American Jews are taking back their power from Israel

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The last month has seen the greatest change in the US relationship with Israel in more than 40 years, maybe since the 1973 war, or possibly even Suez, or the creation of the state. We see President Obama repeatedly faulting the Israeli prime minister’s conduct, politicians boycotting the Israeli p.m.’s speech in Washington, and suggestions in the official press that Democrats are going to run against Israel in the next election season. The 1991 fight between George Bush and Yitzhak Shamir that helped elect Bill Clinton and Rabin doesn’t approach what we are seeing today. Yesterday the White House chief of staff got rousing cheers in Washington from J Street, the liberal Zionist group, as he slammed Israel as an occupier: “An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end.”

Why is this rupture happening now? Why didn’t it happen during any number of earlier provocations, from the building of Har Homa settlement outside Jerusalem to the fomenting of the Iraq war to the slaughter of Cast Lead?

This moment must be seen primarily as a generational Jewish moment. Our politicians and newspapers are speaking out because they are licensed by a segment of the official Jewish community that is deeply troubled by Israel’s behavior. In 1967, American Jews fell in love with Israel and made a solemn promise to protect the country through thick and thin. Nearly fifty years later the same community is reconsidering that vow. What we are seeing is a transfer of power from the Israeli Jewish community to the Diaspora Jewish community that Benjamin Netanyahu failed to anticipate even as he precipitated it. This transfer will not be reversed, and it marks the end of the traditional Israel lobby, though not the end of the “special relationship” between the countries.

The old lobby that so influenced US policy on the conflict for 40 years was based on a simple principle: There must never be daylight between the US administration and the Israeli government, no matter who was in power in Israel, a former terrorist, a war criminal, a rightwing lunatic. No daylight was the motto of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC holds a profound trust: it justly believes its support to be crucial to Israel’s survival, and it was able to maintain order in the official Jewish community behind the No-daylight principle through massacres and colonization because the American Jewish community deferred to the Israeli one. The deference is encapsulated by Bill Kristol’s response in an Upper West Side synagogue to Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street some years ago: It would be “cavalier” of me to sit here in comfort and criticize Israel even if I wondered about its actions, Kristol said. That attitude was reinforced by the Holocaust message, Never again, and by the Jewish religious instruction that Jews in Israel are aliyah, higher, while we in the west are yoredim, or lower.

Liberal secular Jews accepted that back seat. We were in no position to criticize Israel because we didn’t live there and our children didn’t serve in armies. My mother is typical: a liberal Democrat who votes against war and has never been to Israel, she puts photos of her best friend’s children in Israeli uniform on the refrigerator and bites her tongue about the occupation.

No doubt there have been many moments of strain between the liberal Jewish community and Israel. Sabra and Shatilla, Cast Lead, Lebanon, Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada. At each of these horrors, segments of the Jewish population fell out of love for Israel, from Breira to Jews Against the Occupation to Jews Say No, but that splintering didn’t really matter in the official world. The lobby was able to marginalize dissidents so that there were no fractures in the monolith that dealt with establishment politicians. Even the group that has been the leading critic of the settlements – Americans for Peace Now — refused to leave the Conference of Presidents, a very conservative no-daylight organization, lest Peace Now lose access to power as a member of the Jewish inner circle. Peace Now valued Jewish solidarity higher than its human rights principles.

The lobby would not lose power—said MJ Rosenberg, an AIPAC apostate—until congresspeople such as Jerrold Nadler got buttonholed by reporters about their blind support for Israel. That moment finally seems to be upon us, and the question is, Why did things change now? What was special about this provocation?

The Jewish community split on Israel not because of Netanyahu’s racism or his massacres or his rubbishing of the two-state solution; but because he acted in such a way as to place American Jews’ loyalty to the United States in doubt by making the historic speech to Congress on March 3 that even the New York Times has called “subversive.” It was one thing for American Jews to support Israel when the argument could be made that American and Israeli interests aligned. Louis Brandeis helped form Zionist pressure groups in the first place by stating that it was the American way for ethnic groups to show loyalty to their own kind. But the Netanyahu speech to Congress was a shocking and unprecedented interference by a foreign leader in our politics. A generation from now people won’t believe that this even happened. It did happen. A warmongering prime minister sought to undermine a president’s peacemaking policy by coming to Congress at the invitation of Republicans to fight the president’s deal with Iran. The power-play surely reflected the importance of conservative Jewish money in our political process– Bill Kristol’s group the Emergency Committee for Israel had given $1 million to make the career of the Republican freshman senator at the head of insurgency– and it was agonizing to Jews and Democrats who are also beholden to the lobby. The New York Times stated their dilemma plainly: they would “need to make an awkward, painful choice between the president of their country and their loyalty to the Jewish state.” Their loyalty to the Jewish state! Those words are shocking and nearly seditious; and many Democrats made a clear choice, they were on Obama’s side. The Netanyahu speech was surely popular in Israel – when I was there last week, even young people at the polls praised him for his strength – and it delighted the neoconservatives, but it angered liberal Jews.

It took a while for that outrage to coalesce over the six weeks between the announcement of the speech in January and the speech in March. For some time, the main response in the Jewish community was to wish the speech did not happen. J Street pleaded with the Prime Minister not to make Americans have to choose sides over Israel. And even AIPAC worked behind the scenes to try and make the nightmare go away. But the speech went forward, and it did what J Street and AIPAC both feared: it caused Americans and American Jews to have to take a stand. This was a no-brainer for liberal Jews. They would be with their president. As MJ Rosenberg has often said, if American Jews are faced with a choice between open dual loyalty and walking away from Israel, they will walk away from Israel. (We know which side our bread is buttered.)

Of course many other Americans were angered by Netanyahu’s act of daring. But I believe that Jews drove the political shift. You can see that in Chris Matthews’s handling of the matter. Today he is one of the biggest critics in our media of Netanyahu and his speech. He talks about it every night. But in the first couple of days of the outrage he had nothing to say, even though the outrage was as obvious then as it is now, and his first comments were strained. He was awaiting the cue, waiting to see where the Jewish establishment (the sort of people he works for, the heads of Comcast in Philadephia, pro-Israel Jews) was going to line up. When Matthews saw that elements of the Jewish establishment were going to criticize the speech forcefully, he began to criticize it more and more strongly. Today he is a leader on the issue, and he is echoing J Street’s line: Netanyahu has savaged the two-state solution, which the world believes in. Last night Matthews praised J Street as a strong group and the big winner of the Netanyahu scandal; and at J Street’s conference, Morton Halperin (father of Mark Halperin, who appears on Matthews) said that the Prime Minister was a racist who had blocked the two state solution.

Today for the first time in decades, we can see an open divide inside the Jewish establishment over Israel. AIPAC is for tightening Iran sanctions; it devoted its policy conference to that push. J Street is all for the president’s deal; its policy conference was about getting a deal with Iran. AIPAC is urging the president to patch up his relationship with Netanyahu in a hurry; but J Street revels in the new daylight. Netanyahu was repeatedly attacked from the stage at J Street. The young people cheered whenever there was criticism of the occupation.

The moment is generational because six years ago J Street tried to pull off this same political move and it failed. In the belief that American Jews opposed settlements, it resolved to drive a wedge in US politics between those who supported settlements and those who opposed them. That was also President Obama’s policy. He said that the settlements must end. But there was massive pushback inside the Democratic Party Jewish community toward any criticism of the settlement project. Obama folded at the U.N., and J Street folded too. It began talking instead about settling on borders (i.e., accepting the settlement blocs). The president made sure that the Democratic Party supported Israel’s control over Jerusalem in 2012, surely to capture Haim Saban’s millions.

But today U.S. policy is getting shaken up. At J Street this year they cheered for a Palestinian state and the president’s chief of staff indicated that the U.S. would take Netanyahu on over settlements. Chris Matthews campaigns for the two-state solution every night. Will this shift make any difference in the conflict? I don’t think so. It is too late for the two state solution; any real effort to establish a viable Palestinian state would start a civil war in Israel. We are at the beginning of a tumultuous period inside Israeli society, as Noam Sheizaf warned J Street; while Nabila Espanioly stated that Israeli “fascism” is at our door. Americans are finally waking up to what Israel is.

The significance of the rupture is the political and psychological shift inside the American Jewish community. The civil war will begin here. For two generations the Jewish community was unwilling to criticize Israel. In the face of events that would cause a Jewish uprising in the U.S. — from racist atrocities to policies merging church and state–  the Jewish community was silent because it had made a vow in the 1970s to provide political life support to Israel.

Today that deal has been broken; and the American discourse will only get better. J Street tried to circumscribe the official statements on its stage to Zionists, and Halperin pledged to fight the boycott movement; but free speech is free speech, and many panelists expressed heretical views. Marcia Freedman spoke up for cultural Zionism, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum called for Jewish spaces to open their doors to anti-Zionists, and Huda Abu Arqoub called for the boycott and downfall of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli politicians who appeared at J Street looked dazed and lost. When the rockstar of Israeli Labor, 29-year-old Stav Shaffir, called for “separation” from Palestinians, the hall was silent. Once this American conversation begins, it will never end. More and more Jews will understand that Zionism is incompatible with liberalism. And Jewish Voice for Peace and the BDS movement will be the beneficiaries.

For forty years we saw the demise of the Jewish intellect in blind support of Israel. A leading liberal community had abandoned its post. The overreach by a thuggish racist foreign leader in American politics has stirred that community to life. America won’t be the same.

Thanks to Adam Horowitz, Annie Robbins and Scott Roth.

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Well, at least during a J Street conference the dirty word OCCUPATION was mentioned by the WH Chief of Staff. About time too. “White House chief of staff: 50 years of Israeli occupation must end U.S. cannot pretend Netanyahu didn’t say no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, Denis McDonough tells J Street conference in Washington. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made it clear Monday that the crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations… Read more »

good god, what a nauseating paean to exceptionalism. and who do I thank for this?

Our politicians and newspapers are speaking out because they are licensed by a segment of the official Jewish community that is deeply troubled by Israel’s behavior.

say, that’s mighty white of you, licensing free speech by politicians and newspapers. is there a licensing fee?

Beautiful essay—> thanks so much Phil.

Anybody else see a problem with the idea that the 98% plus of Americans who are not Jewish seem to have no say in American foreign policy in the Middle East? We must wait until “a segment of the official Jewish community” allows us to back what they are saying?

if it has not occurred to the conference of presidents they shot themselves in the foot by rejecting j street – not including them in their big tent – it should be dawning on them sometime soon. bigggg divide in the works.

great article phil!