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?

12 thoughts on “Redefine the American Jewish-Israeli relationship

  1. Your points are well-taken. But the people who speak for American Jews are the right-wingers who are part of the problem. Who is going to negotiate and deliberate on these “delicate” questions. I mean, Ameinu and your other little groups are admirable, but you haven’t been able to get many American Jews to listen to you. Why would the the Israeli government? Its hasbara machine will come out swinging if American Jewish leaders start taking this idea seriously…

  2. The impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on how America is viewed was made clear in a poll released last month by Brookings. APN reported on it at

    DEAR KAREN HUGHES: The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution released a study on Thursday of public opinion in six Arab countries. Of the 3,850 survey respondents, 38% rated President George W. Bush as the most disliked world leader, followed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (11%), current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (7%), and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (3%). Asked to name the two countries that pose the biggest threat 79% named Israel, 74% cited the U.S., and 6% said Iran.

    12% said that their attitude towards the US was very favorable or somewhat favorable. 21% said that their attitude was somewhat unfavorable, while 57% said that their attitude was very unfavorable. 69% said that they had “no confidence” in the U.S.

    How might attitudes towards the U.S. improve? Well, 70% said that their attitudes are based on U.S. policy in the Middle East. 62% said that the U.S. could improve its image by brokering a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. 33% said America’s image would improve if American troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Only 8% said that an increased effort to spread democracy in the Middle East would help.

    Indeed 43% ranked the “Palestine issue” as the issue most important to them. An additional 34% said it was among their top three issues. 11% more said it was in their top five. 61% said that they are “prepared for a just and comprehensive peace with Israel if Israel is willing to return all the territories occupied in the 1967 War including East Jerusalem.” 23% wanted Arab governments to “exert more efforts on this issue.” 38% did not think that the Israelis would give up these territories peacefully. 29% want to continue fighting even if Israel gives up land for peace.

    The survey was conducted this fall in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The margin of error is +/-1.58. (Ynet, 2/9/07;, 2/8/07)

  3. What are you talking about? You call yourself a Zionist? Sure America has problems with Islamic fanatics but you think Arab-Israeli peace will solve them? You’re the one who;s “delusional” There is a war going on with Islamofacism. American and Israel are on the same side. But it’s the Israelis who are still on the firing line! The Iranians won’t be able to destroy New York City if they get the bomb. But they will be able to destory TelAVIV. Israel still needs our help and cowarsd like you want to ask Israel to give in to Arab blackmail and give back land to terrorist scum just so you will feel safer in New York.

  4. fascinating debate, and real wisdom from the winged realist. Dan may just be “stating the obvious,” and an obvious widely echoed in the Arab world, but it’s too often unobvious in even the lib Dem American community

  5. Your point is very relevant. I heard Olmert’s Iraq statement at AIPAC and I believe that he made his statement about Iraq at the request of the Bush Administration–this was their mantra throughout the AIPAC policy conference but many people there only “believed” it when it came from Olmert. In other words, Bush is used Olmert to lobby American Jews so that American Jews lobby for the Bush position, thinking they are doing Israel a favor.

  6. Great post. There is an Israeli organization, the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking which published a great bok in 03 titled “Futurix=zing the Jew.” In the book, they discuss a new Israel-Diaspora relationship. Great book–I highly recommend it.

  7. You started this at just the right moment. AIPAC jumped the shark last week in Washington. By simultaneously endorsing the “surge,” lobbying to eliminate the language requiring Congressional approval before bombing Iran, and by standing on chairs to bravo America’s most disliked political figure, VP Cheney, they slipped into ZOA-American Friends of Herut land. Alternative voices are going to be heard.

  8. AIPAC is not israel; it is a pro-israel AMERICAN lobbying group.

    let’s not blame israel for the actions of aipac.

  9. Just wanted to say congratulations on entering the blogosphere.

    It’s very heartening to hear more American Jewish voices openly discussing our attitudes and positions on Israel. I agree heartily that we hold an important lever to influence Israel’s policies and actions. While AIPAC and other “conservative” (for lack of a better word) organizations have every right to take whatever positions seem right to them, they should not claim to be speaking for all American Jews.

    The Jewish left has lacked a unified, effective voice. There is a division between progressive Zionists, who support the idea of a Jewish state but criticize some of Israel’s actions and policies; and more radical Jews who identify as non-Zionists, post-Zionists, anti-Zionists etc. and who are critical of Zionism as a form of ethnic separatism, which they consider inherently discriminatory.

    The right has been effective in exploiting this division in such a way as to neutralize the progressive Zionists within a larger right-wing coalition while isolating the radicals, labeling them fringe groups, Jewish anti-Semites, etc.

    The two groups I see as most promising to carry the torch of American Jewish dissent are Brit Tzedek and Jewish Voice for Peace, both of which are establishing chapters nationally and gaining membership.

    To what you wrote above, I would just add that, in addition to speaking out on the divergent interests of Jewish Americans and Israelis, many American Jews have ethical concerns about Israel’s actions vis a vis Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. These concerns are rooted in a view of Jewish religion and history that stresses our solidarity with oppressed peoples.

    Anyhow – congratulations, this looks like it will be a terrific site, I will check back here often.

  10. Dan F responds,

    Thanks for your kind words, Andrew. I agree with your analysis of how the American Jewish right has exploited the differences between the openly Zionist left (i.e., my camp, my friends) and the non-Zionist or post-Zionist left.

    We need to admit, though, that the gaps between those two camps are sometimes very wide. We should not pretend otherwise. I’ve already gotten some grief from lefty Zionists for wading into the controversy over the “legitimacy” of Jewish Voices for Peace. One of my intentions is to use this blog as a place for polite but candid dialogue between the APN/AMEINU/MERETZ USA adherents and the JVP types.

    As I’ve noted elsewhere (see “Aging Lefty Jews Should Enter the Blogosphere”), I am very uncomfortable with some of JVP’s positions. They have made a tactical decision to refrain from taking a position on a two-state or a bi-national solution. While this might enable them to attract a much wider following among progressive Jews, I think it is a mistake. It arouses deep suspicion and fear among those who share some of their critiques of Israeli policies but are worried about the growing popularity of the one-state solution.

    I’ll have more to say about that in future posts (I hope). But, for now, suffice it say that I think Jews on the left need a space to calmly talk things over. I hope this blog serves that purpose.

  11. Dan,

    I do not seethe purpose of JVP as political, while Brit Tzedek’s mission is to engage the powers-that-be in DC in supporting a negotiated 2 state solution. BTvS also stated it is “pro-Israel/pro-peace.”

    I do not think JVP sees itself us pro-Israel at all. Although it does take opinions on various things, the majority of JVPers I have spoken to are non-Zionist to anti-Zionist. My biggest frustration with JVP is the sole blaming of Israel and Jews. I think Israel has made some major mistakes but I do not think Israel has been the only actor in this drama. From my vantage point (and I know many JVPers), they are unduly harsh on Israel.

    I also find them to be ingratiating in the way only people who are convinced they are morally right; they feel that the rest of us Jews are hopelessly reactionary (I have heard 3 JVPers say this). I wish they could acknowledge that some of us, from our reading of Jewish history, have become Zionists while some us reading that same history are anti-Zionist.

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