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“The values we care about, such as human rights, women’s rights and gay rights, are important to Israel,” Sellers said in an interview on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference. “We can hope these values duplicate themselves throughout the Middle East.” This is a theme frequently repeated by lobby activists seeking out support from liberals, as they compare Israel to its neighbors in the region. “Israel,” one activist said, is an “island of liberalism in the desert around it.”
Another politician showcased by AIPAC as a model of liberal support for Israel is John Perez, speaker of California’s State Assembly. Perez, who is Latino and gay, has spoken out about his visit to the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv, where children of immigrants, many of them undocumented, receive quality education with special attention given to their background and specific circumstances.
But some in the liberal camp question the rosy picture drawn by activists like Lewis, Sellers and Perez.
Evan Gildenblatt, executive director of Kent State University’s student government, attended the conference session on liberal outreach. He said he had raised concerns there about actions recently taken by the Israeli government. Specifically, Gildenblatt spoke about the treatment of African refugees, inequality in military service and exclusion of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, all of which, he said, “are wildly contrary to liberal values.” When the session ended, a participant came up to Gildenblatt and said, according to him, that his question showed “that you don’t love Israel.”
The meeting was closed to the press.
Criticism of Israel in left-leaning circles goes beyond the Palestinian issue. On the domestic front, progressive activists have been critical of an increase in organized exclusion of women from the public sphere, including bus lines in which women are required to sit in the back, and arrests of women wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall. Other criticisms concern the lack of a coherent policy for dealing with African migrants and the growing income gaps within the Jewish population.
On the Palestinian issue itself, Israel’s recent decision to institute segregated bus lines in the occupied West Bank for Palestinian workers is likely to evoke discordant associations with the American South prior to the civil rights era.