by SHIRA WEISS || In the interest of full disclosure, I am a New York area-based liberal Jew. I am passionate about the land of milk and honey, but in my day-to-day life I tend to weigh my words about Israeli-Palestinian politics carefully. I wasn’t always this hyper aware. There was a time when life seemed more simplistic to me in this regard.
I grew up never hearing the word “Zionism” laden with the interpretations and connotations it is given in the media today. I didn’t view it as a movement per se. I learned the word as simply meaning “one who loves Israel.” Period. It was a literal translation, end of story. Of course, that will sound like naiveté to the readers of this piece. However, the world is more complicated than one perceives it as a child.
Back then, I wasn’t up to speed on the discussion about the “occupied territories” – at least not in the manner that reflects the messy Middle East conflict today. As a Jew, a love of Israel and its history was instilled within me via the teachings at my Jewish day school. The subject wasn’t as nuanced and debate-fraught as I currently witness it as an adult. While we were aware of contentiousness between factions in the region, of enemies and those who wanted to see others fall, the overarching message I heard was about tikkun olam, (the literal translation: “fixing the world”).
That extends to working with the rest of the world’s inhabitants to make it a great place, fostering respect among people across the many divides.
Much later I would come to realize how fractious things are with regard to people’s feelings and opinions on the Middle East. That would include thoughts on who should have land, who was in the right or who was in the wrong, who was being misrepresented and so on. After graduating from a Jewish high school, I went to a secular university. I look back on that experience as a blessing because there I became friends with people from all walks of life. It was there that I made my first Muslim friends – including individuals of Palestinian descent.
I would eventually discover, however, that conversations about Israel never went entirely well. With my Jewish friends too, the discussions were inherently complicated and non-constructive. Many of my friends – including former classmates – had become far more complex thinkers, notably more flustered since our carefree days on the playground.
My Muslim friends and I mutually decided to put the kibosh on political discussions – but one close friend recently remarked to me that she was relieved I wasn’t a “Zionist.” This immediately gave me pause. I wanted to explain the definition I had learned long ago. I wanted to state that Zionism simply meant, in literal terms, “lover of Israel” – and I do love Israel.
However, things were no longer as literal as I once had perceived them to be.
“I really want peace and to obliterate prejudice,” I responded to my friend. “I want to come to some resolution about the land. I’m unashamed to admit that I don’t know what in the world that entails. I am against injustices and threats to human rights.”
Some of my Jewish friends would refer to my stance – and my lack of desire to engage in a debate about it – a “cop-out.” I would have people unfriend me on Facebook for this very reason. I just didn’t feel knowledgeable or brave enough to fully enter into this heated political fray. I don’t know what the solutions are and would not profess to know them. I fully acknowledge those personal limitations.
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(Via: Getty Images)
I often had to extricate myself somewhat from weighing in at social gatherings because of the passion that exists on both sides of this debate. I had to refrain from commenting on media bias to the chagrin of many. Unlike me, my acquaintances had become either more militant or fell staunchly on one side of a divide. Yes, I share the sentiments of many in my community that the media can be anti-Semitic (it’s a slippery slope from expressing anti-Israel to anti-Semitic thoughts). It’s a grievance I hear and I’ve seen how The New York Times can be skewed and biased.
I’ve also heard it from my friends regarding the Palestinian side. Interestingly, both groups seem to take particular issue with The New York Times coverage, stating that the newspaper is incredibly biased. I can empathize with the sentiment that there is scapegoating, unfair blame and a creation of narratives.
Although the opinions of the individuals quoted in this article do not necessarily reflect my own views, when Barack Obama was president I heard many people in my Jewish community complain that he was “no friend to Israel.” Some felt strongly that his final measures with the United Nations (UN) regarding Israel were an “F.U.” to the country.
In the aftermath, I would witness another slippery slope when it came to criticizing the former president. I began to hear remarks that struck me as potentially racist and Islamaphobic. The Obama-Israel discussion is nuanced and fraught with gripes of injustice among a contingent of the community I grew up in, and I saw people who were very disgruntled with the UN at that point in time.
That brings me to former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
When she assumed her post at the UN, many of my fellow New Yorkers were not as familiar with Haley as South Carolina residents are. Yes, we had read up on her … somewhat. Salient among her achievements was taking down the Confederate flag following the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston, S.C. But as one South Carolina resident mentioned that was notable and we were keenly aware of it because, from a PR perspective, it was headline-worthy.
There was also local debate in the Palmetto State about Haley’s other actions and policies – her responses and at times, lack of response. But when Haley began her work at the UN, the comments I heard around me from those disgruntled with Obama, sounded like cheers of jubilation – even if the issue was singular in nature: Israel.
For so many, Israel is always at the top of their mind and the bottom of their heart. Having a brother who lives there, it is certainly on my own mind. However, I try not to be a single-issue thinker or voter. I realize I’m living in America at the moment and while I greatly consider Israel, I have to heavily weigh what I feel is right for our country and for the American people.
Do Haley’s politics align with my own overall? Mainly not. I’m quite liberal … but this is where I’ll finally interrupt my long introduction. The rest of this article is not about me: It’s about a contingent of individuals I’ve observed. The views expressed below are theirs and do not necessarily reflect my own.
Hearing certain folks praise Haley, I decided I should listen and get their takes. I spoke with several individuals, mainly people from the Jewish community, about the UN ambassador, and the majority of responses to her were positive. The countering voices belonged to folks who took issue with her policies in South Carolina as governor as well as stances taken in her current position.
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“The United Nations was notoriously … NOT pro-Israel,” one friend says cautiously. She asks that I not refer to her by name. In the days that follow, a few more individuals will come forward with the same request of me.
“Nikki Haley has stood up for Israel,” my friend continued. “She doesn’t back down and frankly, we’ve been waiting a very long time for a change. Israel is a democracy and a strong ally of the United States. They should be treated in kind.”
Another friend who is present for this conversation interjects: “Haley is incredibly regressive when it comes to other issues and that’s entirely problematic for me. Yes, I do like that she’s ‘good for Israel.’ I like that she stands up and won’t be bullied and that there’s finally an advocate for Israel in the UN, but she’s part of what I see as the volatile Trump administration. I’d like to see someone more progressive and less egregiously militaristic in her position. I also consider the fact that she’s seen by many as a ‘warmonger.’ I think that will backfire for Israel and the perception that others have of Israel. We won’t look good at the end of the day. I hear people talking about how she’s interested in running for president, but don’t even talk to me about that! I don’t want to see anyone in the current administration as president of the United States.”
Mande Wilkes is a South Carolinian who happens to also be Jewish. One of her parents is Israeli. She wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of the former governor and questions some of her actions now. While Wilkes can appreciate Haley speaking positively about Israel, she states: “I’m pro-Israel, but not at ANY COST. I do not believe that Israel should be beholden to the U.S. when it comes to military funding.”
Wilkes adds that when Haley was governor and removed the confederate flag, she was one of the locals who saw it as an optics move to cater to the PC liberal media.
“I’m not a fan of symbols,” she said.
However, what Wilkes does appreciate are Haley’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses.
“She’s going to the source, not the Fox news audience,” Wilkes said. “I appreciate that because this is a group of emerging adults who are going to voice their opinions on Israel soon. I don’t see other people going to college campuses the way Nikki Haley has, certainly not John Bolton. I’m also glad that she supported the embassy move to Jerusalem because Israel’s government is in Jerusalem, bottom line.”
While Wilkes is reluctant about singing Haley’s praises, David Kerner quite literally shows no such hesitation. He composed a tune hailing Haley (he is also lead singer) and even asked if I’d be interested in playing it at a summer barbecue (I politely declined).
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“It seems to me that when dealing with representatives of rogue nations that have long histories of gross human and civil rights abuses, diplomatic niceties should be kept to a minimum,” says Kerner, “The opening verse in the song plays with the rock ’n roll metaphor, and that’s not just a cute thing. While her name does have a rock ‘ring’ to it, Ambassador Haley does evoke, to me, the rocker mentality/stance of singing truth to power – a kind of ‘we’re not gonna take it anymore’ attitude.”
I find that I’m humming the tune as I write because it’s just that catchy – as disconcerting as that is to admit.
Jessica Davidson Miller of Washington, DC uses the same word “rock star” to say she doesn’t think that’s what Haley is at all. “I understand that at all levels politicians are opportunists, but she does not seem to stand for anything except pursuing higher office. I think there is a lot of naivete out there among people who are crazy about her, feeling that she actually cares about Israel. She cares about her political career and that is pretty much it.”
Joseph Icikson of NYC, who I discover through a liberal Facebook group I belong to, says “I truly appreciate her work standing up for Israel regardless of her politics. I don’t like anything else about her, but I still respect what I do agree with her on. I feel the same way about many left-wing people with whom I agree on most issues – while being starkly against their Israel policies. It is very important to not be absolute and to understand that we can’t agree with everyone on everything. Thus, we should recognize what does speak to us and does connect to our ideas and opinions.”
I encounter Joshua Shanes in the same group as Icikson.
He writes me: “I moved to South Carolina in 2006. I am not among her fans, because I know of her record as governor and find it quite troubling. Whether you support that record depends on your perspective. For example, if you think the governor should have ‘resisted’ calls for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capital after the Charleston AME church massacre, then she’s for you. Because she waited many days to call for its removal, until the tide of public opinion overwhelmed her. If you think she should have turned down Medicaid expansion, leaving tens of thousands without healthcare (some of whom died), then she’s for you. If you thought that the lawsuit blaming her for incompetent management of the (state’s social services agency) and the death of children under her watch was unfair, then she’s for you. I could go on. She has a reputation for a moral compass that is totally undeserved. She does what she does to increase her capital and advance her career, including at the UN, for between evangelicals and Sheldon Adelson, the Republican bread is currently buttered on the side of right-wing Zionism.”
Hilary Goldstein of Westchester, New York, on the other hand, has only high praise for Haley:
“Her being the most pro-Israel ambassador is very important to me. Even if that’s ALL she did, I would be on board. But she isn’t afraid to stand up to other countries which shows guts. When other countries violated human rights, America never really did anything about it. Maybe they spoke up briefly, but Haley actually protests against these countries . When countries who we give a ton of aid to don’t vote along with the US, she actually takes names down. Then she threatens to cut aid from them. Maybe that is unsavory to some, but America finally has a back bone in my opinion. She isn’t embarrassed to be pro-Israel which is huge to me. She also doesn’t feel the need to cater to and sympathize with countries who either want to wipe Israel off the map, or who support other countries with those feelings. She has a very commanding presence, is a great speaker and she empowers women everywhere. When she goes to third world countries, she always makes a point of meeting with young girls. She talks with them about their dreams. S he expresses wanting them to be whatever they hope to be when they grow up. She is very inspirational to me on a personal level as I’m someone with somewhat low confidence. She’s crucified by the left all the time in the media and she never waivers or backtracks.”
Rickey Klein of Seattle, Washington has way harsher words about Haley, seeing her as an offensive regressive:
“Nikki Haley is okay with the death penalty being an acceptable punishment for being LGBT. If you’re ok with that stance, you are a terrible person regardless of any other positive ideas she may espouse.”
It seems like a major affront to Klein’s point of view when a former neighbor of mine tells me he thinks of Haley as “righteous” and he’s not saying so ironically. He has told me in the past that he’s against gay marriage being legalized because, he explains, he’s a traditionalist.
“It’s so nice to see an honest, righteous person with a spine…man or woman,” he remarks as he adds in a few jabs about my liberalism for good measure, “I’m going to continue thinking she’s utterly fantastic until I have a reason not to, and have no reason at this juncture to not pray that she very fittingly becomes our first female president, and with Ben Shapiro possibly as our first Jewish VP.”
I try not to say my “oy vey” aloud (Don’t get me started on Ben Shapiro!), but his thoughts are not foreign to me. I have heard them before in the very neighborhood where I live. Despite residing in a blue state, I am on a block with people who are likeminded to him – people who would rejoice if Nikki Haley were to run in the next presidential election.
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Would those in her home state feel the same way?
Katie Norris of Charleston is not Jewish (but has Jewish friends locally who are not Haley fans). She tells me: “A lot of people were surprised when Donald Trump appointed Nikki Haley to serve as U.N. Ambassador. To those of us in South Carolina, it wasn’t particularly surprising. For one, moving Nikki Haley to a federal appointment allowed Trump to gift his ardent early supporter Henry McMaster with something the voters of South Carolina never did: The governorship. Secondly, Haley has a lot in common with Trump if you look beneath the surface and examine her record. She made several disastrous political appointments of personal friends and political supporters. She has a loose relationship with facts. Her relationship with both the South Carolina General Assembly and local media was contentious. Haley is polished but the similarities are there. And let’s be clear, the Confederate flag came down chiefly because Dylan Roof murdered nine people in Mother Emanuel Church. Nikki Haley showed leadership in that moment by affirming that the flag should come down but only when the political will, both in South Carolina and nationally, signaled clearly that supporting the removal of the flag would earn Haley political capital.”
She adds: “The thing about Haley that really makes her role at the UN interesting is she never cared much for rule of law when she was governor. She used the law when it suited her, bent and broke it to thwart her opponents, and wasn’t particularly discrete about her belief that she should be able to create policy on the fly to suit her needs as South Carolina’s chief executive.”
The objections voiced about Haley are anathema to the conservative pro-Israel contingent that I know. I can sense their outrage and Elad Nehorai (@PopChassid), who considers himself a liberal Jew and is very focused on many aspects of human rights, shares his mixed feelings about the UN ambassador. Nehorai is a respected writer and blogger who became an Orthodox Jew several years ago. He is often consulted by the media and quoted for his political thoughts as well as reflections from the Jewish community.
As a keen observer and commentator, he hears many opinions about the UN ambassador and the Trump administration.
“Nikki Haley says a lot of things that the UN needs to hear and I admire when she stood up for herself and said ‘I don’t get confused,’” he tells me, referencing this recent imbroglio.
“However, there are problems,” he continued. “Haley’s strength is important to the UN, but that’s also complicated. Viewing this from the Israel lens, anyone who understands the pressures Israel faces can also understand that the more one is associated with Trump, the more they will suffer. Trump is a narcissist and uses people, things and places to make himself rise higher. Everything he touches is ‘expendable’ to him – that is literally the word Giuliani used when he commented on how the president sees his own son-in-law with regard to the Mueller investigation. However great Haley is, she’s tarnished herself via her association with Trump. If she gets in his crosshairs or if there is tremendous backlash against people complicit in Trump’s evil, part of the collateral damage will be the blow to her reputation. Of course, many will blame the Democrats because that’s been the pattern – even when they are not to blame. With Haley, there’s an impressively independent voice in the UN, but there will be inevitable backlash for those who support the Iraq war. We saw that with Hillary Clinton as well. In general, we don’t realize how quickly public opinion changes. With that, I don’t foresee a scenario where anyone in this administration comes out untarnished.”
I’ve discovered that those who share my heritage don’t hold back. And while I may personally shirk most of these debates, there is an incredible amount of ongoing discussion that showcases clashing perspectives.
“I am an unabashed Democrat of the Lyndon Johnson variety,” says Leonard Oberstein of Baltimore, Maryland. “I would vote for Nikki Haley for president. She is a normal human being, not an extremist. She has good people skills and has balance. She has governing experience and now, foreign policy experience and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks. Nikki Haley is the best friend of Israel at the UN since Moynihan. It is time for the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India to break the glass ceiling and become our first female President.”
Shira Hirschman Weiss is a New Jersey based correspondent who grew up in the New York area right outside of Manhattan. She is a former contributor to the Huffington Post and a freelance writer who has covered a wide variety of topics ranging from technology and religion to reality TV and entertainment. You can see some of her recent musings on her personal website ShirasGotTheScoop.com..