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1868Dissent in our(?) camp

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  • AMI
    May 18, 2011
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      May 18, 2011

      Here is what the Westchester Reform Temple has to say about their ties with Israel:

      WRT rejoices in its strong connections to Israel. Regular family and adult trips to Israel, lively celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut - Israel Independence Day – and special programs sponsored by an active Israel Committee remind us daily of our connections beyond our walls.

      They also offer a downloadable PDF brochure of their Israel-related activities. The only remarkable things about these materials is that they are not really remarkable, except that the Westchester Reform Temple is the temple of the controversial Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who is slated to head American Reform Judaism.

      Jacobs has been labeled as an anti-Zionist and bitterly attacked because of his membership in the J Street advisory board, and because he took part in anti-Israel demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah.  The controversy epitomizes the larger problem of how to voice dissent about Israel, how to deal with dissent and how to allow responsible democratic dissent; the reactions illustrate the problem rather than enhancing our understanding of it.

      JJ Goldberg’s comment is frustratingly typical:

      The problem is that while Jacobs’s views on Israel are quite mainstream among American Jews, the notion that such views endanger Israel and have no place in Jewish communal discourse is becoming mainstream in Israel. In other words, we have a very serious family feud brewing.

      The comment is either ignorant or malicious or perhaps both. Jacobs’ critics are American Jews, not Israeli for the most part.  The issue raised by J Street is that they are a political action group lobbying a foreign country against Israeli policy. That cannot possibly be described as “pro-Israel,” since their actions are declaredly anti-Israel. It is one thing to be against the Gaza war, but another to urge adoption of the Goldstone report and condemnation of the Israeli government for “war crimes.”
      It is one thing to be opposed to the occupation, but quite another to advocate U.N. condemnation of Israel, as J Street did. This caused liberal representative Gary Ackerman to abandon J Street. He wrote:

      “…The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the UN Security Council, is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.

      America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.”

      By now J Street has crossed so many red lines that it should be apparent they cannot be called “pro-Jewish” let alone pro-Israel, beginning with their enthusiastic endorsement of the anti-Semitic play, “Seven Jewish Children.” If Rabbi Jacobs remains on their board of advisors, we have to ask why.

      On the other hand, one has the impression that Rabbi Jacobs and his congregation, and many other protestors and supporters of J Street, are really pro-Israel and do not understand why their activities are criticized. We do not want to lose these people or exclude them from the circle of support for and identification with Israel. As Gidi Grinstein, head of the Re’ut Institute, pointed out, if we exclude too many people we will narrow our support base and then we will lose.

      Any criticism of J Street and its followers raises a chorus of protests about “democracy” and “McCarthyism.” The protests are misplaced. Of course, any American citizen can voice an opinion about Israel or any other subject, but nobody should be masquerading as “pro-Israel” in order to gain legitimacy for anti-Israel opinions an actions.

      David Grossman, Shimon Peres and other Israelis who oppose the occupation are cited by Goldberg and others as examples that legitimize the stance of  J Street. But Grossman or Peres would not dream of asking the UN to condemn Israel.

      Goldberg is wrong of course about Israeli opinion and why J Street is seen as alarming, even by Israelis who are opposed to the occupation. The two sides of the controversy are both American and not Israeli, and the differences epitomize American Jewish concerns and not Israeli ones. For Israelis, America is a valuable foreign ally in an ongoing struggle against the Arab world.

      The American government is not “our” government and ultimately we are powerless to affect its decisions. Israel is our first concern because we live here. If there is a meltdown of American support for Israel it will make life very difficult, but not impossible. Israel will be in the same place, approximately, as it was in May 1967 or May 1948. We did not acquit ourselves badly on those occasions, but we are very conscious of the unappetizing possibilities. Every Israeli is conscious of the very real possibility of national annihilation. This  condition was with us from the outset. It sounds melodramatic but it has become commonplace. It makes life interesting and challenging.

      The perspective of US Jews is obviously very different. There appears to be a group that pictures Israel somewhat like the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.  There is a second, opposition, group that mistakes Israel for America, a huge and indestructible country, in which protest can be a form of youthful exuberance and style. The young people of the ’60s who had giant posters of Mao Tse Tung or Che Guevara did not really hope the Chinese dictator would take over the United States. In fact, they had the posters only because they could be certain that they would never have to encounter Mao or Maoism first hand. The J Street people seem to think that Israel is an indestructible  colossus,  and that the best way to make an “effective” protest, one that will make the “establishment” sit up and take note, is to make a protest that is as loud and outrageous as possible.

      The issues are framed by anti-Israel and anti-Zionist protest movements to attract the sympathies of stylishly liberal folks because they “sound right” – “democracy,” “compassion,” “dialogue” and “justice” all have an unfailing appeal to the target audience, buut they mask an entirely different agenda, in the best traditions of Leninist propaganda.

      Rabbi Jacobs, for example, took part in demonstrations that he thought were about the eviction of Arabs from Sheik Jarrah. J.J. Goldberg wrote about this:

      …Jacobs participated in an anti-settlement protest in the Sheikh Jarrah section of East Jerusalem. The critics insinuate that he will not stand up for Israel, and some suggest his associations reflect hostility to the Jewish state.

      Let’s clear up one thing at the outset: Jacobs is no more hostile to Israel than Shimon Peres, or David Ben-Gurion for that matter.

      Let’s clear up one thing at the outset: Shimon Peres did not participate in demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah, and it is very doubtful that Ben Gurion would have done so. The demonstrations were not at all in support of a two-state solution or peace.

      In Sheikh Jarrah, a number of Arabs live in houses that were Jewish-owned before the creation of the state, and were ethnically cleansed of Jews in 1948.  After 1967, they agreed to pay a nominal rent to the original Jewish owners. Some of these Arabs were induced by rights advocacy groups to stop paying rent, in order to build a case that lands confiscated as abandoned property after 1948 should be returned to their Arab owners. This of course, would bring about the collapse of Israel, and has nothing to do with the post-1967 occupation. This is what Goldberg claims that Shimon Peres favors and this is the cause the cause for which Rabbi Jacobs demonstrated. The organizers of the Sheikh Jarrah protest never really hid their agenda, which had nothing to do with any of the issues raised by Goldberg or Jacobs. This was not about displaced Arabs, since the evicted people had only to pay rent and it was not about two state solutions.

      But the overwhelming majority of American Jews are not on the side of J Street or AIPAC. Thet do not care that much about Israel at all. For Israelis, it is a central issue. For American Jews, Israel is peripheral. Rabbi Jacobs’ stands on Israel were at best peripheral considerations in his nomination as President. His innovative organizational leadership in the United States was probably much more important.

      For Israelis, survival is the primary issue. For American Jewish leaders, identification with Israel is a more salient issue.  Israel is a drawing card around which they can organize Jewish life in the United States. The evidence of progressive alienation of American Jews from Israel is a central concern of American Jewish leadership Not surprisingly, Jewish leaders were alarmed by Peter Beinart’s pronouncement that hard-line pro-Israel politics would alienate young American Jews.Last year, Jacobs said:

      When the then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the rally that ‘innocent Palestinians are dying and suffering as well’ he was booed. America’s Jewish leaders should think long and hard about the rally, Beinart says. ‘Unless they change course, it portends the future: an American Zionist Movement that doesn’t even feign concern for Palestinian dignity and a broader American Jewish population that does not even feign concern for Israel.

      More recently, Jacobs said:

      Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman in their study of attachments to Israel by generation found that 80% of Jews over age 65 said “caring about Israel is an important part of being Jewish.” But that percentage begins to drop as you move to the younger generations. Only 60% of young Jews under 35 believe caring about Israel is a key part of their Jewish identity. I take that downward graph as a challenge not a conclusion.

      The loss of identification with Israel, if it is not an artifact, is a real concern, but even if it really is due to Israeli policies, it cannot dictate changes in Israeli policy. With respect, to an Israeli there seems to be an absurd assumption behind this thesis: That Israel should sacrifice land or security so that young American Jews feel better about Israel and are more likely to buy a temple membership, for example. In any case, the Gaza disengagement and similar fiascoes show that  the good will purchased by inappropriate concessions is soon forgotten, but the damage they do lives on long after.

      The solution is not to unite J Street and AIPAC as Donniel Hartman suggests, since these two organizations have opposing agendas. Would the resulting organization be for or against UN condemnation of Israel? Hartman is probably right that this controversy is as much about bruised egos as it is about issues. But there can’t be a “pro-Israel” PAC or lobby that recruits outside political support for anti-Israel positions.

      On the other hand, there has to be a forum where Jews who are against the occupation or other Israeli policies can express their views responsibly but forcefully, to the American Jewish public, to the Israeli government and to Zionist organizations, a forum that fulfills the need outlined by representative Ackerman, “America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel.” J Street and AIPAC could never be such organizations.The job of lobbies is to present the case for Israel to the U.S. government, not to provide forums for expression of dissent and debate of the issues.  Jews who want to support Israel but are against particular policies can and should be heard. Like David Grossman or Shimon Peres, they can speak up at Zionist gatherings, they can write books, they can protest in Rabin square. But if they take their complaint to the U.S Congress or the U.N. Security Council, they are not any more “pro-Israel” than the king of Saudi Arabia or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

      The biggest threat posed by the current situation is the threat of Jewish organizational political disunity. As in the early days of the Zionist movement, there can be many factions, but there can be only one executive organization. There can be and should be unlimited debate, but we must form from that debate a unified consensus once we enter the diplomatic arena.  A “pro-Israel” lobby that sides with Israel’s critics and effectively works against Israel is a contradiction in terms.  We need to be very sensitive about the message we send to the world.

      The most important achievement of the Zionist movement, bought at a very high price, was the unification of diverse groups to work as a unit for a common goal.  In the current situation, there are multiple “pro-Israel” groups pulling in different directions, rather than a coalition of groups under one organizational umbrella, united for a single purpose. Zionism will soon cease to be an effective political movement, and the Jewish people will revert to the chaotic anarchy that characterized Jewish national  life before the first Zionist congress.

      Ami Isseroff

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