The Jewish Divide on Israel

The Jewish Divide on Israel

A growing grassroots movement has challenged the artificial AIPAC consensus.


For a glimpse of how Israel plays out in an American election year, recall the day in September when then-Democratic presidential frontrunner Howard Dean told reporters he would like to see the United States take an “even-handed” approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Thirty-four Congressional Democrats responded by sending Dean a harsh letter questioning whether he shared their “unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist,” and anonymous e-mails inundated Jewish listservs, accusing him of abandoning Israel. Dean promptly appeared on CNN to defend Israel’s assassinations of Palestinian militants.

Or consider the day in February when John Kerry sat down in New York to discuss issues with a group of Jewish leaders hand-selected by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and one of the few liberals invited, said she had her hand in the air, ready to ask questions about civil rights, poverty and the erosion of the church/state divide, but she was avoided by the facilitators, and the meeting shaped up as a single-agenda affair. “The central issue, no matter how they came at it, was, ‘Are you going to be there for Israel in these difficult times?'” Rosenthal recalls. “It was, ‘We’re putting you on notice that this is our number-one concern.'” Kerry took his cue. During the meeting, he backed off from earlier statements that he’d send Jimmy Carter (seen by the right as pro-Palestinian) to the region to jump-start negotiations, and six weeks later, when George W. Bush, in an agreement with Ariel Sharon, accepted Jewish settlements as permanent and renounced Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Kerry immediately endorsed it.

Or consider May 18, when the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual conference in Washington. House majority leader Tom DeLay showed up to speak, along with two assistant secretaries of state, an assistant secretary of defense and the President himself. Bush’s speech was regularly interrupted by cheering and chants of “Four more years!” The meeting of the Jewish community’s most prominent voice on Capitol Hill may as well have been a Republican political rally.

These events reveal a stubborn political fact: that AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, along with their powerful fellow travelers, Christian Zionists, have forged a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Middle East policy must privilege the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. In practice, this solid consensus means putting Israeli security before peace; supporting even such extreme Israeli measures as the separation wall and assassinations; and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership. In AIPAC’s view, even Bush’s unambitious Middle East “road map” conceded too much to the Palestinians. Until the late 1980s, when the PLO publicly affirmed Israel’s right to exist, such positions may truly have represented the vast majority of American Jews. But ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord proved that negotiations were possible, surveys have consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of American Jews favor ending the occupation and dismantling settlements in return for peace.

The trouble is, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents never fully embraced the Oslo thaw, and once peace talks failed in 2000, they snapped back to their hard-line stance. The combination of Palestinian suicide bombings, the election of Sharon, the ultimate hawk, as prime minister and Bush’s with-us-or-against-us “war on terror” allowed the AIPAC consensus to harden throughout the Jewish establishment. After 9/11, United Jewish Communities, the joint Jewish charity, decided to direct funds to Jewish settlers for the first time. And 2002 was a banner year: At a pro-Israel rally in Washington that April, busloads of demonstrators from Jewish social-service agencies and Hillels (the network of Jewish campus organizations) booed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for speaking about Palestinian suffering, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other groups published manuals on how to discredit “anti-Israel propaganda” on campuses. “Arafat had a chance to move toward peace and he rejected it,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the 1.5 million-strong Reform Jewish movement, and one of mainstream Jewry’s most outspoken voices against settlement expansion. “We rallied to Israel’s side out of the sense that it was the right thing to do, and out of real anger toward the Palestinians.” The joke used to be two rabbis, three congregations; over the past two or three years it’s become 6 million American Jews, one official opinion.

But tens of thousands of American Jews have had a very different response to the failed talks and the new Palestinian uprising. They began to ask heretical questions about whether former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, or Oslo, had really offered Palestinians a viable state, and whether the harsh occupation was to blame for rising Palestinian anger. Most American Jewish peace organizations had closed up shop during the hopeful Oslo years, so these marginalized doves started almost from scratch, launching dozens of local and national organizations dedicated to ending the occupation. “Since the intifada began, the mantra in the American Jewish community was that Israel’s existence was being threatened and we had to stand by the government of Israel no matter what it did. This idea, brilliantly manipulated by the Israeli government, became sacrosanct,” says Marcia Freedman, a former Knesset member who co-founded one of these new groups, the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, in 2002. “There just happens to be a very right-wing government in Israel that does not support a two-state solution, so this lockstep solidarity gave that government carte blanche support.” The new grassroots efforts are determined to revoke that carte blanche. Brit Tzedek already has chapters in twenty-seven cities; Michael Lerner’s Berkeley-based Tikkun Community and the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which just went national in May, have joined the few remaining older peace outfits like Americans for Peace Now (APN) and Arthur Waskow’s Philadelphia-based Shalom Center to create an incipient counterforce, which exists almost entirely outside official Jewish channels.

Some of the new groups, like Brit Tzedek and Tikkun, consider themselves to be strongly pro-Israel but seek to radically redefine the term. (“So the definition of being pro-Israel is to be pro-Sharon?” asks Tikkun’s Deborah Kory. “Well, maybe assassinating a guy in a wheelchair is not the best thing for Israel.”) Others, like New York City’s Jews Against the Occupation, define themselves as pro-Jewish and pro-Palestinian, and are open to the idea of a single, binational state. Most of the new organizations are explicitly Jewish, but American Jewish activists have also been central players in the founding of multiethnic organizations like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which sends international observers, about a fifth of whom are American Jews, into the occupied territories, and the Washington, DC-based US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which advocates divestment from Israel bonds. And they are becoming increasingly visible. In March one older peace group, Rabbis for Human Rights of North America, sent an open letter to Sharon protesting Israel’s house-demolition policy, which was signed by 400 rabbis, including leaders of some of the largest congregations in the country; in April Brit Tzedek organized 10,000 US Jews to sign another open letter, this one calling on Israel and the United States to fund the relocation of Jewish settlers from the occupied territories to Israel.

Over the past three years, these organizations have lobbied Congress, picketed Israeli consulates, initiated campus divestment campaigns, set up informational listservs and held hundreds of vigils and teach-ins. Though they lack support from major Jewish donors or Jewish foundations, their numbers are fast approaching AIPAC’s 65,000 members (APN has some 25,000 supporters, Brit Tzedek another 17,000 and so on), and polls show that there is tremendous room for growth. When former Israeli and Palestinian officials crafted the Geneva Accord last year as a model peace agreement, an APN survey found that five times more American Jews supported the plan than opposed it. AIPAC, on the other hand, dismissed Geneva as irrelevant and used its political muscle to block a mild Congressional resolution applauding the “courage and vision” of those who fashioned it. It turns out that far from being more unified than ever in support of Israeli policies, American Jews are as polarized on Israel as Americans as a whole are polarized about George W. Bush.

The divide is not only political but existential. AIPAC, the ADL and the Conference of Presidents see Palestinian suicide bombs as part of a global attack on Jews that includes everything from the murder of Daniel Pearl to the spike in anti-Jewish attacks in France; in their view, Palestinian attacks on Israelis are fueled by hatred of Jews. The peace groups believe that Israel, with one of the world’s most powerful militaries, can’t claim its existence is at risk, and they see in Israel’s occupation, separation wall and collective punishment a moral challenge to the Jewish soul. News and commentary circulated by the two camps, even regarding the same events, bear almost no relation to each other. In late May, as the Israeli army’s Operation Rainbow crested in Gaza, ISM e-mails included an eyewitness account of Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas at children and a graphic description of tanks firing shells into a peaceful demonstration in Rafah. E-mails from the Conference of Presidents, on the other hand, told of tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons and a Jewish settler whose wife and four daughters were killed by terrorists. In the eyes of peaceniks, such as Anita Altman, a Jewish communal professional in New York City, mainstream Jewish institutions are concerned so exclusively with Israeli security that “we’ve lost the capacity to recognize the other and to acknowledge Palestinans’ humanity.” In the eyes of establishment Jewish leaders, such as Ernest Weiner, director of the American Jewish Committee’s San Francisco chapter, the doves, by concerning themselves primarily with the rights of Palestinians under occupation, have become “nothing more than a mouthpiece of the Arabs.” One of these camps has positioned itself as the legitimate voice of American Jews, and has the ear of both parties in Washington; the other, the anti-occupation majority, is being quashed.

Charney Bromberg, executive director of the peace and civil rights organization Meretz USA, an affiliate of Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, calls this phenomenon “the Israeli disease,” in which a handful of far-right ideologues dictate policy for the moderate masses; he warns that it has now taken root in American Jewish politics. Palestinian suicide bombers and the war on terror, he argues, have increased the right’s leverage. “You get this sense in the Jewish community that we’re under siege and anyone who challenges the consensus is a traitor who has to be purged,” Bromberg says. “The right has the capacity to instantly inflate any expression of civil discourse, doubt or questioning into an act of disloyalty.” Historian Michael Staub, author of Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, says this split in the Jewish community between an institutional mainstream and a liberal/left alternative dates to the early 1970s, when young Jews, who disproportionately populated the New Left, challenged the major Jewish organizations over Vietnam, urban poverty and assimilation. The difference, says Staub, is that then, when dissidents picketed a synagogue or stormed a meeting of the Jewish Federation, the mainstream leadership scrambled to set up meetings. Now, with dissent centered around Israel, mainstream communal leaders attack anti-occupation protesters as self-hating Jews or take steps to shut them out of the debate entirely. “There is a silencing going on at the local level by American Jewish institutions that is very unhealthy,” says Brit Tzedek’s Freedman.

New to Jewish religious practice and even newer to Israel/Palestine politics, University of Richmond junior Jilian Redford, 20, quickly discovered the Jewish establishment’s line in the sand. The elected president of her campus Hillel, she tried to pull together a balanced panel discussion on the conflict, but soon butted heads with her supervisor at the local Jewish Community Center, Lisa Looney. Looney proposed a particular professor as a speaker, and Redford declined, calling the professor “racist” for private comments she’d made that Palestinians, unlike Jews, have an inherent capacity to kill people in cold blood. “Lisa was extremely taken aback by me using such a strong word,” Redford recalls. Redford’s second strike–there wouldn’t be a third–was her angry response in February to several e-mails she had received from the Israeli Embassy: “Could you please stop sending me email after email about radical Zionist propaganda?” she wrote, adding that it was wrong to “encourage us to hate our Palestinian neighbors in Israel.” Three weeks later, after a hostile meeting where Looney insisted that Redford apologize to the embassy, Looney dismissed Redford from her post. “I felt that all of my hard work had been completely overlooked because of my political views on Israel,” Redford says. “It was like I revealed that I was from some other planet.”

Redford’s experience follows a familiar pattern. Liz Harr, an activist with Jewish Students for Palestinian Rights at the University of Texas, was denied space at her campus Hillel in spring 2002 when she sought to organize a study group on the history of the conflict. Hillel program directors at UC Santa Cruz and Ithaca College resigned in frustration after being reprimanded for publishing articles supporting Israeli and Palestinian activism against the occupation. “We think the campus is a great place for there to be very open and contentious debate,” says Wayne Firestone, director of Hillel International’s Center for Israel Affairs. “But that doesn’t give people unconditional rights to attack Israel in any manner or any fashion.” In fact, Hillel distributes materials that offer “reactive strategies” for responding to “anti-Israel” events, such as a report from GOP pollster Frank Luntz that details how to better market the “pro-Israel” message to Jewish youth.

Hillel is hardly the only enforcer of a narrow “pro-Israel” orthodoxy. After a four-year battle to gain entry, two dovish organizations, Meretz USA and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, were rejected for membership in the Conference of Presidents in December 2002. Some of the conference’s most significant organizations, including the Reform movement, supported Meretz’s application, but on the Conference of Presidents, it’s one organization, one vote, and executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein (who likes to refer to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”) had stacked the committee with right-wing groups. When Jewish Voice for Peace applied for a booth at the Bay Area’s biggest Jewish community event of the year, Israel in the Ballpark, its application was rejected; the local Jewish Community Relations Council told JVP’s program director, Liat Weingart, that JVP didn’t sufficiently support Israel. When Drorah Setel, a Seattle rabbi affiliated with the local Jewish organization Pursue the Peace, showed up at a local pro-Israel rally in April 2002 carrying a sign supportive of both Palestinians and Israelis, a representative of the ADL, one of the rally organizers, insisted to police that she was a counterdemonstrator who should be removed; she ended up under arrest. Michael Bernstein, who led the young-adult program at the American Jewish Committee’s San Francisco chapter, was dismissed from his voluntary post after he organized a panel discussion on the prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine in which two out of three speakers reflected a left perspective; according to Bernstein, chapter director Ernest Weiner charged up to him at the event and accused him, in profane terms, of bias (Weiner insists that Bernstein left of his own accord).

The consensus is manufactured in more subtle ways as well. For that right-wing pro-Israel rally in Washington, buses at many Jewish federations and Hillels were free, memos about it went out on organizational letterhead and attendance counted as a workday. Employees of such organizations report being strongly discouraged, on the other hand, from sending out notices about peace vigils from work e-mail accounts. “We hear from people constantly, staffers at mainstream Jewish institutions, reporters at Jewish papers and rabbis who say in hushed tones, ‘I agree with you, but I can’t say anything,'” says Cecilie Surasky, a spokesperson for JVP. “A rabbi will say, ‘I totally support you, but my congregation is too conservative’; then a synagogue member will say, ‘I can’t say anything because my rabbi is too conservative.’ There’s an incredible amount of fear.” Marcia Freedman of Brit Tzedek says that when she speaks to Jewish audiences, the room is typically split between supporters of the Sharon government and supporters of a negotiated peace, “but the pro-Israeli-government half has no idea about the other half.”

Rosenthal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the lobbying arm of local Jewish federations across the country, says that “the issue of how big is our tent and how civil is our dissent is the question of our time.” At JCPA’s annual conference in February, several hundred people packed a forum on dialogue and dissent over Israel. “We heard most poignantly from students, who said, ‘I want to be able to ask questions and not be called an anti-Semite,'” Rosenthal recalls. The divide has become so pronounced that both sides have begun to address it as a crisis in its own right. Brit Tzedek has launched a Listening Project, and Jews Against the Occupation held a national Day of Debate on June 6; both entail small group encounters where the full range of views on Israel/Palestine can be heard. “We want to create a space where support for Palestinian rights is not seen as traitorous or self-hating,” says JATO’s Lorne Lieb, “but rather as something people can think about and talk to each other about.” Hillel will roll out a similar campaign timed for the fall holiday of Sukkot, which will feature intimate conversations where, Wayne Firestone says, “students on the right will have to listen respectfully to students on the left and vice versa.”

But such tentative efforts to pry open space for Jewish debate is unlikely to tear down the artificial AIPAC consensus anytime soon. When the Tikkun Community brought some 350 activists to Capitol Hill in April to lobby members of Congress to support a return to negotiations, recalls co-chair Michael Lerner, “there was an astonishing openness–behind closed doors.” But most members said AIPAC’s presence, both on the Hill and in their home districts, was overwhelming, especially in tandem with Israel hawks on the Christian right. “One member of Congress said it even feels dangerous to meet with us, because they have such good radar screens that they find out almost immediately,” Lerner says.

His finger to the wind, John Kerry has uncritically endorsed Bush’s enthusiasm for Sharon; while he once spoke somewhat critically of the wall Sharon is erecting deep inside the West Bank, Kerry now wholeheartedly endorses it as a necessary security measure. “The unwritten rule,” says APN president Debrah DeLee, “is don’t let anyone get to the right of you on Israel.” The math is simple: Jews on the right will vote on the single issue of Israel, but liberal Jews vote on a range of issues. So for political candidates, tacking to the right is all gain, no pain.

Over and over, activists like Freedman have been told by sympathetic elected officials, “We support your positions, but we need the telephone calls, the faxes, the letters to the editor, the visits to our office in the home districts.” Jewish anti-occupation forces are slowly getting the message. In July Brit Tzedek will post an open letter to the next President asking for an aggressive commitment to push for a final-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement; the organization is now collecting signatures from American Jews. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has just published a first-ever dovish voter guide, in which members of Congress who support the occupation get a negative score; and Tikkun is working on a private letter to Kerry from peace activists across the country.

At the very least, their presence has exposed the lack of unanimous US Jewish support for Sharon, and that may itself have salutary effects. Cecilie Surasky of JVP says her organization’s Jewish presence in alliances for Palestinian rights has opened up the space for other dissenters, mentioning that, with JVP’s support, Catholic investors in Caterpillar felt emboldened to introduce a shareholder resolution against the military use of its bulldozers in the occupied territories. “For Americans to be persuaded [to support the Palestinian cause],” says Hany Khalil, organizing coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, a national antiwar organization that opposes the Israeli occupation, “we have to build support across all sectors of the United States, and that will never happen without a significant and visible split within the Jewish community.”

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