I remember talking, years ago, to an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) about Samantha Power. Everyone praises her activism against genocide, the official noted. But empowering international institutions to punish human-rights offenders could make Israeli military action more difficult. His bottom line: “She’s not good on our issue.”
Our issue? I agreed back then (and still do) that given Israel’s democratic credentials, no international body should treat the nation’s leaders the way it treats Slobodan Milosevic or Omar al-Bashir. Still, in my naiveté, I was surprised to hear a Jewish official suggest that protecting human rights—especially against genocide—is not a Jewish concern.
I’m not surprised anymore. Look at the way prominent American Jewish groups have whitewashed last week’s massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egypt’s military. In its summary of events, AIPAC at times suggested that both sides were equally culpable for the violence. (“Despite rapidly escalating violence between military forces and Muslim Brotherhood Morsi-backers, neither side seems to be wavering in its quest for political control.”) At others, it actually suggested that the Brotherhood bears most of the blame. (“The call for renewed [Brotherhood] demonstrations threatens to bring more bloody confrontation in the streets. Meanwhile, reports Thursday suggested that up to 17 churches were burned by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood across Egypt.”)
The Israel Project, a group “dedicated to informing the media…on issues affecting Israel, the Jewish people and America’s interests in the Middle East” (and run by AIPAC’s former press secretary), was even more misleading, titling a blog post: “Egyptian Govt Calls On Morsi Supporters to End Violence, as Islamists Burn Down Scores of Christian Churches and Homes.” While noting that the military has imposed a state of emergency, the Israel Project notes that this is “not particularly uncommon in Egypt.”
As for the American Jewish Committee, it posted a video of an Egyptian woman describing last week’s events as a “war between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, and their supporters, and the police forces and the rest of Egyptians [emphasis mine] on the other.” The speaker went on to declare that the “evacuation of those camps of the Muslim Brotherhood in Giza and Nasr City in Cairo were inevitable because those strikes or sit-ins, they were not peaceful unlike what the international media were mentioning” and “not because the police forces were violent.”
To be sure, the Brotherhood acted autocratically while in power. And the reports of church burnings are horrific. But there’s simply no question that the Egyptian military began this spasm of violence. So why are AIPAC, the Israel Project, and the AJC pretending otherwise?
Because Israel wants the military to remain in charge.
Israeli leaders are used to dealing with Egyptian generals and far less comfortable with an Islamist movement with ties to Hamas. As a result, Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that—irrespective of coups and massacres—he’d like the U.S. to continue aiding the Egyptian regime.
Earlier this month, when Rand Paul proposed an amendment to cut off assistance to Egypt, Lindsey Graham read a letter from AIPAC on the Senate floor in which the organization declared: “We do not support cutting off all assistance to Egypt at this time.”
American Jews have every right to worry about our brethren in Israel. There’s wisdom in the first part of Hillel’s famous maxim: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” And sadly, the twin imperatives of protecting Jews, and supporting rights and dignity for all people, can sometimes collide.
But while this tension is old, American Jewish groups did not always respond to it with the moral myopia they display today. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the organized American Jewish community was agitating for civil rights, American Jewish groups didn’t support segregationists just because they supported Israel. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s foremost concern was not whether the Vietnam War was good for the Jews. He opposed it because it was bad for humankind.
Today, by contrast, AIPAC—the most powerful American Jewish group—has only one yardstick for determining whether someone is a friend or foe: whether he or she supports “the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Thus, AIPAC has hosted Christian Zionist leader John Hagee, a man who said “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans” because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.” AIPAC sometimes talks the language of democracy and human rights. But those aren’t its real concerns. If Iran suddenly abandoned its nuclear program and signed a peace treaty with Israel—while simultaneously increasing its brutality at home—AIPAC’s criticism of the regime would cease because the organization has no mandate to defend the human rights of anyone except Jews.
But indifference to the welfare of anyone except Jews is hard to openly defend. So instead of admitting that Egypt’s military regime last week launched a murderous assault on Islamist protesters—as the mainstream press generally reported—American Jewish groups are pretending that what the military did wasn’t all that bad.
That sound you hear is an earlier generation of American Jewish leaders turning in their graves.