In his 1988 book, Israel’s Fateful Hour, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, Yehoshafat Harkabi, regarded up until the day of his death in 1994 as perhaps Israel’s premier expert on the Arab world and Islam, wrote the following:
“Given that Israel’s predicament also affects Jews in the Diaspora, they too should take an active part in the debate. Israelis must allow them to do so and listen to what
they have to say…they must not be banished from the discussion, and to this end they must do their homework. They must also dare to speak their minds candidly, without being afraid to disagree with Israel. The reticence of the American Jewish leadership is not to their credit. Instead of publicly expressing their concern, they act as apologists for policies and conduct of which many of them privately disapprove, abdicating their responsibilities as leaders in America and as influential advisers in Israel.”
Harkabi is surely spinning in his grave today.
In two separate but parallel incidents, the assault on dissent from Israeli policies, and especially on Jewish dissent, continued and grew in intensity. The first, an all too typical example of the craven way in which the American Jewish community narrowly confines debate for its own people, was at Brandeis University, where the local Hillel chapter refused to admit the campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
The second was more stunning, and more of a departure from business as usual. This was the announcement that the leading crusaders against democracy in the Knesset – Othniel Schneller (Kadima) and Danny Danon (Likud) – are taking aim outside of Israel’s borders and targeting J Street.
On the Brandeis matter, I will be brief and refer you to the excellent reporting of the matter done by Jeremiah Haber at The Magnes Zionist. Jerry’s excellent take on the matter can be found here, his report on Brandeis’ J Street U chapter criticizing JVP’s exclusion despite the political differences between the groups is here, and Jerry’s spotlight on the Brandeis JVP chapter can be found here. Also, check out Meretz USA’s statement at their blog.
I’ll just add one point. The history of the American Jewish community is stuffed to bursting with heroic champions of human and civil rights. In some instances, that has extended to work on the Israeli occupation, although in other cases, some American liberals and leftists have had a blind spot on that score.
But today in the USA, we face unprecedented attacks on the gains in those regards. The economy, more stratified than ever and in worse shape than at any time since the Great Depression, fosters a climate of anger and scapegoating. We are seeing brutal reversals of the gains so many fought and literally died for in empowering working people. And we’re seeing a climate of hate mounting against Muslims that is so potent, it has become mainstream enough to enable congressional hearings of a type not seen since the days of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn.
In that climate, more than ever, the Jewish community must resume its place of leadership in the fight for equality for all. We must this not just because we have been so integral part of so many progressive movements in this country historically, but also because history shows us that, no matter how prosperous or secure the Jewish position seems to be in any country (and, to be sure, in these regards, American Jews are in the best position in our history), our fortunes are easily reversed.
Nowhere is the fostering of that leadership more important than on the campuses of universities, where budding minds and spirits are nurtured in the direction they will pursue for years. And if we cannot foster the values of open debate and of confronting injustice within our own community, how can we hope to do it in the broader world?
In their decision, the Brandeis Hillel, which, as Jerry Haber points out, seems from its own statements to feel considerable discomfort with the decision they made, consistently cites guidelines set down by the National Hillel body. In this attempt to stifle debate, Hillel reflects well the words of MK Schneller, who said: “I asked for the hearing … but because I want to look into the commitment of [J Street’s] Jewish love and support for Israel. If they don’t love and support Israel, then they should not present themselves as pro-Israel.”
Schneller asks for no such investigation of AIPAC, which works tirelessly in Washington to protect Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, despite the mortal threat the settlement enterprise represents to Israel.
Indeed, when Yitzhak Rabin wished to make peace, he recognized AIPAC as an obstacle, and one that would pull out all the stops to oppose peace. Think I’m exaggerating? Check out the words of AIPAC’s former Legislative Director of nine years, Douglas Bloomfield.
But working to keep Israel in a permanent state of war is, apparently, an act of unquestionable love to Schneller. Working for peace, a realistic two-state solution and to rescue Israel from the deadly threat of the settlements (a danger more clear and present than anything the Arab world can present, and even more so than a still-potential Iranian nuclear capability), however calls into question, in Schneller’s mind, one’s love of Israel.
Schneller, though certainly on the right wing of his party when it comes to dissenting opinions, is a member of the center-right wing party, Kadima. The more extreme rightists, who, in this government hold (if we consider “right” to be Likud and any party more extreme than them) 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, are more explicit.
MK Nissim Ze’ev of the Shas party has this to say about J Street: “Their sheer hatred toward the State of Israel and the government’s policies is more terrible than that of Israel’s worst enemies.”
Of course, a Knesset committee has no power over an American Jewish group like J Street. Indeed, such a committee, even when formed to conduct a witch-hunt against Israeli civil society groups can’t really do much. But the smear tactic, Schneller, Danon, Ze’ev and their cohorts hope, will stymie dissenting opinions.
J Street has not, as of this writing responded. But other Jewish groups have.
Jewish Voice for Peace said, “J Street’s activities, like those of AIPAC and many other Jewish American organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, are part of a long tradition of Jewish American engagement with the state of Israel. The range of political opinions expressed by Jewish American organizations is as varied as those within Israel itself. This investigation is part and parcel of the very disturbing anti-democratic trend within Israel which is narrowing the range of acceptable political discourse. We urge Americans and Israelis to join us in rejecting the singling out of J Street in particular, and in fighting assaults on democracy in Israel in general.”
While Americans for Peace Now issued a very strongly worded statement, including this: “Americans who care about peace for Israel will not be intimidated. Inappropriate moves such as this decision taken by the Knesset will only reinforce our determination to fight for an Israel that we can be proud of, a democratic Israel, living in peace with its neighbors, within secure, internationally recognized borders.”
On top of continuing efforts to undermine social service, human and civil rights groups in Israel, to criminalize free speech, and the Netanyahu government’s continuing to place new and greater obstacles in the way of peace, these attacks on a group which has just demonstrated its considerable base of support in the American Jewish community only increase Israel’s isolation, and contribute to the growing gap between Israel and the Diaspora.
Yehoshafat Harkabi, whom no one ever called naïve, nor questioned his absolute devotion to Israeli security, would be ashamed.
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