Home inFocus Celebrating Israel at 60 (Spring 2008) The Battle to Define ‘Pro-Israel’

The Battle to Define ‘Pro-Israel’

Noah Silverman Spring 2008

“If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this,” Virginia Congressman Jim Moran seethed, just before American forces moved into Iraq.

Five months earlier, the House of Representatives had passed a resolution to authorize war in Iraq by a margin of 296-133. Among Moran’s Democratic colleagues, the resolution was opposed by 61 percent of the 207 congressmen voting – and supported by two-thirds of the 24 Jewish Democrats among them.

The numbers made it clear that the final outcome of the vote would not have changed if Jewish votes had been cast differently. They also fed a growing frustration among Israel’s critics that even left-leaning American Jews do not toe the “progressive” line on the Middle East. Indeed, those who seek to undermine the “special relationship” between Israel and America, fault the leading American Jewish institutions – chief among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – for their unwillingness to align with the views of non-Jewish “progressives.”

The denizens of academia, the media, and left-wing Middle East advocacy groups complain that the traditionally “liberal” Jewish community has wrongly backed “right-wing” Israel policies. The objective of these Jewish critics and their non-Jewish allies is to discredit Jewish organizations that are out of step with progressive dogma and that defend Israel. Often, they target AIPAC, which rarely diverges from Israeli policy, and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which includes 51 organizations that hold a spectrum of views. Indeed, the Left has applied itself with great energy to redefining what it means to be “pro-Israel.”

The Oslo Syndrome

During the years of the U.S.-sponsored Oslo diplomatic process, when the Israelis and Palestinians attempted to negotiate a peace deal from 1993 through 2001, it appeared to many that President Bill Clinton’s diplomatic handiwork might resolve the Middle East conflict. The hope for peace (or the unwillingness to appear anti-peace) trumped any misgivings about the direction of Clinton administration diplomacy among the most influential groups under the umbrella of the Conference of Presidents.

Tensions arose between 1996 and 1999, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government began to question the Palestinians’ commitment to peace. During this period, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents were forced to reevaluate their policies. If they tilted too far left, they risked appearing indifferent to Israel’s security concerns, or even being subservient to American diplomatic imperatives. If they tipped too far to the right, they risked being viewed as encouraging Likud to abandon the “peace process,” or failing to honor the legacy of slain Oslo architect Yitzhak Rabin.

The debate over whether Palestinian leaders had the ability or inclination to uphold their end of the diplomatic process was tabled when Netanyahu was voted out of office in 1999. Jewish organizations were able to postpone painful policy decisions until the 2001 demise of Netanyahu’s Oslo-supporting successor, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which roughly coincided with the end of the Clinton administration.

A Hawkish Interlude

Stormier weather soon arrived. Amidst the violence of the second Palestinian intifada, the Israeli public installed an icon of the “right-wing” and “settlement movement,” Ariel Sharon, to end the violence. Concurrently, the United States was thrust into its own “war on terror” after the al-Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Similarities between the suicide-bombing Hamas organization and al-Qaeda were hard to ignore.

With a renewed sense of purpose evident inside the Beltway, many Jewish Americans also found or renewed their appreciation for “hawkish” concepts like deterrence and even preemption in the face of terrorism. A 2002 American Jewish Committee poll found that 59 percent of Jewish Americans surveyed approved of President Bush’s anti-terrorism efforts. The same percentage of Jews approved of military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Such policies had comparable levels of support in the population at large, but Jewish voters were much more likely to describe themselves as liberals and Democrats. The prevalence of these sentiments among American Jews was therefore striking.

In stark contrast to their odes to peace in the 1990s, the leading voices of mainstream American Jewry were striking more hawkish notes. In September 2002, after President Bush outlined the case for action against Iraq at the United Nations, and as Congress weighed the pros and cons of an invasion, even centrist groups like the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and Reform movement endorsed the President’s call to disarm Hussein – by force if necessary.

As the Palestinian intifada raged on, the same consensus prevailed in communal discussions of how best to respond to the turmoil in the West Bank and Gaza. Jewish groups overwhelmingly supported Bush’s decision to rule out further diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority as long as Yasir Arafat (or any other leader unwilling to eschew violence) remained at the helm. Without exception, mainstream Jewish organizations accepted the necessity of the separation wall between Israel and the disputed territories. These groups were vocally appreciative of congressional rhetoric supporting Israel’s self-defense and rebuking its enemies.

Dissent From Within

As the 2004 presidential election drew closer, America’s military efforts in Iraq steadily lost support among American Jews. Jewish leaders who had backed the war began to avoid mention of it entirely. Indeed, the enthusiasm for the war in Iraq dissipated more rapidly among Jews than the broader American public.

Yet, most Jewish organizations continued to espouse strong views on Israeli security. Presidential hopefuls Howard Dean and John Kerry were forced to seek forgiveness for comments suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians were equally at fault for the ongoing violence. The majority of American Jews still seemed inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to even the most criticized Israeli policies, including continued construction of the separation fence, targeted assassination of Hamas leaders, and refusal to negotiate with Yasir Arafat under fire.

But fissures remained. A July 2004 report in The Nation – among several others at the time – heralded the emergence of “an incipient counterforce [to the mainstream], which exists almost entirely outside official Jewish channels.” The magazine’s correspondent identified a number of individual activists associated with these efforts, as well as groups like Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Tikkun, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Americans for Peace Now.

A Surging Counterforce

Following the re-election of George W. Bush, the adherents of this “incipient counterforce” ramped up their efforts. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) detected “new wind” in the sails of the “once moribund peace camp.” The news agency attributed this change to hopes raised by the death of Arafat in November 2004, and the rise of Mahmoud Abbas as the leader of Palestinian Authority. Doves were further encouraged by Ariel Sharon’s plans for unilateral separation from Gaza, which laid potential foundations for Palestinian independence. Emboldened by these developments, the Jewish Left hoped to persuade American policymakers to press Israel to make further concessions. They hoped, in the words of The Nation‘s Esther Kaplan, “to radically redefine” what it meant for American Jews to be “pro-Israel.”

As these forces on the Jewish fringe were growing full of passionate intensity, centrist Jews were losing conviction. President Bush’s waning popularity and the increasing likelihood that his Republican party would lose control of at least one chamber of Congress encouraged Jewish organizations to reorder their priorities. Thus, as the 2006 midterm elections approached, the leaders of the Reform movement reversed course on the Iraq war and embraced strident pro-withdrawal positions. The Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC – organizations that had always strived to be non-partisan – vouched for the “pro-Israel” bona fides of congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi even after she came under intense criticism in 2007 for her efforts to promote diplomatic engagement with rogue regimes, notably Syria.

The Influence of ‘The Israel Lobby’

At the same moment that even mainstream American Jewish organizations were beginning to drift left, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, two professors regarded as leading lights in the field of international relations, attacked these groups as enablers of Israeli “intransigence” in their bestselling polemic, The Israel Lobby.

Walt and Mearsheimer came under intense fire from the Jewish community for their assertion that, “if the United States were to choose sides on the basis of moral considerations alone, it would back the Palestinians, not Israel,” along with many other equally objectionable claims. But even in their denunciations of Walt and Mearsheimer’s excesses, progressive groups echoed the authors’ claim that Jewish groups like AIPAC undermine the cause of peace in the Middle East.

In October 2006, JTA reported that a series of meetings aimed at building an alternative to AIPAC was under way. Interest in the venture was fueled by news that George Soros, the financier and philanthropist whose comments blaming Israel for anti-Semitism had already made him a controversial figure in Jewish circles, was a participant in the discussions and a potential donor.

Six months after this news was reported, Soros published a caustic anti-AIPAC jeremiad in the New York Review of Books. Soros embraced the goal of reducing AIPAC’s “pervasive influence” but pronounced himself “not sufficiently engaged in Jewish affairs to be involved in the reform of AIPAC.” Subsequent reports described continuing discussions, but a new institution is yet to appear.

A Dangerous Alliance

Though their loftier ambitions have so far gone unfulfilled, Jewish “progressives” who seek to challenge the mainstream Jewish establishment have made moderate headway. They have raised the level of their game on Capitol Hill, built small but effective new institutions, and raised questions about how accurately the old guard reflects the views of rank-and-file Jews.

At this point, no one would argue that the new Jewish groups have overtaken the old-line pro-Israel lobby. But the new congressional climate is increasingly favorable to these new groups. Measures that would have been buried before 2007 now have a chance to pass if they’re crafted cautiously and have sponsors on both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps the most impressive alternative institution is the Middle East Progress Report, a thrice-weekly digest of essays and articles compiled by the Center for Mideast Progress, an offshoot of the Soros-funded Center for American Progress. Disseminated electronically, Progress Report has been promoted explicitly as a counterweight to the popular Daily Alert, distributed daily by the Conference of Presidents.

A more alarming facet of the push to reconcile “pro-Israel” and “progressive” is the way in which the new groups make common cause with non-Jews who share their desire to discredit Israel’s traditional defenders. As a result, Congressman Moran has found a Jewish audience that will agree wholeheartedly when he declares, “I don’t think AIPAC represents the mainstream of American Jewish thinking.” Similarly, when Walt and Mearsheimer co-author an opinion piece that maligns mainstream Jewish groups as “Israel’s False Friends,” their thesis echoes complaints from the Soros camp.

Whatever their Middle East policy views, American Jews run a grave risk by aligning with the likes of Moran, Walt, and Mearsheimer. With such fellow travelers, “progressives” who seek to “radically redefine” what it means to be “pro-Israel” risk aiding those who would undermine the special relationship that American Jews have painstakingly nurtured for 60 years.

Noah Silverman is director of congressional affairs for the Republican Jewish Coalition.