Seeking the center

The absence of a strong, balanced and moderate US Jewish voice on Israel advocacy issues is impoverishing the discourse.

Participants in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, May 31 (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
Participants in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, May 31
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
A LARGE SEGMENT of American Jewry, deeply concerned about Israel’s security and future, is distressed at the heightened polarization on Israel-related issues within our own community and in the nation’s body politic. Sharp divisions between left and right, Republican and Democrat, are damaging not only to our ability to advocate effectively on behalf of Israel, but also to our internal communal cohesion.
At the same time, there also is concern about what Israel’s new coalition government portends for the future of relations with the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community.
These US Jews, call them “centrists,” recognize the potential danger in being publicly critical of Israeli policies. But they believe there are times when thoughtful and measured criticism is appropriate. They are convinced that creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state is vital to Israel’s future as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. Not naïve, they understand full well the difficulty in dealing with a Palestinian leadership that seems more intent on attacking Israel at the UN and the International Criminal Court than engaging in serious and sustained negotiations.
Yet, the “centrists” are prepared to speak out against activity beyond the large settlement blocs in the West Bank, provocative construction in Jerusalem’s Palestinian Arab neighborhoods and other Israeli government policies that seem to make the already daunting task of achieving the two-state vision even more challenging.
They believe that the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative (API), while flawed, provides an important foundation for initiating a broader regional process of reconciliation, and that the Israeli government has made a mistake in taking so long to seize this opportunity. The potential of the API has increased in recent times, as the Saudis and other Gulf states share a common interest with Israel in preventing the emergence of a hegemonic Iranian regime with nuclear weapons capability. Recent reports suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at long last, may be warming to the API.
The US Jewish “centrists” do not want to be categorized either as pro-Obama or pro-Netanyahu and generally feel uncomfortable in gatherings with a distinctly partisan atmosphere. They are dismayed by the apparent willingness of some Republican leaders to use Israel as a wedge issue within the Jewish community, and are concerned by the gradual erosion of support for Israel among progressive religious constituencies and political elites in the Democratic Party. This trend has been well documented in recent surveys.
Why haven’t we heard more from this significant segment of our community? One obstacle is that many media outlets tend to gravitate toward friction between those with clearly defined political agendas. Conflict makes for juicier, more interesting stories. Political centrism is perceived as boring and not newsworthy.
Also, some may be hesitant to jump feet first into public discussion on these issues, with so much partisanship and polarization swirling around them.
But the absence of a strong, balanced and moderate voice on Israel advocacy issues is impoverishing the discourse and, unfortunately, allowing those on the extremes to dominate. Organizations occupying this nuanced advocacy ground – which merit greater Jewish community support and involvement – should be more assertive in coming forward and stating their case.
In previous eras, engaging in Israel advocacy meant joining membership organizations. The Internet and social media have revolutionized and democratized Israel advocacy. Today it is possible instantaneously to convey analyses and other materials literally to thousands of friends, relatives and colleagues, as well as to the media.
Virtual advocacy should not be a substitute for exerting influence the old-fashioned way – in person. “Centrists” need to overcome their reticence to become engaged. They must actively participate in federation and synagogue discussions about Israel, join delegations that meet with members of Congress and other elected officials, and attend Town Hall gatherings and other community forums.
Israel, located in the world’s most violent region, is surrounded by terrorists whose brutality seems to know no bounds. Jews are experiencing rising levels of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. The longstanding alliance between the US and Israel, based on shared values and strategic interests, is more important than ever.
Fellow “centrists,” for the sake of Israel’s future, inaction is not an option.
Martin J. Raffel is past senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, both based in the US