You might call it the Great Jewish Hope. This is the belief that because Jewish public opinion is well to the left of mainstream Jewish organizations on such questions as the Iraq War and a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, the misrepresentation has to end. Someday soon, the grassroots Jews are going to say Enough, and the hawkish leaders will turn into pillars of salt. Any day now.
The Great Jewish Hope has risen again this spring because of several new signs of dissatisfaction with the leadership. “There is a growing realization that the more hawkish elements of the pro-Israel community–I’m picking my words because it’s a minefield–have too much of an influence within that community,” says Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now. Adds Charney Bromberg of Meretz USA, “The issue to me is what I believe has been a gross failure on the part of the leadership.”
So far it’s just rumblings. When Senator Barack Obama was pressured in March into backtracking on a sympathetic statement he made about Palestinians, there was grousing even in Jewish quarters about “the Israel lobby.” Around the same time, two articles appeared, one by financier George Soros in The New York Review of Books, the other by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, both arguing that open debate of Israel’s policies was being suppressed and that this was bad for all concerned.
Soros has a special status. It was rumored that the financier might be the actual Great Jewish Hope: that he would fund an alternative Jewish lobby challenging the two leading Jewish organizations, which take an Israel-right-or-wrong position: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Soros has absented himself from that effort, partly because he hasn’t been identified enough with Jewish causes, he says. Still, talk of an alternative lobby continues.
Mitchell Plitnick of Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace says: “Efforts are definitely continuing, not as fast as some might hope. There is major Jewish money coming to the Democrats that does support peace, but there’s no lobby to focus it.” Focusing Jewish political money is what AIPAC has long done. Though it is not a PAC, it has a huge membership of individual donors it can claim to represent when pressing Congress to adopt legislation that makes Israel out to be the good guy in the Middle East.
The people who talk about an alternative lobby don’t want to smash AIPAC. Bromberg, who has been involved in the talks, notes, “There is profound concern that Israel is still desperately alone and vulnerable in the world, despite its military strength and economic strength, and its one real political strength is the relationship to the United States.”
Still, left-wing Jews feel alienated from Jewish organizations that supported two disasters–the Iraq War and Israel’s war in Lebanon. “The virtually unqualified support of organized American Jewry for Israel’s brutal actions…is not new but now no longer tolerable to me,” Sara Roy, a scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, writes in a new book, The War on Lebanon. Roy’s views are increasingly common. Dan Fleshler, an activist in the pro-Israel peace community, says that Middle East violence has helped awaken a large “universe” of liberal, politically active Jews. “Many of them are alienated from Israel and want nothing to do with it,” he says. “Maybe the most important thing to them is the Sierra Club. They’re cultural Jews, they’ve never been involved” with Israel per se. Their passivity has allowed right-wing Jews who care more about the issue to affect policy. Fleshler says the challenge to an alternative lobby is figuring out how to capture “the moderate Jewish left” on Israel issues.