By: Kayla Benjamin
Tuesday marked the beginning of this semester’s Falafel Lunch Discussions. Hosted by AU’s Center for Israel Studies, this biweekly lunch series offers a chance for AU students to learn about current events relating to Israel. During each lunch, Professor Guy Ziv leads a lively debate and thoughtful examination of a wide range of topics. Plus, there is always pita, falafel, and hummus from Shemali’s. As a regular attendee and discussion enthusiast, I wanted to take the end of the Fall 2019 series as an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve talked about over the course of the semester.
In just five one-hour lunches, the conversation has led our small group through a number of interesting topics.
First and foremost, we talked about Israeli domestic politics, and the fall semester has provided no shortage of discussion in that arena. In April 2019, the right-wing coalition won more seats, but Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party, Likud, was not able to form a coalition without joining with its major rival, Blue and White. Thus, snap elections had to be held in September. Blue and White won one more Knesset seat than Likud, but not much has changed: the struggle to form a coalition has dragged on. Netanyahu failed to form a government and the task was handed to Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz, who also failed to form a government.
To complicate things, Netanyahu is currently embroiled in multiple corruption scandals. We spent the semester waiting with bated breath for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to announce his indictment decisions. Now that he has spoken, this could be the beginning of the end for Netanyahu.
In our lunchtime conversations, we also went over other odds and ends surrounding the Israeli election cycle: how the Parliamentary system works, which parties stand for what policies, and where the Israeli public tends to stand on a variety of issues.
Another common theme during several lunches was the US-Israeli relationship. The Trump administration has made several highly symbolic decisions to show support for Israel -- often in ways that explicitly exclude Palestinians. The administration chose to move the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, cut aid funding to Palestinian projects, and — most recently — declared that the US no longer considers Israel’s settlements in the West Bank illegal. The falafel lunches served as a comfortable space for healthy debate about the pros and cons of such policies.
Further, we talked about the personal relationship between President Trump and Netanyahu. The two share some striking characteristics and have in the past publicly demonstrated a strong friendship. However, following Netanyahu’s September loss, Trump seems to have changed his tune somewhat.
Other international policies adopted by the US have affected Israel too. We spent one lunch talking about Trump’s unexpected move to pull troops out of Syria and abandon the Kurds. For one thing, this sends a message to other long-time allies, like Israel, that the US government is a fickle friend. Furthermore, continued American disengagement from the Middle East -- which began under President Obama but has accelerated under President Trump -- has many in Israel worried about losing US protection from regional adversaries.
The US’s decreased involvement in the region also provides an opening for Russian influence. Netanyahu has long walked a thin line in his relationship with President Vladimir Putin, for fear of displeasure from the US, Israel’s biggest ally. However, Trump’s praise for and dealings with Putin have sent the message that a relationship with Russia may not necessarily cause a problem between the US and Israel.
US domestic politics, that constant AU conversation topic, also featured widely in our lunch discussions. Israel is at the center of a number of political choices and statements made by government officials and interest groups.
In March, a series of tweets from Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) ignited a fierce debate about antisemitism. We delved into the topic at one lunch, exploring a number of different facets of the issue. What is the relationship between antisemitism and Israel? Who gets called out for it and why? Where is the line between merely ignorant and deliberately bigoted?
In August, Omar and fellow congresswoman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) were prevented from taking a planned trip to Israel after President Trump encouraged Netanyahu to bar them from the country. Under a 2017 Israeli law, anyone who has publicly supported boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) can be blocked from entering the country at the government’s discretion.
Other lunch discussions about American politics in relation to Israel have been less tied to the news cycle. We spent time talking about similarities and differences in political stances taken by American and Israeli Jewry. Most American Jews vote Democrat, and many do not list policies toward Israel as a key voting issue. Meanwhile, Israelis tend to be more conservative. Furthermore, the conflict with Palestine is much lower on the Israeli political agenda than the conversation amongst American Jews tends to suggest.
Finally, we talked about American political interest groups focused on Israel, particularly J Street and AIPAC. At this year’s convention for J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization pushing for a two-state solution, several Democratic presidential candidates floated the idea of cutting military aid if Israel continued to annex land in the West Bank. This suggestion has met considerable resistance in the past, and the fact that candidates are bringing it up now suggests a major shift within the Democratic party.
It’s rare in college that one gets to learn just for the sake of it. But at our biweekly lunches, that’s exactly what I get to do. I care about Israel, and I know everyone else at the table does too. It’s a phenomenal space to explore new ideas, formulate opinions, learn about current events, and enjoy some falafel.
Kayla is a sophomore studying Journalism and Political Science. She enjoys learning about Israel as a way to to explore global human rights, international politics, and Judaism.