Gaza And American Jews: ‘We Are One?’


‘We Are One!” 

That’s the oft-articulated mantra of American Jewish groups, expressing solidarity on core public-affairs matters, especially those threatening Israel’s security.

Almost, but not quite.

And if the reaction of American Jewish groups is an indicator as “Operation Protective Edge” grinds into its third week (the third war in Gaza in the last six years), “almost, but not quite” seems an apt description of where the community is right now.

The vast majority of Jewish organizations, citing Hamas’ unceasing missile and rocket attacks on Israel, have expressed unequivocal support for Israeli air and ground action. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, in a statement issued as the Israeli ground action was beginning, asserted, “We fully support Israel’s decision to expand its military operation in Gaza with the goal of ending the unceasing rocket attacks on Israel.”

In effect, Hamas’ continued intransigence and rejection of a cease-fire ensured broad support, at least to date, of Israel’s actions.  Additionally, the Obama administration also made it easy, with its strong support, to this point, of Israel’s goals and activities in Gaza. 

The major task of American Jewish organizations is now, and will be in days and weeks to come, to ensure that the U.S. and Israel remain closely aligned. The American Jewish Committee’s Steven Bayme, one of the more canny observers of American Jewish public affairs, said it best: “Obama said that Israel has the right to defend itself. The job of Jewish organizations, therefore, is straightforward. It is to remind public opinion both inside and beyond the Jewish community what Hamas is all about: a commitment to destroy Israel, and that the current conflict resulted from Hamas terrorism.” Added Bayme, “The moral clarity is there.”

And indeed, at least in the first three days of the ground action, Israel has held the moral high ground.

But not all American Jewish groups are on this page. Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), following the position of Israel’s Meretz party, called upon Israel “to unilaterally end Operation Protective Edge; we especially oppose its expansion into a ground invasion.”

And the progressive lobby group J Street, perhaps smarting from criticism from some quarters that the group is not sufficiently “Zionist” — or Zionist at all — is saying similar things, but in a more emollient manner. Reemphasizing its call for a political solution, J Street averred support for “President Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to promote an end to the current round of violence between Israel and Hamas.” English translation: Israel ought to withdraw, and soon.

Dissenting voices notwithstanding, there has not been, to date, the kind of internecine fighting that characterized the debate in 2009.  At the time, J Street declared, in strong language, its opposition to Israel’s Gaza campaign. “While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers,” said J Street exec Jeremy Ben-Ami, “There is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million-and-a-half already suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then-president of the Union for Reform Judaism — itself a progressive American Jewish voice — took umbrage at the J Street remarks.  Writing in the Forward, Rabbi Yoffie said that J Street “misread the issues and misjudged the views of American Jews.”

Rabbi Yoffie wrote, “[Ben-Ami’s] words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment, and also appallingly naïve. … Hamas, it should be noted, is not a government; it is a terrorist gang. And as long as the thugs of Hamas can act with impunity, no Israeli government of the right or the left will agree to a two-state solution or any other kind of peace.  Doves take note: To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions.”

In response, Ben-Ami wrote that J Street “understands that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a harsh enemy. We are neither dovish nor pacifist, nor are we blindly opposed to the use of force. We believe, however, that force cannot be Israel’s only or preponderant response — even to Hamas.” Ben Ami continued, “We are pragmatists grounded in the real world and the lessons it teaches. As such — and as avid supporters of Israel — we are asking whether the specific actions taken by Israel in Gaza actually do advance Israel and America’s interests. J Street believed they do not.”

The significance of this exchange was not that it took place, but that it implicated issues that are salient in 2014, and that still may be played out within the Jewish organizational world.  Additionally, the exchange involved American Jewish groups that are highly visible as progressive voices in the community taking pot-shots at one another. We were not talking about Mort Klein and the ZOA having a bird over a J Street statement. The J Street statement generated a firestorm of criticism within the broad community — including the left. 

Will family conflict in our community emerge from “Operation Protective Edge?”

It’s too early to tell.

Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, is the author of four books on American Jewish history and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center.

Jerome A. Chanes is editor of the “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).