Transforming America’s Israel Lobby

Transforming America’s Israel Lobby:
The Limits of Its Power and the Potential For Change

By Dan Fleshler
(Potomac Books, May, 2009)

Despite Israeli objections, a United Nations human rights official says he will proceed with a mission to the Gaza Strip to investigate possible war crimes during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict. Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge appointed to lead the Gaza investigation by the UN’s Human Rights Council, told the Voice of America last month that he also plans to hold public hearings in which witnesses to the conflict tell their stories.

The investigation is likely to put the spotlight on Israel’s growing isolation in the international community, due in part to war crimes accusations. It also will place new pressures on pro-Israel American Jewish groups, which, with a few exceptions, defended Israel’s military conduct during the war in Gaza. In his recently released book, Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change (excerpted below), Dan Fleshler, an American Jewish activist in what he calls “the pro-Israel left,” explains the reluctance of Jewish liberals to criticize Israel on the human rights front, even when they share the rest of the world’s objections to Israeli behavior. And he urges them to stop censoring themselves, both for moral and practical political reasons.


Rhetoric (and Paradigms) for the Rest of Us

“There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians,” wrote Nicholas Kristof, asserting something only a little less obvious than the fact that the sun sets every evening. “And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects, and Israel itself… One reason is that American politicians have learned to muzzle themselves. In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic primaries, Howard Dean said he favored an ‘even-handed role’ for the U.S.—and was blasted for being hostile to Israel.”

One of the explanations for this state of affairs is obvious and well-known. Politicians and elected officials don’t want to antagonize people who devote their lives to searching out and then attacking public figures who so much as hint that Israel bears some responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight or the Middle East’s problems. The power of these people to clamp down on those who lambaste Israel or its American supporters is often greatly exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the muzzlers are out there, doing their best.

But there are other, less obvious reasons (besides the outright muzzling) for the dearth of candid conversation about Israel. Many people share the blame, including the pro-Israel peace camp, including me. It is time for some honest talk about the lack of honest talk: my camp exercises a self-censorship that often prevents us from saying what we believe and feel about Israeli behavior. This not only constrains the speeches, conversations, and thinking of elected and appointed officials. It also prevents passionate moderates—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—from finding a common language, a shared set of rhetorical protocols about how to talk about the conflict, and which topics to talk about.

If American Jews who want to end one-sided diplomacy in the Middle East still censor what they say even among themselves, how can they expect America’s political elite to push for a different American approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict? How can they expect anyone in the executive branch to avoid anticipatory vetoes and start showing more courage? And how can they expect to make common cause with non-Jewish Americans who share their goals and could add political impetus for change?

It is time for the anti-occupation wing of the pro-Israel community to wrest control of the conversation from those who cling to outworn assumptions about America’s Middle East policy and what it means to be pro-Israel. The political elite should not be blamed for assuming that even tepid statements that favor robust American diplomacy or take exception to Israeli policies will be politically costly. They will cling to this assumption unless they receive clear signals that a different, more candid conversation is called for. It is up to us to give politicians, policymakers, and non-Jewish Americans the confidence that American Jews expect new approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict and new ways of talking about it.

Ending the Silence about Israel and Human Rights

“It blows my mind that my Jewish brothers and sisters, who are with me on Darfur, who were with me on South Africa, can’t bend themselves to deal with injustice to the Palestinians,” said Reverend Dr. Susan Andrews, a former moderator of Presbyterian Church USA who dealt extensively with the American Jewish community during the divestment controversy. “I just never understood it… Part of what needs to happen is a conversation about what justice means. We need a conversation with the Jewish community, to get some specificity about what they mean by ‘justice’ and what we mean. In my circles, human rights is where it all begins. A political stance devoid of moral fiber can in no way be justified in either Christian or, as I understand it, Jewish tradition.”

To many people who empathize with the Palestinians’ plight under occupation, the most puzzling form of American Jewish silence is the kind that greets Palestinian suffering, especially suffering caused by Israeli actions that much of the world deems to be human rights abuses. Using the term ‘human rights’ to question Israeli behavior in a public forum is enough to mark you as an outcast and Israel-basher in much of the organized American Jewish community. A whole industry exists to monitor and refute human rights NGOs whenever they set their sights on Israel. Worse, even mentioning Palestinian misfortunes is suspect in some quarters. When word spread during the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama once said, “Nobody has suffered more than the Palestinians,” he was roundly attacked by Jewish right-wingers as if he were calling for Israel’s destruction.

But it is not only the right wing of my community that either defends or mutely accepts the way Israelis treat their neighbors. It is also American Jews who want the occupation to end. Some of us marched against the Vietnam War and even the Iraq War. Some of us give money to help victims in Darfur and fund shelters for battered women here at home. Few of us can bring ourselves to say much out loud about the battering of an entire people, if we are within the Jewish communal tent. Until very recently, I was in that category, looking back on my own reactions to sundry allegations of bad behavior by Israel.

“It hurts me a lot: when B’Tselem [a prominent Israeli human rights group] comes out with a report. I’m upset by the human rights violations. But I’m also upset by the revelation of the violation,” said Ted Mann (former Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a longtime peace activist within the organized, mainstream Jewish community), candidly summing up an all-too-common dilemma. “I know everything has to be revealed. B’Tselem helps keep Israel a democratic society. Israelis need to see themselves in the mirror. But I worry about the way this information is used by people who hate Israel.”

American Jews who tell themselves that they are committed to human rights as well as Israel can often find justifications for Israeli activities the world doesn’t care for. The core argument is that what appears to be cruel and unjust behavior is usually an unfortunate, unavoidable consequence of the situation that Jews and Arabs are mired in. Unlike much of the human rights advocacy community, people in the pro-Israel left generally view the region through a prism that reflects Israelis’ sense of permanent vulnerability and their determination not to be vulnerable. If we object to the missiles that repeatedly killed innocent women and children in Gaza or Lebanon, we will be assured that Israel has done everything possible to avoid collateral damage, has been much more careful about shedding innocent blood than its adversaries, and is perfectly within its rights under the Geneva Convention to go after enemy combatants that hide among civilians.

If Israel’s supporters don’t feel comfortable endorsing hard-nosed Israeli military responses, it is difficult for them to come up with alternatives they themselves believe in. As has been true of the Zionist movement since the pre-state days, in an atmosphere where nothing seems predictable except the inveterate hostility of Israel’s neighbors, it is much much easier to accept the preemptive strikes and targeted assassinations, and to try not to think about the inevitably cruel civilian casualties. It is much easier not to argue with those who are convinced that Western humanistic values can’t be applied to conflicts in the Middle East, where blame and shame rule the day. When Israel’s defenders point out that the United States firebombed Dresden and Tokyo, NATO bombed civilians in Serbia, and US bombers tried to obliterate Baghdad—and therefore armchair American moralists are in no position to criticize Israel from the comfort of their suburban homes—it is hard to come up with a persuasive response.

If pro-Israel doves object to almost anything Al Jazeera decides to transform into yet another symbol of Zionist bestiality, eventually we will hear evidence that Palestinian propagandists and their media allies have distorted the truth. When Israel assaulted the West Bank village of Jenin during the second intifada, at first the international media alleged that hundreds of innocent Palestinians had been massacred, and that bulldozers had crushed houses and destroyed property for no discernible reason. Later, a UN report demonstrated that there had been no “massacre” and that most of the Palestinian casualties were armed combatants. One could almost hear the sounds of Israel’s friends around the world breathing sighs of relief. I certainly did.

Sometimes, however, what we read about or see on TV makes it difficult to counter and cope with allegations of indefensible Israeli behavior. When that happens, something other than logic and evidence kicks in, and we are left with little except a panicky unwillingness to believe Israelis are behaving as badly as people claim. We have a rooting interest for information and arguments that prop up our craving to believe in the Israelis.

So, we try to look the other way when we come across tidbits like the following, from a B’Tselem, press release in December 2007:

A survey conducted by the Israeli military and published by leading Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, found that a quarter of soldiers serving at checkpoints in the West Bank perpetrated or witnessed abuse of Palestinians. In response, B’Tselem said that the numbers are shocking, but not surprising. The organization commends the military for initiating the survey, but states that physical and verbal abuse of Palestinians by soldiers, particularly at checkpoints, has long become routine. In spite of official condemnations, the military does not do enough to ensure accountability and to deter soldiers from engaging in such behavior.

According to B’Tselem, most soldiers who harm Palestinians are never held accountable. Law enforcement authorities place numerous obstacles on Palestinians who try to complain against security forces personnel, and only a small minority of complaints result in charges against those responsible for abuse.

“There must be a reasonable explanation,” we try to tell ourselves. “There must be something terribly wrong with the way this story is being told, even if it is the Israeli army itself that is telling it.”

After a while, though, the evidence accumulates, and it becomes harder and harder to discard it or wish it away. The anguished testimony of the Israeli soldiers collected by Breaking the Silence makes a mockery of willful denial. Breaking the Silence is an explicitly nonpolitical organization that lets those who have served in the territories speak for themselves about the level of brutality and wanton cruelty there. They are not refuseniks. Most of them return to the Israel Defense Forces every year for reserve duty. They want their own society to wake up to what Israeli soldiers are being asked to do and, sadly, what some of them eagerly volunteer to do. In the organization’s traveling exhibitions and on its Web site are firsthand reports of soldiers firing live ammunition, not rubber bullets, at teenagers; of barreling into a Palestinian village and shooting indiscriminately because a commander wants to send a message that he won’t be pushed around; and of forcing Palestinians to be human shields during patrols in West Bank villages.

“There must be a reasonable explanation for what is happening in the Gaza Strip,” we tried to tell ourselves in December 2008 and January 2009, when confronted by news coverage of innocent civilians mauled by Israeli attacks, a UN school destroyed, and the rest of the terrible carnage resulting from Israel’s attack. “There must be a good reason why all of those people had to die or get maimed, why the Gaza hospitals had to overflow with the dead and wounded. The Israelis wouldn’t have done that unless it was absolutely necessary.”

After awhile, though, the evidence accumulated and for some of us in the pro-Israel peace camp, it was impossible to believe that the Israeli ends (stopping Hamas rocket fire) could justify the means: a disproportionate response that did not, and probably could not, draw adequate distinctions between military and civilian targets, crammed together in the houses and warrens of one of the world’s most densely-populated areas. It was impossible to take the official Israeli explanations or rationalizations on faith. In the midst of that Gaza Strip assault, I used words like “appalling” on my blog to describe Israeli actions. Whether I was correct or not is beside the point. The point is that many other relatively moderate American Jews agreed with me and, once again, the vast majority of them said nothing and did nothing. When people in my camp confront Israeli behavior that appears to be morally offensive, the standard response is that there is no such thing as a benign occupation or a war without brutality. Unless and until there is a political solution, according to this logic, morally-grounded Israelis will be forced into circumstances in which it is difficult and sometimes impossible to be humane; it is difficult and sometimes impossible to be good. I have used that argument and it is true—up to a point. The problem, however, is not merely that the brutality and humiliation inflicted on Palestinians is an inevitable consequence of occupation; the problem is that it is just plain wrong. I believe American Jews who support Israel should start saying that it is wrong. They must somehow find a way to stop suppressing their moral instincts, to stop ignoring what is best within themselves, and to start finding a vocabulary to acknowledge the moral horrors attendant on the occupation; and to do so without denouncing Israel as a whole or minimizing its need to defend itself.

Yes, those who focus only on Israeli behavior without putting it into context, without appreciating that steps must be taken to protect Israel’s borders, have also lost their moral compass. Yes, the Palestinians have in many ways brought this situation upon themselves (e.g., if there had not been suicide bombers infiltrating Israeli cities, there would not be a security wall; there used to be a vocal peace camp in Israel, but it was shattered by the Palestinian intifada). But once that context is affirmed, the reasons for decrying the brutality and humiliation become compelling, and the rationalizations for keeping our mouths shut become hollow.

When American Jews believe that the explanations given by the Israeli government don’t withstand scrutiny, when they think there is wrongdoing that has no justification, protesting loudly would not only be a moral necessity; it also would have political utility. American presidential administrations that agonize over whether to denounce Israeli behavior need to know that there is a broad base of American Jews who are not fringe leftists and are also upset by that behavior.