Yesterday in the fallout over the Trump peace plan, the young Jewish group IfNotNow said that most American Jews oppose Israeli occupation and AIPAC doesn’t represent the American Jewish community.
This is a false understanding. The Trump peace plan was brought to you by the Jewish community. Over the last 20 years any real and vigorous opposition to the Jewish right– AIPAC–inside the Jewish community has been fitful and meaningless. Liberal Zionists have enforced that line by refusing to organize as equals with the community Israel is oppressing: Palestinians.
Yes, the liberal Zionist wing of the American Jewish community has opposed settlements on principle for at least 20 years. But whenever push came to shove it has sold that principle out in favor of Jewish communal cohesion and support for the Israeli government. And it has helped to crush real and effective dissent. Jewish groups that forcefully opposed Israeli policy (Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, and IfNotNow too) have been repeatedly ostracized by the Jewish community as heretics and self-haters.
The clearest expression of what I am saying was the presence in the White House yesterday of Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the rightwing Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein loves Trump’s plan. Malcolm Hoenlein has access and a lot of power over U.S. policy. Malcolm Hoenlein came in and out of the Obama White House too.
And Malcolm Hoenlein’s salary is paid in part by Americans for Peace Now, the anti-occupation group, because it is a member of the Conference of Presidents. Other liberal members of the Conference, Ameinu and the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform Jews, also pay Hoenlein’s salary. And J Street would do so too, if the Conference would only let them in.
They do so because ultimately these Jewish groups place a greater value on a, Jewish communal solidarity in support of Israel and b, access to the halls of power than they do on human rights. If they really cared about the occupation, they would have quit the Conference of Presidents a long time ago. And undertaken some real action like IfNotNow’s young Jews do all the time, at AIPAC and the Damascus Gate (where Israeli police brutalized them).
Let’s look at a key moment in the history of Israeli expansion/colonization and the politics of the Jewish community: 2009-2011.
At that time it is arguable that a leader could have saved the two-state solution. Maybe you could have actually created a viable Palestinian state. To do so you had to stop and then reverse the settlement project. Obama said he wanted to do that after his inauguration and J Street worked with that goal in mind, to give Obama political capital inside the Jewish community so that he could oppose settlements.
Obama cratered, and so did J Street. They completely reversed themselves in 2010-2011, because of opposition from the Jewish community. It was clear that even if a lot of Jews had misgivings about the settlement project, maybe even a majority of the grass roots– the organized Jewish community, the political Jewish community, was not going to go along with Obama. So Netanyahu lectured Obama about the 1967 lines, humiliating the president at the White House, and Obama vetoed the very thing he said he was for, a resolution against settlements at the UN Security Council, and J Street changed its campaign from opposing settlements outright to, Let’s set borders. I.e., let’s accept that Israel will get the settlement blocs under an eventual agreement, and let’s just talk about where the border will be so we can keep the possibility of two states alive.
Obama and the liberal Zionists crumpled for simple reasons: because the center of the Jewish community was too far right on the issue, and Obama was dependent on that community for financial and political support.
Never forget these facts about Obama’s political/establishment base: When he wanted to appoint Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State he reached out to her through Hoenlein, the rightwing Israel supporter, sending the signal, Foreign policy will flow through the Israel lobby. When Samantha Power wanted to become ambassador to the U.N., she needed to overcome her own record of criticisms of Israel so she acquired a sherpa to the Jewish community, Shmuley Boteach, a rightwing wingnut extremist; and it worked. When a rightwing racist Israeli prime minister– Netanyahu– came to address the Congress in 2011 and say that Jerusalem was the ancient Jewish homeland and not a settlement, the head of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, led the Congress in countless standing ovations.
More: After Netanyahu defied Obama on the Iran deal, he was invited into the Democratic Party’s thinktank for a fawning interview by the head of the thinktank who crowed (in a leaked email) that if she had alienated her own staff, she had attracted a major donor by doing so. That thinktank purged intellectuals who dared to criticize AIPAC, and deferred to Alan Dershowitz in doing so.
This is not the place to lay out Why the Democratic Party bends over backwards to the Jewish community. We are a traditional Democratic constituency of course. We are also the financial warchest for the Democratic Party. Just listen to the head of Emily’s List and JJ Goldberg of the Forward tell a J Street audience in 2016 about the “gigantic” and “shocking” degree of dependence by Democrats on Jewish donors. Their comments echo what Jimmy Carter’s political gurus warned him about in the late 1970s when he was about to lose a second term, in part because of his alienation of the Jewish community– due to his opposition to Israeli settlements.
But what happened under Obama was that the liberals in the Jewish community deferred to the principle established by AIPAC: Jews must use our influence to make certain there is no daylight between the US government and the Israeli one.
Now let’s consider the noble tradition of Jewish rebels inside that community who actively oppose Israeli policy and what has happened to them.
In the mid-70s the great Rabbi Arthur Waskow and other leftwing Jews of an anti-occupation group called Breira met with members of the PLO to discuss Palestinian self-determination. They were crushed by the official Jewish community, including Wolf Blitzer, who worked for AIPAC then the Jerusalem Post (a story told by Michael Staub). A few years later the great journalist Leonard Fein dared to say much what IfNotNow said yesterday, that the rightwing leader Menachem Begin was lying when he said he represented American Jews, “and the roof fell in,” Fein related years later.
I depended on wealthy liberal Jews to support Moment magazine. Money was withdrawn right and left from its support.
Then there’s Peter Beinart. I have great respect for Beinart. Again and again he has called out the official Jewish community for its support of the persecution of Palestinians. He wrote a groundbreaking article in the NY Review of Books in 2010 saying much of what I’m saying here, titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The piece was read by people who wouldn’t touch me with a bargepole. He then published a book called “The Crisis of Zionism,” where he said that by ennabling the occupation, American Jewish organizations had endangered the existence of the Jewish state.
In that book, Beinart bore witness to Palestinian suffering in indelible ways. That book came out eight years ago, when arguably the two-state solution was still viable. J Street recognized Beinart’s charismatic appeal to young Jews and sold t-shirts with the slogan, Beinart’s Army.
But that army never came to pass. The crisis of Zionism didn’t penetrate the American Jewish community then.
Beinart failed his own mission, because even though he had seen a crisis, he could only take half-measures. He supported Boycotts against the settlements only and distanced himself from Palestinian solidarity activists, debating them on BDS. He did so, imho, because he did not want to alienate the Jewish community, it is his world. His choice is very similar to Peace Now continuing to pay Malcolm Hoenlein’s salary. Or Richard Goldstone folding under pressure from his South African Jewish community. For historical reasons relating to our minority status/persecution, Jews didn’t want to create a public fracture over Israel…
That makes you politically feckless. It’s really like being a good white southerner in the 60s and insisting on organizing only with white people. Because you fear the agenda of the black people, who are the ones being oppressed, after all.
The true Jewish heretics get crushed, as Leonard Fein and Arthur Waskow did in their moment. J Street has exhibited a similar communal politics. It invites a lot of rightwing Jewish leaders to its stages, but it never invites Jewish anti-Zionists who support the nonviolent Palestinian program for liberation, BDS. We are ostracized from the Jewish community. Jeffrey Goldberg said anti-Zionist Jews have Jewish parents — i.e., we aren’t Jews. Yossi Klein Halevi, who is invited to both AIPAC and J Street, says we have placed ourselves outside the Jewish community. When I became an anti-Zionist, I got fired from good liberal institutions that depended on establishment Jews, the Observer and the Nation Institute.
Bari Weiss and Batya Ungar-Sargon will tell you that 95 percent of the Jewish community supports Israel. I think they’re right, or close. Maybe it’s 90 percent. Maybe it’s 75. But they are right about the critical mass; and that majority has dominated the politics of the Jewish community (not because the community is “controlled by oligarchs,” as Beinart claims, in a summons to oligarchs on his side).
In short, any real and forceful resistance to the occupation inside the Jewish community was crushed in the name of Jewish solidarity. And yesterday Malcolm Hoenlein, whose salary is paid in part by the anti-occupation group Peace Now, did an endzone dance at the White House, alongside Sheldon Adelson. Why has Americans for Peace Now helped pay this man’s enormous salary for decades if it considers the occupation a real crisis?
I admit that something has been achieved by Peace Now, J Street and Peter Beinart in the last ten years: They have ended the daylight policy and fractured the Israel lobby into two parts. A rightwing lobby that supports the Greater Israel vision that Trump embraced yesterday in the White House. And a liberal lobby that opposes it.
They have helped to politicize Israel. We might actually see a real fight in American politics over Israel, but with very limited parameters. Both sides must love Israel. And the rightwing lobby has a big footprint inside the Democratic Party.
That fracture has taken place because the Jewish community has finally split openly over Israel.
That split may be very meaningful in American and Jewish politics, but it is not going to affect Palestinians very much.
Palestinians are living as second-class citizens and worse under one government that controls all of Israel and Palestine, and their battle is for equal rights inside that state. Whose side are you on? Only a few American politicians even say this aloud. The organized Jewish community opposes that discourse, and helps pass laws to marginalize it, because it means the end of the official paradigm of a Jewish democracy.
Liberal Zionists are now in crisis over that paradigm and doing all they can to save it.
Their crisis is the death of their own dream. It is very selfish. They still refuse to organize as equals with the people directly affected by Israel’s policies, Palestinians. They don’t ultimately care about Palestinian human rights.
There is only one real group trying to work inside the Jewish community that does that, Jewish Voice for Peace– and IfNotNow is catching up. They are both marginalized. Because I have such a deep attachment to my original community, I honor what JVP does as Jews. They are the only Jewish future. Godspeed.
H/t Scott Roth, James North and Adam Horowitz.