When American Jewish leaders go off the reservation

At least Alan Dershowitz, who has now seemingly become a regular visitor to Qatar, only claims to represent himself.

A member of the Jewish community wears a kippa (photo credit: REUTERS)
A member of the Jewish community wears a kippa
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A spate of articles has been published suggesting that American Jews are turning away from Israel. I do not believe it is true, but the behavior of some of the community’s leaders is doing nothing to help, and a lot to contribute to this perception. What is especially galling is that, unlike the officials in Israel whose policies they are attacking, none of the leaders engaged in public criticism of Israel were democratically elected, and their comments do not appear to reflect the views of their constituents or to have their approval.
The Jewish community is not monolithic and there have always been marginal figures who have found the way to get attention is to be the Jew who attacks Israel, the proverbial man bites dog story. In recent months, however, it is not the extremists from J Street or the Beinarts who have been marching out of step with Israel, it is many establishment figures.
Don’t get me wrong. As Americans, we all have the right to speak our minds, and I have not held my tongue on moral issues where Israel must be better, like recognizing the Armenian genocide. That Israel continues not to recognize the genocide, especially with the antisemitic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power, is bewildering and morally unacceptable.
But when it comes to directly condemning Israeli policies the principal pro-Israel organizations have long held to the convention that the proper means for expressing criticism is privately and directly to Israeli officials, and that public declarations are usually made only by those who have no influence and feel the need to draw attention to themselves and their personal views.
Israeli officials also broke with convention in the 1980s and 1990s when they eschewed the longstanding tradition of avoiding criticism of the government when abroad. Initially, it was the Labor Party that was guilty of this after it lost power, and it was were roundly criticized by the Likud. When Labor returned to power, however, some Likud officials engaged in similar behavior. Israeli politics has been more politicized ever since and frequently embroiled Diaspora Jews in the internecine battles between the parties.
Recently, American Jewish leaders have taken it upon themselves to adopt policies at odds with the Israeli government. Again, I have no complaint when it comes to them speaking as individuals, but when they express views under the imprimatur of organizations they represent, that’s a different story.
Ron Lauder’s op-ed in The New York Times two weeks ago was one of the worst examples of this behavior. Lauder is a wealthy philanthropist who does much good work for the Jewish people, especially in Eastern Europe. I have personally witnessed his outstanding contributions to Eastern European Jewish life. But he has no business using his title as president of the World Jewish Congress to chastise the Israeli government and propose his own ideas for what is best for Israel.
The WJC has an impressive sounding name. But when Lauder publishes New York Times op-eds against Israel he is demonstrating that the organization is little more than a personal fiefdom. So perhaps he does not have to answer to anyone. The WJC has no members or constituency that the public is aware of, so perhaps Lauder speaks only for himself.
I was also struck by the comments made by AIPAC’s longtime executive director Howard Kohr at the organization’s annual policy conference. There is no more important organization than AIPAC when it comes to strengthening US-Israel relations, and no one more skillful and committed to that objective than Kohr. Howard is a friend for whom I have endless respect. He is a leader’s leader. Few American Jews have done more good for Israel than Howard at the helm of AIPAC.
Nevertheless, I was mystified when he devoted his keynote address at this year’s policy conference to working toward a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state “with its own flag and its own future.” Seriously?
It’s not that this is necessarily an unreasonable position. The point is that it is not even on the agenda at the moment. As Kohr knows, the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected this “solution” and the Palestinian dictator Mahmoud Abbas has refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a decade. The focus right now is on ensuring that the Palestinians stop funding terrorism, as the new Taylor Force Act mandates. Why is Kohr advocating a push for two states at this time when it has so little support in Israel and the PA? Is he really speaking for the members of AIPAC or the broader pro-Israel community?
What made it worse was that AIPAC did not this year make passage of the Taylor Force Act one of its priorities at the policy conference. This bipartisan bill, which just was signed into law, represents a much-needed response to Palestinian intransigence and ongoing support for terrorism.
Howard’s speech about a two-state solution at AIPAC startled many as all polls show that Hamas would quickly overrun a West Bank state, sandwiching Israel between two terrorist entities committed to its annihilation. So why should the foremost pro-Israel organization in America be talking about this while Mahmoud Abbas insults and demeans America’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman?
Two weeks ago the PA took the unbelievable and disgusting step of trying to have the ambassador labeled a terrorist, after Abbas himself called the ambassador a “son of a dog.” Such revolting displays of antisemitism should be condemned by every Arab leader, especially those that enjoy a close relationship with the US as major allies. The abominable attacks against an American ambassador – and one who enjoys a close relationship with the president of the US – are an attack on America itself. And it’s the pro-Israel organizations that should be at the forefront of holding the Palestinians leadership accountable for incitement against Americans.
A third example of American Jewish leaders out of step with the realities on the ground, and the government of Israel, were the people who accepted junkets to Qatar and gave legitimacy to the Qatari emir, whose state-owned network, Al Jazeera, was spying on American Jews for an anti-Israel documentary. Qatar supports Hamas terrorists and has cozied up to the genocidal mullahs in Iran.
Did the 50-odd organizations that comprise the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations approve of its executive vice chairman’s trip to Doha? Did the board of the Zionist Organization of America sanction its leader’s visit? Perhaps it did. But if so, it should say so categorically rather than simply going on the offensive against critics of the visit. Did the Orthodox Union’s membership give its hechsher to the head of its Kashrut Division traveling to Qatar? If so, let them say so.
At least Alan Dershowitz, who has now seemingly become a regular visitor to Qatar, only claims to represent himself.
Did any good come of these visits? Certainly the emir has not moved away from Iran or, like the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, publicly declared the Jewish people’s right to a state of their own. What these leaders therefore did by going to Qatar was to confer Jewish legitimacy on the emir and strengthen his public relations efforts in the US just when he was finally facing immense pressure to stop funding the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
They claimed to be acting in Israel’s interest even though Israel’s ambassador to the US made clear – repeatedly and publicly – that Israel’s government disapproved of their amateur diplomacy. Amazingly, during the Presidents Conference trip to Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu said in front of Malcolm Hoenlein himself that he opposed American Jews engaging with Qatar.
Jewish organizations have never been democratic. Leaders have little or no accountability to the Jewish community or their own membership. Perhaps, at times, that can be construed as a good thing since leaders should not follow but lead. But the growing gap between what Jewish leaders are doing ostensibly on Israel’s behalf in direct contradiction to the wishes of their American Jewish constituents is troubling and can no longer be ignored.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @ RabbiShmuley.