of events that have shaped Israel occurred as well.
Last November was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, that short document in which the British government stated its support of a homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people. And in June Israel celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, when it reclaimed all of Jerusalem and started on the path that took it from that extraordinary emotional high, from being the world’s darling, to where it is today, a symbol of much (although certainly not all) of the focus of criticism from the world.
Policy analyst Dr. Eric Mandel, who founded and directs the Middle East Political and Information Network, will tell that story at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on Wednesday (see box for details).
Dr. Mandel’s credentials are in large part autodidactic; he earned the title doctor in medical school, and later went on to become a corneal microsurgeon who made his name in pioneer laser vision correction. He has focused that laser vision on the Middle East, using the analytic tools he sharpened as a researcher and clinician to learn about politics from politicians and about the Middle East from Jewish organizations, experts, and his own wide-ranging experiences. He is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and frequently speaks on college campuses.
By now, Dr. Mandel’s expertise is so respected that he often briefs members of Congress. “On the positive side, Israel has unprecedented relationships with the Sunni Gulf states,” he said, reporting on the summary he gave earlier in the week. “On the negative side, Israel’s partner, the Palestinian Agency, spends literally 50 percent of its foreign aid on paying terrorists and their families, incentivizing terrorists, and continuing not to prepare their people for a two-state solution. Actually, from a top-down level, they are teaching incitement against the existence of the state of Israel in every territorial dimension.”
He has what he calls “a shorthand phrase” that describes the situation in the Middle East. “When this conflict becomes territorial and not existential to the Palestinians, we will solve it very easily.”
“I don’t want people to think of this talk as a history lesson,” Dr. Mandel said. “I want to take them on a journey from the Balfour Declaration to the Six-Day War until now, and to bring up all the challenges of all those events, because those challenges are still alive.
“From the Palestinian refugee problem to the status of Jerusalem to a Jewish state to two states for two peoples to contemporary radical Islamism and even to Iran — and Iran is Israel’s most existential threat today — it’s all profoundly intertwined with that history,” Dr. Mandel said. He cites facts, and also he makes clear that facts always are situated in contexts, and those contexts often are manipulated, misstated, or left unexplained. “Just because the international world community, which is mainly not democratic, says something, that doesn’t make it true. Or ethical. Or moral,” he said.
“I want to explain the facts” — facts about the 1949 armistice lines, about the Green Line, about U.N. Resolution 242 — he said. “I want to explain them in the context of what actually is. I want to differentiate between what people say, especially in the Arab world, and what they mean or do. I want to look at what the possibilities are, based on Israel being a young country, going forward, and how all these things are interrelated in a game of five-dimensional chess.
“One thing I like is to get people out of our Western perspective, out of the idea that there are immediate solutions and simple black-and-white choices,” he said. “America, and American Jews, really don’t understand the Middle East. They don’t understand its challenges. They don’t understand its history. They don’t understand that it is really in a very bad part of the world.
“The American Jewish community needs to understand that the Jewish people do not need the international community to give them permission for a Jewish state. There is a 4,000-year history of a Jewish civilization and presence there, and a 1,200-year history of wanting to go back.”
Like many other pundits, Dr. Mandel is unhappy about the state of polarization in our worlds — cultural, political and otherwise. “We live in a hyper-polarized environment,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where we are on the political spectrum, we only go to news sources that are echo chambers for the things we already believe. We live in a world where we don’t respect other people’s opinions, and we demonize people if we don’t agree with their policy solutions. This is an unhealthy environment in so many ways.
“And this is not new,” he added. “It has been going on for many years. I have watched it evolve in Congress. It has been exacerbated by the new administration, but it is not new.”
He is disturbed by what he sees as unfair news coverage. “I think that news sources that claim to be impartial and unbiased have been perpetuating a fraud on the public by editorializing the news to advance an agenda,” he said. “We now see that more clearly since the new administration has come into being — it has been fast and loose with some facts. But don’t blame it all on that administration. If Trump had not been there, the majority of the problems we deal with in getting unvarnished, factually in-context material to make educated decisions still would be virtually impossible to ignore.
“We live in a world where one person’s facts are another person’s lies, and politics has been spinning facts for a long time. And I live in a world where I believe that nobody is entitled to his own set of facts.
“When I go to Congress, I speak on both sides of the aisle, and when I dish it out I do it fairly, to both sides. I am an opinion writer. I don’t write news articles. I try to give everyone as many facts as possible, even when I am writing about my own opinions. I give a lot of respect to different policy choices, even when I disagree with them.
“We need a lot more of that.”
Dr. Mandel thinks that credit must be given where it is due, even if the act of handing over that credit is unpleasant. “You might dislike everything else the current president does, but if he does something positive, like recognizing Jerusalem, I will give him credit. And that’s even though I do think that a lot of other things are more important. But we live in a world where your political enemy is beyond being your enemy. Your political enemy in our world is somebody who is beyond the pale. It is somebody you must destroy.”
Just as the United States is polarized, so too is Israel, Dr. Mandel said. He takes as an example the country’s most well-known news sources. “Yediot Ahronot refers to itself as the anti-Bibi newspaper,” he said. “Haaretz, which is a very small paper within Israel, is read by all the foreign journalists, and it totally editorializes the news to be harshly critical of its own government, and yet it is considered representative by the international journalists’ community of unbiased reporting, which is far from the truth.
“But I am equal opportunity. People on both sides take tremendous liberties with the truth. Our president is just so crude and crass, but there are people who are much more polished and say things that are just as outrageous. But you have to be more sophisticated to see how disgusting it is.
“We see this with the BDS movement and the people who align with it. People use words that sound good — social justice, for example — but very often they have an alignment with some anti-human-rights organizations. Israel is so disproportionately criticized — there is more condemnation of Israel at the U.N. than of all the other nations in the world, including the world’s leading human rights abuser, China, and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran.
“We see in the pages of the New York Times, which many people think is unbiased, a vigorous defense of Iran, in favor of saving the agreement” — the famous or infamous Iran arms deal, depending on which side of it you’re on — even though Iran remains one of the most illiberal nations in the world, and one of the few nations that has publicly and repeatedly called for the destruction of another state.” That state, of course, is Israel.
“Let me tie all this back to what I will be talking about,” Dr. Mandel said. “When I talk about the Israel/Palestinian conflict, and Israel and Iran and Israel and Jordan and Lebanon and Syria, as we move out to look at the concentric circles of the Middle East, we see that they are all connected. You cannot look at them independently if you are to come up with answers.
“I show people maps to help them understand the region. I tell them what the leaders say in Arabic, not in English, and what the polls of the Palestinians by the Palestinians show.
“We have to understand that the news we get is agenda-driven, whether it is from the New York Times, from Fox, from NPR, from MSNBC. It should be considered opinion. I am trying to open up people’s eyes.”
Although his worldview sounds negative — “My 88-year-old mom says that she doesn’t like reading my columns because you keep depressing me” — and “I don’t want to sugar-coat things that shouldn’t be sugar-coated,” Dr. Mandel said, “unless we look at issues as they are, instead of how we wish them to be, we will never solve them for the long term.
“I am a pragmatist. I am a realist. I believe in a moral, values-based American foreign policy. But if we can get past the delusions that we have, and think out of the box — and that would be thinking not in the way that our American State Department thinks — then we can lower the flames in the Middle East.
“After all,” he concluded, “the only thing worse than America being involved in the Middle East is America not being involved in the Middle East.”
Who: Dr. Eric Mandel
What: Will talk about “The 100th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and How It Affects Israel Today”
When: On Wednesday, January 17, at 8 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Road in Tenafly
How much: It’s free and open to the community, and there will be refreshments
For information and reservations: email firstname.lastname@example.org