Given how influential the lobby is, it’s easy to forget that the airtight relationship between Israel and the United States, and between Zionism and American Jews, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Support for Israel, financial and political, is a crucial component of mainstream American Judaism. But that wasn’t always the case.
American Jewish donations to Israel actually fell throughout much of the 1960s. In 1961, when Commentary published a symposium of Jewish intellectuals contemplating Jewish identity, Israel often seemed like an afterthought, and many respondents professed a skepticism of Zionism that would be anathema to the magazine today. “The support of Israel by American Jews should … not be sentimental and uncritical support, but should be given only in a way that exerts a more liberal, internationalist, and humanitarian influence on Israeli politics,” wrote one New York University philosophy professor. “I believe Israel can effectively represent the historic mission of the Jewish people only when it sacrifices its national interests for the sake of world peace and social justice.” [continued…]
Editor’s Comment — Goldberg notes the growing divide between American Jews who, as Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J-Street, puts it have an “emotional understanding that there’s always got to be some place for the Jews to go” and those American Jews who purportedly lack such an “understanding”.
The article concludes in this way:
Ben-Ami, who loves Israel even if he abhors many of its policies, mourns this growing estrangement, and fears that liberal young people might drift away from the Jewish community altogether. “One of the motivations of J-Street is a deep worry not only about Israel but really about the American Jewish community and the extent to which the Israel issue becomes a reason why younger American Jews disconnect from the community,” he says. “The very same young Jews who don’t have that gut understanding that my grandparents may have had about why there’s a need for an Israel, they also can’t relate to values they’re being brought up with — either the way the situation is playing out on the ground in Israel or advancing within the Jewish community.”
Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews have grown progressively more hawkish on Israel over the years. Thus it’s possible that, should other Jews fall away, they could come to dominate the major American Jewish organizations — resulting in an even greater rift between the values most Jews hold and policies espoused by those who purport to speak for them. “I don’t know that there’s a clear generational happy ending to this story,” Ben-Ami says.
In 1948, the year of Israel’s birth, Hannah Arendt warned that a continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine would result in a fundamental rift with the Diaspora. Under the pressure of constant conflict, Palestinian Jews would degenerate into a Spartan “warrior tribe,” she wrote. “Their relations with world Jewry would become problematical, since their defense interests might clash at any moment with those of other countries where large numbers of Jews lived. Palestinian Jewry would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people.” This dire prediction hasn’t quite come true yet. But Jews in the United States and those in Israel are evolving in a wholly different direction, and Arendt’s analysis seems more relevant every day.
I hear the angst in a community that fears division, but if I was Jewish and not a Zionist, I would find it patronizing to be told that my lack of support for Israel was a result of my lack of understanding about why there’s “a need” for Israel.
Maybe I don’t understand the nature of this “need” but if it’s the need for a place to which Jews can flee in the event of a dangerous rise in global anti-Semitism, the image of Israel as safe haven seems utterly fanciful.
If on the other hand, the need for Israel is based on the need for the protection of Jewish heritage in a Jewish homeland, then the emerging divide among Jews appears to quite simply be a divide between Zionists and non-Zionists. This division is being obscured, however, by what I will dub the faux Zionists.
Faux Zionists have a passionate believe in the Jewish people’s need for Israel while demonstrating through their own choices that they feel no personal need to live there. Faux Zionists defend Israel in principle yet have turned away from it in practice and within that contradiction lies one of the most potent fuels for their passion.
But hey, I’m not a Jew, so what do I know?
Is the Israeli lobby in the United States in panic mode? The Obama administration hit the ground running when it took office in January, quickly appointing George Mitchell as a special envoy to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and making it clear that President Barack Obama himself would devote time and energy to the goal of a comprehensive peace.
Not surprisingly, an American-Israeli disagreement on Israel’s settlements in occupied Arab lands materialized quickly, and may well expand into a full blown showdown. The US says it is making equal demands of Arabs and Israelis, while Israel and its zealot-like allies and proxies in the US argue that Washington is putting undue pressure on Israel alone.
The unknown wild card in this is the pro-Israel lobby in the US, a combination of American formal organizations and individual politicians who argue Israel’s case so strongly that they are often seen as putting Israeli interests ahead of their own American interests. It remains unclear how the pro-Israel lobby will kick into action to shield Israel from the increasingly vocal demands in the US that Jewish settlements and the Zionist colonization enterprise in occupied Arab lands must stop in order to allow a peace negotiation to start.
When it used its immense firepower to stop the nomination of Chas Freeman for a senior intelligence post in the US a few months ago, the pro-Israel lobby showed how it can achieve its ends by a combination of character assassination in public and, behind the scenes, some subtle blackmail of Congressmen and women who would expect to lose their position in the next election if they did not go along with the pro-Israel line. This was probably a warning that pro-Israel groups remain strong, and will flex their muscles again to assert their traditional control of American policy in the Middle East when they feel the time is right.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington recently, apparently he was shocked by the strong consensus in Congress supporting Obama’s demand for Israel to freeze its settlements and colonies. Congress is the key instrument and victim of the Israeli lobby, which is mostly handled by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Other pro-Israel groups in Washington, like the think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, play their role in promoting a pro-Israeli position by the US government and in the public debate.
These and other groups that comprise the pro-Israeli lobby are successful because most American public officials are too fearful to fight back – for they know from experience that they would be likely to lose their positions were they to do so. But when the American president asserts that a certain policy is in the strategic national interest of the US, the pro-Israel lobbyists tend to lose their firepower, and find it difficult to oppose official US policy.
This may be happening now in Washington, as Obama’s team pushes ahead with its insistence on a total colonization freeze by Israel, and traditional pro-Israeli Congressional voices have supported the president. It is difficult for pro-Israeli forces to oppose a very popular president who defines his Middle East policy in terms of promoting a fair peace between Arabs and Israelis because this is good for both parties and also is in the national interest of the US.
An interesting new case suggests that the pro-Israeli maniacs in Washington are losing their cool in opposing Obama’s decision to bestow the Presidential Medal of Honor on Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a widely respected international human rights advocate. Some Jewish groups and members of Congress feel that Robinson has shown a persistent anti-Israel bias in her work as a human rights advocate. Representatives Eliot Engel and Shelley Berkley, among others, feel that during her days as UN human rights commissioner she was one-sided in her criticism of Israel and allowed the global debate on human rights to include anti-Israeli sentiments (such as at an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, which included widespread criticism of Israel by national delegations, causing the American and Israeli delegations to walk out).
The Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC have also criticized the award to Robinson. She told an Israeli newspaper this week that she was “surprised and dismayed” by the protests, which she called “old, recycled, untrue stuff.”
She is universally admired for her commitment to human rights, and her criticisms of Israelis and Arabs alike reflect her sense of an obligation to speak out whenever fundamental norms of law and decency are broken by states or non-state groups. For key elements in the pro-Israel lobby in the US to attack such an internationally respected individual as Mary Robinson is a pretty strong sign of panic.