By Stanley Kutler
American Jews are expected by the Israeli government and by its American lobbying arms, such as AIPAC, to unequivocally support Israel against its very real enemies, but also against any criticism whether from abroad or within the American Jewish community. The prevailing mode is “Israel can do no wrong,” and AIPAC demands American Jews march in lockstep. But Israeli policies of the moment can and do betray values held by a large swath of American Jewry, including their independence of mind and the right to dissent, whether as Americans or as Jews.
The moment is difficult. Benjamin Netanyahu’s embarrassing, intemperate outbursts after the interim agreement between the United States and its allies and Iran further isolated Israel diplomatically. But the Israeli prime minister continues to work the back door as he recently announced that he had dispatched a delegation of Israeli military and intelligence experts to “advise” their American counterparts regarding Iran. We can be certain that he did not send any prominent and numerous Israeli experts who have courageously opposed his adventurism.
Now comes a “bipartisan” group of U.S. senators determined to join Israel in isolation. They are motivated by little else than electoral fears and campaign contributions. They have offered legislation imposing new, more severe sanctions on Iran at a most inopportune time, and a pledge of American diplomatic and military support if the Israelis attack Iran. Talk about blank checks. Israeli lobby groups such as AIPAC actively support the measure, meaning so does the Israeli government. It seemed inconceivable that anything could surpass Netanyahu’s audacity and obtuseness. Maybe Congress dysfunctional is better than it is functional.
Since Barack Obama emerged on the national political scene, there has been a sub-current of belief that he was “bad for the Jews,” and would undermine the Israelis. Given Obama’s circle of Jewish friends, financial backers and ardent supporters, this was absurd on its face. But the underlying motivation is obvious—start with racism and the belief that Obama is a covert Muslim. Such whispered sentiments became commonplace in influential Israeli circles—the governing Likud party, religious parties and settlers. The proposed congressional action is intended to embrace an Israeli alliance as never before, and, added bonus, embarrass the president of the United States, which makes for good spin in Israel.
American Jews do not support such knee-jerk reactions. Polls consistently show backing for Obama at a very high level; further, they reject (albeit passively) the Israeli maintenance of the occupation and oppose an Israeli airstrike against Iran. It is not rocket science to see the downside for both Israelis and Americans if Iran is attacked. Would it destroy Iran’s future capability to develop nuclear weapons? Would it destroy Iran’s peaceful nuclear development—to which it has every right, notwithstanding Israel’s singular objections? And then what of Israel’s place in the international community—let alone the United States’ pre-eminent role in international leadership?
Fortunately, a counterweight of 10 other senators, significantly including the heads of the Senate Banking, Intelligence, Armed Services, Appropriations, Judiciary and Energy committees, warned that additional sanctions now would only “play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see negotiations fail.” Only fear and possibly politeness prevented them from saying that it also played into the hands of Israeli elements who oppose any settlement with Iran. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.—and not insignificantly, they are Jewish—only delicately criticized their bellicose colleagues, as did the administration’s chief spokesman, Secretary of State John Kerry.
Beyond the international flap, American Jews ought to be concerned about how controversial Israeli positions and statements are causing significant cleavages within our own Jewish community. An undeservedly little-known website, MuzzleWatch, which is devoted to tracking the stifling of open debate about American-Israeli foreign policy, is most instructive.
MuzzleWatch reported an incident at Harvard in November, when the university’s Hillel student organization barred Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, from giving a speech in its building. The governing body, not the students, complained that the talk was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, as well as several Jewish pro-peace groups. (Burg instead spoke at a dorm.) A Harvard student appropriately responded that this was “an attack on free speech in its most naked form.” “I’m not sure what they were afraid of—people with all kinds of political views had a very constructive conversation with Mr. Burg,” she added. Are we to believe that nearly 8 million Israeli Jews think alike?
Burg is a well-known Israeli political figure; his father was the longtime minister for religious affairs in Israel’s founding decades. Views such as his apparently are dangerous for the tender minds of Harvard students. In 2003, he published an article in, of all places, Israel Today, a right-wing Israeli newspaper owned by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, in which Burg observed: “Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism.”
Burg is reviled in Israel for breaking the country’s long-standing “nuclear ambiguity” and denounced as a self-hating Jew because of his criticism of the religious establishment and the occupation, among other deviations from the now-prevailing nationalist, right-wing Israeli ideology. Commentary magazine denounced his attempt to define a post-Zionist Israeli state as an exercise in “despising Israeli democracy.”
Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter also tried to have a balanced discussion of the Palestinian question, but the governing body prevented it. Later, apropos of nothing, the chapter was vigorously denounced by the notoriously intemperate John Podhoretz, the hereditary editor of Commentary.
Parenthetically, the latter affair illustrates only too sadly what the media choose to report. Politico described a public panel discussion as strictly a personality clash between some well-known names in the Jewish community over snubs and insults, real or alleged. MuzzleWatch, however, noted that the outburst was over the very real repression at Swarthmore.
The Swarthmore Hillel student board’s reaction to the clumsy attempt at censorship undoubtedly triggered Podhoretz’s outburst. Hillel International’s declared policy prohibits student groups from partnering with organizations or hosting speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or who “[d]elegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or who support any boycott of, divestment from or sanctions against Israel.
The students responded with a direct attack on the barring of speakers such as Burg. Such policies, they declared, insulted the memory of their namesake, Rabbi Hillel, “who was famed for encouraging debate.” They attacked attempts to present “a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews.” The Swarthmore chapter then declared itself to be an “Open Hillel,” one that would encourage “dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body”—meaning that it would host a partner or any speaker at its own discretion and retain “the values of open debate and discourse espoused by Rabbi Hillel.”
Beyond AIPAC’s destructive—and let us hope, self-defeating—lobbying efforts, American Jews should be concerned with what is happening in their own communities. AIPAC and its like-minded allies in the United States can praise Israeli democracy, but first they must respect American democracy. The Israeli government and the various lobby groups in the United States would do well to heed the stark reality of polls revealing ever-declining support for Israel among younger American Jews.