The recent exchange of letters between Elie Wiesel, on one hand, gently reproaching the White House over its Jerusalem policy, and dovish Israeli politician Yossi Sarid, on behalf of J Street, on the other, seems to encapsulate the debate American Jews are having these days over what it means to be pro-Israel in 2010.
Divisions between the minority that are right-wing, no-concessions Zionists and the majority who, like Israelis, favor compromise and a two-state solution are not at all new in America, and neither are dueling organizational voices. Americans for Peace Now has long sparred with AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and the Zionist Organization of America about Israeli and U.S. policy.
But what’s changing the tone of the discourse these days is, in part, fatigue over a seemingly moribund peace process, the presence of an aggressive, can-do president with Mideast progress high on his agenda, and the sense, perhaps for the first time in decades, that Israel’s very survival is at stake as an avowed and soon-to-be well armed enemy, in the form of Iran, digs in its heels and beats war drums.
“The data are slowly starting to suggest that the more knee-jerk, monolithic response in the Jewish community is not what it once was,” says Kean University political science professor Gil Kahn. “Among younger people committed to Israel, you are going to get more nuanced responses.”
Kahn said this moment in history is not unique. During the Clinton administration, left-wing and moderate voices on Israel, many of whom were personal friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton, were seen as more welcome in the White House than hawks that sounded alarms about the Oslo process. It was at that time that the Israel Policy Forum was founded.
“At their inception [dovish groups] also stimulated a fair amount of voices that were more moderate than Americans for Peace Now but not nearly a duplication of AIPAC,” said Kahn. “Is J Street [the new pro-Israel, pro-peace process political action committee] doing a better job? It’s too early to tell. It remains to be seen how powerful or important their voice is.”
The blowback from the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Israeli officials announced the expansion of an east Jerusalem neighborhood during the visit of Vice President Joe Biden has caused expressions of indignation on behalf of the Jewish state, such as the right-wing rally outside the Israeli Consulate last week.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, a long outspoken Zionist who, during his tenure in City Hall advocated the ouster of the Palestinian mission here, warned of nothing less than the demise of good U.S.-Israel relations, even likening the predicament to the Roman siege of Jewish rebels at Masada.
“For me, the situation today recalls what occurred in 70 AD when the Roman emperor Vespasian launched a military campaign against the Jewish nation and its ancient capital of Jerusalem,” Koch wrote in the commentary he e-mails to a wide range of people every week.
Still, while some longtime peace activists, such as State Department negotiator Aaron David Miller have thrown up their hands in exasperation as the talks fester, polls suggest that most American Jews remain committed to the process.
According to a J Street poll, 71 percent of American Jews support pressure by the United States on both sides (critics of President Obama would argue there is insufficient pressure, or even none at all, on the Palestinian side.)
Further, the poll found that 60 percent say the housing incident caused damage to U.S.-Israel relations, and 55 percent say Obama was right. Eighty-two percent of Americans said the U.S. should take an active role in resolving the conflict, and 73 percent said it should do so even if that means publicly disagreeing with Israel or the Palestinians. The March poll of 803 self-identified American Jewish adults, via e-mail invitation to a website, was conducted by Jim Gerstein, director of Democracy Corps, with the help of an independent research company.
Sensing a growing separation of American Jews from the voices of establishment leaders, but a reluctance to speak out themselves, The New York Times last week dispatched a reporter to the suburbs of Detroit to assess how those outside New York, where hawkish voices are loudest, view the process. A small group of temple members, who said their children were mostly intermarried, said they felt increasingly uncomfortable expressing criticism of Israel.
“You raise a question about the security forces or the settlements and you are suddenly being compared to a Holocaust denier,” Phillip Moore, 62, a teacher, told the Times.
That’s where J Street has filled a void lately not only by speaking out on issues but lobbying Capitol Hill and the White House, putting candidates on notice that they are prepared to put money where their mouth is.
“There has been an alternative voice for a very long time,” says Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund. “American Jews have never been monolithic on anything. But what we’re seeing now is the results of many years of people trying different ways of articulating a position. … They are against the settlements and against the occupation, but those things have never found comfortable articulation in a big way, in part because that has not been the way of our established communal institutions.”
“The threat posed by Iran has exacerbated the situation,” adds Sokatch, “but just as much, [so has] the current tension between the Israeli and American government.”
Jeremy Ben Ami, executive director of J Street, says that when speaking to members of Congress who have Jewish constituencies, he often hears of a disconnect between what they hear in their districts and what they hear in Washington.
“They have an understanding that among Jewish Americans out there in their districts and the world outside the Beltway there are a wide range of opinions and voices,” says Ben Ami. “But they didn’t hear it at dinners and meetings. Their reaction to us has been, ‘Where have you been? We know that American Jews are progressive and oriented toward resolution of the conflict, but we never head that from officials inside the Beltway.’”
He said J Street boldly goes where no left-leaning Jewish organization has gone before because it is not a 501(c) 3, prohibited form partisan political activity.
“As a PAC we can endorse candidates and raise money for them,” he says. “We can be more of a political force, whereas the rest of that part of the community is constrained by their tax status.”
Sokatch said he believes a Times column in March by Thomas Friedman encapsulated how many American Jews feel today about Israel’s course. Writing about the announcement of construction in east Jerusalem just as Vice President Biden was arriving in Israel, Friedman suggested that Biden should have got back on his plane and left behind a note that “friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk.”
“A lot of Americans see the current climate in Israel changing in a way that’s very unnerving and upsetting to them,” said Sokatch.
At the same time, he notes, many Israelis are growing intolerant of voices that are critical of the government and the army. A political movement has formed to strip organizations like the New Israel Fund of nonprofit status because they fund organizations that contributed to the much-despised Goldstone report on the war in Gaza, which concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes in the Gaza conflict.
“The emergence of J Street is a viable way of articulating a way to have that third choice — between Israel, right or wrong, and Israel, always wrong,” said Sokatch.
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Policy in Washington, says J Street has succeeded in adding “a fresh institutional address, especially in the eyes of the media for a segment of the Jewish community that didn’t have one previously.”
But Diament said, “I don’t think they are putting forward anything that is any different than Americans for Peace Now or the Israel Policy Forum did for many years. What is new is that they are marrying these positions to political fundraising. There is no question they have had a huge amount of financial success with the media — a media footprint that none of the other preexisting left-wing groups ever achieved.”
But Diament says J Street tends to oversimplify American Jewish opinion, running the risk of misleading the public.
“It may be accurate that most American Jews are prepared to support a two-state solution,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t skeptical when you have Hamas controlling Gaza and in the West Bank you have a partner for peace that is questionable, at best.” He stresses that the Orthodox Union never claims to represent all Americans or a majority, just the Orthodox. “Issue by issue, it’s not so clear that the majority of American Jews, so to speak, winds up where J Street does, either. To simply conclude that most American Jews want a two-state solution doesn’t tell you enough about all the subjects under that.”
Jeff Wiesenfeld, a pro-Israel activist, Republican and open critic of the current administration’s policies, sees J Street in a far harsher light at a time when Zionism may be fading as a core value of American Jews.
“It’s very sad that as many as 35 percent of American Jews don’t feel the existence of Israel is essential to their well-being,” says Wiesenfeld. “They don’t know that before Israel was established we were a diminished class, even here in the United States. Any people that doesn’t have a homeland is a diminished people.”
Wiesenfeld, who has been an aide to Koch, former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and former Gov. George Pataki, views the current dichotomy over Israel as a result of “terrible intellectual dishonesty in the community during an increasingly seminal moment in America.”
He sees most American Jews as too timid to criticize 44 members of the House who declined to support a resolution condemning the Goldstone report, because they are all Democrats.
“American Jews are more concerned with Evangelical Christians than they are about radicals on the left that populate the Democratic Party.”
Noting that he’s the son of Holocaust survivors, Wiesenfeld says he sees J Street as having a “pernicious impact. Watching the things they advocated for, having requested that the president squeeze Israel … I see them as the kapos of my generation, giving aid and comfort to the enemy the same way the Jews felt the need to save their own skin [in the concentration camps.] In the end of the day the policies they advocate damage or undermine Israel and will in the end take them as well.”
Ben Ami says the mission of J Street is to “change what it means to be pro-Israel from the traditional definition of having to support everything the government [of Israel] does. I don’t think that there are too many people that” hold to that definition.
But more importantly, he says, J Street is out to maintain a human element on both sides of the conflict.
“We don’t believe that there needs to be an anti [position] to the pro [one],” Ben Ami said. “To be pro-Israel doesn’t mean you have to be anti-Palestinian.”
Kahn, the Kean University professor, said the true test of whether J Street has fueled a lasting alternative movement is whether it proves to be a substantial fundraising force that enables politicians who like the Israeli left to buck the traditional pro-Israel lobby.
“I think the real test will be when we get to the end of Netanyahu’s moratorium on West Bank settlements,” says Kahn. “The White House knows it will have to act.” At that point Israel could likely come under further pressure to permanently end settlements, and members of Congress will have to choose sides on that debate.
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