When historians look back on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, they may not focus on what he said about Iran which contained little that was new.
The speech may be remembered more as marking the moment when many lovers of Israel felt emboldened to say what they have felt for years – that one can sincerely support Israel without endorsing every action of the Israeli government or utterance of its prime minister of the moment.
We saw it in the scores of Democrats who decided not to attend the speech and in the words of the 11 who gathered to give a press conference after it was done explaining their objections. We saw it in the heartbroken words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who said, “As one who values the US-Israel relationship and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech — saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States.”
At synagogues and Jewish community centers across the country, in locker rooms and around water coolers, debate was fierce and outspoken about the timing and nature of the speech. That in itself was a change. Netanyahu’s action was so provocative in fact that he broke a decades-long taboo within the Jewish community not to air differences over Israel.
Some in the pro-Israel community have long argued that Israel – and Israeli policy – is somehow above debate. They have positioned it as an issue uniquely unaffected by the ideological divides that cut across nearly all other issues on the American political agenda. You can disagree all you want on gay marriage, health care and the environment, they’ve said. But disagreement on Israeli policy would – somehow – endanger Israel itself.
Of course, when Israel is threatened or under attack, we must and do unify and rally to her defense. But there are sharp differences within the pro-Israel community over issues like whether the government should continue building settlements in the occupied West Bank – and we should no longer pretend that these disagreements do not exist or try to shove them under the rug.
Supporters of the Netanyahu government have sounded the slogan of unity time and time again to brush aside debate over important matters of policy. Those trying to speak in dissent have been demonized or marginalized within the pro-Israel community.
Netanyahu, aided and abetted by House Speaker John Boehner, blasted that argument to smithereens.
Some Republicans may have been pleased to gain another opportunity to score political points by arguing that only they can truly be trusted to ‘stand by Israel’, an effort that actual election results prove year in and year out doesn’t work.
Netanyahu and his Likud team in Israel might have been satisfied by the slight bump they got in the polls less than two weeks before a crucial election – although it remains to be seen how long that lasts.
At the same time, however, perhaps the Prime Minister did all of us a favor by opening the door a crack to making issues related to Israel a legitimate topic for debate.
Perhaps seeing the Prime Minister of Israel make the case that he’s right to come here and disagree with the President on American policy will persuade Americans, especially American Jews, to speak their minds and their consciences on issues related to Israel, even if it means disagreeing with its government.
Once we’re ready to admit that it’s acceptable to disagree, perhaps we can start to have a long-overdue debate over what it means to be pro-Israel between camps with legitimate policy differences and competing world views.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is national director of J Street
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street, the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.