The recent Pew Poll reporting a decline in Democratic support for Israel sparked much hand wringing, debate and critical analysis. Some dissected the poll’s weaknesses. Others examined the partisan issues in play. Still others focused, correctly, on American progressives’ substantive objections to the policies of the Israeli government and the values they embody.
But too many are still unwilling to talk about the key related factor causing the estrangement of Democrats, and American progressives in general, from Israel: the gradual redefinition of “pro-Israel” to mean support for extremist, anti-democratic policies not just in Israel, but in the United States as well.
This trend, which pre-dates President Trump, sees the growing use of “pro-Israel” advocacy as a weapon to undermine fundamental American values and rights protected in our own Constitution, and bafflingly, sees such efforts supported and defended by leaders who otherwise claim the mantle of champions of progressive values.
The clearest example of this trend is ongoing and energetic efforts to quash free speech in America, in the name of defending Israel. These efforts have come in the form of bipartisan legislation at the federal and state level, designed to curb and even criminalize criticism and activism targeting Israel and its policies, or to define such speech as “anti-Semitism.”
Such legislation has already been adopted in more than 20 states (in 3 states by Executive Order). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and National Coalition Against Censorship, and others have challenged such efforts as unconstitutional (the ACLU has cases pending against the laws, so far, in Kansas and Arizona; in the Kansas case, a federal judge this week sided with the ACLU in issuing a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law).
Yet AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and most Jewish community organizations remain fully on-board in supporting and promoting such legislation, along with many progressive politicians.
Indeed, despite the court challenges and opposition from free speech watchdogs, the legislative campaign shows no signs of abating. Since January 1, new anti-free speech legislation has been introduced already in at least 6 states.
Moreover, recent weeks saw the opening of a new front in this battle, one that puts these illiberal forms of defending Israel directly at odds with broadly defined human rights values
On January 11, 2018, the New Orleans City Council adopted a resolution calling for a review the city’s investments and contracts. The goal of this review was to bring the city in line with its values, laid out in the resolution: New Orleans “has social and ethical obligations to take steps to avoid contracting with or investing in corporations whose practices consistently violate human rights, civil rights or labor rights, or corporations whose practices egregiously contract efforts to create a prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable society.”
It was no secret that activists concerned with Palestinian rights, including those advocating for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, supported or even drafted the New Orleans resolution. And because of that, and despite the fact that the resolution in no way singled out or even mentioned Israel, the resolution was swiftly denounced as a “stealth” attack on Israel. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League pressured the Council to rescind it, and prominent New Orleans Rabbi Ed Cohn alleged that the resolution “cleverly masqueraded as a high-minded civic statement designed to prevent human rights abuses…It sounded so good. It took no time, however, to see the deception.”
This reaction highlights a painful truth: any call for the defense of human rights, if applied universally, will today inevitably raise questions about Israel, and especially the policies associated with Israel’s 50-year long occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the settlement enterprise that they support. The only way to insulate Israel from such questions is to either kill such calls outright, or to explicitly exempt Israel from the same rules and standards that apply to the rest of the world.
American defenders of Israel have often condemned critics, and especially BDS advocates, for unfairly singling out Israel for special scrutiny or holding it to a higher standard than other countries. Ironically, many of these same defenders of Israel condemned the New Orleans resolution for doing precisely the opposite. They are arguing, in effect, that when talking about human rights, it is unfair to subject Israel to the same scrutiny as the rest of the world; they are suggesting that failing to hold Israel to a different, lower standard than the rest of the world when it comes to human rights is a new form of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic behavior.
On January 25th, the New Orleans City Council gave in to pressure and rescinded its human rights resolution. In so doing, it acquiesced to a definition of “pro-Israel” that demands the sacrifice of respect for universal values, the rejection of global standards of human rights, and the delegitimization of international law.
With U.S. values and rights hanging in the balance, self-described progressive politicians and groups like the ADL are betraying their own values and principles when they embrace illiberalism-in-defense-of-Israel, leaving them standing with the likes of Christians United for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and hardline Israelis, and standing against the ACLU, MoveOn.org, and CREDO, not to mention J Street, Americans for Peace Now, IfNotNow and, of course, Jewish Voice for Peace. In so doing, they are contributing to the diminution of support for Israel among Americans who are repulsed by the notion that support for Israel demands the sacrifice of the values and rights that are at the core of what it means to be a progressive.
Lara Friedman is the President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.