The pro-Israel community is about to face very challenging times. With the resumption of peace talks nowhere in sight and a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood on the horizon, Israel advocates have good reason to be anxious. UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September, which now appears inevitable, is sure to unleash a series of moves to further isolate the Jewish state, including an escalation of cultural and economic boycotts. Now more than ever, Israel needs sustained support from Jews in the US. Yet, with the American Jewish community deeply divided over Israeli policies, how can we ensure that support?
Certainly, money helps. Last November, at its General Assembly in New Orleans, the Jewish Federations of North America allocated $6 million over three years to create the Israel Action Network to combat the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The allocation of resources, however, is only half the battle. The effort to counter the global assault on Israel’s legitimacy will be much less effective if, at the same time, we don’t overcome the destructive polarization that lately has characterized the American Jewish discourse on Israel. In responding to the delegitimizers, we face a conundrum: As with any issue, the broader the coalition working toward the same goal, the better the chances for success. But how can we create an alliance of forces from across the political spectrum to oppose delegitimization when both the Jewish Left and Jewish Right accuse each other of actually abetting the delegitimizers?
For many on the Left, the antidote to delegitimization is peace; that is, the logic of delegitimization can be made to disappear by Israel signing an agreement establishing a viable Palestinian state. In their view, the pro-Israel establishment in the US, by supporting or justifying what they consider to be hard-line Israeli policies – e.g., the blockade of Gaza or expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – lessens the chances for peace, thus bolstering the logic of delegitimization.
For many on the Right, the response to delegitimization is to circle the wagons and stifle even well-meaning criticism of Israeli policies. In their view, left-wing Jewish groups, by openly criticizing Israel, provide fodder for the campaign to demonize Israel. Sadly, this polarization is deep-rooted. I’ve heard left-wing Jews claim that the supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current policies toward the Palestinians “are not true friends of Israel,” that they’re encouraging Israel to follow a path leading to “national suicide.” Conversely, I’ve heard Jews on the Right accuse dovish groups, such as J Street, of being “Israel bashers” and of adopting positions that harm Israel’s standing in Washington. And that is precisely the problem. If we’re going to effectively counter the delegitimization of Israel, we need to stop delegitimizing those with whom we disagree on Israeli policies but with whom we nonetheless share a common goal: to safeguard Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people against those whose aim is to dismantle the Zionist enterprise altogether. This is easier said than done. Our sharply differing views on the Jewish settlements and other core issues can’t be simply papered over. I have myself vigorously objected to some of J Street’s positions, yet if I can include J Street in creating a broad alliance to combat delegitimization, doesn’t that make more sense than ostracizing them? Still, in order to prevail over the delegitimizers, it will require both the so-called right-leaning pro-Israel establishment and the more dovish Jewish groups to confront certain realities.The Jewish Right needs to recognize that in some cases, the most persuasive argument against delegitimization can be made by groups that are at times critical of Israel. That may seem counter-intuitive, but because the delegitimizers put forward a (false) narrative that invokes humanist and progressive values – often striking a chord with well-intentioned progressive Jews and Christians – who better to take a stand against boycotts and divestment than groups immersed in those values? Last July, for example, when the Presbyterian Church considered adopting several anti-Israel resolutions at its gathering in Minneapolis, it was a J Street official who was most instrumental in convincing a majority of delegates to reject them. The Jewish Left, for its part, needs to pay closer attention to what the BDS movement’s leaders have themselves repeatedly declared as their goal: not a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines but the total elimination of Israel. Although peace would presumably weaken the rationale for delegitimization, it won’t diminish the motivation of the delegitimizers, whose logic is rooted in challenging Israel’s legal standing as a nation state, not its policies. Additionally, including BDS proponents in communal forums, such as occurred at J Street’s annual conference in February, should be seen as crossing an absolute red line. I doubt that in the interests of “open debate” J Street would provide a platform to Holocaust deniers – why do so for those denying the right of the Jews to sovereign statehood? The assault on Israel’s legitimacy presents our diverse community not only with a serious challenge but also an important opportunity. We can spend our time judging how others express their support for Israel or we can find ways to work together despite our differences. Which would be better for Israel?
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.