Why Not Let Moderates Engage Far Left?

By Dan Fleshler

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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The mainstream machers of American Jewry correctly assert that some of the rhetorical excesses of Israel’s critics, particularly on the far left, can foster outright antisemitism. But when these organizational leaders and academics recently claimed that provocative denunciations of Israel’s occupation or calls for a binational state were beyond the pale, all they succeeded in doing was bolstering the widespread conviction that powerful Jewish groups want to stifle all public criticism of Israel.

Indeed, if you search on the Internet for “Israel lobby” and “thought police,” more than 30,000 entries show up, many of them quite recent. Next to some of the people who post these entries, including radical lefties, Henry Ford seems like a UJA supporter.

Rather than adding more fuel to this fire, the usual Jewish organizational suspects should step back and take note of a more promising way to lower the flames. Outside of the media glare, in isolated and uncoordinated efforts, American Jews who support Israel’s peace and human rights camp are reaching out to progressive counterparts. They are criticizing the tone and substance of left-wing discourse on the Middle East, but they are also trying to find common ground.

This has been happening in dialogues between Jewish peace activists and divest-from-Israel groups in Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere. It is happening on scores of college campuses under the umbrella of the Union of Progressive Zionists, which gives a home to Jewish students who are equally alienated by the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd and by those who equate Ehud Olmert with Darth Vader. It is also happening in leftist neighborhoods in the blogosphere, where I and other Jews who are often critical of Israel, but care deeply about it, have begun to venture.

From conversations with people engaged in these efforts, it becomes clear that Jews who agree with many of the left’s objections to Israeli policies can have more of an impact than those who don’t.

The ideal candidates for addressing the claims of the far left aren’t afraid to say publicly that the occupation is morally repugnant. They want to be able to talk about Israel in the public arena with the same candor that can be found in the Israeli media. They want the American government to have the political wiggle room to occasionally push and prod both sides of the conflict, if that is what is necessary to preserve hope for a two-state solution.

At the same time, they proudly say they are pro-Israel. They want to change the atmosphere on campuses and on the Internet, where so-called “progressives” often see nothing wrong with comparing Israeli Jews to Nazis, praising suicide bombers as freedom fighters or proclaiming that the very idea of the Jewish people is an illusion — what is known in leftist parlance as “Jewish particularism.” And these moderate leftists insist that Palestinians and other Arabs not be absolved of responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One message pro-Israel doves can deliver to other leftists is motivated not only by concerns about Jew baiting but also by a concrete political objective. America’s Middle East policies, we tell the lefties, won’t change unless more moderate American Jews actively support those changes. And these Jews, in turn, will be reluctant to speak out if they believe they are making common cause with people who are either outright antisemites or bear an uncanny resemblance to them. So those who want the United States to help end Palestinian suffering should be careful to avoid the kind of rhetoric that chases away potential political allies.

That singular tactical message will make some mainstream American Jews uncomfortable, needless to say. But those of us who deliver it have a chance to be heard when leftists question Israel’s legitimacy. The rest of the pro-Israel community has no chance.

The left’s anti-Israelism won’t fade away, of course. Many Israel haters will never change their spots. But they are not the most important audience.

In this digital age, untold numbers of other, more reasonable people who are disturbed by Israeli policies are tuning into the ongoing conversation between pro-Israel doves and others on the left. It’s important to show this audience that one can be both progressive and pro-Israel, that there is a way to criticize Israel without aiding those who don’t want it to exist.

In Chicago, for example, moderate Jewish leftists have taught pro-divestment groups that it is possible to care about human rights and the downtrodden while still believing that Jews deserve their own state. And a Jewish educator in Pennsylvania who works on multicultural relations told me that “more and more lefties I deal with are beginning to understand that Zionism was meant to be the national liberation movement of an oppressed people, and there was a logic to Israel’s founding that they may not entirely accept but don’t dismiss out of hand the way they used to.”

Engaging with the hard left, of course, is not always easy. When I post on blogs under my pseudonym, “tough dove,” I am often treated like some kind of plant for the Mossad. I have been called a “fig leaf for the Likud” and an “apologist for the Greater Israel crowd.”

Still, there is already anecdotal evidence that pro-Israel leftists in America can help to temper a growing, implacable hostility toward both American Jews and the Jewish state. Their approach is certainly better for the American Jewish community than insisting that people who are furious with Israel keep their mouths shut.

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.

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