Readers of this site know that I believe money is important in politics, so I collect instances of donor pressure cutting down debate about Israel inside the Jewish community. Well, I heard a story about donor pressure at J Street on Sunday, told by Leonard Fein, the legendary columnist and liberal Zionist, on a panel organized by Peter Beinart.
In 1977, Menachem Begin, the rightwing former terrorist, became the first Likud prime minister of Israel, and three years later, Fein, who edited Moment, a liberal Jewish magazine, put together a group of 56 prominent American Jews who signed a letter that had originated in Israel, criticizing the Israeli government for its settlement project.
At J Street, Fein told this story:
I was fingered as the organizer of this little movement. Some two years later, I was interviewed in Israel by the Jerusalem Post. And the Post said, “What gives you the right to criticize Israeli policy?” I said, “Look when Begin comes back from his visits to America and gets off the plane, he always says, ‘I have great news, the American Jewish community is 100 percent behind us.’ And if he’s going to say that I’m going to correct him, because it simply is not so.”
The reporter from the Post– “are you calling Begin a liar?” I said, “Use whatever word you want, that’s all I have to say.” The next day, front page, Jerusalem Post, “American Professor calls Begin a liar.” And my roof fell in. I depended on wealthy liberal Jews to support Moment magazine. Money was withdrawn right and left from its support… I tell you that story not to praise myself or draw credit to myself. But to indicate to you how very much has changed for the better in the intervening years. We are not really as pressed and pressured as we were back then. Part of it is Peter’s contribution, part of it is J Street’s contribution, part of it is the fact that some of us don’t know how to give up and we’ve been fighting the good fight all these years.
I wonder how much has changed. The Israeli government still feels that it depends utterly on American Jewish support, and it does. Fein is now in a consensus position, for the two-state solution. There is a lot of financial pressure, applied by wealthy Jews who care about Israel, aimed at maintaining this orthodoxy. And American Jews who care about Israel are highly-attuned to what even rightwing Israeli publications say.