American foreign policy American Jews Israel Israel lobby Israeli occupation Mearsheimer and Walt Palestinians Progressive Jews

Mearsheimer, Walt and the so-called “silent” Jewish doves

I have read the Mearsheimer and Walt book. They have answered some–although not all– of my prayers, which were spelled out in my post on August 12th. The book is much more careful, more nuanced, more detailed and more convincing than their original paper, which was published in the Spring of 2006.

I wanted very much to like their original paper, but it contained too many questionable assertions, half-truths and unsupported or unqualified generalizations. This book still has problemmatic sections, but it must be taken more seriously. No doubt some in the organized Jewish community will lambaste them not just for their mistakes –and there are still many of those in the book—but for the act of writing it and skewering the conventional lobby. The rest of us ought to be absorbing what they have to say, taking it seriously, not blinking at truths that are incontrovertible and thinking very hard about their political and moral implications.

They still exaggerate –sometimes dramatically– “the Israel lobby’s” ability to get its way and influence the actual decisions that are made by actual Administrations in actual historical circumstances. They cling to the notion that Israel and its lobby were “the principle driving force behind the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003,” and I believe that is not accurate. They are especially unfair to Clinton’s Middle East peace team, for reasons that require much more space to explain. They make other important arguments about the inner workings of AIPAC and the rest of the lobby that don’t hold up. In the future, I will have more to say about the extent of the lobby’s power and take exception to other particulars in this book. But I don’t see how anyone can dispute their most important, overarching conclusions, painful though they may be to many American Jews. e.g.:

Washington’s reflexive support for Israel has fueled anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and Islamic world and undermined the U.S. image in many other countries as well. The lobby has made it difficult for U.S. leaders to pressure Israel, thereby prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This situation gives Islamic terrorists a powerful recruiting tool and contributes to the growth of Islamic radicalism.

Unlike the original paper, the book makes an effort to show that self-styled, pro-Israel, American Jewish organizations do not form anything close to a monolithic front. It notes that:

[While] AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents have tilted toward Likud and other hard-line parties in Israel and were skeptical about the Oslo process, a number of other, smaller groups –such as Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom, Israel Policy Forum, Jewish Voices for Peace, Meretz USA and the Tikkun Community—strongly favor a two-state solution and believe Israel needs to make significant concessions in order to bring it about…

…Some of these organizations actively promote U.S. engagement in the peace process and have been able to win some minor legislative victories…[but], such groups lack the financial resources and influence of AIPAC, the ADL, the ZOA or the Conference of Presidents, whose right of center views are unfortunately taken by politicians, policy makers and the media to be the representative voice of American Jewry. For the moment…the major organizations in the lobby will continue to advocate policy positions at odds with many of the people in whose name they speak.

That is, of course, true. It is a truth that has been one of the banes of my existence. It is also true and important to note that, as they put it, “even when the leaders and rank and file of important American Jewish organizations have serious reservations about Israeli policy, they rarely call for the U.S. government to put significant pressure on the Israeli government.” That has been another, personal bane. Obviously, the underfunded Jewish peace camp has not provided a strong political counterweight to more hawkish, richer and noisier organizations. This state of affairs that has helped to constrain American policy makers from taking a more balanced approach to the conflict, an approach that would clearly be in America’s interest as well as Israel’s.

Towards the end of the book, one of their recommendations is:

strengthening more moderate forces that already exist” [in the current Israel lobby] or…creating new, pro-Israel groups that support different policies. U.S. and Israel interests would also be advanced by wresting power away from hardliners who now control AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the Conference of Presidents…Such efforts might also be strengthened by institutional reforms that would give the rank and file a greater voice in determining these organizations’ policy prescriptions.

Finally, they insist in a number of places that they are “pro-Israel.” They “believe that the history of the Jewish people and the norm of self-determination provides ample justification for a Jewish State.” They are two-staters who reject the bi-national, single-state option and the actual implementation of the Palestinian “right of return.” And they want the U.S. to come Israel’s aid if its survival is threatened. In other words (sorry to disappoint you, hard lefties who want them to be your heros, and righties who want people like me to denounce them), they sometimes come across as…left wing Zionists. Or at least they appreciate left-wing Zionists, which amounts to the same thing.

I will offer one major quibble, for now, because it pertains to the actual tactics necessary to effect change in both the Jewish community and American foreign policy:

Mearsheimer and Walt exaggerate the extent to which people in my camp and other American Jews have been constrained from criticizing Israel in public or attacking the conventional Israel lobby when they disagree with it. They assert that “more sensible voices in the Jewish community will have to discard the taboo against public criticism of Israelis policies that are harmful to Israel and may even be harmful to Jews in the Diaspora.” Elsewhere, they make the very familiar claim that there is a “norm against public criticism” of Israel within the Jewish community.

Now, there are people who still believe there should be a “norm against public criticism,” but that norm has been violated so often, and so vociferously, in the last two decades that it can no longer be taken seriously as a predictor of the community’s behavior. It was shattered by the American Jewish right during Oslo, some of whom actively and openly lobbied against official Israeli policy in Washington. But there have also been many important precedents of vocal dissent against Israeli policies by Jews on the left, who have spoken out and somehow managed to survive as members of the organized community. These precedents offer some hope to those of us who agree that Israel as well as America need a different, more evenhanded U.S. approach to the conflict, and that more American Jews must make it clear that they support this kind of approach.

One example used by Mearsheimer and Walt to show “efforts to marginalize dissenting Jewish voices” is a recent vocal campaign by the Zionist Organization of America against the Union of Progressive Zionists. The UPZ sponsored on-campus appearances of “Breaking the Silence,” a group of Israeli soldiers who told vivid stories of the brutal behavior exhibited by Israelis trying to enforce the occupation. That disturbed the ZOA and its leader Mort Klein, who “demanded that the group be expelled from the Israel on Campus Coalition, a network of pro-Israel groups that includes AIPAC and the ADL.” They also note other voices of opposition.

Mearsheimer and Walt mention that “the ICC steering committee unanimously rejected the ZOA’s demand.” But they might not realize that some of the most vocal supporters of keeping the UPZ on campus reportedly included the reps of the Conference of Presidents and other mainstays of the lobby that supposedly wants to suppress opposition to Israeli policies.

The leaders of these mainstream groups apparently understand –or at least begrudgingly accept– that the communal tent needs to be big enough to include Israelis and American Jews who are mortified by the moral costs of the occupation and willing to say so, publicly. The fact that Mort Klein –and one Orthodox Jewish organization– weighed in against this particular form of criticism hardly means their sentiments are representative of the Jewish community’s.

Klein is also invoked in another example that, the authors assert, shows “how deep the opposition to open discussion runs”: in 1996, he objected to the ADL’s invitation to Tom Friedman to speak at their dinner. But the ADL let him speak. These and a few other examples they cite do not show there is a “norm” or a “taboo” against open discussion or criticism of Israeli policies. They show that one set of Jews is arguing with another set of Jews.

Klein is a ferocious, skillful opponent of any conciliation or compromise with the Palestinians, but he has a relatively small following now and had a much smaller one in 1996. To treat him as a representative of deep currents in the community is like treating Pat Robertson as a representative of mainstream Christians. More importantly, he himself has CONSTANTLY violated the “norm” by attacking Israeli policies that he considers to be too conciliatory. He openly disdains that norm.

Moreover, Mearsheimer and Walt ignore the way divisions over Israeli settlement policies and some military actions caused deep schisms among American Jews beginning in the 1980s. They spend a great deal of space on the [shameful] treatment of Breira, a group of lefty Jews who were ostracized by the community in the 1970s. But times changed. Norms and paradigms of discourse gradually –VERY gradually– began to shift once Begin was elected in ’78.

Yes, when confronted with Begin and then Shamir, it was a minority of American Jews who protested publicly or otherwise went against the grain. But that minority did include some important mainstream leaders and organizations, including the American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now called the Union of Reform Judaism). In times of emergency, the protests and disquiet spilled out of organizational board rooms and made it into mainstream media. There was rarely an unbroken wall of support for –or passive acceptance of–Israeli policies or the positions of the conventional Israel lobby. Consider:

o–On May 5, 1990, Time Magazine ran an article entitled; “The agony over Israel: American Jews face a dilemma: how to criticize the Jewish state without seeming disloyal.” It asserted: “It has been an article of faith held by every government of Israel since the Jewish state was founded: no matter how much American Jews might disagree with Israeli policy, they could be counted on not to keep their criticisms public. No more. The American Jewish community has become a house divided –and sometimes loudly so—over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and its reluctance to pursue a comprehensive settlement that finally might bring peace to the region.”

o–Two years before that (March 21, 1988), a New York Times headline proclaimed “Shamir assails his U.S. Jewish critics.” The lead: “Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lashed out yesterday against American Jews who have been pressing the United States government to force Israel to accept an international conference to resolve the Arab Israeli dispute.” Reporting on Shamir’s speech to a meeting of the Presidents Conference, the story noted that “Albert Vorspann, senior vice president of [the Union of] American Hebrew Congregations, argued that Israel could not always expect the `reflexive loyalty’ of American Jewry. He said it was “dangerous to imply that honest disagreements represent disloyalty.”

o–In February of that same year, Commentary devoted a whole issue to the mounting, passionate, very public protests of Israeli policies by American Jews. A cranky, unsigned introduction explained,“never perhaps has criticism of the state of Israel by American Jews been so open, so widespread, and so bitter as it is today.”

o–Six years before that, on July 15th, 1982, a New York Times headline read “Discord Among U.S. Jews over Israel Seems to Grow. ” The article, about American Jewish opposition to Israel’s continuing military assault on Lebanon, asserted “As in Israel itself, opponents of the policies of Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon are beginning to engage in skirmishes through articles, statements, letters and newspaper advertisements.”

There are many other examples. Of course there were not enough of us and these efforts were not politically consequential. Of course there are not enough of us now. And of course a good many attitudinal shifts will be necessary for American Jews in my camp to be an effective political opposition. But, while the taboo against taking on Israeli policies or pressing for active American diplomatic engagement is still out there, it is not nearly as strong as Mearsheimer and Walt seem to think.

The question remains, will enough silent, passive American Jewish liberals ever feel like there is a sufficiently grave emergency to start making noise?

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