You may not agree with Tom Nides on settlements, but he is a proud Zionist - opinion
President Isaac Herzog spoke on Memorial Day about unity, “Our sons and daughters, who fell in defense of our state, fought together and fell together. They did not ask – nor did anyone ask them – who was right-wing and who was left-wing, who was religious, who was secular, who was Jewish and who was not Jewish. [Their] silence that demands that we fulfill, together, their single dying wish: the resurrection of Israel. The building of Israel. United, consolidated, responsible for each other. For we are all sisters and brothers.” President Herzog’s words encourage us to be less judgmental and more accepting of fellow Zionists.
American Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides smiled sheepishly in response to William Daroff’s question. Nides was sitting alongside Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, on the dais at the annual Conference in Jerusalem. Daroff has asked Nides about his recent comments that he’s never going to visit settlements. Daroff’s question was asked a month before Nides told the left-wing group Americans for Peace Now, “We can’t do stupid things that impede a two state solution, we can’t have the Israelis doing settlement growth in east Jerusalem or the West Bank. I’m a bit of a nag on this, including the idea of settlement growth – which infuriates me, when they do things – just infuriates the situation, both in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
Nides responded to Daroff’s question about not visiting settlements, “I probably could’ve said it a little nicer. I could’ve been a little more artful. I’m trying not to do things that aggravate. Here’s the thing, I will meet with anyone who wants to meet with me, any settler who lives in a settlement who wants to meet with me, come meet with me. I thought it was not right for me today to go in my motorcade and go hangout in a settlement, because I didn’t want people to say, oh, that’s great, when they’re talking about the settlements? I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. I’ll meet with anyone who has a view about settlements... I’m trying not to make things worse, and people say, “Well, you just made it worse by not visiting the settlements. If I’m guilty of that, I’m guilty of that.”
Nides then went on to tell a story, “There was a rabbi, who I will not name, who had written a nice thing about me, and then I made that comment in one of my interviews, and in the paper I said where I lived, and the next morning a letter was delivered to my apartment from this rabbi, and he said you know I’m really disappointed, I liked you. I thought those comments were... he was mad. I called my staff and they said just ignore it, but I picked up the phone and I called him. I said, “You know what, I could’ve been more artful. Why don’t you and I go have a drink? We went out to the Waldorf two weeks ago and now he wants to have cigars next week.” Nides ended by saying, “I try not to do things that aggravate people.”
The settler rabbi in Ambassador Nides’s story is me and in my letter to him I had written, “This weekend, I read with dismay your interview with Israeli media where you stated you’d never visited and will absolutely not visit Israeli towns (settlements) in the West Bank. Your reasoning was that you ‘Didn’t want to do things intentionally that would create disrespect or anger among people.’ Your efforts to not disrespect people are admirable, but it seems to me you’re only concerned with disrespecting Palestinians.”
“Thousands of American citizens have made their homes in Israeli settlements, including our family. You could’ve been diplomatic and said you had no plans to visit us now; your refusal to visit us in our towns shows us great disrespect. I am respectfully requesting a meeting to discuss your interview.”
Although it was never given an official definition, Zionism is considered a movement that stands for the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, Israel. There are many forms of Zionism, eight to my count, and if early Zionists had insisted their form of Zionism was the only legitimate Zionism, the divisions in the movement would’ve killed it.
Zionism has always been a pluralistic movement, allowing for many expressions and opinions within its large tent. Today’s Israel is a mosaic of that same pluralism.
Cancel culture manifests itself strongly in today’s Zionist dialogues. Too many Zionists have taken an unfortunate attitude that only their slice of Zionism is valid. They’ve narrowed the acceptable position to such a thin cut, that few people are legitimate Zionists in their eyes.
This delegitimization of fellow Zionists doesn’t allow for nuanced views, unity in the movement, or to growing the movement past our own four amot (personal domain). This narrow-minded Zionism isn’t true to the early Zionist vision of a diverse Jewish community returning to their land. Herzl, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and Begin would be appalled by the lack of courtesy shown by some to their fellow Zionists.
I don’t agree with Nides on settlements, but I don’t judge people by their political positions, I judge them on their character. Nides is above all, a mensch (an upstanding person). Maybe it’s his Minnesota background, but I’ve rarely met a nicer person. He’s kind, generous and open-minded. Since we went out for drinks, we’ve developed a strong friendship. The ambassador hears me out and I’m appreciative that he takes my advice when I offer it to him (most of the time).
Nides is also a strong Zionist. He cares about Israel and wants it to flourish. As Ambassador from Israel’s strongest ally, he sees part of his role in office as helping Israel prosper.
I appreciated former American Ambassador David Friedman’s positions on settlements as a reality that should be supported much more than Nides’s being infuriated at settlements. I maintain that Israel becomes stronger as its settlements grow. That doesn’t translate into my looking down on Zionists who take an opposite position on this issue. We can disagree with our friends, believe their position weakens Israel, while still appreciating their love and support of Zionism and Israel.
When ambassador Friedman changed the previous American policy of not allowing Jerusalem State Department staff to visit Jewish settlers, I was the first settler-home Embassy and Consulate staff visited. I’m optimistic that eventually I’ll be the first settlement home that Nides visits when he changes his policy on visiting settlements. If Nides never changes his position, I’ll still consider him a friend and more importantly, a Zionist.
The writer is the senior educator at Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Zionist Education Initiative. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.