Saturday, February 10, 2007

The American Jewish community's pretence of consensus on Israel is crumbling

Cracks in the wall

February 10, 2007 11:00 AM

Richard Silverstein

Reading the Independent Jewish Voices manifesto and other posts written by signatories, I've been struck by the similarity in themes and similarity of political developments within the American and British Jewish communities.

Over the past six months, two notable developments have set Israel and diaspora Jewry adrift. The first was Israel's war in Lebanon, whose failure caused grave paralysis both in the military and within the government. The second was publication of the Walt-Mearsheimer essay about the Israel lobby's influence on US Mideast policy.

This has become a multi-front war now, with new fronts emerging in seemingly spontaneous fashion. One of the new fronts is Jimmy Carter's new book, which Old Guard Jewish organisations seem to have in their shorthairs. Another is an essay, sponsored by the American-Jewish Committee, purporting to analyse the phenomenon of the "new" anti-semitism professed by liberal Jews who criticise Israeli policies. On yet a third front, three American Jewish peace groups, Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, and Brit Tzedek, fought an epic battle against an AIPAC-sponsored Congressional bill to criminalise contact with Hamas - the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Bill.

Perhaps realising the importance of this victory, George Soros and other wealthy liberal Jews have been meeting for months to plan for the establishment of an independent Jewish lobby that will counter AIPAC's strident nationalist advocacy.

AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have enjoyed virtual hegemony as the voice of American Jewry on Israel. It is why presidents, senators and Congress members have voted AIPAC's way (until recently) on virtually all legislation of interest to the group.

But now, if you put your finger to the wind, you can sense a change. Jimmy Carter's book is a sensation, having sold 200,000 copies as of January 14. The more Jewish greybeards attack it, the more it sells. The book seems to have struck a chord.

The old Israel "consensus" and leadership approaches are ineffective. When AIPAC speaks, politicians no longer salute quite as crisply as they once did.

Enter a relatively obscure recent internal political battle within a group called the Israel Campus Coalition. The group is composed of American Jewish groups active on college campuses. The liberal Union of Progressive Zionists hosted a national tour by the Israeli refusenik group, Break the Silence. At its speaking engagements, the refuseniks criticised the occupation.

The hard-right Zionist Organisation of America took special offence that Israeli soldiers who supposedly had shirked their responsibility to serve their country were telling Jewish college students that Israel behaved badly. The group moved to have UPZ expelled from the ICC. Last week, after wide coverage in the Jewish media, ICC voted not to expel UPZ.

On the heels of this, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch wrote a foreign ministry report attacking not only Break the Silence, but another refusenik group currently touring the US, Combatants for Peace. Announcing the report, Yediot Ahronot claimed (only in the original Hebrew version of the story) that the refusenik tours were "funded by US Palestinian organisations." Further, the report stated that such tours "damaged Israel" and "must be stopped". The most incendiary language was eliminated from the English version of the story published at Ynetnews.

Both UPZ and Brit Tzedek affirm they have neither sought nor accepted funding from Arab organisations for their tours.

The consul general's report also takes the unusual step of criticising Hillel by name for hosting events on the Break the Silence tour because "the willingness by Jewish communities to host these groups and even fund them is painful". It is highly unusual, and some might say inappropriate, for Israeli diplomats to single out American Jewish organisations by name for criticism.

The report reserves its harshest judgment for Israelis:

These refuseniks are cynically using their reserve soldier status and causing damage to the state of Israel. It's possible that these organizations aren't aware that they have turned, over time, into tools in the hands of North American Muslim campus organizations and that they have crossed the line between their aspiration to be an influential force within Israel to becoming a clearly anti-Israel force causing Israel great damage in the world.

One wonders what political purpose was fulfilled by the internal Israeli publication of these spurious charges. I think it's an issue of the political powers that be losing their footing and no longer being able to place their political priorities in proper perspective. They are deeply afraid of the potential moral power of the refusenik message of saying "No" to the current policy of endless conflict. They ascribe more power to this movement than it has and more danger than it represents.

Recently, Joel Beinin, a Stanford University Mideast specialist, was to speak at a San Jose school. The Silicon Valley Jewish Community Relations Council got wind of the program and enlisted school parents and students to protest. Beinin's invitation was rescinded the day before he was to speak.

The JCRC director explained her opposition to Beinin's presentation by saying that the professor "opposed Israel's existence". Any presentation he gave must be balanced, on the same programme, by a countering perspective. The Israeli-Arab conflict, she contended, is too complicated to allow such an "extreme" perspective to go unanswered.

This is an impoverished view of the Israeli-Arab debate. I call it the "balance syndrome": people are allegedly so prone to the blandishments of the anti-Israel crowd that its every public utterance must be monitored and countered by someone representing the "right" perspective.

The Beinin incident mirrors Tony Judt's cancelled speaking engagement at the New York Polish consulate where he was due to talk about the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Such strong-arming makes Jewish pressure groups look weak and frightened. They do a great disservice because the ideas espoused by Judt, Beinin, Carter or Israeli refuseniks are debated freely within Israel itself.

Why must we here be treated as if we are invalids in need of spoonfeeding when it comes to policy debates about Israel?

What are we afraid of? Do we not do Israel an injustice by viewing her as so delicate that entertaining a few "unpopular" ideas will lead to her extinction? The Israel I know and love can withstand such debate. In fact, I believe that Israel is only strengthened by the free exchange of ideas.

A new weapon in the battle for that free exchange of ideas has been a burgeoning culture of American Jewish blogs devoted to Israeli-Arab peace. Tikun Olam (my own blog) and Muzzlewatch broke several of the stories mentioned above.

These blogs and a score of others - because they are independent of communal consensus or pressure - have proven to be a useful tool in questioning the established order of American Jewish leadership and its priorities.

Click here for a full list of articles in the Independent Jewish Voices debate.

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