Israeli lawmakers held a hearing in March to determine whether J Street, an American Jewish organization that bills itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace," should be declared anti-Israel.
Convened by Danny Danon, the Likud Party chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs parliamentary committee, the hearing came at a time when right-wing Israeli politicians have accused human rights and advocacy groups in Israel of aiding an international campaign expressing concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Many see the move against J Street as an extension of the effort to oppose perceived attacks on Israel from within its own ranks. But J Street is not an Israeli organization. Founded three years ago, J Street says its 170,000 American Jewish members seek an outlet for their support for Israel without necessarily endorsing the policies of the Israeli government.
Writing from Jerusalem, Washington Post correspondent Janine Zacharia noted that, "The new model is considered treasonous by those in Israel who think the American Jewish community’s role should be to back the Israeli government’s decisions."
J Street has been pressing the administration of President Barack Obama to push more aggressively for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli lawmakers who came out against the group were particularly critical of its opposition to President Obama’s decision to veto a U.N. resolution this year condemning Israel’s illegal settlements. J Street pointed out that the U.N. resolution was restating traditional U.S. policy on settlements, and that it made little sense to veto it.
Appearing at the Knesset hearing, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami told the committee that J Street thought the veto ran contrary to long-standing U.S. policy on settlements and undercut U.S. credibility.
Speaking of J Street’s American members as if they were somehow Israelis in exile, Kadima Party Knesset member Otniel Schneller declared: "This is a dispute between those who care what non-Jews will say and those who believe in being a light unto nations, between the mentality of exile and that of redemption. J Street is not a Zionist organization. It offers love with strings attached. They say, ‘We love you only if you behave the way we like.’"
J Street chairman David Gilo said at the hearing that the contract that had long existed between Israel and Jews abroad–”one of unconditional support–”was expiring, and a new one being drafted. The new contract was good not only for those abroad but for Israel as well, he argued, since it would bring into the fold those who would otherwise be alienated. "The new contract cannot be based on unilateral dictation of what is right, who is right and who is wrong," Gilo said. "Only agreement on common values and a genuine attempt to understand where each party comes from can reinstate an Israeli-American Jewish partnership."
According to Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University, J Street was in a problematic position because "it is very difficult to be an advocacy group while criticizing the subject of your advocacy. It is difficult to say we are the greatest supporters of Israel but on every issue that arises we are on the other side."
The extreme right in Israel had always insisted that criticism of Israeli policy was unpatriotic, Avineri added, and now that it has more power than ever in the country’s history, its views have a greater platform.
In a March 31 Washington Post column headlined "Israel’s Touch of McCarthyism," Harold Meyerson noted that the hearing was held "to determine whether an American Jewish organization that favors a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conundrum could call itself ‘pro-Israel.’ If that sounds bizarre–”a committee of Israel’s Knesset presuming to instruct an American Jewish organization on how it should characterize itself–”well, that’s because it is. At the risk of telling the committee how it should characterize itself, it might consider changing its name to the Knesset Un-Jewish Activities Committee."
In Meyerson’s view, "the real quarrel the Israeli right, and the American Jewish right, have with J Street is that it has provided an alternative for American Jews who support Israel but don’t support the determination of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other intransigents to do nothing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian standoff or end the 44-year occupation of the West Bank….As Israel shifts to the right, it increasingly alienates younger American Jews–”a generally very liberal group (the Orthodox excepted) that sees in Israel a nation moving toward apartheid unless it changes course."
Israel’s opposition to any criticism of its policies, Meyerson argued, rejects the most fundamental Jewish traditions: "If the Old Testament were purged of its prophets’ attacks on the Israeli people for failing to live up to their ideals, it would be about half its length. In the Book of Isaiah, Israel is described as ‘a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers.’ In Jeremiah, the Jews are ‘a foolish people’ who ‘have eyes and see not, that have ears and hear not.’ Maybe the Knesset’s Un-Jewish Activities Committee should hold hearings on Isaiah and Jeremiah. Pretty subversive stuff, if you ask me."
The Knesset’s interference in the affairs of American Jews has even caused a reaction from groups that rarely criticize Israel, regardless of its policies. The American Jewish Committee and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, both criticized the undue interference in American Jewish organizational life.
Not "Israelis in Exile"
The fact is that Israel has never understood that Americans of the Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion–”not Israelis "in exile." Of course, Israel feels precisely the same way with regard to Jews in every country of the world.
On a January 1996 visit to Germany, Israeli President Ezer Weizman declared that he "cannot understand how 40,000 Jews can live in Germany," asserting that, "The place of Jews is in Israel. Only in Israel can Jews live full Jewish lives." (Now, in 2011, more than 100,000 Jews live in Germany).
In 1998, Prime Minister Netanyahu called upon American Jews to make a "mass aliyah" (emigration) to Israel. In 2000, Israeli President Moshe Katsev called upon Jews around the world to make aliyah and argued against "legitimizing" Jewish life in other countries. In Conversations With Yitzhak Shamir, published in 2000, the former Israeli prime minister declared: "The very essence of our being obliges every Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael…In my opinion, a man has no right to consider himself a part of the Jewish people without being a Zionist, because Zionism states that in order for a Jew to live as a Jew he needs to have his own country, his own life, and his own future."
In July 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued an appeal for all Jews in France to move to Israel "immediately" in response to a number of anti-Semitic acts. "Move to Israel as early as possible," he urged. "That’s what I say to Jews all over the world."
Visiting Washington, DC on a trip to promote immigration to Israel, Ya’akov Kirschen, a New York native who himself emigrated, told students at George Washington University: "You’re not Americans–”you’re Jews in the last stage of throwing off your identity. Going to Israel, you won’t be tearing up your roots because this isn’t where your roots are. You’ll be coming home."
When Israel was first established, many prominent American Jews were concerned about Zionist leaders’ contempt for Jewish life outside of Israel and their desire for a massive emigration of all Jews to the new state. In particular, they did not want Israel to interfere in the internal affairs of the American Jewish community.
An historic exchange in 1950 between the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, and Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought to allay these fears.
As summarized by the committee, the agreement stipulated that: "(1) Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment, namely to the United States of America; (2) that the government and people of Israel respect the integrity of Jewish life in the democratic countries and the right of Jewish communities to develop their indigenous social, economic and cultural aspirations, in accordance with their needs and institutions; and (3) that Israel fully accepts the fact that the Jews of the United States did not live ‘in exile’ and that America is home for them."
As we have seen, whatever Ben-Gurion may have agreed to in 1950, since then the state of Israel has persisted in promoting the idea that Jews living outside its borders are indeed "in exile" and that all Jews should emigrate to that state.
In recent years, a mass emigration effort organized and partly financed by Nefesh B’Nefesh has sought to boost North American emigration to Israel, providing grants of up to $25,000 for each new immigrant. The program, said Prime Minister Netanyahu, will "bring home to Zion our Jewish brethren from the diaspora."
According to the Washington Jewish Week of April 21, in a sermon that month at Jerusalem’s Jeshurun Synagogue, Yonah Metzger, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, "threatened that American Jews would not help re-elect Obama if he did not grant [Jonathan] Pollard clemency." Pollard has been imprisoned for 25 years for spying for Israel while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy.
Israel, apparently, is not satisfied with being the state of its own citizens but persists in claiming to be the "homeland" and object of loyalty of American Jews as well. Israelis seem unaware of the growing turmoil within the American Jewish community and the dismay felt by many with a state which persists in speaking in their name.
New Yorker editor David Remnick, a prominent Jewish journalist, recalled a visit to Israel in the late 1990s during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, when he met with Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a historian of the Spanish Inquisition, now 101: "…I am not sure that I have ever heard more outrageously reactionary table talk," Remnick wrote. "The disdain for Arabs, for Israeli liberals, for any Americans to the left of the neoconservatives was chilling."
Echoing the views of more and more Jewish Americans, Remnick noted that, "The occupation–”illegal, inhumane, and inconsistent with Jewish values–”has lasted 44 years….For decades, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and other such right-leaning groups have played an outsized role in American politics, pressuring members of Congress and presidents with their capacity to raise money and swing elections. But…these groups are hardly representative and should be met head on. Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote; he is more likely to lose some of that vote if he reverses his position on, say, abortion than if he tries to organize international opinion on the Israeli-Arab conflict."
It is high time that American Jewish organizations make it clear to the government of Israel that it should cease interfering in the internal affairs of the American Jewish community. American Jews are increasingly concerned with the politicization of their religion, and Americans of all faiths should be concerned about a foreign government exercising undue influence over an American religious community.
No other foreign government argues that millions of Americans–”solely because of their religion–”are in "exile" in the United States and that their real "homeland" is that foreign country. Israel should content itself with being the government of its own citizens and end its interference in domestic American life.