On January 29, The New York Times reported, “Several prominent veteran Democrats, alarmed by the party’s drift from its longstanding alignment with Israel” have started a new group, Democratic Majority for Israel, whose mission is to support candidates in 2020 “who stand unwaveringly with [Israel].” Apparently threatened by the uninhibited criticism of Israeli government policy leveled by freshman Representatives Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and others, the group, according to its president, Mark Mellman, seeks to ensure that the currently “small problem” presented by these “discordant voices” doesn’t “metastasize.”
Well, “metastasize” it might. Consider, for example, legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander’s recent groundbreaking opinion piece in The New York Times, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine” (January 19). Prompted by the 90th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Alexander recognizes the courage it took for Dr. King to unequivocally speak out against the US war in Vietnam 52 years ago – when the war enjoyed broad establishment support, and when, by critiquing it, he risked sacrificing the tenuous gains the civil rights movement had achieved to that point. Inspired by King’s “example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear,” Alexander concludes that she can no longer stay “largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.” She proceeds to list the many causes for her moral concern, including Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories, its home demolitions, land confiscations, and so forth. She cites a rabbi who has abandoned his faith in “political Zionism” and references NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s recent hard-hitting piece, “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same Thing as antisemitism.”
Consider, too, a recent rupture in the Jewish community in this writer’s neck of the woods, Boston, Massachusetts. Just two days before Alexander’s barrier-breaking column was published, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) took an unprecedented step, as reported by Haaretz on January 19. It passed a resolution that bars any member organization from “…co-sponsoring events primarily led or co-led by or by signing on to statements primarily organized or co-organized by – a self-identified Jewish organization that declares itself to be anti-Zionist.” The resolution was specifically aimed at Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture & Social Justice (BWC), a JCRC member acknowledged by JCRC executive director Jeremy Burton as “a venerable organization… a founder of [the JCRC] and a home for many Jews in Boston who have no other Jewish space that resonates for them.”
Indeed, BWC is a growing, vibrant inter-generational 100+ year old Jewish educational, cultural and social justice community with over 550 dues-paying members. It operates a Sunday school (Shule) and teen program for more than 100 children, offers Yiddish and adult education classes and holiday observances and celebrations, hosts what is likely the largest Yiddish community chorus in the world and engages in an array of social justice, Israel/Palestine-related, anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia programs and activities.
BWC has also, on occasion, signed on to statements organized by – and has co-sponsored non-BDS-related events with – Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization that supports the BDS movement and that recently announced its opposition to Zionism as a “false and failed answer to the desperately real question many of our ancestors faced of how to protect Jewish lives from murderous antisemitism in Europe.”
BWC as an organization has not endorsed the BDS movement. It has not opposed Zionism. For two decades it has publicly opposed the occupation and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But its members include people of good will who are Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists; some support BDS, others oppose it and others don’t weigh in one way or the other. What BWC holds as a fundamental value is that it makes room for the full range of opinions, including on the most difficult subjects; it imposes no Israel/Palestine political litmus test for membership.
Unfortunately, not so for Boston’s JCRC, despite the role it often assumes as the voice of Boston’s Jewish community. Its newly adopted rule effectively shuts out a thriving, diversely opinioned Jewish community like BWC. It also marginalizes Jews, particularly millennials, who are feeling increasingly isolated from Jewish institutions because of litmus tests like the one approved a few weeks ago. But the rule won’t silence their voices, just as Mark Mellman’s new organization won’t dampen the fervor of the new faces in the Democratic Party elected enthusiastically, in no small part, to speak truth to power.
As Michelle Alexander makes clear, for her and many others, silence in the face of more than 50 years of occupation and settlement expansion is no longer an option. And as the aforementioned members of Congress have made equally clear, Israeli government policies and practices are going to be scrutinized and challenged on Capitol Hill as never before. Facing this heightened attention, the organized American Jewish community – and the “unwaveringly” pro-Israel members of the Democratic Party – can circle the wagons. Alternatively, they can frankly engage, including with those whose views are considered beyond the pale, in the effort to collectively address the increasingly agonizing moral and political problem the Israel/Palestine situation presents here in the US. Failure to seize that opportunity will be a loss, perhaps a tragic one, for all involved.
The writer is an attorney and served as president of Boston Workmen’s Circle from 2007 to 2013.