On Israel, a Fork in the Road

Opinion

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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Benjamin Netanyahu’s imminent return to the prime minister’s office is likely to force a long-overdue discussion in the American Jewish community over what it really means to be “pro-Israel.”

For decades, the organized Jewish community has successfully fostered solid support for Israel in the United States. As a result, American politicians vie for the pro-Israel label, and polls show that the broader public here — in contrast to other parts of the world — consistently sides with Israel, not with its neighbors. The American government’s funding and policy decisions speak for themselves.

Israel has always looked to the United States to guarantee its security — notably by assuring its qualitative military edge. More recently, it has looked to America to help it forge peace as well — finding success with Egypt and Jordan and making strides with Syria and the Palestinians.

For 61 years, the relationship between Israel and American Jews has rested on a solid foundation: a shared vision of Israel as the rightful home for the Jewish people in the community of nations, a shared commitment to democracy and a shared set of national interests in a volatile region. While disagreements over policy — such as settlement expansion — caused some discomfort, American Jews by and large defended the thrust of Israeli policy and comfortably wore the pro-Israel label.

The second coming of Netanyahu may, however, bring us to a fork in the road. On this side of the ocean, American Jews just helped usher in a new progressive era — with 78% of us voting to elect Barack Obama president.

American Jews overwhelmingly have opposed the war in Iraq and favor engagement, not conflict, with Iran. By and large, we want a sophisticated foreign policy that pragmatically advances American interests and security — not the simplicity of a neoconservative outlook that views the world in black and white.

At the same time, Israeli politics has taken a hard turn rightward. The incoming prime minister cannot bring himself to support a two-state solution, a proposition at the heart of American and Israeli policy for a generation. And the settler movement seems bent on making a viable Palestinian state a physical impossibility — putting at risk the notion that Israel can be both a democratic state and a Jewish homeland.

Meanwhile, the face of Israel to the world may well be Avigdor Lieberman, whose party rode to third place in last month’s election on a platform explicitly rejecting the very democratic values that have bound together the Jewish people on both sides of the ocean for three generations.

So how, exactly, do American Jews maintain a united pro-Israel front when the views and directions of the two communities appear headed in such opposite directions?

For organizations at the heart of the established Jewish community, the best strategy would be to welcome and encourage an open and respectful airing of differences of opinion over policies and strategies and on what it means to be pro-Israel. Insistence on unquestioning loyalty — and communal consensus — when it comes to Israel will become ever more difficult if the interests and values of the two largest Jewish communities in the world continue to diverge.

American Jewish organizations and leaders can choose to act as if it’s still the 1960s, with Israel fighting for physical survival and struggling to make the desert bloom. Or we can appreciate that it’s now the 21st century and that Israel boasts the dominant military in the region and a European standard of living.

In 2009, we don’t risk Israel’s survival when we question whether the decisions Israelis are making run counter to their own interests, or to America’s, or if we engage in debate here that is at least as open and broad as in Israel itself.

If the organized Jewish community won’t accommodate within its tent civil debate and questioning of Israel’s actions, I fear many American Jews may be driven away. This will risk not only their support for the State of Israel, but also their connection to the Jewish community and even to the Jewish religion itself.

An Israeli government built on rejecting peace, with coalition members who show little regard for democratic values, can expect far more loyal dissent than unquestioning loyalty from the broad base of Jewish Americans. The challenge on which our community’s leadership and institutions should focus as we hit this fork in the road is not how to maintain rigid loyalty to Israel in the Netanyahu-Lieberman era but how to welcome vibrant debate and healthy dissent within the pro-Israel tent.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is executive director of J Street and of JStreetPAC.


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