The Israel lobby appears to be panicking.
Earlier this week, New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage cancelled a talk by New Republic senior editor John Judis about his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict, deeming it too controversial. The book, which comes with a blurb from The Nation’s own Eric Alterman, has enraged the right by looking seriously at Zionism’s colonial history and, worse, assuming that Palestinian concerns are as important as Jewish ones. Judis writes that he has taken from the Reform Jewish tradition “the idea that an American Jew should be as concerned about the rights of a Palestinian Arab as he is about the rights of an Israeli Jew. That’s not a view you’ll find today at many of the so-called pro-Israel organizations, or at the evangelical churches that call for the Jewish conquest of Judea and Samaria, but it’s my view, and it’s the one that informs this history.” Evidently, this basic moral universalism is too inflammatory for parts of the Jewish community.
Then, yesterday, news came that a different institution, the Jewish Museum of New York, was scrapping a talk on Kafka by BDS supporter Judith Butler, who pulled out amid a pro-Israel uproar. “[T]he debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended,” said a museum statement.
Meanwhile, there’s The J Street Challenge: The Seductive Allure of Peace in Our Time, a new right-wing documentary that, if the online preview and early reviews are accurate, smears the liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street as dupes of crazed anti-Semites. It was made, producer Avi Goldwasser told the Jewish Press, “in response to what we perceived as a one-sided discussion, dominated by J Street spokespersons, about the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.”
Supporters of the Israeli right are right to worry. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, and it’s increasingly difficult to reconcile liberalism with actually manifest Zionism. Particularly among younger Jews, the cutting edge debate isn’t between AIPAC and J Street—it’s between J Street and BDS, and it seems as if AIPAC and its allies can’t decide which side it hates more. The BDS movement poses an existential threat that has Israeli leaders terrified, but at the same time, the shrillest of pro-Israel groups thrive when Jews are made to feel under siege. J Street is committed to the safety and longevity of the Jewish state, but the right finds its demand for a Palestinian state alongside it intolerable, and the group threatens the hegemony of Israel hawks in American Jewish life. That’s particularly true at a time when AIPAC and its allies suffered a major diplomatic defeat in the failed push for new sanctions on Iran.
“I believe there’s a major shift taking place in the Jewish American community and in its politics,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote me in an e-mail from Jerusalem. “It’s a shift that is generational and will take time but is certainly a challenge for all those organizations and individuals who’ve experienced only an ‘Israel-right-or-wrong’ relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.” As a result, those organizations and individuals are lashing out all over the place.
AIPAC is even trying to hire a “National Progressives Outreach Constituency Director” in hopes of making inroads into the left. It’s not going to work. The growing liberal disenchantment with Israel is not a PR problem. It can’t be solved by shutting critical voices out and doubling down on dogma. American Jews are going to abandon Israel unless Israel abandons the occupation, and no amount of censorship and propaganda is going to change that.