On Herbert Zweibon’s cluttered desk lies a Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch about this year’s Salute to Israel parade. The report notes that this year’s parade will be combined with an African-American event honoring Rev. Martin Luther King on May 17.
Scrawled across the top of Zweibon’s copy of the article are the words “We Must Stop This!”
Not that Americans For A Safe Israel, the grassroots group of which Zweibon is the long-time chairman, has anything against King or blacks and Jews marching together in unity, explains the 71-year-old businessman from Westchester.
But the way Zweibon sees it, supporters of Israel sharing the spotlight with another ethnic celebration represents a “watering down” of support for the Jewish state. It is, he says, a manifestation of “post-Zionist,” lackluster support of Israel which has paved the way for concessions to the Arabs under United States pressure.
“This seems to us to be another incremental step in weakening the kind of tough support that the people of Israel have the right to expect,” says Zweibon. “There is a drifting of the American Jewish community [away from] its understanding of what the Zionist revolution really means.”
It is that impassioned, hard-nosed approach to Israel’s safety and security that motivates AFSI’s campaigns against critics of the Jewish state — including Jews.
Founded in 1973 by Erich Isaac, then a professor of geography at City College, and his wife, Rael Jean Isaac, the group has gained a reputation for blasting Jewish critics of Israel, even as it blasts the government for negotiations with the Palestinians.
Though small in numbers (Zweibon claims 10,000 members nationally) the group seems to pack a sizable wallop.
Last week, Zweibon claimed victory in a battle that pitted his small group against the venerable Smithsonian Institution and the larger, better-funded New Israel Fund, a group that supports progressive social causes.
When the Smithsonian Associates, a privately funded group that plans events and programs at the museum, co-sponsored a seminar in honor of Israel’s 50th birthday, AFSI cranked up the fax machine in an effort to derail the program because its roster of speakers were predominantly left-wing. In a Dec. 26 press release, Zweibon’s group compared the program to Holocaust revisionism.
After pressure from members of Congress and Jewish groups, the Smithsonian Associates jettisoned New Israel Fund as a co-sponsor.
Although many Jewish organizations — including B’nai B’rith and the Zionist Organization of America — lodged protests that the conference agenda was unbalanced, the New Israel Fund placed the blame for scuttling the program squarely on AFSI.
“The Smithsonian has been forced by a fringe group of Jewish McCarthyites, led by Americans for a Safe Israel, to back out of the lecture series,” executive director Norman Rosenberg told the Washington Times.
But he may be giving AFSI too much credit. A key figure in the affair was Rep. Michael Forbes (R-Suffolk), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who exerted pressure on Smithsonian Associates to scrap the series. Forbes said he was notified by “some friends” about the project and never heard from AFSI.
“I have had no conversations, no meetings, no papers from this group on this issue,” said Forbes. “I was outraged on my own and didn’t need anyone to prompt me.”
Rosenberg said he made his assumption based on press reports giving credit to AFSI, and the organization’s record of antipathy for NIF.
“Their press release [against the conference] was the first and in some ways the most virulent. My assumption is they played a major role,” said Rosenberg.
The two groups are natural enemies at a time when Israel faces critical decisions on peace initiatives that one group embraces and the other disdains. In 1990, AFSI released a blistering report of NIF’s projects, calling it the “New Fund for Israel’s Enemies.” Among the claims in the brochure was that NIF supports terrorism through its grants to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a group that protects due process in legal proceedings against terror suspects.
The brochure was denounced in a joint statement signed by dozens of Jewish leaders who called the report “scurrilous.”
Supporters say AFSI provides an independent and intrepid forum for criticism of U.S. Israel policy, Arab aggression and Israeli peace overtures.
Forbes calls the organization “very visible on Capitol Hill” and says it has supported his efforts to block the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which provides U.S. economic aid to the Palestinians. “They work very hard to look out for the interests of our relations with Israel,” he said.
But critics say the organization has picked up a pit-bull reputation for acerbic rhetoric.
“AFSI has specialized in ad hominem smear campaigns against organizations and individuals,” says Thomas Smerling, director of the Israel Policy Forum, a leadership group that supports the peace process.
Following the 1993 handshake between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, Project Nishma, an organization now incorporated into the Israel Policy Forum, received dozens of letters from AFSI members, including one containing the following excerpt by executive board member George Rubin of the Bronx:
“Do you sick leftist Yids get your rocks off better by submitting to leather bondage by a dominatrix or by selling out your fellow Jews in Israel to death by knives, guns, axes, torching, burning, emasculation, garroting and strangulation by your sex-slave partners, Arafat and his PLO killers?”
The soft-spoken Zweibon dismisses the letter because Rubin wrote it as an individual, not on AFSI’s behalf. “We don’t condone that kind of language, and we don’t use it,” he said.
But Smerling says he was “astounded” that Rubin remains an AFSI executive board member.
“You get a sense of what they consider legitimate,” he says.
Although he has his differences with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Zweibon rejects those in the right-wing camp who label him a traitor for his concessions to the Palestinians, insisting he understands his political predicament. “He wants to stay in power,” he says.
Although he is an affiliated Conservative Jew, Zweibon says he has no problem with Orthodox hegemony over formal Israeli religious practice — one of the most contentious issues in Israel-diaspora relations. But he insists it’s too destructive an issue to be battled over at this juncture.
“When there is another Middle East war, and there will be in short order, there are two groups that won’t be fighting: Conservative and Reform Jews in America and the haredim in Israel,” he says.
Depending on one’s perspective, AFSI has either received a black eye or a shot in the arm by this week’s publicity. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times picked up Rosenberg’s “McCarthyite” charge in his column Monday, prompting a defense from the New York Post the next day.
“McCarthyism is accusing someone who is innocent,” says Zweibon. “New Israel Fund isn’t innocent of anything. They are doing something, which they have a right to do, and I have a right to object to it. So the label doesn’t fit.”