Saturday, February 19, 2011


I customarily disagree with the American-Israel Political Action Committee’s (AIPAC’s) policy stances on how Israel should be interacting with its Palestinian cousins. But even we critics have to respect AIPAC’s political clout. That power was on display once again yesterday at the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council was voting on a resolution that would have condemned Israel’s building of settlements in the West Bank as illegal. More than one hundred U.N. members had co-sponsored the measure, and 14 of the 15 nations in the Security Council were prepared to support it. But wouldn’t you know it, the 15th is the United States, and it had the right to exercise a veto. So the resolution failed.

According to the Netanyahu party line, which AIPAC obviously supports, Israel remains willing to negotiate a peace agreement; it is the Palestinians who are creating peace impediments by demanding first that Israel freeze its settlement construction. The Obama Administration does not buy into that perspective. In fact, stopping the settlements was once the cornerstone of the President’s peace plan. So why couldn’t we support yesterday’s U.N. resolution? Why was it the wrong time to send a message that the more settlements Israel builds, the harder it will be to make peace? Isn’t that proposition obvious to all but the most partisan observers?

Perhaps. Yet traditionally, when it comes to American policy towards Israel, the AIPAC position will carry the day. When combined with the conservative gentiles who dominate the GOP, AIPAC’s power among Jews of both political parties has proven impossible to defeat over the long haul. Occasionally, an American President will send a strong message against an Israeli policy, but after every such blip (such as Obama’s Cairo speech), there is a sharp reaction from the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby, and the United States soon finds itself back in its customary role of Israel’s lone, prominent defender.

Whatever else can be said about AIPAC, the fact is that it is congenitally incapable of criticizing Israel for moving too far to the right. Consequently, when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians today, AIPAC would prefer instead simply to change the subject. The mantra goes something like this: “We’re ready to make peace when the Palestinians can speak in one, moderate voice and comport themselves accordingly. In the meantime, we’re concentrating solely on a more pressing issue: the threat of Iran’s nukes.”

Frankly, if that attitude were replicated throughout Israel, we’d NEVER make peace with the Palestinians. Peace will come only when each side goes out of its way to make concessions, rather than playing the game of “I won’t reach out my hand until he reaches out his hand first.” This is elementary stuff. AIPAC knows it and so does Netanyahu, but they just don’t care. They probably figure that the status quo could be a whole lot worse for Israel, and if it’s unbearable for the Palestinians, that’s “their problem, not ours.” Somehow, that doesn’t exactly sound like an attitude consistent with Prophetic Judaism.

What’s particularly disturbing about AIPAC is how even liberal politicians are willing to espouse the right-wing party line when they speak to an AIPAC audience. What does that say about the rank-and-file of AIPAC members? Are they really so out-of-touch with the Middle East peace equation? It was at such a conference in 2008 when then-candidate Obama uttered his now famous (or infamous) declaration, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” Truly, the idea of an undivided Jerusalem is not a part of any credible peace plan, yet for some reason, a politician as sophisticated as Obama felt the need to advocate that one-sided solution. It’s a sad commentary on his willingness to pander, and a sadder still commentary on AIPAC’s unwillingness to advocate what is necessary to make peace.

Clearly, we Jewish peaceniks have for years needed an alternative to AIPAC. Now, finally, such an organization is beginning to attain prominence. One week from today, J Street will be starting its annual conference in my home town of Washington, D.C., and most of my buddies in the peace movement here are all abuzz. They look at J Street as the focal point of our hope for a more enlightened U.S. policy toward the Holy Land. Finally, the Jewish community has created a lobby in Washington on Israel-Palestine issues that does not come across as an “Amen chorus” for the Israeli Government.

J Street is a voice that must be reckoned with on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. It is extremely well funded, with backers that include billionaire George Soros. Needless to say, people who have big money don’t spend it on advocacy organizations that come across as “fringe.” As a result, J Street works hard to situate itself in the mainstream. It takes every opportunity to style itself as pro Israel, pro peace, and pro two-state solution. Its leadership even calls itself “Zionist.” On the surface, then, this is an organization that sounds a whole lot like AIPAC … except that it is willing to criticize Israel when necessary to accomplish the same ultimate goal that most members of AIPAC would embrace: a peaceful, prosperous Israel.

Ah, but an organization is more than just a mission statement, isn’t it? And when you take a closer look at J Street, what you’ll see remains a lot more muddled than what is advertised. Prior to the formation of J Street, there was a vacuum on the political left when it came to U.S.--Israeli relations. In filling that vacuum, J Street has brought into the tent a wide cast of characters. I’m going to avoid the temptation to call out names. But suffice it to say that J Street’s more prominent supporters include certain figures who might call themselves “pro-Israel” (a meaningless statement if ever there were one), but who reserve 90% of their barbs for Israel’s conduct, preferring to give the Palestinians a free ride unless and until Israel lives up to the standards set forth by the Biblical Prophets. How’s that for balance? Palestinians are treated with kid gloves when they depict Israel like dirt in their textbooks, deny the Jews a right to their own state in the Middle East, and refer to the Jews’ return to Zion as the “catastrophe;” by contrast, Jews are expected to behave like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah? If that attitude is “pro-Israel,” I’d hate to hear what “anti-Israel” sounds like.

As for the word “Zionist,” I rarely if ever hear it uttered by those of my friends who are in J Street. My guess is that they’re sick of what it represents – the advocacy of a state in which Jews are granted special privileges, even if those privileges are confined to immigration policies. They prefer instead to think of Israel as a Jewish “homeland” or “haven” in which Jews may ultimately find themselves in the minority, but that’s OK, as long as they are treated with equal rights. To be sure, there are undoubtedly honest-to-God Zionists in J Street. But to call the organization as a whole “Zionist” strikes me as quite a stretch.

For these reasons, I won’t be joining my friends at the J Street conference. When I work in the peace movement, I prefer to situate myself on the outside of that organization so that I can criticize it with the same frequency that it criticizes Israel. If it can remain “pro-Israel” even though it does little else but complain about Israel, I can certainly remain “pro J Street” even though I am frequently complaining about its unwillingness to take on the Arabs with half of the vehemence that it reserves for Israel.

How’s that for a backhanded compliment? Honestly, though, I can call myself “pro J Street” in one important respect. If forced to choose between J Street and its sheepishness toward the Palestinians on the one hand, and AIPAC and its incessant Israel defending on the other, I’ll take J Street any time. And I say that as a staunch Zionist and lover of Israel. The fact is that sometimes our friends and family need tough love. (That’s precisely why we should criticize the Palestinians more – they are truly our cousins, and we should expect a lot more from them.) And as crazy as the Netanyahu Government is behaving in cow-towing to the Israeli settlers, that Government needs a whole lot of tough love these days.

Personally, I am thrilled that the United States remains a friend of Israel. May it always be so. In fact, it is my hope that Israel is treated by my own Government not merely as one ally among many, but as the closest of friends. The only question for me is what kind of friend Israel needs the most -- one that, in essence, lets it drive drunk (the AIPAC position), or one that holds it to a higher standard than it holds everyone else (the J Street position)? Isn’t there a third alternative?

Maybe, but that third alternative doesn’t yet have well-funded institutional support. And not coincidentally, after decades of battling, Israel still doesn’t yet have peace with its neighbors. Such a pity. But then again, what is a Jew but a person who both laments and hopes at all times.

As we Jews have been saying for centuries, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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