100 vs. 5

How To Shrink The Pro-Israel Tent

Brent E. Sasley on a right-wing group's effort to shut everyone else out of the Israel debate.

Last week the Emergency Committee for Israel posted a public letter it had sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was in response to an earlier letter organized by the Israel Policy Forum, also delivered to Netanyahu and printed in Haaretz. The original statement called on Netanyahu to work with Secretary of State John Kerry “to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace” and explicitly referenced the two-state solution. It was signed by 100 prominent U.S. Jews, ranging from businesspeople to scholars to rabbis. Many of them, though not all, are active in national Jewish governance and advocacy institutions.

As the American Jewish community has undergone social, political, and religious changes and splits, some have begun to wonder whether Zionism’s traditional “big tent” can still be large enough to encompass the increasingly divergent groups crowding the Jewish pro-Israel space. ECI has, apparently, decided that the tent should rather be shrunk, to include only those it defines as “pro-Israel.”

A close look at the language of ECI’s letter to Netanyahu gives a good indication of this. Language is useful for delineating acceptable discourse, for isolating some and including others. Emotive words and evocative phrases give language its power. To this end, ECI’s purpose has been to control the public discussion on Israel, pushing leftwing groups out by delegitimizing them and pulling powerful centrist groups like AIPAC into its own orbit.

The memorandum begins by referring to the letter of “100 liberal American Jewish leaders.” It’s not clear why these individuals need to be identified as “liberal,” but given ECI’s explicit identification with rightwing and Republican politics and rhetoric, one can only assume it was meant as a disparaging term. This, in turn, is meant to undermine the letter’s credibility.

ECI’s statement continues: “We know you don’t need our advice on how to handle the peace process”—contending that U.S. Jews shouldn’t give their views on the issue—and refers to the signatories as “a group of self-described American Jewish leaders”; later it puts “American Jewish leaders” in quotation marks. Yet nowhere in the letter do the signers identify themselves as such—in fact, they call themselves “Americans deeply committed to Israel’s security.” But leaders are authoritative representatives of others; if they are undermined then so, too, are their ideas.

ECI then assures Netanyahu that the signatories of the IPF letter “don’t speak for us or for a majority of Americans,” and questions the wisdom of their advice and their very standing to give it. This, of course, ignores the considerable attachments binding Israel and American Jewry together, including the myriad ways that U.S. Jews contribute to Israel’s well-being. To assert that, after giving of their time, energy, and donations, American Jews can never feel free to then contribute their own ideas ignores the history and continuing attachments of American Jewish ties to Israel.

ECI next tries to minimize the representative nature and influence of the 100 individuals by calling them “a small group of American Jews.” For comparison’s sake, the ECI letter was signed by five individuals, all associated in one way or another with ECI.

It follows up by contending that those giving such advice “will not experience the pain, or be compelled to sacrifice anything, should their advice prove foolish,” and referring to their armchair-diplomacy “[f]rom the safety of America,” again trying to undermine the writers’ standing. In the process, ECI’s members ignore the fact that their uncritical support of Israeli behavior, too, could damage Israel and harm Israelis. The assumption that only providing advice counter to the government’s policies is dangerous seems ignorant of diaspora-Israel history and narrow-minded at best.

ECI calls these prominent Jewish individuals “oracles of bad advice,” without providing any evidence of when they have given advice that Jerusalem took and suffered from. This also ignores the fact that all of the suggestions in the IPF note are the same ones promoted by members of Israel’s military and security establishment.

The letter ends by re-asserting ECI’s own centrality to the American Jewish community and the IPF’s signatories’ fringe-ness: “we felt it important that you heard from a mainstream voice in addition to the predictable calls from a certain cast of American activists for more Israeli concessions.” I’m not sure that Charles Bronfman, Deborah Lipstadt, or Dov Zakheim fit that description, but there’s no indication at all that ECI stands at the mainstream of U.S. Jewish or general public opinion, and certainly not of American foreign policy practitioners, Israeli public opinion, or Israeli security officials.

It may well be that the future of the American Jewish community is that of a more conservative, Republican, and Orthodox type. But while an argument can be made the trends are pointing in that direction, there is a long way to go, and multiple factors can change that course.

In the meantime, ECI’s efforts to delegitimize those with whom it disagrees as delusional leftists, and to define “pro-Israel” according to their own preferences and priorities, damage the ability of pro-Israel Jews to advocate effectively on issues related to Israel. Not to mention that there are also plenty of reasons why making Israel so central to U.S. Jewish partisan politics is bad for American Jews.