The master of ceremonies at Monday night’s AIPAC gala, introducing hundreds of leading American Senators and members of Congress to 13,000 enthusiastic Israel supporters, joked that “the chosen people” were now encountering “the elected people.” This AIPAC Israel love-fest, more freewheeling and fun carnival than dark political conspiracy, highlighted the deep, enduring, constructive friendship between the United States and Israel. Wandering around Washington’s packed Convention Center, seeing so many manifestations of the extraordinary American-Israel bond, I was struck yet again by how hard Israel’s enemies -- call them the Benighted People -- work to hijack the debate and rob us of anything good. The harshness of the criticism polarizes the debate and inflames the region, making these people, who call themselves progressives, a destructive, reactionary force advancing war not peace, unreason not reason, hurting all involved, damaging their supposedly beloved Palestinians as well as their intended target the Jews, er, I mean “only” Israelis.
You feel the poison in the exaggerated attacks on AIPAC and the American-Israel friendship. The notion that these two countries might have a natural alliance, reflecting shared values and common interests is too threatening to the Israel bashers, these Islamist fellow travelers. So they concoct a claim echoing longstanding anti-Semitic fears of Jewish power and attribute this authentic friendship to the supposedly all-powerful, mythical, mystical Jewish lobby. To mask charges of anti-Semitism, they call it “the Israel Lobby,” but the effect is the same. They are caricaturing the relationship as artificial not organic, Astroturf not grassroots, imposed from without by these alien force not generated from within by these similar ideals and pressing needs.
The bashers also take all that is good in Israel and try turning it into something manipulative and nefarious. Unable to process the contradictions between their liberal positions on gay rights and women, considering Palestinian homophobia and sexism, they try diminishing Israel’s moral stature on that front. The result is the ridiculous “pinkwashing charge,” another attempt to rob Israel of its ethical advantage by claiming that Israel’s progressive position on homosexuality a propaganda move to divert attention from the Palestinian problem.
In this environment, denying any genuine friendship between Israel and its allies, negating any possible good that comes from the Jewish state, provides the traction needed to attack Israel’s existence. Or to use the language of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an extraordinary speech he delivered in Herzliya on August 24,2010, calling it a “democratic duty to counter delegitmization of Israel,” “soft” delegitmization encourages “hard,” violent delegitimization of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The soft form, Blair explained, “is a conscious or often unconscious resistance, sometimes bordering on refusal, to accept Israel has a legitimate point of view,” for example, criticizing Israel for acts of self-defense every other nation would undertake when bombed. Blair called this form “insidious, harder to spot, harder to anticipate and harder to deal with, because many of those engaging in it, will fiercely deny they are doing so. It is this form that is in danger of growing, and whose impact is potentially highly threatening, in part because it isn’t obvious.” This form, often masked in the language of human rights, catapults Israel bashers from Lobby-libels and false “pinkwashing” claims to Apartheid weeks and Racism charges to the Turkish premier’s latest rant calling Zionism “a crime against humanity.”
It is easy, when enduring this kind of unrelenting attack, to succumb to bitterness, to sacrifice nuance, to squelch all dissent. This is why I warn about the Israel Exaggeration Factor, that our enemies’ hysterical attacks risk inducing equally hysterical responses – although we must be careful, while being self-critical, to reject any suggestions of moral equivalence. I might criticize some partisans who take an Israel-right-or-wrong stance but we cannot compare them to those evil extremists who take an Israel-can-do-no-right and has-no-right-to-exist stance. We must distinguish between defending a democracy, with all its flaws, without comparing it to the totalitarian, marinating in evil.
Actually, the opposite occurs, again and again, the vitality of Israel eclipses the evil of Israel’s enemies. As a result, the Zionist movement does not simply “not succumb to bitterness,” it celebrates life, at the AIPAC conference, throughout the Jewish community, and in Israel everyday. And someone like Tony Blair joins many others in refusing to sacrifice nuance, never fearing to criticize Israel regarding all kinds of policies while refusing to join the Hard-Left-European pile-on against Israel’s essence or existence. And Israel, despite being the world’s most embattled democracy, is one of the world’s most dynamic democracies too – although wouldn’t it be great if someone could explain to Israel’s police that, in the democratic spirit we champion, the women’s prayer at the Wall next week on Rosh Hodesh Nissan should proceed with no arrests. I still do not get what they arrest these women for: illegal prayer-shawling? unauthorized enveloping? All this does is embarrass Israel and inflame the situation.
One of my fellow speakers at the AIPAC conference approached me and asked “as an American historian – do you think the Founding Fathers ever imagined this” – marveling at this uniquely democratic three-ring circus, with 13,000 citizens, many from the world’s most hated minority uniting with others from once-dominant majorities and equally-hated minorities, running around America’s capital, hobnobbing with America’s leaders, serving as living bridges between the global colossus America has become and the extraordinary old-new state now flourishing in the once benighted Promised Land. “Of course not,” I replied. But the magic seeds of liberty, equality and democracy the Framers planted had the extraordinary ability to exceed their imagination and create an America of today far better than it was, populated and led by many citizens who once lacked the most basic of rights, supporting an Israel that did not even exist.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. He is the author, most recently of Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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