When five young Jews disrupted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at last month’s Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly — yelling “the settlements delegitimize Israel,” “the occupation delegitimizes Israel” and “the loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel” — they were greeted with anger and quickly whisked out of the room.
Yet their very presence highlighted several uncomfortable questions at the heart of the American Jewish relationship with Israel at a time when “delegitimization” has climbed to the top of the communal agenda.
The Jewish Federations of North America recently launched the $6 million “Israel Action Network” in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to help communities around the country better combat Israel delegitimization efforts, specifically the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
At the same time Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Israel On Campus Coalition have announced a new “strategic approach” to Israel, with Hillel coordinating all its Israel education programs under one “Israel engagement center” and the ICC becoming an independent nonprofit responsible for Israel advocacy.
Do Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, as Netanyahu’s GA hecklers implied, actually undermine the country’s claims to legitimacy, likening it to apartheid South Africa and fueling support for the delegitimizers? Or are these policies simply pretexts seized upon by a movement whose primary concern is questioning the Jewish state’s very right, since 1948, to existence?
And to what extent is the diverse and factionalized American Jewish community capable of fighting Israel delegitimization (if it can even agree as to what constitutes delegitimization)? The GA protesters were not Palestinians or even pro-divestment Presbyterians, but Jews, albeit Jews affiliated with a far-left group that was recently included in the Anti-Defamation League’s list of top 10 anti-Israel organizations in the United States.
Even within the mainstream, among those Jewish groups that oppose BDS and call themselves pro-Israel, there is a panoply of players, many with competing ideas about the meaning of pro-Israel — from J Street and the New Israel Fund to AIPAC and the David Project to groups that aid settlers. Is it possible for enough to come together with one voice?
And what of the decline in American Jewish feelings of attachment to Israel? Some observers say it is symptomatic of assimilation, others say it is purely generational and still others contend it stems from a sense, articulated last spring by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, that young American Jews are estranged from Israel because American Jewish support for Israel means having to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.”
As John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York noted last month in a weekly federation newsletter, “deep anxiety about issues relating to Israel” has been an “overarching theme” in conversations this fall with the federation’s largest donors.
Those issues, according to Ruskay, included the threat of a nuclear Iran, strains in the U.S.-Israel relationship, the recent conversion issue, the future of settlements and “the distancing of our young from Israel. “While most of these are long-standing concerns, the weight of the issues felt heavier” this year, he wrote.
Many details about the Israel Action Network, the JFNA’s new effort with the JCPA, are still being hammered out.
Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the JCPA and the professional overseeing the network, told The Jewish Week that he would like to include as “big as possible” an array of pro-Israel perspectives and that he sees the network as “a potentially unifying factor for the Jewish community, a place where left and right can meet and can work together constructively.”
While acknowledging the “multiplicity of perspectives” about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the fact that there will undoubtedly be “some internal strains within the tent,” Raffel said, “the common denominator, which we hope will enable disparate voices to come together is a desire to protect Israel from those who wish to turn it into a pariah state. The left may have its criticisms of Israel’s policies, but they are Zionists and believe in Israel’s right to exist as a secure state and acknowledge Israel’s right of self-defense.
“Many of the people coming from the ranks of the delegitimizers, especially those that use boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, are at the end of the day interested in Israel’s elimination rather than a two-state solution,” he noted.
Would the network include J Street, a group that many pro-Israel groups claim places unfair demands on Israel while seemingly ignoring Palestinian and Arab threats, yet opposes the BDS campaign, saying it will not advance peace?
Raffel noted J Street’s involvement in “a range of anti-delegitimization efforts” and added, “Those who can unequivocally express support for Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, I think in general ought to be welcomed inside the tent and be part of the effort to stand up to the delegitimizers.”
Another potentially controversial group on the left is the New Israel Fund (full disclosure: this reporter was an NIF employee from 1994-1996). That group, which came under heavy criticism this year because some of its grantees provided assistance to the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war, opposes BDS but, according to its website “will not reduce or eliminate our funding for grantees that differ with us on this tactical matter.”
“NIF will not fund BDS activities nor support organizations for which BDS is a substantial element of their activities, but will support organizations that conform to our grant requirements if their support for BDS is incidental or subsidiary to their significant programs,” the website says, describing a policy officials say they set a year and a half ago in response to the growing visibility of the BDS movement.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for the Atlantic and prominent blogger on Israel and the Middle East, recently slammed the policy on his blog, saying, “The way I read this, the NIF does not support the attempt by anti-Israel activists to turn the world’s only Jewish country into a pariah state, and Jews into a target — once again — of a broad-based economic boycott. Except when it does, a little. It would seem that if the New Israel Fund believes BDS to be immoral, then it would defund grantees that support BDS, even incidentally. This is one of those bright-line issues, and if NIF wants to get on the wrong side of that line, it should not call itself a pro-Israel organization.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Naomi Paiss, NIF’s communications director, said that the board is in the process of tightening its anti-BDS policy further.
However, she said, NIF disagrees with grantees on many issues and “the minute you draw a black-and-white line, then you erase the possibility of dialogue.”
For example, she said, NIF supports some Orthodox groups for “trying to bring more liberal voices into the Orthodox community,” even while it disagrees with many of these groups’ activists on issues like the settlements and gay rights.
While disagreeing with Arab Israeli grantees “about the nature of the character of the State of Israel,” the fund nonetheless supports such groups because “you’re not going to find a significant [Arab Israeli] group that really supports Israel as a Jewish state” and it believes much of their work on behalf of the Arab community is “critically important.”
NIF has participated in some U.S. efforts to protest BDS, including sending a board member to a public debate in Seattle, where a food cooperative was considering boycotting all Israeli products.
“Our board member was providing the sane alternative to Code Pink [a BDS group] and StandWithUs [a pro-Israel group] whose members were yelling at each other,” Paiss said, adding that “she presented a better alternative of don’t boycott, but invest in NIF and the hundreds of groups we work with.”
Asked whether NIF would want to be part of the Israel Action Network, Paiss said that “we don’t need to participate in a special campaign,” because by promoting human rights, civil rights, freedom of speech and other democratic principles, her group is actually the “biggest weapon against delegitimization.
“The fact that people in Israel are trying to legislate and intimidate us out of existence should be matter of concern,” she said, referring to 14 bills currently in the Knesset that she said “cut down on freedom of speech, truncate minority rights” and are “anti-democratic” in other respects.
“If any or all of those pass, describing Israel as a democracy is going to be a harder case to make,” Paiss said. “As well as fighting delegitimization, [American Jews] should also be fighting the trend in Israel that allows its enemies to delegitimize it.”
While NIF may be tightening its policies against grantees that favor BDS, Paiss emphasized that it will “not penalize organizations that are involved in the non-violent movement against purchasing settlement goods.”
Asked whether the Israel Action Network will address “settlements-only” boycotts, Raffel said, “I don’t know that a consensus has crystallized on this subject.
“If a person believes that Israel ought to do more to achieve peace based on a two-state formula, the question is, will boycotting a settlement advance the day that there will be peace? I’d argue that no, it will only harden positions and be counterproductive,” he said, “but being misguided in one’s policies doesn’t mean one necessarily has become part of the ranks of the delegitimizers.”
Might any pro-Israel group be excluded from the tent for being too far to the right?
“There is a consensus at least reflected in the policy positions we’ve taken in support of a two-state solution resulting from negotiations,” Raffel said. “For those who believe there ought to be one bi-national state or a state where the Palestinians have lesser rights than Jews, I think that’s largely outside the consensus of the community.”
Added Raffel, “The line may not be as clear as a line on a piece of paper. There may be some fuzziness. We’re doing our best to try to bring clarity to it, and not everyone will draw the line in the same location. In our world, we’re trying to generate a consensus around lines that will be inclusive, rather than exclusive.”
Next week: The complex intersection of Israel education and Israel advocacy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org