Pressure from the political left has shaken the pro-Israel consensus that has historically existed within the American Jewish community. This consensus has been attacked by such “luminaries” as former New Republic editor Peter Beinart for requiring progressive Jews, especially younger and generally less affiliated Jews, to “check their values at the door” when it comes to Israel. At the same time, the pro-Israel consensus has also had to confront the assault from Jewish or Jewish-affiliated activist groups from the burgeoning BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions) movement against Israel. In essence, the pro-Israel consensus has come under attack from both the soft and hard left.
The soft left is unhappy with Jewish settlements in the West Bank and considers them to be an obstacle to peace with the Palestinian Authority, which they maintain would be easily realizable if only Israel would agree to withdraw from most of the settlements. While 60-plus years of history argues against this, the proponents of the “settlements are the real problem” view maintain they want to end Israel’s international isolation, and achieve the peace and security the nation and its citizens have always wanted. An equally, if not more important, side benefit is that a resolution to the conflict would make Israel less of a lightning rod in the salons that the soft left calls home.
The hard left believes Israel is an apartheid state (much like the former South Africa), born in original sin in 1948-1949, with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were supposedly “driven out” during the war that accompanied the creation of the Jewish State. Additionally, Palestinians are now suffering through a “brutal occupation” (the words always go together) of the West Bank, now in its fifth decade, which was instituted following the Six Day War.
Recently, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, convening in New Orleans last October, established a new initiative to fight the BDS movement. It created the Israel Action Network. Martin Raffel, the senior vice president of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, and the new director of the IAN, described the initiative:
The project, which I am directing, will work alongside Israel and key organizational partners in the US and Canada, not only to stand up against anti-Israel initiatives, but also to anticipate and prepare for future challenges and actively promote a fair and balanced picture of the Middle East among key constituencies.
The General Assembly reportedly allocated $6 million to the IAN effort, not an inconsiderable sum, given the funding issues described earlier.
Now comes word that the IAN has made a decision as to the organizations that fit under the umbrella of its anti-BDS movement efforts. In a statement late last week, Raffel offered the following:
In my judgment, those groups that are unwilling to support the Jewish people's right to build a national homeland in Israel -- i.e., recognition of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state -- place themselves outside the Jewish mainstream and cannot reasonably be seen as allies in our effort to counter the growing assault on Israel's legitimacy.
But what to think about Zionists on the political left who have demonstrated consistent concern for Israel's security, support Israel's inalienable right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, and consider Israel to be the eternal home of the Jewish people -- but have decided to express their opposition to specific policies of the Israeli government by refraining from participating in events taking place in the West Bank or purchasing goods produced there? I vigorously would argue that such actions are counter-productive in advancing the cause of peace based on two states that they espouse, a goal that we share. But this is not sufficient cause to place them outside the tent.
As the Reut Institute report on delegitimization stresses, it is these activists from the Zionist left who are best positioned to advocate to their liberal friends, who by all rights should be supportive of Israel as the region's most democratic and most supportive society of women's, LGBT, labor, and minority rights[.]
In essence, the Raffel statement acknowledged that there are two classes of BDS supporters -- "good" boycotters and "bad" boycotters. The good boycotters need to be welcomed within the community’s big tent, since they share the broader Jewish community's consensus view of Israel -- i.e., good boycotters supposedly have “demonstrated consistent concern for Israel's security, support Israel's inalienable right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, and consider Israel to be the eternal home of the Jewish people.” If such boycotters exist as Raffel articulates, I have yet to find them or hear from them. In fact, the category of “good boycotters” is relatively indistinguishable from the "bad boycotters" when it comes to events and campaigns targeting Israel.
Raffel also argues that these acceptable boycotters are needed within the big community tent in order to help persuade the more hardline leftists that Israel deserves their support (for example, because of women's rights, LGBT issues, labor, and minority rights). Presumably, if the bad boycotters (the delegitimizers of Israel) were educated by other progressives about all the progressive features of Israel’s society, then the bad boycotters could be persuaded to move along the political continuum, maybe even becoming good boycotters themselves.
That the organized Jewish community has come to such a state of incoherence brings to mind the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s article from 1993 about “defining deviancy down,” which analyzed how communities react to increases in deviant criminal behavior.
Moynihan argued that as the amount of deviant behavior increases, the community becomes incapable of recognizing all of it, and adjusts to the new reality by lowering its standards. So, behavior once thought deviant (but not the most deviant of all criminal behavior), is no longer considered so.
Could a better description be offered for Raffel’s recent comment? The evidence abounds: Hillel chapters, in large part funded by Jewish Federations, are wrestling with whether to accept bad boycotters, who oppose the Jewish state of Israel (e.g. Jewish Voices for Peace). Jewish Federations in New York and Washington, D.C. are being challenged for funding theatres or other groups whose purpose seems to be to undermine the Jewish State.
J-Street, an organization which repeatedly and falsely proclaims that it is pro-Israel, pro-peace, has become part of the Jewish mainstream, with its conferences addressed by Israeli leaders, members of Congress, and Obama administration officials. Its leader is a frequent visitor to the White House and an invited guest to the president’s briefings to Jewish leaders. The organized Jewish community sees the enemy, and by and large, seems to be ready to surrender and call the enemy a friend -- all in an ill-advised effort to expand or maintain the semblance of a broad communal tent.
The problem for the organized Jewish community world is, unfortunately, far bigger than figuring out how to deal with boycotts. The sharp rise in intermarriage and the triumph of secular humanism among recent generations of increasingly prosperous and comfortable suburban Jewish Americans, have weakened ties between Jews and Israel, between Jews and synagogues, and between Jews and the organized Jewish community. Unlike prior generations, the new generation of Jews have not experienced the Holocaust, and do not understand the fear for Israel’s survival felt among older Jews.
The Jewish community is comfortably at home on the left. Young Jews remain politically active, but for many, Israel is no longer a core concern. Saving the planet, protecting abortion rights, saving Darfur, all draw a stronger response than supporting Israel. Until 1967, many of those on the left supported Israel as the weaker party, facing a vast Arab world bent on Israel’s destruction. The 1967 war changed the moral valence for the left -- Israel became the occupier, the colonialist power. The Palestinians replaced the broader Arab world as the second party to the conflict, and were seen as the weaker party, deserving of the left’s sympathy and concern. The common causes shared between the far- and soft left on every other issue have made it easier for the former to join with those who oppose Israel. Furthermore, the large Jewish presence in the anti-Israel cause provides cover for the hard left, allowing it to appear, not anti-Semitic, but just anti-Israel or anti-Zionist.
The Jewish communal world seems to have chosen a fake consensus on Israel in lieu of unity among those who actually care about the country’s fate. Making nuanced arguments for good boycotters as opposed to bad ones is an absurdly weak posture for a pro-Israel community facing passionate opposition. It will inevitably serve to weaken the battle against the BDS movement, rather than expand the ranks of those fighting it. This is nothing less than defining anti-Israel deviancy down.