American foreign policy American Jews Israel Israel lobby Palestinians

Redefine the American Jewish-Israeli relationship

The organized American Jewish community and Israel are like a tired old married couple that lives together on the basis of old habits, not new realities. They need to make an effort to redefine their relationship so that both can benefit. (Full disclosure: I stole that simile from Jerry Goodman, former director of the National Committee for Labor Israel and Ameinu Board member).

I, for one, want to make this marriage work. But it will no longer suffice for Israel to do all the asking and for American Jews to do all the giving, via lobbying and/or monetary contributions.   It needs to be a two-way street. The Israel-Palestinian dispute is no longer a local neighborhood feud. What happens in Tulkarm and Gaza City and Ramallah reverberates in Toledo and Galveston and Rochester. Peace and stability in the Middle East and a solution to the Palestinian question were always an American interest; now they are an urgent priority. 

I won’t go into detail to show why this is the case. If you don’t believe it, you are delusional.  All you need to do is look at the front page of today’s New York Times, where a headline blares: “In Lebanon Camp, A New Face of Jihad Vows Attacks on the U.S..” It is just the latest evidence that in the minds of much of the Islamic world, the U.S. and Israel are linked together inextricably as blood enemies, and America is held responsible for Israeli behavior (in the far left, of course, Israel is held responsible for America’s behavior, but that is much too simplistic).

Yet too many Israeli and mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. still act as if American Jews’ sole responsibility in this relationship is to protect the interests of our poor, beleagured spouse.  

We (i.e., American Jews) need to start asking Israel to help us, too. I’ve published a number of op-eds making this point in the Jewish media and the Huffington Post (see the “Publications” page in this web site, where you will find “The Settlements are My Problem Too” and “What Israel Can Do for America”)  Before each one appeared, I expected to be tarred and feathered by friends in the Jewish establishment because I had broken some kind of taboo by being honest about the relationship. But I got support from some very senior American Jewish leaders, one of whom told me. “you’re just stating the obvious.”  I believe I was just articulating something they might be willing to say out loud in their living rooms, but not publicly.Not yet…

 It seems to me that this theme -what Israel can do for the U.S.– is implicit in some of the other blogs from progressive Jews that I’ve been reading.  Yesterday, Mobius , in Jew School, wrote about AIPAC’s success in pushing Congress to remove a provision from the Iraq spending bill that would have required President Bush to seek Congressional approval before going to war against Iran.  AIPAC doesn’t always do what Israel wants, but it is hard to believe that was done without the enthusiastic support of the Israeli government.

Mobius notes, correctly: “This is an overt action supposedly done in Israel’s favor that blatantly contravenes American interests. By coercing the Congress to abdicate its Constitutional authority to declare war, they just cut the legs out from under the American people, giving infinitely more leeway to an Executive branch seen by most Americans to have already far overstepped the limits of its power.”

But, understandably, he doesn’t go into much detail about what to do about it.  It’s not enough to organize an alternative American Jewish bloc to either transform or replace the conventional Israel lobby, although that is certainly worth a try.  More thought needs to go into redefining the relationship of American Jews with Israel.   

No community, no political bloc, is better suited than American Jews to start asking Israel to stop using its lobbyists for dangerous foolishness like the one noted above, or to stop butting into the American debate about Iraq, as Olmert did when he told the AIPAC Policy Conference that withdrawing from Iraq would imperil Israel. But the question of precisely what we ask of Israel, and how, and when, is a very complicated, delicate question that deserves further discussion. It is time to start the discussion, isn’t it?

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