Who Speaks For America’s Jews?

Who Speaks For America’s Jews?

When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes about Israel, he tends to irritate loyalists ready to condemn anyone making critical judgments about Israeli policies. In his 1989 book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he mentioned his wife’s father being stopped by a friend who told him, “Your son-in-law Tom Friedman is the most hated man in New York City today.” His crime? Daring to report that Israeli soldiers behaved less than admirably in the invasion of Lebanon, and also describing Israel’s less than honorable role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians.

Now he’s at it again in the debate about Iran, asking if Israel’s interests take precedence over American interests. The subjects of the dispute include the fair settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fairly and the ending of a Cold War with Iran that dates back to 1954 when the British and the CIA toppled Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh. “If Israel kills this U.S.-led deal,” Friedman wrote, “then the only option is military. How many Americans or NATO allies will go for bombing Iran after Netanyahu has blocked the best effort to explore a credible diplomatic alternative? Not many.”

Backed by the Israel lobby, Christian Zionists, neoconservatives, every Republican senator eager to weaken Obama and 16 Democrats, the Kirk-Menendez bill in the Senate to increase sanctions on Iran would end the recently concluded interim nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the U.S. China, France, Great Britain, Germany and the Russia), which aims to establish limits on Iran. The bill calls for removing some of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and increasing international observations of Iranian compliance. On the Senate floor, Diane Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and opposes the bill, said that if enacted and passed over Obama’s veto, it would mean that “Iran’s nuclear program would once again be unrestrained and the only remaining option to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would be military action.” And then her clincher: “We cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war.”

It all reminds me of the cynical and satirical gag line from the Onion when Chuck Hagel was being skewered by the pro-Israel lobby and its neocon friends: “Israel Vows To Use Veto Power If Chuck Hagel Confirmed As U.S. Secretary of Defense.”

Today, Israel, along with its many of its lobbyists and sympathizers, is involved in directly challenging a crucial U.S. commitment.

Fair enough. But who really speaks for America’s Jews? Fact is, some of the lobby’s American Jewish groups are no more than names on a letterhead, with few or no paid members. Twenty-three years ago, the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, that keenest of Zionist scholars, detected an astonishing trend that is far more significant today: American Jewry, he said in 1990, “is an organized and aging half moving right and a younger, more liberal group increasingly abandoning Jewish organizations and declining to offer financial support.”

“I think the lobby has a demographic problem,” M.J. Rosenberg wrote last year. Rosenberg once worked for AIPAC and is now considered an apostate by “true believers” for his dissenting, often astute views. “Every poll shows baby boomers are less interested in Israel than their parents, the WWII ‘greatest generation,’ hw writes, “but even more striking is that the boomers’ kids, people in their 30s and younger, are far less interested than their parents” while “Israel is no longer a central concern of young Jews.” And then his central point: “Today, politicians think the easy way to a Jew’s heart and pocketbook is through Israel. Soon enough they will understand that the way is through social justice issues here in America.”

Recently, 120 rabbis signed Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center statement supporting détente with Iran. Peter Beinart, now a columnist for Haaretz, has accused the “American Jewish Establishment” of living in a “closed intellectual space,” and abandoning its historic outspokenness regarding the defense of working people, minority rights and civil liberties, since it is now all about Israel, all the time. For decades, dissenters were driven out of American Jewish public life. No more. A growing number of Jewish groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Voice for Peace and Rabbi Henry Siegman’s U.S./Middle East Project, among others, offer serious alternatives that don’t conform to the party line. Even inside Israel, as the extraordinarily revealing Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” exposed, former Israeli spymasters directly challenge Netanyahu’s hawkishness. In addition, Molad, The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, a new progressive Israeli think tank, came to Hagel’s defense and deplored Israel’s “self-appointed supporters” in the U.S.

The fact is the pro-Israel lobby does not speak for American Jewry; we American Jews are diverse. We were never “one,” as a long-discarded UJA fundraising slogan once claimed. We have always been Zionist, anti-Zionist and at times hard to define. As a result, Noam Chomsky is as Jewish as Abraham Foxman. But as a group we are indeed set apart from most Americans, and that is by the historic Jewish passion to pursue social justice. In short, we are American Jews.                         

Murray Polner was editor of Present Tense, once published by the American Jewish Committee. He has written and edited five books on Jewish life. 

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