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Seeking To Help Israel, American Jewish Institutions Sold Us Out

Over the past year, many have pointed to the growing divide between American Jews and Israel. But another divide has opened up, and it’s equally distressing: between American Jews and their institutions.

Deep in the grip of a realpolitik that prioritizes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow, protectionist view of what’s good for Israel over the wellbeing of Jews, the organizations in charge of protecting us have lost sight of their missions. Instead of standing for the values we hold dear, they have been meeting with and congratulating brutal bigots, while rushing to denounce small fry.

Take Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected President. Bolsonaro has a past chock full of homophobic, misogynistic and racist comments. He told a Congresswoman that she was not attractive enough for him to rape her, and then repeated the sentiment a second time on another occasion before pushing her and calling her a slut. He was still bragging about that episode in 2014.

He has also said that he’d rather his son die in a car accident than be gay, and that if he saw two men kissing in the street, he would punch them. And when he was asked by an Afro-Brazilian actress what he would do if his son fell in love with a black woman, he said he’s not worried, since his sons “are very well raised.” On a different occasion he said that Afro-Brazilians were “not even good for breeding any more.”

Even if the racism doesn’t outrage you, there are 120,000 Jews living in Brazil. Half of them are women, and no doubt some portion of them are gay. Bolsonaro presents a clear and present threat to the rights and freedoms of those Jews. And the praise he has for authoritarian dictators bodes poorly for the rule of law and Brazilian democracy.

So you would think that an organization like the American Jewish Committee, which bills itself as “the leading global Jewish advocacy organization” and whose stated mission includes “combating rising anti-Semitism and extremism” and “safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all people” would clearly come down against a man who so blatantly disregards the rights and freedoms of Jews and other minorities.

But you would be wrong. “AJC warmly congratulates Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on his inauguration, as he embarks on leading Latin America’s largest country and the fifth most populous nation in the world,” read a press release from AJC on January 2.

What could possibly explain such an abdication of moral responsibility? AJC did not respond to a request for comment. But the press release gives a bit of a hint.

“As longstanding advocates for robust relations between Brazil and Israel, we are especially gratified that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended President Bolsonaro’s inauguration and met with him, as well as with other regional leaders,” read a quote from the press release. “Moving forward on President Bolsonaro’s pledge to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, was one of several issues he and Netanyahu discussed.”

In other words, this homophobic, misogynistic racist has a yen for Israel, which makes him worthy of “warm congratulations.”

This is exactly the opposite of what should be. The fact that Bolsonaro and Netanyahu call each other “brother” is cause for censuring Netanyahu, not celebrating Bolsonaro.

Instead, Jewish institutions like AJC have favored making common cause with villains like Bolsonaro in order to improve Israel’s standing across the world — its third stated goal in its mission statement.

It was this same worldview that led the leaders of American Jewish institutions like AJC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform Movement to meet with and even praise Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Bin Salman, known as MBS, is another ruthless, cruel leader whom Netanyahu has made common cause with, despite MBS’s record of imprisoning and reportedly torturing his political rivals, sustaining an offensive in Yemen where one third of the Saudi airstrikes have targeted civilian sites and during which tens of thousands of children have reportedly starved to death, and routinely imprisoning and torturing women activists – all of which was known at the time these American Jewish leaders sat down with MBS.

Since the meeting, MBS very likely ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And when President Trump looked like he might be wavering in his support of MBS, it was Netanyahu who reportedly asked Trump to stick by him.

The realpolitik model that sacrifices moral considerations for practical ones, in which self interest and protectionism determine who to woo and who to denounce, has led Netanyahu to make other, even worse decisions, like his decision to give cover to Holocaust revisionists in Eastern Europe. It’s led him to make friends with Hungary’s anti-Semitic leader Viktor Orban, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who compared himself to Hitler – favorably.

And rather than call out the moral turpitude of these actions, American Jewish institutions have adopted Netanyahu’s logic that these sorts of trade-offs are necessary — to defend Israel.

All of these betrayals reveal something dark about this way of thinking, namely, that the more power a homophobe or a dictator or a murderer has, the more one has to coddle, congratulate and generally make common cause with him or her.

And conversely, the less power someone has, the more likely they are to be the object of your ire.

This logic is clearly manifest in the way AJC and other Jewish institutions routinely attack freshmen Congresswomen — while congratulating hatemongering presidents.

For even as it has congratulated Bolsonaro and met with MBS, AJC and its leader have found it appropriate to attack newly elected freshmen congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar over poorly worded tweets.

Less than a week after congratulating Bolsonaro, AJC put out a statement that it was “outraged at the tweet posted by Representative Rashida Tlaib.” The statement was accompanied by a tweet largely believed to be accusing Tlaib of dual loyalties to Palestine.

And last week, the organization’s leader tweeted a series of questions at Omar for an interview she gave in which she “chuckled” at the idea that Israel is a democracy.

To be clear, every elected official must be held to the highest standards. I, too, have found fault with both Tlaib and Omar for things they have said or tweeted.

But to let the amount of power someone has determine whether you will condemn or congratulate their hateful comments is morally reprehensible.

What kind of organization congratulates a man who hates women, gay people and black people who leads an entire country, and then fixates on a single Congresswoman who has zero ability to influence American policy towards Israel for condemnation? One with a point of view that pushes for criticism in an inverse relationship to the power of the criticized.

This is also why the movement to boycott Israel, known as BDS, has become the great bugbear of Jewish institutions. It is not despite BDS’s inability to actually threaten Israel that it receives so much outsized attention; it is precisely because it is a harmless movement that hasn’t made a dent in Israel’s economy that our institutions are obsessed with denouncing it.

AJC is not the only Jewish American institution to betray its constituency. Others, too, have taken up the mantle of protecting Netanyahu’s increasingly illiberal Israel as though this were the same as protecting Jews, though even the majority of Jews don’t support Netanyahu’s policies, and just a third of Israelis vote for him.

We deserve institutions that stand up for our values. We deserve institutions that don’t betray the liberal values we hold dear for a perverted sense of what’s good for Israel.

It’s been centuries since Jews have had as much power as we now, thankfully, do, after millennia of everything from disenfranchisement to genocide. In Israel, Jews have a military that’s the 15th strongest in the world. And here in the U.S., we have access to state power through the politicians who are eager to support us and to support Israel. Gone are the days when Israel, or Jews, needed to desperately cling to whoever was willing to offer protection. In Israel, Jews can protect themselves, and even others; Israel is the 7th largest arms exporter in the world. And here in the U.S., Jews have never had as much support as we do from our elected officials.

It’s simply wrong that we must sell our souls for safety — both factually and morally.

The power we Jews now have must be wielded justly. Instead of using this power for good, to help raise up those who don’t have the privilege we do, our institutions are using this power to punch down. And just as we must speak out against Netanyahu’s betrayal of the Diaspora, we must speak out against our own institutions when they betray our values.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.


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