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The Precarious Future of Pro-Israel Activism
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Editor's Desk

The Precarious Future of Pro-Israel Activism

The 'mainstream' is catching up to a younger Jewish generation growing increasingly skeptical of the Israeli government's policies.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

Damage from a Hamas missile in Petach Tikva, Israel, May 13, 2021. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Damage from a Hamas missile in Petach Tikva, Israel, May 13, 2021. (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

You may be hearing a lot these days about the “Overton Window” and how it applies to the Israeli-Palestinian debate.

Basically, the Overton Window – named after the policy analyst who came up with the idea – represents the range of policy options widely accepted as legitimate or viable in public debate. Supporting same-sex marriage, for example, was seen as political suicide before, say, the early 2000s. The Overton Window shifted when states began to pass domestic partnership laws, and municipalities began allowing gay couples to marry.

Courageous or extremist, depending on your point of view, political outliers stake out what the consensus considers an untenable position, and the window shifts when the “mainstream” begins to catch up.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the window has shifted decidedly to the left in recent years, especially in Congress. Where once Israel could count on solid bipartisan support for all it did, Democrats are now more willing to question its government’s policies.

Israel’s most strident critics are on the far left, where Squad members Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been leading the pro-Palestinian charge. But even many pro-Israel stalwarts – including New York’s own Jerry Nadler, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, and Rhode Island’s David Cicilline — appeared to grow impatient with Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. Sen. Jon Ossoff, the Jewish freshman from Georgia, led a call by 28 Democrats in the Senate for a ceasefire. Gregory Meeks, the Queens congressman who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came close to asking for a delay in an arms deal between the U.S. and Israel.

Up until about five minutes ago, the U.S. military aid package was considered sacrosanct by the American political establishment. Nothing is as important to AIPAC than that yearly aid package. But a bill introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) linking aid to Israel’s behavior got backing from J Street and Americans for Peace Now, two left-wing pro-Israel organizations. J Street isn’t AIPAC, and McCollum’s bill isn’t going anywhere, but, as Yehuda Kurtzer points out, “some Israel advocates fear that even a bill with limited scope and no chance of passing represents a slippery slope — namely toward conditioning U.S. aid to Israel, as some lawmakers are proposing, or even eventually cutting the aid entirely.”

(Meanwhile, if you bristle at me calling either J Street or Peace Now pro-Israel, you don’t appreciate how far the Overton Window has shifted, nor how groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace – the former agnostic when it comes to Zionism, the latter firmly opposed – are attracting younger acolytes.)

How you explain that shift might depend on your politics. Republicans say Democrats are beholden to a progressive wing that can’t distinguish between true friends and real enemies. Democrats blame Benjamin Netanyahu for his one-sided embrace of the GOP and obeisance to Donald Trump. Jewish liberals say it is Israel that has changed: Years of right-wing governments have made Israel less democratic and less appealing even to former supporters. Jewish conservatives say assimilation and synagogues’ squishy emphasis on “social action” have drained Jews of their ethnic pride and political clout.

There’s a generational shift underway as well. We are 76 years away from the liberation of Auschwitz and 73 years distant from the founding of Israel. People turning 60 have only dim first-hand memories of the Six-Day War. Most 20-somethings were not alive when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and the hope he represented for a resolution of the conflict is something they learn about from their Gen-X parents.

No surprise, the recent Pew study found that Jews ages 50 and older are much more emotionally attached to Israel than are younger Jews. As of 2020, says Pew, half of Jewish adults under age 30 describe themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel (48%) – not bad, but that compares with two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older.

A young woman I know, born in Israel, raised here and educated in Jewish day schools, says she never saw anything like the explosion of anti-Israel invective that flowed across her social media this month. She remains proudly pro-Israel, but admits that she often finds herself asking why she and her liberal friends agree on almost everything else except Israel.

Every generation shifts the window. When I first started reporting on Jewish affairs, it was taboo to talk about a Palestinian state or dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The window blew wide open leading up to Oslo. Today new red lines are being crossed: Some self-described Zionists have spoken openly about their support for a single democratic Jewish-Palestinian state or for at least a limited boycott of goods produced in the settlements. In Jewish Currents, a magazine dedicated to flouting Jewish communal taboos, Peter Beinart recently made the case for allowing Palestinians the right of return to present-day Israel or compensation for property they lost in the founding of Israel.

Jewish groups tend to be slow in noticing when the terms of debate are changing, especially when it comes to Israel.

Jewish groups tend to be slow in noticing when the terms of debate are changing, especially when it comes to Israel. They’ll gin up outrage if someone influential floats a formerly taboo topic, or fall back on arguments from a pro-Israel handbook whose pages are worn from age and overuse. Which isn’t to say that the outrage isn’t deserved, or the old arguments aren’t strong or correct. But a growing cohort of young Jews can barely relate to assertions about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East or a brave survivor of seven decades of Arab belligerence and rejectionism.

I can see a future in which the Jewish mainstream has two basic options: The first is throwing all in with conservatives and Evangelicals for whom Israel is blameless. Let New York Times columnists complain that Israel “systematically discriminates against Palestinians in the occupied territories.” Ignore the rabbinical students who want to hold Israel accountable for the “violent suppression of human rights.” Meanwhile, legacy organizations would nurture a partisan pro-Israel agenda that would appeal to a minority of American Jews while leaning into America’s hopelessly polarized politics. It would work so long as the right wins elections or at least can stymie the impulses of the left.

Or the mainstream could invest hard in Israel’s coexistence and shared society sector while the country figures out a reasonable, workable and mutually acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem. American Jewish groups can stand up for the values of liberal democracy while acknowledging they can’t, and probably shouldn’t, presume to tell Israelis how to vote.

Groups that have done this for years have often been ridiculed and ostracized by pro-Israel groups. But given the shifts in the Overton Window, the mainstream might have to adapt their agenda in order to convince an increasingly skeptical Jewish majority that Israel is a country they can and should care about.

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