Redefine the American Jewish-Israel Relationship

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Dan Fleshler

The organized American Jewish community and Israel are like a tired old married couple that lives together on the basis of old habits, not new realities. They need to make an effort to redefine their relationship so that both can benefit. (Full disclosure: I stole that simile from Jerry Goodman, former director of the National Committee for Labor Israel and Ameinu Board member).

I, for one, want to make this marriage work. But it will no longer suffice for Israel to do all the asking and for American Jews to do all the giving, via lobbying and/or monetary contributions. It needs to be a two-way street. The Israel-Palestinian dispute is no longer a local neighborhood feud. What happens in Tulkarm and Gaza City and Ramallah reverberates in Toledo and Galveston and Rochester. Peace and stability in the Middle East and a solution to the Palestinian question were always an American interest; now they are an urgent priority.

I won’t go into detail to show why this is the case. If you don’t believe it, you are delusional. All you need to do is look at the front page of today’s New York Times, where a headline blares: “In Lebanon Camp, A New Face of Jihad Vows Attacks on the U.S..” It is just the latest evidence that in the minds of much of the Islamic world, the U.S. and Israel are linked together inextricably as blood enemies, and America is held responsible for Israeli behavior (in the far left, of course, Israel is held responsible for America’s behavior, but that is much too simplistic).

Yet too many Israeli and mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. still act as if American Jews’ sole responsibility in this relationship is to protect the interests of our poor, beleaguered spouse.

We (i.e., American Jews) need to start asking Israel to help us, too. I’ve published a number of op-eds making this point in the Jewish media and the Huffington Post (see the “Publications” page on my blog, Realistic Dove(www.realisticdove.org/), where you will find ”The Settlements are My Problem Too” and “What Israel Can Do for America”) Before each one appeared, I expected to be tarred and feathered by friends in the Jewish establishment because I had broken some kind of taboo by being honest about the relationship. But I got support from some very senior American Jewish leaders, one of whom told me, “you’re just stating the obvious.” I believe I was just articulating something they might be willing to say out loud in their living rooms, but not publicly. Not yet…

It seems to me that this theme – what Israel can do for the U.S. – is implicit in some of the other blogs from progressive Jews that I’ve been reading. Yesterday, Mobius, in Jew School (http://jewschool.com/), wrote about AIPAC’s success in pushing Congress to remove a provision from the Iraq spending bill that would have required President Bush to seek Congressional approval before going to war against Iran. AIPAC doesn’t always do what Israel wants, but it is hard to believe that was done without the enthusiastic support of the Israeli government.

Mobius notes, correctly: “This is an overt action supposedly done in Israel’s favor that blatantly contravenes American interests. By coercing the Congress to abdicate its Constitutional authority to declare war, they just cut the legs out from under the American people, giving infinitely more leeway to an Executive branch seen by most Americans to have already far overstepped the limits of its power.”

But, understandably, he doesn’t go into much detail about what to do about it. It’s not enough to organize an alternative American Jewish bloc to either transform or replace the conventional Israel lobby, although that is certainly worth a try. More thought needs to go into redefining the relationship of American Jews with Israel.

No community, no political bloc, is better suited than American Jews to start asking Israel to stop using its lobbyists for dangerous foolishness like the one noted above, or to stop butting into the American debate about Iraq, as Olmert did when he told the AIPAC Policy Conference that withdrawing from Iraq would imperil Israel. But the question of precisely what we ask of Israel, and how, and when, is a very complicated, delicate question that deserves further discussion. It is time to start the discussion, isn’t it?

American Jews Should Support Candid Talk About Israel

In calling for more candor about Israel from Presidential candidates in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof articulated the longstanding goals of at least some of us on the American Jewish left:

“There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself…

…One reason is that American politicians have learned to muzzle themselves. In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic primaries, Howard Dean said he favored an `even-handed role’ for the U.S. –and was blasted for being hostile to Israel. Likewise, Barack Obama has been scolded for daring to say “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”

He stops short of identifying the conventional Israel lobby as the reason for this muzzling, but it’s clear that he believes AIPAC et. al. share part of the blame. Cecilie Surasky opines that he “says everything that needs to be said about muzzling.”

But what he doesn’t say and doesn’t imply is that American Jews and others who want this kind of candor have not given adequate backing to candidates who do stray from conventional red-meat rhetoric about Israel.

As a result of this political vacuum, it wasn’t just right-wing American Jewish activists who castigated Howard Dean during the campaign in 2004; it was the other Democratic candidates, including Lieberman and Kerry. I have it on good authority that their Jewish backers and funders, some of whom were ardent backers of a two-state solution (yes, Lieberman had people like that in his camp) made no attempt to tell their candidates to refrain from joining the Dean-bashing.

At least as far as I can tell, Hillary Clinton hasn’t directly questioned Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. If he dares to express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians again, or calls for a more pro-active American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let us hope she continues to lay off. Better yet, let us hope that she emulates him and says what she really believes about how to address the plight of both Palestinians and Israelis–instead of just holding her tongue. And let us hope for the same from John Edwards and the other candidates.

Last but not least, if candidates do start talking about Israel with at least a tiny bit of candor (which is all we can realistically expect), let us hope they get loud plaudits from American Jews who support Israel’s peace camp. Some careful, balanced, but honest conversation about Israel and the Middle East is desperately needed in the public arena.              

About Dan Fleshler, Board Member

Dan Fleshler, a New York-based media and public affairs strategist, is a board member of Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation. His book, "Transforming America's Israel Lobby-The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change"(a new release from Potomac Books) published in May of 2009 has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. He blogs at Realistic Dove (www.realisticdove.org/)
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