The term “pro-Israel” has become has become a lightning rod, due in part to President Donald Trump’s many self-described pro-Israel statements and actions, and the scorn many people have for just about anything he says or does.
Writing in Haaretz, Jonathan Tobin said, “Democrats and never-Trump former Republicans argue that even if you support the president’s policies, they are bad for Israel... the association with Trump is tarnishing the Jewish state... [yet] if Democrats are increasingly divided on Israel, this is a trend that long predates Trump and was largely weaponized by Barack Obama’s feud” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal.
Eight years ago, when asked what it meant to be pro-Israel, David Shipler, the former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, said, “It seems obvious to say that being pro-Israel means supporting Israel’s survival, security and well-being as a just and prosperous society. Nobody would disagree.”
Is that definition of being pro-Israel obvious to most Jewish Americans today?
Twenty-five years ago, pro-Israel was clearly understood to mean that you supported Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, respecting the democratically elected government as the will of its people who put their children and themselves in harm’s way every day. Fifty years earlier, six million Jews were slaughtered, with Israel being the refuge of the tiny remnant that survived, along with 750,000 Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab lands. Israel’s six million was to be protected and defended by the Jewish Diaspora so a second Holocaust could never occur again.
That never meant that Israel was always right, but to be pro-Israel you believed Israel was right more than wrong, and certainly more moral than its neighbors, which imported European style antisemitism on top of their own anti-Jewish animus. That – combined with misogyny, authoritarianism and a profound lack of human rights – made Israel the clear choice for American sympathy across the political spectrum.
With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency and his stated goal to put “daylight” between America and Israel, the definition of what it meant to be pro-Israel was put under stress, as most American Jews overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Obama, as they have consistently voted for the Democratic Party in every election cycle.
At the same time a new organization came on the scene that supported a more much critical attitude to Israel that was adopted by the new administration, hoping to re-define what it means to be pro-Israel. The primary focus of J Street changed the positive shared values and security-based “special relationship” to highlighting Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories, calling for punishing consequences for Israel’s intransigence.
This resonated with many young Jewish adults who were immersed in college campuses where intersectionality is the prevailing wind, Israel being the victimizer and the Palestinians being the innocent lamb. Although J Street and its college subsidiaries claimed they were in favor of a Jewish and democratic state and against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it still provided forums for those who believe in BDS as the best method to pressure Israel to change its ways.
WITH THIS, the foundation of what it meant to be pro-Israel for young as well as older Jews began to crumble.
This culminated in the Obama administration’s orchestration of the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334 that labeled any Israeli presence in West Bank (Judea and Samaria) a violation of international law. Being pro-Israel now meant that if you believe Israel has legal rights over the 1967 line, you are a supporter of an international crime against humanity. To Israel’s critics, everything about Israel is defined through the lens of its occupation of the disputed territories.
Enter Donald Trump, and the “pro-Israel” moniker became even more politicized, if that were possible, by challenging Jewish Democrats’ loyalty to the Jewish state. This occurred contemporaneously with the rise of the Democratic congresswomen who routinely crossed the line into anti-Zionism and antisemitism without incurring any consequences.
Trump’s “pro-Israel” support of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, extension of sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank, withdrawing support to the Palestinian Authority for supporting terrorists, have all been condemned by J Street as wrong and counter-productive. The organization’s advocacy, primarily in support of the Palestinian position, seems to have been re-invented into what it claims is an authentic 2020 pro-Israel position.
So what should define pro-Israel in 2020 across the political spectrum? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Being able to say the Land of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.
2. That the state of Israel is entitled to exist as a Jewish and democratic state without qualifiers.
3. Respecting, even if not agreeing, with the outcomes of Israel’s elections
4. Not supporting boycotts, divestment or sanctions in any form.
5. Not allying with anti-Israel organizations that question Israel’s right to exist.
6. If you are pro-peace but advocate in favor of the Palestinian narrative that Jews are not indigenous, the creation of the state is illegitimate, you cannot spin that as being pro-Israel.
7. If you advocate for a binational state you are not pro-Israel.
8. You are pro-Israel if you demand any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict include an “end of conflict agreement” that all claims are forever ended, including the Palestinian right of return.
This list is certainly open to debate, but the hope is that it can create a dialogue into what pro-Israel should mean in 2020 and beyond. Just because you are Jewish does not automatically give you higher standing or the claim that anything you advocate is pro-Israel.
Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden prevails in the November election, the eventual winner’s positions and actions over the next four years will challenge the very definition of what “pro-Israel” means. The ever-expanding and contracting tent of who is within or outside the pro-Israel tent will challenge Jewish Americans and their supporters in Congress for the foreseeable future.
The writer is director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, as well White House advisers. He is the senior security editor for The Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post, and has written in The Hill, JNS, JTA, RealClearWorld, The Forward, i24, Israel Hayom and Defense News.