In the last few days, something remarkable has taken place in American politics. The president of the United States has made a point of taking on the special relationship with Israel and the Israel lobby in his effort to defend the Iran deal, and supporters of the special relationship have struck back hard, accusing him of anti-Semitism. Elliott Abrams, Lee Smith and Tablet magazine for starters.
What’s remarkable is that mainstream supporters of the deal have left the president to do this heavy lifting on his own. They have largely ignored his pointed comments: that the Democrats are under pressure from big donors to oppose the Iran Deal, that the same moneyed groups pushed the Iraq war, that it would be an abrogation of his constitutional duty if he sided with Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and that Netanyahu’s intervention in American politics is unprecedented.
The exceptions are Eli Clifton working hard to expose AIPAC as warmongers at Lobelog, and David Bromwich attacking the Congress-people who are Netanyahu’s “marionettes” at Huffington Post.
But generally the liberal press has been embarrassed by Obama’s comments or tried to wish them away. The New York Times put AIPAC on its front page the other day, but allowed David Makovsky, an ardent supporter of Israel, to say that some of Obama’s statements are “dangerous.” David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy, is supporting the deal, but he has said on twitter that the emphasis on the Israel lobby is disturbing to him. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli-American, tries to dispose of the criticisms of Obama by arguing that he can’t have any objection to dual loyalty in this day and age:
The very idea that there’s something wrong with dual loyalty is obsolete. It’s a fossilized relic of single-identity patriotism to the patria from centuries past. Nowadays, people migrate, have mixed heritage, multiple citizenships, meta-state communities and even multiple sexualities
Ali Gharib backs her up, saying that conservative critics of Obama are attributing ideas he doesn’t have to him. While Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine says much the same; he denies that Obama was talking about Jewish pro-Israel donors when it was reported in the New York Times that the president was lobbying Democratic senators to stick with him:
The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain, according to the senator.
Elliott Abrams seized on that same report to say that the president was mining anti-Semitism, by talking about the Israel lobby.
So the president is out there on his own. I believe he wants us, the American people, to talk about the Israel lobby and whose interests it’s supporting at this critical moment, so that he can solidify the most important foreign policy move of his administration; but the conversation isn’t really happening. Last night on Hardball, Steve Kornacki led a discussion of Chuck Schumer’s opposition to the deal in which he and Michael Tomasky acknowledged “political” pressures on Schumer from his constituents, but they left it at that. They didn’t say what those pressures are– Israel. They didn’t say that Schumer calls himself Israel’s Shomer, or guardian, didn’t even say that he is Jewish, something that the networks have been reporting because it’s relevant. Just as Laura Rozen of al Monitor cites Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz’s Jewishness in embracing his support of the deal yesterday.
I want the president’s conversation to happen. I want Americans to talk about the Israel lobby’s influence due to wealthy donors and talk about pro-Israeli activists’ loyalty to Netanyahu over the president. I think this important discussion can happen without anti-Semitism for a simple reason. Zionism is not Judaism. Jewish Americans do not all support Netanyahu. Some of us don’t even support Israel. Anti-Zionists don’t believe in the idea of a Jewish state any more than they’d support a Christian state in the U.S. Myself, I became an anti-Zionist in recent years because my liberal American values impelled me to demand that Palestinians living under Israeli rule should have the right to vote for their government.
There is actual ideological diversity inside the Jewish community, but many leading Jews do not want to discuss this openly. Some because they ardently believe that Zionism is the Jewish religion today. Others fear that by opening up this conversation, it will crack the American support system that Israel has always depended upon.
The ardent Michael Oren really believes it’s anti-Semitic to criticize the Israel lobby because the Israel lobby is merely the voice of The Jewish People reborn in their homeland. He writes:
“From an early age, I had an abiding–Freud would call it oceanic–love of the Jewish people. Whatever our differences, I insisted, and however disparately we practice our religion, we still belonged to the same tribe…. When the American Jews of my youth contributed to Israel under the banner ‘We Are One,’ I believed it.”
I find that belief really tribal and oldfashioned; but it led Oren, an American-Israeli, to rush his book out this spring so that he could appeal to American Jews to work against the Iran Deal. The same thing Netanyahu did last week by having a special speech for Jews. The Israel lobby is necessary Jewish power for these rightwing Zionists. And by the way, Oren also believes that the Jewish “homeland” extends to the biblical lands of the West Bank.
Elliott Abrams is another believer in Jewish peoplehood. He has said that Jews are a special nation who must stand apart from the nation we’re in:
Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart–except in Israel–from the rest of the population.
These beliefs are Zionist. They are surely part of Judaism, but many Jews don’t believe them. For me, they have as much meaning as the American belief that blacks are 3/5ths of a man: they are ancient codes that are out of step with the way we live now.
It’s obvious why Elliott Abrams and Michael Oren are attacking Obama. For them, the Israel lobby is the Jewish lobby. They are warriors for the people; and regard any criticism of the Zionist project in historic Palestine or its American support system as an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish life today.
But liberal Zionists are also not helping Obama out. They are uncomfortable with his daring. Why? Some are genuinely fearful that a full-on discussion of the Zionist lobby or the neoconservatives is a discussion of Jewish power; and there will be a rise in anti-Semitism if people start talking about who is trying to block the deal and why.
More important, liberal Zionists want to maintain the Zionist lobby in D.C., but reconstitute it. They want to see AIPAC broken so the lobby becomes an anti-occupation lobby that will get the U.S. to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and create a Palestinian state, or entity, or Bantustan. But liberal Zionists want the lobby around so that America will continue to support Israel, something Americans won’t do without Jewish pressure.
Liberal Zionists surely love Senator Brian Schatz’s statement supporting the deal. It repeatedly addresses Israel’s security and bewails the influence of Iran over Hamas. Wait, this is a deal to end sanctions and allow Iran to have nuclear power but not nuclear weapons. What has Hamas fighting Israel have to do with that?
Liberal Zionists don’t want American Jewish diversity because they don’t want a conversation that includes non- and anti-Zionists. Imagine you suddenly had a bunch of Jews who had legitimacy in Washington saying, We don’t need a Jewish state. That could destroy the American establishment consensus in favor of the special relationship.
If the American conversation were truly diverse, you would have a real discussion of Hamas’s roots in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine: and Max Blumenthal would be debating Senator Brian Schatz about Hamas on MSNBC. Blumenthal spent weeks in Gaza last year and he writes in The 51 Day War that Hamas militants are the resistance that we saw in “anti-colonial struggles throughout history, from Vietnam to Algeria to South Africa.”
If the conversation were truly diverse, you’d hear other challenges to the special relationship, and not only from Jews: realists saying that having Iran back in the community of nations is good for the entire Middle East; anti-proliferation activists describing the Israeli nuclear capacity; Palestinian-Americans telling about spending hours in the Israeli airport and then getting deported with a knock on the head…
Obama wants to open this conversation up not because he opposes or loves Israel (I can only imagine what he thinks of the Jewish state) but because his entire game right now is Democrats. And while Rothkopf is surely right that the Israel lobby is not the only opposition to the deal; in the Democratic Party, that’s the Gordian knot. Zionist money and AIPAC are dominant factors in Democratic politics. And a foreign prime minister is actually calling on the allegiance of a highly influential group, American Jews, to his country. Even Gharib has a problem with that:
the charge that Obama is making “dual loyalty” smears would seem to be undermined by the fact that Netanyahu made an explicit appeal to whatever loyalty American Jews may feel toward Israel.
President Obama needs to take on the special relationship in the name of world peace. Many Jews support him in this effort, and some of them are even anti-Zionists. It’s time for Americans to hear our views.