WASHINGTON (JTA) — Enmeshed in the battle against Israel’s delegitimization, mainstream American Jewish organizations are embracing a strategy of acknowledging what’s wrong about Israel as a way of getting across what’s right about the nation.
The strategy is hardly fresh — the New Israel Fund claims it has been doing this for years. But the recent outspokenness of advocates of the approach reflects concerns among U.S. Jewish establishment organizations that defending Israel in the public arena will not resonate without credibly addressing what some characterize as the deterioration of Israel’s civil society.
The American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism have delivered broadsides in recent days against recent Israeli government initiatives targeting nongovernmental groups in Israel that monitor human rights. Last week, the Knesset approved in a preliminary reading a bill that would investigate the funding sources of nongovernmental groups that monitor and criticize the Israeli army.
“The Knesset’s action today contravenes the democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said after Israel’s parliament voted Jan. 5 to investigate human rights groups. “Israel’s vibrant democracy not only can survive criticism, but it also thrives and is improved by it.”
Echoing demands from Israel’s left, the AJC and the Reform body instead called for across-the-board transparency in Israel.
In its statement the Reform movement suggested that such actions make it more difficult to defend Israel in other forums.
“The recent initiative undermines Israel’s place in the global community and is a source of concern to the Jewish community throughout the world and to Israel’s friends everywhere,” the statement said.
That was a theme picked up by the Anti-Defamation League, which in a statement posted on its website did not directly address the proposed Knesset law but expressed concerns about the “highly disturbing trend” of “Israeli intolerance.”
“Inflammatory statements have a negative impact on attitudes toward Israel around the world, even in friendly countries like the U.S.,” the ADL statement said. “More important, however, is the impact they have within Israel, undermining the democratic fiber, creating a mean-spiritedness in society and enlarging already significant communal rifts."
The significance of such statements was in their bearers — mainstream American Jewish organizations, which are more accustomed to slamming Israel’s critics. In the past, these groups have targeted manifestations of bigotry by marginal Israeli groups, Israeli government discrimination against non-Orthodox religious streams and, in some cases, remarks by Israeli officials about the country’s Arab citizens.
What’s new is the concern by U.S. Jewish groups that discrimination and a diminishing of democratic values is becoming mainstream in Israel.
These American Jewish groups remain dedicated to defending Israel. Indeed, representatives of the same groups will attend conferences in Miami later this month aimed at combating boycotts and delegitimization of Israel.
But they are no longer holding back on criticizing Israel — criticism they view as constructive.
“There are things that Israel can and should do to make it a better country,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of Jewish Federations of North America.
“Diaspora Jewry has an obligation to stand up. People should not be hasbara agents,” he said, using the term for public relations.
A spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, Naomi Paiss, said it’s about time.
“For a long time, there was probably the misconception that supporting Israel meant enabling bad behavior,” she said. “It’s becoming clear that supporting Israel means calling it to account when its most anti-democratic trends cannot be ignored.”
On Sunday in Washington, a slate of local representatives from national Jewish organizations — including pro-Israel stalwarts such as B’nai B’rith International and the Orthodox Union — joined Israel’s embassy in sponsoring a day’s discussion on “challenges and opportunities” for Arab citizens of Israel.
Noam Katz, a public diplomacy officer at the embassy, launched the proceedings with what participants said was a candid assessment of the discrimination still facing Israeli Arabs. That helped those in the audience who otherwise may have felt the reflex to protest criticism of Israel to listen and contribute, said Rabbi Sid Schwartz, who helped organize the conference.
Schwartz, also the founder of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, said the event, which included Israeli-Arab activists, helped convey a sense that this was an area that American Jews could influence.
“If American Jews start to take note of this issue, we can have more impact on policy in Israel than we can have on the peace process,” he said, suggesting that peacemaking is subject to vicissitudes beyond the reach of American Jews.
Anne Clemons, a local community activist who is active with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, among other groups, said she helped organize the event in part to push back against the delegitimization of Israel.
“I felt the community would benefit, the young generation and the press would benefit from learning what Israel was doing to help its Arab citizens,” she said.
Clemons said she believes the American Jewish community also has a responsibility to raise the issue with Israel’s leaders.
“The American Jewish community is supportive, but when we see there are issues that may need changing, we bring it up with the leaders within the Israeli government,” she said.
Not everyone is on board: The Zionist Organization of America issued a statement lauding the crackdown on human rights groups operating in Israel.
“These groups have also shown clearly by their actions that despite their protestations of seeking to serve Israel democracy, they actually seek to bypass Israeli democratic institutions and the Israeli public square by pressing for international pressure on Israel and its democratically elected government by corrupt, dictatorship-dominated bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council,” ZOA said in its statement.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America quoted Im Tirtzu, an Israeli group that opposes human rights groups, as saying the issue at hand was foreign funding for such groups, many of which are Israeli.
“The organizations that call themselves human rights groups actually belong to the extreme left and seek to force their radical values on others through foreign funding,” said the Im Tirtzu statement quoted by CAMERA in an e-mail exchange Tuesday with The Washington Post.
The targeted rights’ groups say the claim of foreign funding is a red herring, noting that the bill does not pretend to examine groups that receive foreign funding but that back government policies. In any case, the targeted groups say, they are transparent about their funding.