Ido Aharoni, a longtime diplomat for Israel, warned American Jewish groups that they should not talk about Israel when trying to build ties with African American organizations. Because then Israel “is defined by its problem”– its treatment of Palestinians. So, change the subject!
At a New York event last November, Aharoni was asked about “intersectionality” and “black-Palestinian solidarity.” As the US becomes a “browner, more international, more leftwing society”– what is Israel’s strategy? Aharoni, Israel’s former consul-general in New York who is now a professor of international relations at NYU, said:
I’ll answer this the same way I did when I worked for the Israeli government. It’s not good for Israel to be the defining factor in this conversation. What do I mean by that? The human rights groups that work on ethnic understanding, they should take Israel out of the equation. So if I’m the Anti Defamation League, you know, when Israel is relevant, talk about Israel. But Israel should not be the main thing that you rally around in your conversation with the African-American community, for example. It’s a strategic mistake, and it shouldn’t be that way. And there are many organizations that over the years excelled in establishing ties with the African American community, for example, ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council]….
My advice would be to take Israel out of that equation. And just to develop the ties. You can say, But how can we take Israel out of the equation? Well, the agenda of the American Jewish community with the African-American community should not be centered around Israel. Israel could be part of it. But it should not be the main thing. That’s my point. Because if it’s the main thing, Israel is defined by its problem.
Aharoni conceded that that “problem” is turning off American Jews too.
There is a very dominant political conversation, and it’s a problematic conversation for American liberal Jews, and I understand that… But Israel is a lot more than that… Israel is a place where there’s room for everybody.
That dominant political conversation is a reference to the unending occupation, the unlivable conditions in Gaza, the discrimination against Palestinians inside Israel.
Aharoni talked about growing rifts inside American Jewry over Israel with David Margolick of Vanity Fair magazine, on the stage of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in November. (The talk was posted online 2 weeks ago).
Aharoni, who served as a diplomat in high positions for 25 years, repeatedly deflected Margolick’s efforts to show that the relationship of progressive American Jews with Israel “is in tatters.”
For instance, when Margolick said that students protesting at the University of California in 1964 did Israeli folkdancing to pass the time the night they occupied the administration building– “unabashedly affiliating themselves with the Zionist enterprise” — Aharoni dismissed that as a moment in time. The embrace of American Jews with Zionism only lasted from 1948 to 1982, and the Lebanon war.
But then in ’82 Israel very skilfully…exported its own social political and even ethnic rifts to America. The American Jewish community mirrored the divide and rifts in Israel…. Discussing Lebanon, they were almost offended. How could you have done this to us? How can you invade Lebanon?
Aharoni went on, “Zionism from the day that it was introduced was never a big hit among Jews… Zionism in 2018 has never been more popular in North America than it is today. Never. That’s a fact. 1948– only 17 percent of American Jews identified as Zionists.”
Yes there are many liberal American Jews who feel “uncomfortable” with Israeli policy, but the Israel supporters are stronger than ever, he said.
When I joined the foreign service, the American Jewish Committee was not the major international factor it is today, practically serving as the foreign ministry of the Jewish people and doing great work, not just on behalf of Israel.
He continued, The AIPAC policy conference in 1991 used to attract between 1500 to 2500 people. Today 18,000 is a regular number. The Jewish National Fund barely existed in ’91, he said, raising $2.5 million a year. Today it has set the goal of raising $1 billion, and is well on its way, raising $120 million a year.
Aharoni cited a Foreign Ministry study of the American population showing that only a small number of Americans don’t like Israel, and the vast majority are just sick of the subject.
There are about 8 percent of the American people who do not buy whatever it is Israel is trying to sell them. We identify them in the study as members of the intellectual elite… You’re not going to win with the Noam Chomskys of the world.
Only a tiny fraction of that 8 percent are true “delegitimizers,” Aharoni said. The vast majority of the 8 percent are critical of Israel but think it has a right to exist.
The rest of the US population loves Israel or can be won over. He said 22 percent of the American people feel deeply connected to Israel. They are mostly Christian and respond to Israel on cultural/religious, not political grounds. “But they love Israel.”
And in the middle, 70 percent of the American people, they don’t care about Israel, Israel is not relevant to their lives…. They’ve been fatigued by the conflict… They just want it to end. They say, Come back to me when you have a solution.
Israel doesn’t understand and I have to say that American Jewish organizations don’t understand that as well: we have to try very hard to establish relevance among those 70 percent…The 70 percent in the middle are the real goal… Many of them are liberal politically.
Aharoni said the real gamechanger for the 70 percent is Birthright and programs similar to Birthright, free trips to Israel. Israel should be bringing 50,000 Americans a year to Israel, he said, to show what a great progressive place it is.
This is as American Jews are turning off to Birthright… And as people of color are turning off to Israel. Some just can’t get the “problem” out of their minds.