American Jews Rethink Israel

American Jews Rethink Israel

The Jewish push for peace is surging through the grassroots, but leaders and policy-makers are still turning a deaf ear.



This year has seen a dramatic shift in American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel. In January many liberal Jews were shocked by the Gaza war, in which Israel used overwhelming force against a mostly defenseless civilian population unable to flee. Then came the rise to power of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose explicitly anti-Arab platform was at odds with an American Jewish electorate that had just voted 4 to 1 for a minority president. Throw in angry Israelis writing about the "rot in the Diaspora," and it’s little wonder young American Jews feel increasingly indifferent about a country that has been at the center of Jewish identity for four decades.

These stirrings on the American Jewish street will come to a head in late October in Washington with the first national conference of J Street, the reformation Israel lobby. J Street has been around less than two years, but it is summoning liberal–and some not so liberal–Jews from all over the country to "rock the status quo," code for AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Sure sounds like a velvet revolution in the Jewish community, huh? Not so fast. The changes in attitudes are taking place at the grassroots; by and large, Jewish leaders are standing fast. And as for policymakers, the opening has been slight. There seems little likelihood the conference will bring us any closer to that holy grail of the reformers: the ability of a US president, not to mention Congress, to put real pressure on Israel.

First the good news. There’s no question the Gaza conflict has helped break down the traditional Jewish resistance to criticizing Israel. Gaza was "the worst public relations disaster in Israel’s history," says M.J. Rosenberg, a longtime Washington analyst who reports for Media Matters Action Network. For the first time in a generation, leading American Jews broke with the Jewish state over its conduct. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said he was "shamed" by Israel’s actions, while Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Guardian that Israel’s killing of hundreds of civilians as reprisal for rocket attacks was "brutal" and probably "futile."

Even devoted friends of Israel Leon Wieseltier and Michael Walzer expressed misgivings about the disproportionate use of force, and if Reform Jewish leaders could not bring themselves to criticize the war, the US left was energized by the horror. Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, threw herself into the cause of Gazan freedom after years of ignoring Israel-Palestine, in part out of deference to her family’s feelings. In The Nation Naomi Klein came out for boycott, divestment and sanctions; later, visiting Ramallah, she apologized to the Palestinians for her "cowardice" in not coming to that position earlier.

These were prominent Jews. But they echoed disturbance and fury among Jews all around the country over Israel’s behavior. Rabbi Brant Rosen of Evanston, Illinois, describes the process poetically. For years he’d had an "equivocating voice" in his head that rationalized Israel’s actions. "During the first and second intifadas and the war in Lebanon, I would say, ‘It’s complicated,’" he says. "Of course, Darfur is complicated, but that doesn’t stop the Jewish community from speaking out. There’s nothing complicated about oppression. When I read the reports on Gaza, I didn’t have the equivocating voice anymore."

In the midst of the war, Rosen participated in a panel at a Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston organized by the liberal group Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and read a piece from a local Palestinian describing her family’s experience in Gaza. "It was a gut-wrenching testimonial. It caused a stir in the congregation. Some people were very angry at me; others were uncomfortable but wanted to engage more deeply," Rosen says. The rabbi has gone on to initiate an effort called Ta’anit Tzedek, or the Jewish Fast for Gaza. Each month over seventy rabbis across the country along with interfaith leaders and concerned individuals partake in a daylong fast in order "to end the Jewish community’s silence over Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza."

Grassroots Jewish organizations have experienced a surge in interest since the Gaza war. The Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace has seen its mailing list double, to 90,000, with up to 6,000 signing on each month. Executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson says JVP is finding Jewish support in unlikely places, like Hawaii, Atlanta, South Florida and Cleveland.

Jewish youth have played a key role. A group of young bloggers, notably Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman and Dana Goldstein, have criticized Israel to the point that Marty Peretz of The New Republic felt a need to smear them during the Gaza fighting, saying, "I pity them their hatred of their inheritance." Rosenberg is overjoyed by the trend. "None of them, none of them, is a birthright type or AIPAC type. You’d think that one or two would have the worldview of an old-fashioned superliberal on domestic stuff, pure AIPAC on Israel. But they are so hostile to that point of view."

Dana Goldstein personifies this spirit. A 25-year-old former writer and editor for The American Prospect, she grew up in a Conservative community with close ties to Israel and has made her name doing political journalism. Years ago she vowed never to write about the Middle East; it was a thorny topic, and she felt nothing was to be gained by addressing it. But when Gaza happened, she felt she had to speak out. "The Israeli government is doing little more than devastating an already impoverished society and planting seeds of hatred in a new generation of Palestinians," she wrote in TAP. Gaza was especially dismaying to her because Barack Obama’s election had felt like a new moment. "The Jewish community helped elect Obama, and Obama had a different way of talking about the Middle East," she says. Mainstream Jewish organizations’ steadfast support for Israel’s assault seemed very old school to her.

In this sense, Gaza is the bookend to the 1967 war. Israel’s smashing victory in six days ended two decades of American Jewish complacency about Israel’s existence; many advocates for the state, including neoconservative Doug Feith and liberal hawk Thomas Friedman, found their voices as students at around that time. In the years that followed, American culture discovered the Holocaust, and the imperative "Never again!" gave rise to the modern Israel lobby: American Jews organized with the understanding that they were all that stood between Israel and oblivion.

"Younger people don’t have the baggage of 1967," says Hannah Schwarzschild, a founding member of the new organization American Jews for a Just Peace. "They are applying what they’ve been taught about human rights, equality, democracy and liberal American Jewish values to Israel," she adds, "and Israel-Palestine is moving to the center of their political world."

The shift is most pronounced on campuses, where being pro-Palestinian has become a litmus test for progressive engagement. Last winter a battle over divestment from the Israeli occupation rocked Hampshire College, and many students spearheading the movement were Jewish. One of them, Alexander van Leer, explained his support for divestment in a YouTube video: "I spent last year in Israel, where I firsthand saw a lot of the oppression that was going on there. And it hurt me a lot coming from a Jewish background, where I’ve been taught a lot of the great things about Israel, which I know there are, but I was saddened to see the reality of it."

The Hampshire students are part of an international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that demands Israeli accountability for human rights violations. "Gaza gave BDS a huge boost," says Ali Abunimah, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. "It is shifting power between Israel and Palestinians. It shows there is a price for the status quo."

The growing impact of the BDS movement can be glimpsed in several recent events. Palestinian activists and Code Pink pressured the international human rights organization Oxfam to suspend the actress Kristin Davis (Sex and the City), who had been serving as a goodwill ambassador, over her sponsorship of Ahava, a beauty products company that uses materials from the occupied West Bank (Davis’s commercial relationship with Ahava came to an end soon thereafter). Under similar pressure, a Brazilian parliamentary commission said Brazil should have no part in a proposed agreement that would bring increased trade between Israel and several South American countries until "Israel accepts the creation of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders."

Then there was the Toronto International Film Festival in September, at which a number of prominent figures, including Jane Fonda, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Julie Christie and Eve Ensler, signed a declaration opposing the festival’s association with the Israeli consulate and a city-to-city program featuring Tel Aviv as part of a campaign by the Israeli government to "rebrand" itself after the Gaza conflict. The declaration read, in part, "especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime."

Not so long ago, "apartheid" was a hotly disputed term when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now even advocates for Israel, such as entertainment magnate Edgar Bronfman and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, have warned that Israel faces an antiapartheid struggle unless it can get to a two-state solution, and fast. Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, says such statements are a sign that the BDS movement is gaining traction. "The Palestinian national movement does not have power," she says. "BDS is the only source of nonviolent power and is leading to an increasingly sophisticated discourse, but it’s early days yet." Vilkomerson of JVP sees hope: "I think [the sanctions movement] will lead Israelis to shift. People do not want to be pariahs."

In short, the change in the liberal-left discourse has been remarkable. Illinois writer Emily Hauser says she sees it in her synagogue. People once turned their backs on her after she published op-eds assailing Israel over its actions during the second intifada. Today many thank her for voicing their concerns. "The suffering of the [Palestinian] people there is a very, very powerful thing for people to be talking about. The community as a whole is far less likely to throw you out," she says.

What does all this mean for the US political institutions that affect Middle East policy?

There are signs Washington is feeling the changes. Several members of Congress visited Gaza, and some dared to criticize Israel. After Democrats Brian Baird, Keith Ellison and Rush Holt returned, they held a press conference on Capitol Hill led by Daniel Levy, a polished British-Israeli who has played a key role in the emergence of J Street. The Congressmen called for Israel to lift the blockade. After first-term Representative Donna Edwards visited Gaza and called for a vigorous debate about the conflict here, old-line lobbyists came out against her. But J Street rallied to her side, raising $30,000 for her in a show of support.

Alas, those are the highlights. There have been few other courageous profiles. President Obama tried to change the game by speaking of Palestinian "humiliations" in his June speech in Cairo and calling for a freeze in Israeli settlement growth as a condition for progress toward a two-state solution. But the Israeli government has defied him, secure in the knowledge that Jewish leaders in Washington will back it. Dan Fleshler, an adviser to J Street and author of Transforming America’s Israel Lobby, says he’s frustrated by the lack of movement. "What I predicted in my book–that Obama could lay out an American policy and if Israel was recalcitrant about it, and if he took Israel to task in a serious way, he would get enough political support–well, he hasn’t tried it yet." Fleshler is hopeful that the call for a settlement freeze isn’t the last test. "Other tests are coming up."

Another longtime observer of Jewish Washington says the only thing that’s really changed is the presidency. That’s big, but it’s not everything. "Obama is strong and popular (still). He has a majority in Congress. Many in Congress feel that their political fate depends on his success. That is what generates the change in atmosphere here. So yes, there is significant change. But I think it has to do more with the atmosphere created by Bush’s departure and by the new policies of Obama than with generational shifts in the way Jews view Israel or talk about Israel."

And so when Obama has seemed to lose his nerve–say, when he helped to bury the UN’s Goldstone report, which said Israel committed war crimes in Gaza–there has been very little resistance in the Jewish community to his capitulations. When Netanyahu was reported to have maligned Obama aides David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel as "self-hating Jews," there was little outcry in the American Jewish community. And when we asked Representative Steve Rothman, a liberal Democrat, whether he welcomed J Street, he said he didn’t know enough about the group to say, before reciting the same old mantras about the "Jewish state": "It’s always good for more people to get involved to support America’s most important ally in the Middle East…. As our president and vice president have said, Israel’s national security is identical to America’s vital national security."

This is the treacherous landscape that J Street has stepped into, where it has been outflanked on occasion by both the right and the left. During the Gaza conflict, it issued a statement condemning not only Hamas but Israel, too, for "punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." It was a brave stance for a fledgling Jewish organization trying to build mainstream support, and it brought down the wrath of community gatekeepers. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in the Forward that the statement displayed "an utter lack of empathy for Israel’s predicament," calling it "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve." Ouch.

More recently J Street has tacked in the other direction. During the Toronto festival it quietly began collecting signatures for a letter blasting the protest as "shameful and shortsighted." Although never released as a letter, the initiative didn’t endear J Street to the growing grassroots movement. Which is not to say that progressives are not hopeful about its emergence. Rosenberg points out that in its more than fifty-year existence, AIPAC never got the positive publicity J Street got after just one year–a long, favorable portrait in The New York Times Magazine. "All the constellations are coming together. [Executive director] Jeremy Ben-Ami and Daniel Levy have a plan and a message, and they know how to work the media," he says.

J Street is trying to position itself so that it is the only game in town for liberal Jews, affording Jewish advocates for the two-state solution the big political tent they’ve been lacking to this point. Rabbi Yoffie, for instance, will be addressing the J Street national conference, overlooking his ferocious criticism of the organization in January. "Let’s have a broad and generous definition of what constitutes pro-Israel," he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in explaining his pragmatic shift.

The conference is sure to combine culture, youth and politics in such a way as to make AIPAC look about as à la mode as the former Soviet Union. "This is a watershed moment in terms of how people look at institutions," says Isaac Luria, J Street’s campaigns director. "The old legacy institutions are dying." Nadia Hijab says this has been J Street’s main achievement, transforming the terrain for left-leaning Jewish groups by taking on the traditional lobby in the mainstream political arena, mobilizing money and message. "J Street is a positive development as an alternative to AIPAC," Hijab says. "It’s not comparable to AIPAC yet, but in the American context it is very smart."

Political dynamism is precisely what J Street hopes to display at its policy conference. Expected speakers include Senator John Kerry and former Senator Chuck Hagel; 160 members of Congress will serve as hosts for J Street’s first annual Gala Dinner. It might not rival the famous "roll call" of luminaries attending AIPAC’s annual conferences (more than half of Congress showed up last May), but it is an impressive show of firepower all the same.

The ultimate issue is whether J Street will have any effect in bringing about a two-state solution, an idea that, despite official support, has been neglected in Washington nearly to the point of abandonment. Dana Goldstein is thrilled by the possibility that the rubber will finally meet the road. "J Street has had a great influence on intellectual progressives in DC," she says. "There is now a lobby group that engages ideas that have been out there without political will. They are the political arm to this movement."

Some critics on the left argue that conditions on the ground have already made the two-state solution unreachable. There are more than 500,000 Israeli settlers occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with more arriving every day, and Gaza remains under siege. Add to this the political scene inside Israel, where Netanyahu has balked at Washington’s request for a settlement freeze, and you could say that in the sixteen years since the Oslo Accords were signed, the possibility of two states in historic Palestine has never been as far off as it is today.

Abunimah sees the new organization as having little impact. "A kinder and gentler AIPAC does not represent serious change," he says. "J Street is supposed to represent a tectonic shift, but it operates within the peace process paradigm and doesn’t challenge it at all." Still, J Street has clearly panicked conservative Jews. And the Israeli embassy fired a warning shot across J Street’s bow in October, when it warned that the lobby group was working against Israel’s interests.

For its part, J Street knows these are desperate times for the liberal goal of a two-state solution. As Israel becomes more and more isolated globally, the Israeli government and the traditional lobby have only gotten more intransigent. At the AIPAC policy conference last spring, its executive director warned that Israel’s enemies were establishing a "predicate for abandonment" that only AIPAC’s faithful could reverse. Don’t expect such hysteria at the J Street conference, but behind all the hoopla, the organization will similarly be trying to preserve the old ideal of a Jewish state. "Getting Israel another thirty F-16s won’t help us combat the legitimacy issue [with] people who are trying to undermine the right of Israel to have a state." Luria says. "Jews need a state. And that legitimacy window–the cracks in that window are getting wider. They’re dangerous. Dangerous."

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