Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Urban Legend - Jews criticizing Israel

'Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions," so the saying goes. And the idea that American Jews could ever speak with one voice on Israel? That could not have originated within the community itself.

The single-voice notion came from a non-Jew. The story that follows is partly apocryphal, but it does inform. Accounts differ, but either secretary of state John Foster Dulles or State Department official Henry Byroade is said to have complained that too many requests from disparate Jewish groups seeking audiences with president Dwight Eisenhower were arriving at the White House.

Byroade (if it was he) suggested to Nahum Goldmann that it might be useful if the various intercessors combined into a single deputation. Goldmann raised the idea with Philip Klutznick. Soon afterwards, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was born.

Some suggest the crafty Dulles (if it was he) may have had an ulterior motive, knowing that the Jews could never develop a consensus position to present to the administration. That would put an end to their pestering.

Sure enough, a broiges broke out. Taking charge of the World Jewish Congress, Goldmann set out to lead a new, thriving Diaspora which would decide for itself what being pro-Israel was all about.

A further rupture is traceable to the premiership of Golda Meir, who was openly condescending toward Diaspora machers coming to her with peace-making advice.

IT IS TRUE that the nature and stridency of Diaspora criticism of Zionist policies evolved. After the Holocaust no mainstream Jewish leader remained anti-Zionist. And after the 1967 Six Day war every one of them had become explicitly pro-Zionist. Yet the impulse to criticize this or that Israeli policy remained a constant. There are few former chairs of the Presidents Conference who have refrained from publicly criticizing Israeli policies.

Then there are the dissident groups. Breira was founded in 1973 to support the unconditional inclusion of an unreformed PLO into the diplomatic process. Breira's legacy, given its brief existence and minuscule membership, was extraordinary in that it "broke" afresh the imaginary barrier against public criticism of Israel. Breira's successor organization was the New Jewish Agenda, which operated during the premiership of Menachem Begin, when Jewish criticism of Israeli policies was vociferous.

The founding of Peace Now, the zealously anti-settlement movement, led its US Jewish supporters to begin their own lobbying, starting in 1978.

Some US Jews, still more to the Left, went further. It was a Jewish academic who drafted the November 1988 declaration of independence for the "State of Palestine" which Yasser Arafat in Tunis dutifully proclaimed.

And rightist Diaspora groups, rabbis notably among them, have since 1993 been prominently critical of Israeli government efforts to reach land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians.

So the notion that US Jews have ever been hesitant to break with Israeli policies is simply uninformed by history.

AND STILL, The Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg, writing on the op-ed pages of The New York Times Sunday ("Israel's 'American Problem'"), thinks he's breaking new ground when he advocates that US Jews vote for a president who will "help" and "prod" Israel "publicly, continuously and vociferously" to facilitate a Palestinian state.

As Goldberg sees it, Israel now, belatedly, wants peace, but is being blocked by a monolithic and supposedly right-wing Presidents Conference and its fellow travelers at AIPAC. He's worried that too many US Jews "conflate" support for the settlement enterprise - what he calls "the colonization" of the West Bank - with being pro-Israel.

He needn't worry. Most US Jews have never visited Israel, let alone a "settlement." Many are clueless about the strategic value of the West Bank and couldn't distinguish between an "ideological" settlement in the heart of Samaria and Har Homa in Jerusalem. All this makes Goldberg's calls for a "radical rethinking of what it means to be pro-Israel" both anachronistic and disingenuous.

Goldberg might glance across the page at veteran New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who's been redefining what it means to be pro-Israel for decades. Friedman, too, argues that a "pro-Israel" president is one who draws "red lines when Israel does reckless things" like building settlements.

So let's restate the obvious: No gatekeeper stifles criticism of Israeli policies among US Jews. There are no risks, not on the Left or on the Right, in proffering advice to Israel from the Diaspora.

All one needs is lots of hubris.

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