American Jews Have the Right – and the Duty – to Oppose Israel’s Current Government’s Policies
By Paul Scham
This article with a different heading was first published on February 13, 2023 in Ha’aretz.com
Danny Ayalon and my friend Chuck Freilich, both pillars of the Israeli security establishment, have strongly criticized J Street and its supporters and praised AIPAC in in Haaretz (In Israel’s Current Crisis, AIPAC Is Vital and J Street Is Dangerous.)
While I am not now nor ever have been a spokesman for J Street, I strongly support its activities, electoral and otherwise. My own organization, Partners for Progressive Israel, works closely with J Street in the Progressive Israel Network, comprised of more than a dozen American Jewish organizations that are both pro-Israel and pro-peace. That stance necessitates taking public positions critical of many Israeli policies; especially, of course, the continuation of the occupation.
Freilich and Ayalon’s arguments are deeply flawed and misconceive the relationship between American Jews and Israel in today’s context. They begin with the usual assertion that “the only place to change Israel’s policies is in Israel.” That old saw is simply incorrect. Israel – like all countries – responds to events everywhere that affect it; that is largely what international relations is about.
However, they are also wrong in a more fundamental and normative sense. American Jews who choose to care about Israel are affected by Israel’s policies both as Jews and as Americans. As Jews, we care deeply about Israel’s future, and we would not be involved in this work if we didn‘t believe passionately in the need for an Israel that is both secure and democratic.
As Israelis frequently proclaim, Israel is inseparably connected with the Jewish people. With that connection comes responsibility, not merely the role of cash cow. We have both the right and the positive duty to express ourselves about Israel’s policies in every lawful and moral way, especially in concert and cooperation with our Israeli partners. Those of us who are dual citizens (including the leaders of many Progressive Israel Network organizations) also vote in Israeli elections when we are able to travel there (Israel doesn’t allow absentee voting).
However, we are also American citizens, and the relationship between the US and Israel is a major geopolitical factor as well as, in recent years, a virulent domestic political issue. US taxpayers subsidize Israel‘s military to the tune of at least $3.8 billion annually, as well as providing indispensable political and diplomatic support. As Americans we are entitled to a say in how the US support for Israel is manifested, financially and otherwise.
Freilich and Ayalon, however, apparently think that, as American Jews, we have no moral or other right to express ourselves, even when, as Chuck Freilich certainly knows, Israel’s government’s policies are disastrous. Instead, they contend we should close our eyes to what we know is true and support AIPAC, even when AIPAC throws its hefty financial clout behind candidates who not only support the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington and Trump’s election denialism, but also the most dangerous rightwing forces in Israel.
Although AIPAC is in lockstep with Israeli government policies we abhor, we are supposed to leave our brains outside and vote just as AIPAC tells us to.
A particularly egregious example in 2022 was AIPAC’s successful primary campaign against Andy Levin, a former synagogue president and staunch supporter of Israel, largely because he had the temerity to support the Two-State Solution Bill in Congress, a policy which also happens to be the position of the US government, but not the current Israeli one. He was outspent 5 to 1, largely by “pro-Israel” PACs supporting his opponent.
An ever-increasing number of American Jews are rejecting the untenable position that unconditional support for Israel’s policies, including the everlasting occupation, is the sole litmus test they should apply. Admittedly, it is much easier to create a bright line that support for Israel’s government is the only thing that matters, and that all those who don’t toe that line should be consigned to a political and communal kherem.
It is indeed a judgment call as to exactly who is “pro-Israel,” since support for far-right forces in either country is dangerous for democracy. But AIPAC – and Freilich and Ayalon – demand that American Jews leave their consciences and values at the door. Thus, they question whether J Street – and presumably its thousands of supporters – “can truly be considered a pro-Israel organization,” as if that is a title they can bestow or withhold.
Freilich and Ayalon caricature J-Street’s positions, claiming it believes American pressure for the two-state solution would ‘magically” produce a solution to the conflict. But genuinely magical, or perhaps deeply anachronistic, thinking is conveyed by their statement that “AIPAC seeks to be a home for the entire pro-Israel community, from the left to the right.”
Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of AIPAC’s Super PAC in the 2022 cycle knows that it supported 109 of 147 House Republicans who voted against certifying President Biden’s victory.” Is that really something any conscientious American (Jewish or not) should ignore? Shut our eyes and think of 1948 or 1967, when Israel’s existence was genuinely in danger? Most American Jews have rightly moved beyond that logic.
Today, it is simply impossible for supporters of Israel to ignore the issue of democracy, both in Israel and in the US. AIPAC has failed in that regard.
Harkening back to a time when American Jews were more united does not solve today’s issues. That means that defining “pro-Israel” cannot be franchised out to an organization that has clearly shown that democracy is not its concern. Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir must be opposed by American Jews as strongly as they oppose Donald Trump.
We recognize, of course, that there are genuinely anti-Israel forces in the US and in the world. But we cannot shut our eyes to the truly dangerous forces within Israel as well.
Iran is currently the only potentially existential outside threat that Israel faces – and it is beyond question that the American Jewish left has demonstrated its resolve against Iran.
American Jews have both an American and a Jewish duty to vote their consciences on Israel, not to subvert democracy by blind support of an Israeli government that does not believe in its basic tenets.
Paul Scham is president of Partners for Progressive Israel and Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he is a Professor of Israel Studies. The views expressed here are his own.