Think Again: Is Israel dividing American Jewry?

Once, Israel served to unify the bickering factions of US Jewry; today, it is more often a source of heightened tensions.

J Street conference (photo credit: .)
J Street conference
(photo credit: .)
The creation last October of the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana (JAACI) flew under the media radar screen, at least outside of Indiana. But the new group may prove to be a harbinger of a growing split in the American Jewish community.
Once, Israel served to unify the bickering factions of US Jewry; today, it is more often a source of heightened tensions.
JAACI came into existence as an alternative to the local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the advocacy wing of the local Jewish Federation.
The local JCRC pointedly left out of its mission statement the second goal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella organization of local JCRCs: “To dedicate ourselves to the safety and security of the state of Israel.” Like many other JCRCs across America, it focused its advocacy efforts primarily on “social justice issues,” such as opposing the school voucher initiative of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels – which holds the promise of substantially boosting Jewish parochial education.
JCRC-sponsored programs devoted to Israel typically included “pro-Palestinian” voices to maintain balance.
JAACI’s first scheduled event was addressed by the current speaker of the Indiana House, Brian Bosma, who expressed appreciation for new views being heard for the first time from the organized Jewish community. JAACI, for instance, actively supported school vouchers, and it crafted a pro-Israel resolution that unanimously passed both houses of the Indiana legislature, reaffirming the right of Israel, America’s “greatest friend and ally,” to defend itself.
THE BREAKAWAY from the JCRC in Indiana will likely prove the first of many such reactions to the perceived passivity of the traditional communal organizations on Israel. Plans are well advanced to create an alternative to the local JCRC in one of America’s largest Jewish communities. An organization called JCC Watch has accused the New York Federationfunded Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side of partnering with numerous organizations that support, directly or indirectly, organizations actively promoting the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel.
The discontent among rank-and-file Jews has much to do with the federations’ politicization and seeming indifference to Israel’s image. The New York Federation has recently come under attack for providing over $1 million to the George Soros-funded Jewish Funds for Justice, which coordinated the January ad in The Wall Street Journal, signed by 400 heterodox rabbis calling for Fox News to sanction Glenn Beck for inappropriate Holocaust analogies. Beck, as anyone who watched his broadcasts after the recent Itamar slaughter knows, is one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in the media.
The Washington, DC Federation funds an anti- Israel Jewish theater troupe called Theater J. Among the recent offerings was Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, a short play based on the metaphor of Israeli Jews as today’s Nazis. The theater company also sponsored a bus trip to a showing of the anti- Israel agitprop My Name is Rachel Corrie. The Orange County Federation and the Hillel at University of California, Irvine participate in the Olive Tree Initiative – two-week trips to Israel on which students are exposed to both Palestinian and Israeli speakers who share an animus for Israel. One of those early speakers was a prominent Hamas leader (whose participation the Federation subsequently protested).
Philadelphia’s JCRC recently sponsored a night on the theme of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. Unnoted by any of the presenters was that Israeli Arabs enjoy political freedoms unknown to any other Arabs in the Middle East, as well as higher levels of prosperity, and are represented in Israeli universities in proportion to their percentage of the overall population.
At the recent General Assembly of Jewish Federations, $6m. was allocated to the creation of the Israel Action Network (IAN) to combat the BDS movement. Martin Raffel, vice president of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, was chosen to head the new initiative. He argues that Jewish groups calling only for the boycott of goods produced beyond the 1949 armistice lines should not be treated as outside the communal tent. Thus the head of the mainstream community’s anti-boycott efforts legitimates this tactic.
Perhaps most ominous is the recent appointment of Richard Jacobs to head the Union of Reform Judaism, which claims to represent the largest group of synagogue-affiliated Jews in America. Jacobs sits on the boards of both J Street and the New Israel Fund. The former actively opposed sanctions against Iran, is currently working against a congressional resolution urging the administration to take a tougher stand on Palestinian incitement, enthusiastically endorsed the Goldstone Report and escorted its author around Capitol Hill, and urged the Obama administration not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning the illegality of the settlements.
NOWHERE HAS the failure of the mainstream organizations been more obvious than on university campuses.
They have failed to protect Jewish students or to provide them with the information and resources necessary to defend themselves against relentless anti-Israel propaganda. The Zionist Organization of America is the only long-time mainstream organization actively involved in the defense of Jewish students.
When it comes to speakers and information, the bulk of the heavy lifting is being done by smaller groups: CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting), the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Chabad, and the Aish HaTorah-affiliated Hasbara Fellowships.
Jessica Felber, a Berkeley student, sued the University of California for “ignoring mounting evidence of anti-Jewish animus” and “physical intimidation and violence by Students for Justice in Palestine,” after the leader of the latter group slammed her from behind with a loaded shopping cart as she held aloft a sign proclaiming “Israel wants peace.”
And Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, finally prevailed upon the Justice Department to open an investigation of her own university under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for permitting an environment in which “professors, academic departments, and residential colleges promote and encourage anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish views and behaviors.”
Felber and Rossman-Benjamin’s efforts to fight back were supported by the ZOA and little-known groups such the Institute for Jewish Community Research and The Fellowship for Campus Safety and Integrity. Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee’s Kenneth Stern publicly criticized the use of Title VI on behalf of Jewish students.
Even the most Jewishly identified students become apologetic, if not absolutely cowed, when the subject of Israel arises. The David Horowitz Freedom Center took out an ad in the Brown University paper entitled “The Palestinian Wall of Lies.”
A group of students affiliated with Brown’s Hillel wrote to the paper to criticize the “Islamophobic and racist” nature of the ad, and opined that such “spiteful and bigoted words” should not be permitted in the Brown community. The letter did not quote one word from the advertisement, much less refute its wholly unremarkable statements. Interestingly, none of the same students had written to protest Israel Apartheid Week or criticize the Muslim Students Association for sponsoring it. Similar responses to the Horowitz ad were sent by Jewish students at University of Pennsylvania and Yale.
IN 1990, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, explained on Jordanian TV that a powerful Arab lobby could conquer the campuses and media. Their key allies, he said, would be Jewish progressives.
The latter have fulfilled their assigned role.
Thirty professors of Jewish studies recently signed a petition urging Orange County prosecutors to drop charges against Arab students who tried to prevent Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking at UC Irvine. Criminal prosecution would be antithetical to an “academic and intellectual environment,” they wrote, though presumably forcibly preventing pro- Israel speakers from being heard is not.
Many left-wing Jews no longer wish to be bothered by arguments or facts about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel has made their lives uncomfortable, and as far as they are concerned, it should just give the Palestinians whatever they want already. The late Tony Judt, a kibbutz volunteer as a teenager, epitomized the trend.
In his famous New York Review of Books piece, Judt labeled Israel (but none of the 57 or so Muslim countries) an “atavism,” based on a religious-ethnic identity, that should disappear. At the end of his long diatribe, he let drop his real gripe: Israel had made faculty sherry hours unpleasant for him.
New Yorker editor David Remnick follows in Judt’s footsteps: “Even people like me, who understand that not only one side is responsible for the conflict and that the Palestinians missed a historic opportunity for peace in 2000, can’t take it any more,” he writes. “Sorry, it can’t go on this way,” he lectures us, instructing us to accept whatever President Barack Obama suggests. If that is how Jewish adults react to criticism, how can we expect college students to do any better? That American Jews can no longer rally around Israel is a tragedy. But it would be a far greater tragedy if those Jews who identify with the Jewish state and are comfortable defending it continued to let ineffectual communal organizations speak for them.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.