Many people remember when Israel was a cause around which virtually all American Jews were able to rally.
This period of consensus, even adulation, began with Israel’s stunning victory in the June 1967 Six Day War and, with certain exceptions, lasted until her incursion into Lebanon in April 1982. As an indication of how much things have changed, in recent years we hear of synagogues and rabbis that avoid the topic of Israel altogether because “it”, i.e., Israel’s protracted conflict with the Palestinians and ongoing presence in the West Bank, is “too divisive.” Now it appears that there is an organized effort within the American Jewish community to again bring about a consensus on Israel, but this time it is a consensus of critics.
In a recent Jerusalem Post article entitled “T’ruah and Breaking the Silence to lead West Bank trips,” correspondent Danielle Ziri describes a plan for “Go and See” day trips to Israel and the West Bank for American Jews. The goal of these trips, according to a joint press release, is to “empower more American Jews to meet both Palestinians and IDF veterans who have served in the territories, to listen deeply to their narratives, and to bring these perspectives into working toward a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.” The national director of T’ruah, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, told the Post, “It’s not gonna hurt anybody to come and see what’s happening.”
With greater numbers of younger American Jewish adults expressing displeasure over the policies of the Netanyahu government, T’ruah and other American Jewish groups such as Encounter and Jews for Justice for Palestinians feel that perhaps they can catch a wave. Perhaps the strategy of recruiting American Jews for West Bank trips through the ranks of other Jewish organizations, including Hillel, temples and synagogues and sundry others will help turn the tide of American Jewish opinion against Israel’s current leadership.
As far back as the early 1970s “progressive” American Jews on the political Left organized themselves in protest over Israel’s continuing presence in Judea and Samaria.
The first notable example of this was an organization called “Breira” (Choice). At the time the American Jewish mainstream viewed this organization as outliers and its principles, namely recognition of the Palestinian Arabs as a people with rights to a sovereign state in the land Israel captured in 1967, as being beyond the pale.
In an era when even the prime minister of Israel assents to these very principles, albeit under specific terms and conditions, and when the 2016 platform of the Democratic Party calls for the Palestinians to “be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity,” it is understandable that today the American Jewish mainstream, in contrast to an earlier period, is more open to the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
There is still, however, quite a disparity between acknowledging the emergence of a contemporary Palestinian people and accepting the one-sided Palestinian narrative that demonizes and delegitimizes the Jewish state. That is the underlying message of the many “study tours” of Judea and Samaria led mostly by mainline Christian organizations, and more recently by Jewish groups as well.
These Jewish groups now join the ranks of the myriad Christian churches and secular human rights organizations who for many years have been sponsoring the visits of delegations to “Israel and Palestine” to witness the “injustice of the occupation.” The content of these groups’ itineraries plays fast and loose with facts and history but is heavy on emotional experiences.
These experiences can include olive picking alongside Palestinian farmers, home hospitality in Palestinian homes where families fuss over their guests and serve up homemade humus and pita, dancing the Debka around a fire with Palestinian villagers and, de rigueur, a close-up visit to Israel’s ominous “wall,” or security barrier, to hear personal accounts by local Palestinians of their suffering and deprivation.
To be sure, to learn about the conflict from the other side as well, participants are often brought to a well-heeled Jewish “settlement” for about an hour-and-a-half to meet with a resident who is asked to address the many inequities they have witnessed.
As a result of their experiences during these study tours some unknown number of participants return to their communities to become activists in support of the Palestinian cause; they organize rallies, they speak before groups, they write letters to their representative in government. At the very least these visitors return home and tell others about what they witnessed.
The strategy behind increasing the number of these tours is in line with the Palestinian Authority that has given up attempting to defeat Israel militarily and now hopes to force Israel’s hand through international pressure.
Such pressure includes lobbying foreign governments, instigating resolutions against Israel in international forums like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, and promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. These Jewish groups also want to turn up the pressure on Israel.
By offering itineraries covering Israel and the PA skewed in a way that exposes participants to certain experiences but denies them others, leftist Jewish organizations, along with a growing number of synagogues and temples, hope to unite the majority of American Jews in opposition to the current Israeli government and build an unprecedented American Jewish grassroots consensus demanding that the State of Israel evacuate all Jewish communities built beyond the 1949 armistice line with Jordan and in support of the immediate creation of a Palestinian state on this same land.
They do this, they contend, firstly as Jews committed to fulfilling the highest precept of Jewish tradition, to guard human rights and promote social justice. But they also do this as Zionists, they claim, who feel obliged to administer “tough love” to an Israel that has lost its way.
Yet in their zealousness to set Israel back onto the right path they fail to recognize that the itineraries they are promoting reach beyond calling for an end to the “occupation” and the creation of a Palestinian state; their content raises questions about the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence.
To “come and see” a stilted, one-sided version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will, in fact, harm an already strained relationship between many of America’s Jews and Israel. This is definitely not the kind of consensus that is needed.The author is the director of iTalkIsrael in Efrat.