In June 2012, an anti-Israel billboard campaign was promoted in Los Angeles County by an organization with the cumbersome name of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The group announced the billboard campaign in a press release that went on to warn that the “Israel lobby” might try to stop the campaign. It urged supporters not to “allow them to stifle dialogue.”
This and many other facts are contained in a new report prepared by the Anti-Defamation League, “The 2013 Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in the U.S.,” which the league announced Monday in a press release of its own, with the obvious intention of stopping the groups’ efforts and stifling their voices.
That’s one of the pitfalls of trying to be a leading advocate for human rights while simultaneously fighting vigorously for policies that are controversial, as support for Israel is apparently becoming in certain parts of this country.
This is the list’s third iteration. The first was in 2010. Like the earlier versions, this one is a sloppy pastiche of organizations that range from outright enemies of Israel to harsh critics of its policies, from groups that condone terrorist violence to groups that firmly oppose it, from groups that traffic in anti-Semitism to Jewish groups whose fight for their understanding of Jewish values sometimes puts them in shady company (you could accuse certain pro-Israel groups of the same thing).
It also includes one group, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, that’s an umbrella group, serving as a Washington representative and lobbyist for many of the other groups on the list. Plus one group, the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, that is so small and ineffectual that it’s hard to understand why it’s on the list, except perhaps as an attempt to show some sort of fairness.
One thing the list isn’t: It’s not a useful guide to understanding what Israel is up against in this country. That would require a serious analysis of the forces opposing Israel’s interests in this country. It would have to ask which of the public anti-Israel campaigns, if any, have any actual impact on U.S. policy or public opinion. It would have to ask what actual harm can be caused by a hate-Israel campaign that’s largely limited to college campuses (hints: souring future American leadership? Alienating young and mostly ill-informed Jews?).
And, though we’re unlikely to see it, a useful list ought to distinguish between, on one hand, hate-Israel noise that’s rooted in genuine hatred of Israel, and on the other hand, agitation that would dissipate if Israel were to reach a peace agreement with the PLO and, presumably, the Arab League. The answer to that question would lie somewhere between zero and 100%. It might be useful to get a smart reading.
What this list is useful for, unfortunately, is mainly to help local pro-Israel groups around the country that are looking for someone to protest against. It’s an old-fashioned enemies list. And like all enemies lists, it includes some names that richly deserve to be there and others whose presence is an injustice.
The first category would include, for example, Students for Justice in Palestine, which organizes most of the noisy hate-Israel events on college campuses that too often cross the bounds of civility and intimidate Jewish students. It would probably include the Council for the National Interest, which for years has demonstrated a knee-jerk hostility to anything connected with Israel and a deafness to anti-Semitic innuendo.
The second category—groups that don’t belong on a blacklist of this sort—would have to begin with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace. One is a Jewish organization, made up of thousands of our fellow Jews struggling with their consciences. They sometimes keep bad company. So do some organizations on the right. They sometimes co-sponsor rallies where people carry hateful signs. Benjamin Netanyahu used to do that, back in the 1990s.
As for the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, it’s been partnering for years with local mainstream Jewish groups in LA on civil rights issues and interreligious dialogue. It represents Muslim opinion, which is very angry these days. It does so with considerable civility. It doesn’t belong on a list like this.
In fact, here’s what MPAC had to say in its 2007 position paper, Envisioning Peace, about the entire nasty business of policing public discourse:
We must have a right to talk about this conflict in all of its facets in an environment that is respectful and free of intimidation. Our Jewish friends must be tolerant of our perspective on this conflict, and stop the practice of intimidation and censorship of a real discussion of this issue. Furthermore, our leaders must not be attacked for supporting the Palestinians. We will not back away from our leadership for telling the truth about the Israeli occupation, and our friends in the interfaith community should respect that stance in accordance with our religion’s demand in which we must defend justice. …
The ADL has a reputation, largely undeserved, for seeing anti-Semitism behind every rock and under every bed. It’s outspoken and under-appreciated in its opposition to a wide range of social ills, including homophobia, racism and, yes, most of the time, Islamophobia. Sometimes the diversity of its interests creates confusion. Because it’s best known for attacking anti-Semites, its public statements are often taken to be accusations of anti-Semitism even when they’re not. When it attacks far-right groups as anti-democratic or homophobes as bigoted, that’s not an accusation of anti-Semitism. Neither is an accusation of unfairness toward Israel. At least, not necessarily.
This list is a different kettle of fish. Some of its critiques plainly purport to find anti-Semitism where none exists. Some hark back to the old position, adopted in the late 1960s, that opposition to Israel is by definition anti-Semitic because Israel is the Jewish state. In the early 1980s ADL was said to be distributing secret enemies lists to local Jewish groups, with the aim of keeping critics of Israel from appearing in local venues. It was a shameful episode.
At some point most of us thought we’d gotten over that. We thought we agreed, most of us, that criticizing Israel wasn’t necessarily anti-Semitic. Apparently that agreement was more fragile than we realized.
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).