It turns out that Israel’s actions aren’t just becoming indefensible for young American Jews, but indefensible to older Jews. And the crisis of how to maintain support for the Jewish state has begun inside the Israel lobby itself. What’s my proof?
Last Monday night a number of major Jewish organizations including stiffnecked groups like the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, and Hillel, staged a conference at a suburban NY college, titled, “A Night of Exploring Israel Bias and Anti-Semitism on Campus.” Robert Herbst wrote about the fearful indoctrination aspect of the event for us earlier this week.
The most remarkable statements came at the end of the long night, when two leaders said that Jews have to address Palestinian suffering in order to be plausible advocates for Israel. These leaders said Israel’s critics are animated by Israelis “murdering” Palestinians, “innocent” Palestinians who are killed, the practice of house demolitions that would “outrage” Americans, and checkpoints that restrict movement in the West Bank. While neither leader endorsed these criticisms, one of them, an official of the American Jewish Committee, said that these conditions, and not anti-Semitism, foster the BDS movement, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
And the other leader, the executive director of Hillel of Westchester, said that young Jews are joining extreme critics of Israel because “We raise good Jews”– young Jews who care about people who suffer.
Let me present the comments in their context.
Cliff Wolf, a leader of the American Jewish Committee in Westchester, told the group about doing outreach to non-Jewish communities and then explained that non-Jews are not criticizing Israel because they are anti-Semitic.
Everybody here today said that BDS is anti-Semitic. And that’s true to a limited extent. There are a huge number of people who are not anti-Semitic, who would really rebel against a wave of anti-Semitism, but who see things differently from what we do. They don’t hear what we hear, they don’t read what we read. How many people here have been to the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, and to Palestinian communities in the West Bank? When you go there the experience there is very different from the experience across the line.
When our Christian neighbors go and visit their friends in the Palestinian Territories, they have to wait for 4 hours on the checkpoint to see their holy sites. You know, Jerusalem is holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims, not only us. It’s different for everybody, but it’s holy to them.
Wolf said that in order to build coalitions with Christians and Muslims in support of Israel, Jews have to listen to the others’ criticisms. “Jews are very bad at listening,” he said, but they have to hear the argument for divestment from Israel in order to counter it.
Israel has done things for their security that are foreign to American culture. I’m not going to make a judgment whether Israel does the rights things or not. But here in America if someone gets arrested, the American government doesn’t go and bulldoze the house of the family of the people who did that. The Israeli government does that and people are outraged by that, it’s foreign to America. They are outraged, I don’t want my pension to go to that. That’s what they do as divestment, it’s part of divestment… We change the subject. We emphasize number one, we want peace.
Wolf then observed that just as American Muslims are misrepresented by the media when it is suggested that they don’t condemn terrorist activities– and the Muslims do, almost unanimously, he said — “the world does not hear enough that we care about Palestinian suffering, we care about innocent people who are being killed.”
The answer to BDS and strong criticism of Israeli practices, he went on, is that “BDS harms peace. We want peace. We change the subject to find things to work together to build peace.” And in that way Jews “actually can be an example to the world.”
Later, Rachel Klein, executive director of Hillel of Westchester, addressed a question about why many of Israel’s most “hostile” critics are young Jews.
I can share an experience. Recently I was at a synagogue doing a program where I was there thinking that I was talking to a group of Reform, secular call them, Jewish students who would like to learn how they could advocate on campus, and learn some things about Israel education. What I received were students who were actually extremely critical of Israel. I would tell them how would you address it if you were being personally attacked, by someone saying the charge, “Israel is murdering Palestinians on purpose.” They said, “Well I actually think that’s exactly what is happening. I think maybe there are some stabbing of Israelis, but Israelis are out there doing that,” and I walked away a little bit taken aback.
Klein assured the audience that only one of the forty high school groups she has addressed expressed that criticism, and she said that these students may have been influenced by the fact that some have Israeli parents and “don’t want to believe what my parents are telling me.” But the problem is broader. American Jewish families are not doing enough to give children the full picture about Israel so that they “grow up a certain way, with certain thought processes,” i.e., supporting Israel. “We’re seeing that more families are not doing that.”
Then she said:
One of the reasons why I think many students are drawn to the anti Israel side of the conversation is because we raise good Jews. We raise children look out for the widow the orphan the stranger in our midst. And the end result is not clarity on the cause, but it is being sort of drawn into a very well marketed campaign.
Wolf then said that young Jews will go that way if their parents do not show that they care about these abuses too.
There’s only one thing to say about these comments: They represent a shift on the part of these leaders, and it’s because the BDS movement has been so strong and clear and because Israeli actions are so indefensible. Just compare Wolf’s very reasonable statements to the (foolish) statement by the leader of his organization, David Harris, that American Jewish students must be Israel’s soldiers in the war on BDS.
Last point. Klein was asked what she thinks of the Open Hillel movement. For the record, here’s her answer:
I think it’s a very big question and the short answer is that there may have been potential there but I don’t think it started on the right foot. We’re very big about being on one foot at Hillel [reference to Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation]. I think it started on the wrong foot. I think the intentions and the possibilities may have been there. At this point I don’t necessarily know that it will promote positive dialogue.
She said that since then Open Hillel has made statements that do promote positive dialogue.