American Jews seriously rethinking their relationship with Israel

The evidence that American Jews are seriously rethinking their relationship with Israel is growing, as is weariness with what some critics have referred to as “McCarthyism” within the organized American Jewish community, which seeks to stifle any dissent.

“This year has seen a dramatic shift in American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel,” write Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss in the Nov. 2, 2009 issue of The Nation. “In January many liberal Jews were shocked by the Gaza war, in which Israel used overwhelming force against a mostly defenseless civilian population unable to flee. Then came the rise to power of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose explicitly anti-Arab platform was at odds with an American Jewish electorate that had just voted 4-to-l for a minority president. Throw in angry Israelis writing about the ‘rot in the Diaspora,’ and it’s little wonder young American Jews feel increasingly indifferent about a country that has been at the center of Jewish identity for four decades.”

M.J. Rosenberg, a longtime Washington analyst who reports for Media Matters Action Network, called Gaza “the worst public relations disaster in Israel’s history.” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said he was “shamed” by Israel’s actions, while Michele Goldberg wrote in the Guardian that Israel’s killing of hundreds of civilians as reprisal for rocket attacks was “brutal” and probably “futile.”

Rabbi Brent Rosen of Evanston, Illinois, says that for years he’d had an “equivocating voice” in his head that rationalized Israel’s actions. “During the first and second intifadas and the war in Lebanon, I would say, ‘It’s complicated.’ Of course, Darfur is complicated, but that doesn’t stop the Jewish community from speaking out. There’s nothing complicated about oppression. When I read the reports on Gaza, I didn’t have the equivocation anymore.”

Rabbi Rosen has initiated an effort called Ta’anit Tzedek, or the Jewish Fast for Gaza. Each month more than 70 rabbis across the country, along with interfaith leaders and concerned individuals, partake in a daylong fast in order “to end the Jewish community’s silence over Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza.”

The Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has seen its mailing list double, to 90,000, with up to 6,000 signing on each month. Jewish youths have played a key role. Horowitz and Weiss report: “A group of young bloggers, notably Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman and Dana Goldstein have criticized Israel to the point that Marty Peretz of The New Republic felt a need to smear them during the Gaza fighting, saying ‘I pity them their hatred of their inheritance.'”

In the view of Horowitz and Weiss, “There are signs Washington is feeling changes. Several members of Congress visited Gaza, and some dared to criticize Israel. After Democrats Brian Baird, Keith Ellison and Rush Holt returned, they had a press conference on Capitol Hill led by Daniel Levy…who has played a key role in the emergence of J Street. The congressmen called for Israel to lift the blockade. After first-term Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) visited Gaza and called for a vigorous debate about the conflict there, old-line lobbyists came out against her. But J Street rallied to her side, raising $30,000 for her in a show of support.”

An example of the rethinking of the relationship between American Jews and Israel can be seen in the first annual conference of J Street, a one-year-old self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby,” whose executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, says it is fighting for the “heart and soul of the American Jewish community.” Unlike AIPAC, J Street intends to push aggressively for a two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Prior to the Washington meeting, attended by more than l,500 people in October in Washington, DC (see report on p. 55), J Street came under a withering attack from both established American Jewish groups and the Israeli government. A full page ad in the Oct. 22, 2009 Washington Jewish Week sponsored by the group StandWith Us, declared that “J Street’s positions undermine Israel’s search for peace and security.” A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy declared that J Street supports policies that could “impair Israel’s interests.” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, a native American who repudiated his U.S. citizenship, boycotted the J Street conference.

Money Talks

What sets J Street apart, wrote Douglas Bloomfield in the Oct. 29 Washington Jewish Week, “…and so terrifies the hard-line establishment, is that it has a political action committee that raises and contributes money for political campaigns, something essential to being an effective player today…Its greatest appeal is to younger and progressive Americans…who are turned off by the Israel-first establishment’s intolerance of dissent and its steady right-wing tilt, something that has been on display in the recent–”and failed–”effort to stifle J Street…The Netanyahu government and its ambassador here may be shunning J Street, but not the White House. The group has been invited to its meetings the president has held with national Jewish leaders, and some of its leaders have close ties to senior policy makers…What is going on is an attempt by the establishment to define what it means to be pro-Israel, to make that definition ever more ideologically restrictive and to paint J Street as unacceptable. That won’t work. Hypocrisy and political turf protecting, not concern for Israel, is what’s driving the over-the-top J Street opposition.”

Reported The Economist: “If this flood of denigration was intended to drown J Street at birth, it seems to have failed. Israel’s Likud-led government may have stayed away from its conference, but the president, Shimon Peres, and Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, expressed their support. James Jones, America’s national security adviser, not only gave a speech but made a point of saying that the Obama administration would be represented at future meetings as well. Although some invitees pulled out, more than 40 members of Congress attended a gala dinner. So J Street has planted a foot in the door.”

Writing in The Forward of Nov. 6, 2009, columnist Leonard Fein lamented the efforts to boycott and isolate J Street: “There were very many young people at theJ Street conference. By his studied absence, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. sent a message to these young people: You are not welcome in the camp. You had the audacity to criticize our war in Gaza, you oppose the immediate imposition of sanctions on Iran; you do not take your cues from our preferences and decisions. No matter, then, that so many of you find a breath of fresh air in an awfully stale room, no matter that you seem to care, to really care, for Israel’s safety and welfare. Go away. The message is, in a word, intolerable. In two words, it is both stupid and intolerable.”

The efforts to stifle dissent and impose uniformity upon American Jewish life by those in the organized Jewish community are coming under increasing criticism.

Columnist Jay Michaelson stirred controversy with a column in the Sept. 25 Forward entitled “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel.”

“To paraphrase a recent Jewish organizational tagline,” he wrote, “I’ve ‘hugged and wrestled with Israel’ for 20 years now. At first, it was all embrace, Zionist songs and culture nourished me like mother’s milk, and on my first trip to Israel I kissed the tarmac at Ben-Gurion as did other USF [United Synagogue Youth] kids. Eventually, the wrestling came to the fore, particularly as I became more conscious of the Palestinians, settlements, and religious-secular divides…I’ve loved Israel for decades, lived there for three years…And so it is with the sadness that accompanies the end of any affair that I notice my love is starting to wane.”

Michaelson recalled that, “When my more liberal friends used to call me out about Israeli politics, I would sometimes respond that the picture they had, shaped by Western media, was a distorted one…But, you know, a Southerner in the 1950s or an Afrikaaner in the late 1980s might say similar things…Finally, I think my love of Israel is fading because I feel personally implicated by its injustices.”

In a subsequent column in the Oct. 30 Forward, Michaelson reported that, “Since the publication of ‘How I’m Losing My Love for Israel’…the most disturbing responses have not been the vitriolic e-mails or online comments nor the thoughtful and well reasoned replies…Rather, I have been most troubled by the statements of many Jewish professionals–”rabbis, federation leaders, non-profit directors–”who have told me, ‘Thank you for saying what I cannot.'”

He asks: “Why is it that they cannot say what I said? Because they fear for their jobs, or fear their organizations would be harmed if they expressed their opinion? And what opinion is that, which they and I share? Is it hatred of Israel? Support for the terrorists of Hamas? No. It is ambivalence, uncertainty or reservations regarding the State of Israel…This is outrageous, and it has shocked me in the weeks since the column was published.”

An Abusive Lover

While noting that he continues to “love” Israel, Michaelson declared that Israel “does not deserve the kind of love–”unconditional, unwavering–”that many in our community demand. This is so not because we are unfaithful, but because our lover has become abusive…Fortunately, I think the American Jewish community is at a tipping point on these issues…I think one reason my little personal essay struck such a chord is that, between J Street, President Obama, and these shifts in the American Jewish community, there’s an understanding that the tide has begun to turn…I loathe the company we Zionists are forced to keep: ethnocentrists, know-nothings, warmongers and worse; that angry pseudo-majority whose Disney-fied myths eclipse the region’s messy realities, who dehumanize Arabs and furiously lob the words ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘Holocaust’ like rhetorical hand-grenades. What they love is not what I love.”

While many Jewish groups have existed in the past–”such as Breira–”which challenged the Jewish establishment’s posture with regard to Israel, the atmosphere at the present time appears to represent something genuinely new and hopeful.

“Why is J Street apparently achieving what has eluded so many others?” asked Edward Witten in The New York Review of Books. “One reason is surely that the time is ripe. The gap has kept widening between the spectrum of views held by American Jews, especially those of the younger generation, and the far narrower range of views advocated by those who represent the national Jewish community in Washington, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is widely seen both as influential with legislators and as reflecting the perspective of the Israeli government.”

Witten continued, “As one congressman, visibly impressed by the scale of theJ Street event, told me, ‘The rapid growth of J Street shows how much it was needed.'”

The Israeli government is clearly unhappy with the current trends within the American Jewish community. It may even be said that it is attempting to interfere in the American political process in an effort to stifle criticism of its policies.

Speaking to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington in November, Israeli Ambassador Oren called on American Jews to mount their own boycott against Iran. “It is up to American Jewish communities to add Iran to their list of causes,” he said. “Next to banners by synagogues and Jewish groups protesting the genocide in Darfur and the hunger in Africa, there should also be banners calling for sanctions on Iran and to stop the Iranian bomb.”

In his speech, Ambassador Oren also denounced the U.N. report that found evidence of Israeli war crimes in its Gaza offensive in January, charging that the report spread “doubts about Israel’s legitimacy.”

Speaking at the same meeting, Ukrainian-born Israeli Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, criticizedJ Street: “If they really represent the essential portion of Jews they have to prove it. I really hope that they don’t represent an essential number of American Jews.”

J Street responded as follows: “J Street believes that Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy is inextricably tied to a two-state solution, and polling consistently shows that the vast majority of American Jews, in fact, agree.”

It is difficult to cite another example of a foreign government wielding its influence in such a direct manner to direct the policy positions of an American religious organization. The words and actions of Ambassador Oren and Mr. Sharansky show how seriously Israel takes the emerging new American Jewish majority which rejects the notion that American Jews must support Israeli policies which they believe to be contrary to the interests of a real and just Middle East peace.