When Israel Is Wrong

Christians shouldn't be afraid to say so

From 1973 to 1990, the two of us edited Present Tense, a Jewish, liberal, dovish magazine published by the American Jewish Committee. On the surface, little has changed since those years when Americans, including Washington’s foreign-policy elite, lent support to Israel because of the Holocaust and the cold war, while saying to Israelis and Palestinians, "you’re both right, but leave us out of your fight."

Present Tense published pieces on issues that, with minor changes, could almost be republished today: expropriation of Palestinian property, collective punishment, God-intoxicated settlers, torture, and Israeli leaders who, during the first intifada, threatened to "break their bones." Meeting with PLO leaders meant jail for Israeli peace advocates, like Abie Nathan. The magazine also regularly covered the Israeli and American Jewish peace movements, which, despite superficial reports to the contrary, are still very active. Meanwhile, a corrupt, ineffective, and undemocratic Arafat along with Palestinian revanchists fought back with their own lethal mixture of murderous raids against civilians throughout the world.

But similarities aside, things have changed: The situation has become worse. We can debate who was or is right, but the hard fact is that both Israel and the Palestinians, along with the United States under George W. Bush, bear a goodly share of the blame. Under George Bush the elder, the United States tried to be tough on Israel when he balked at providing $10 billion of loan guarantees unless the Shamir government agreed to freeze settlement growth and begin negotiating with the Palestinians. In contrast, after the younger Bush demanded Israel withdraw its army from the West Bank earlier this year, he beat an ignominious retreat when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confidently ignored him. The Congress, the Christian right, and the neoconservatives were in Sharon’s pocket. These forces along with the Israel lobby are ever ready to make sure Bush doesn’t pay heed to the likes of Colin Powell.

Other factors have been added to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are the crazed Palestinian suicide bombers. There is the incessant barrage of indoctrination by American Jewish organizations that has alarmed many American Jews, leading them to retreat into a tribalism born of memories of past pogroms and persecutions. Still, when you cut through the hard-line rhetoric of Jewish organizational elites, the fact remains that most American Jews would prefer to see a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict, with a Palestinian state established alongside an unthreatened and democratic Israel.

The constant images of dead and wounded Jews sprawled on Israel’s streets and in disco and wedding halls obscure the major war aim of Sharon and his Likkud and Orthodox supporters: to preserve Israeli West Bank colonies. For now, American Jewry’s leaders-as opposed to a majority of those in whose names they are presumed to speak-seem to have lost the capacity to distinguish between support for Israel’s safety and the current Israeli government. What accounts for the disparity between image and reality? Simply that mainstream American Jewish groups to which the secular news media turn for sound bites of "American Jewish opinion" are not representative. (In fact, only half of American Jews belong to any type of Jewish organization, including synagogues.) The roots of this distance between liberal-to-moderate American Jews and their hard-line "leaders" can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s.

In the mid-sixties, the central agenda of mainstream Jewish organizations was overwhelmingly domestic: securing civil rights and ending anti-Semitism. During these years, two key events occurred: passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and publication of Vatican II’s Nostra aetate in 1965. The former, while framed to end discrimination against African Americans, was colorblind in language and enacted into law equal housing and fair employment practices, campaigns that Jewish groups had spearheaded since the end of World War II. Nostra aetate, which Jews welcomed, knocked out whatever props remained of Christian theological justifications for anti-Semitism.

Until the Six Day War in 1967, Israel had been a peripheral issue for mainstream American Jewish organizations. Suddenly, those organizations were compelled to answer, "What’s Jewish about your agenda?" Many politically active Jews, increasingly sympathetic to neoconservativism, pointedly asked liberals what the Jewish "stake" was in the war on poverty or extending voting rights. In a cultural and political environment of identity politics, the customary response-a broad agenda was mandated by Judaism’s universalist ethic-was met with skepticism and rejection. As a result, wealthy liberal Jews who had been funding Jewish organizations for liberal, rather than distinctively Jewish, causes began melting away. Their place was taken by wealthy conservatives.

By 1973, and the Yom Kippur War, the turn away from universalism and toward tribalism was well under way. Jewish federations broke records raising money in "Israel emergency campaigns" and Israel was identified as the lodestar around which to fortify Jewish identity among the young. Orthodox Jews, while only 10 percent of American Jewry, found a welcome at communal institutions, the better to provide "role models" for an "authentic" Jewish life. Perhaps the most telling sign of this inward turn was that, although Jews overwhelmingly opposed the war in Vietnam, virtually all Jewish organizations maintained a deafening silence after Johnson and Nixon administration officials hinted that U.S. military assistance to Israel might be harder to obtain if Jewish organizations opposed the war.

Once closely identified with fostering humane policies at home, American Jewish organizations have retreated into silence, and "Israel, right or wrong" has become virtually their only policy. With the honorable exception of Reform Judaism’s Washington-based Religious Action Center, they have withdrawn from policy debates about educational reform, workers’ rights, universal health insurance, affordable housing, corporate crime, and protecting the vulnerable lest their neoconservative and Christian-right allies be offended and support for Israel be diminished.

Moreover, Jewish organizations have nearly succeeded in erasing the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel or Zionism and anti-Semitism. The impact can be seen in the well-financed attacks some American Jewish groups have launched recently against major American media such as the New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio, and others for allegedly slanting their news reporting against Israel. As they did during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, conservative American Jewish publicists did all they could to discredit everyone whose dispatches were critical of Israeli policies in the West Bank. The hollowness of their campaign was exposed shortly afterward when hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested the war as unjust and unnecessary. There have been other signs that a growing number of American Jews are increasingly uneasy with the official line. Last spring’s "Solidarity with Israel" rally in Washington, D.C., promoted as the largest demonstration ever to be held in the nation’s capital, fell far short of its sponsors’ claims. Other "pro-Israel" rallies throughout the country have similarly drawn sparser crowds than anticipated.

ll this has left acculturated American Jews confounded. Their primary identification with Judaism is ethnic and political rather than religious, and their primary loyalty is to the United States. While Israel is important to many, it simply doesn’t drive their political and social judgments. Moreover, it is clear that they are very uncomfortable with the current blend of religious zealotry and ultranationalism. Indeed, tens of thousands are now involved one way or another in American Jewish peace groups, from the new pro-Israel, anti-occupation Brit Tzedek v’Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, to the Shalom Center, Americans for Peace Now, and many more. Many have donated money to and lent their names to the seminal "Break the Silence" campaign; most recently, a thousand Jews signed full-page ads in the New York Times.

Our non-Jewish friends need not worry: criticism of Israeli policies does not make one anti-Semitic or pro-suicide bomber, and they should not shy away from stating their views. Still, we would remind anyone tempted to jump into the fray that Israel’s society is far more politically complicated than its uncritical apologists would have the world believe. As Mina Zemach, one of Israel’s preeminent pollsters noted in July, Israelis by significant numbers support a two-state solution, withdrawal from most settlements, and the return of the army to its bases in Israel. She also found similar tendencies mirrored in polls taken by Palestinians.

All the same, the balance of forces for peace remains unbalanced. Nowhere in the Middle East are there counterparts to Israel’s Peace Now, Women in Black, or Gush Shalom. Nowhere is there a B’tselem, the Israeli human-rights organization that documents violations against Palestinians and Israeli peace advocates. Within Israel, almost a thousand combat veterans have refused to serve in the occupied territories-some are now imprisoned-while many Israeli reservists refuse to report to duty, preferring to travel, to study abroad, or to claim exemptions. "Why fight for the settlements?" as their protests regularly ask.

Why is it, wonders the Egyptian writer Mohammed Mosaad in an essay on the dovish Israel-based MidEast Web Center (www.mideastweb.org), that similar peace organizations and activities have "never fully existed in the Arab world?" Israeli peace movements are either ignored in Arab societies, or dismissed as fronts for Israeli colonialism. In a region without legitimate political freedom, it is ironic that only Palestinians-despite the failure of the Palestine Authority-have the potential to develop a democracy and a peace movement. Here’s the rub: both could develop only if Israelis and Palestinians stop killing one another, and Israel stops arresting and harassing potential Palestinian leaders and peacemakers like Sari Nusseibeh, who loathes both suicide bombers and Israel’s occupation.

There are and always were viable, rational alternatives available in this knotty civil war, most recently the Mitchell, Taba, and Saudi Arabian plans. The Israeli writer Amos Oz has described Sharon and Arafat as "Mr. Sharafat," "Siamese twins" dedicated to fighting on. Yes, they both should retire. Rather than choose sides, our non-Jewish friends and all the rest of us who still harbor the dream of a peaceful outcome ought instead to take up the political fight for a reasonably fair compromise settlement in which the United States behaves as a genuinely neutral party. It won’t be easy. We do know that, while neither side is entirely blameless, both are victims of a mutual tragedy.

Published in the 2002-10-11 issue: 

Adam Simms was senior editor of Present Tense magazine, published from 1973-90 by the American Jewish Committee.

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