By Adel Latifi
Israel depends on and has benefited greatly from the immense influence of Jewish elites in the west, particularly those who operate in lobbies such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. These pressure groups give Israel unlimited support for its policies, even when they are in blatant violation of international law and flagrant defiance of moral and humanitarian values, such as when Israel attacked the Gaza aid flotilla. However, there is evidence of a shift in such “Israel, right or wrong” attitudes in recent years, with members of the Jewish Diaspora now feeling able to criticise the Jewish state. A notable feature of this shift is the emergence of a new American Jewish lobby called “J Street” and, to a lesser extent, its European sister, “J Call”.
While it is essential for readers to keep track of these changes for they constitute an effective component of the overall struggle for justice – attainment of the historical, legal and moral rights of the Palestinian people remains distant.
J Street threatens AIPAC
Since its inception in 1951, AIPAC has grown to monopolise the representation of American Jews in the discourse over the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite the existence of other Jewish opinions, collective and individual, which oppose Zionist ideology. The Zionist lobby in the US has been faithful to its founding goal of supporting Israel in its conflict with the Arabs. It has succeeded to a large extent in having absolute control over US government policy towards the Middle East, so much so that delivering a speech at its annual conference is de rigueur for any candidate in the race for the US presidency, Democrat or Republican.
This situation changed in April 2008 when an elite group of Jewish American politicians and intellectuals called for the formation of a new lobby in opposition to AIPAC’s blind support for Israel. It was an important step when they announced the establishment of J Street Political Action Committee.
The shift in the position of this section of the Jewish community was manifested by the opening the door of criticism of Israeli policies and the actions of the Israeli military in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. This was highly unusual in the American political arena, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush.
J Street stands against military solutions to the Israel-Palestine and wider Middle East conflicts, advocating direct dialogue with the Palestinians and dialogue with Iran, opposing the current Israeli government’s call for an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. These positions were made clear in the wake of the criminal hijacking by Israel of the humanitarian flotilla in May. J Street issued a statement in which it criticised sharply the policy of the right-wing government in Tel Aviv, which led to AIPAC accusations of “treason” against the Jews and Israel.
Despite such powerful opposition, the J Street lobby is expanding day by day and continues to have a positive impact on public opinion across America, Jew and non-Jew alike, as well as on the US political elite, especially among Democrats, including President Obama.
General context of the shift in Jewish attitudes
How do we explain this sudden change? There had been similar experiences before J Street but they did not rise to the organisational level of a lobby such as Israel Policy Forum, which was established in 1993 with the support of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
A profound transformation has taken place within the US Jewish community and on a strategic level around the world. It is common knowledge that J Street came into being following the publication in 2006 of an international relations report which concluded that Israeli policies have damaged severely US interests and status in the Middle East. AIPAC was held directly responsible for that situation. As such, the report opened a door in the American academic and media arena that the Zionist lobby has endeavoured to keep locked: the possibility of criticising Israeli policies and highlighting the threat they represent to US interests.
Some researchers believe that a reassessment of Israel’s policies began in the aftermath of the destructive war waged by its armed forces against Lebanon in 2006, which ended ignominiously for Israel and added further massacres to the IDF’s already infamous record. A critical approach was consolidated further in the wake of the brutal and devastating war against Palestinians in Gaza in 2009. Israel’s military arrogance that was tolerated during the Cold War has now become unacceptable, a shift that the country’s political elite has failed to grasp.
The second level of the shift in Jewish American attitudes towards Israel is linked to social and demographic transformations in the community. Most of today’s Jews are not Holocaust survivors, which makes the idea of Israel being a refuge from persecution not as important as it is for the older generation with first-hand memories of that atrocity. Some statistics indicate that the vast majority of young American Jews do not regard the possibility of the non-existence of Israel as a catastrophe. Some scholars, like Pauline Peretz, link this change to more Jews leaving the fold of the wider Jewish ethnic group through marriage outside the community.
AIPAC is thus a lobby with a decreasing level of grassroots support operating apart from the diversity of Jewish social and political reality in America. So much so, in fact, that it is now seen as working on behalf of a foreign country more than it serves the interests of the US and the American people. J Street found its place within this vacuum by defending US interests first and encouraging the US administration to impose peace on Israel and curb its aggressive tendencies.
J Call: a weaker European version
In line with this new orientation within the American Jewish community some European Jews met in Brussels and issued a statement on May 3rd, 2010 which they called “J Call: Call for Reason”. Although this initiative was inspired by J Street, it has not risen to the same level of serious criticism of Israeli policies. On the contrary, and unlike J Street, it seeks to justify many abuses committed by Israel. “Our connection to the State of Israel is part of our identity,”‘ said J Call’s founders, who added that they “are concerned about the future of the State of Israel to which [they] are unfailingly committed.” They believe that “Israel faces existential threats. Far from underestimating the threats from its external enemies, we know that the danger also lies in the occupation and the continuing pursuit of settlements in the West Bank and in the Arab districts of East Jerusalem. These policies are morally and politically wrong and feed the unacceptable de-legitimisation process that Israel currently faces abroad.”
The major point that sums up the true orientation of this Jewish European declaration is its call for the “survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”, which would mean in practice getting rid of the Palestinian demographic threat in the territories occupied in 1948; that is, the expulsion of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens. In this sense, calls for a two-state solution are aimed at finding a solution to this demographic time-bomb rather than a serious quest for peace.
Article One of the J Call declaration states that “Israel will soon be faced with two, equally disastrous choices: either to become a state in which Jews would be a minority in their own country, or establish a regime that would be a disgrace to Israel and lead to civil unrest.”
This is where J Call strays far from the philosophy of J Street and its political positions, which aim primarily to mobilise Jewish public opinion to be effective and helpful to their own country, the United States. Unlike their American counterparts, J Call’s active members such as France’s Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut have defended Israel and its army enthusiastically against the wave of indignation that hit it following the crimes against the humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza.
Moreover the lack of serious efforts from J Call to curb Israeli arrogance and barbarism did not prevent the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) from declaring dissatisfaction with the founding declaration and refusing to sign it. By giving unconditional support to Israel and its army, this council is the French equivalent of AIPAC. The difference in the intensity of these two lobby groups’ opposition to Israeli policies reflects an essential difference between the Jews’ situation in America and Europe. It seems as if American Jews are more likely to oppose Israeli policies than the European Jews are. This could be because Europe remains a prisoner of a World War Two guilt complex, which prompts a deeper question related to the nature of Europe’s collective conscience, especially among political elites associated with the establishment of the State of Israel right from the start.
European political culture considers Israel to be an extension of Europe; this was the stated aim of the founder of modern political Zionism (Israel’s founding ideology), Theodor Herzl. In America, Israel has always been an ally primarily because in recognising Israel within ten minutes of its declaration of independence, the then US President Harry S. Truman acknowledged that Jewish votes were important to his election; it was, in short, an entirely pragmatic recognition but the Jewish vote has been an important factor in every US election since 1948, a fact exploited by Israel and its lobby.
Such information provides a more objective picture of the complex and sometimes conflicting relationship between what is happening inside Israel and what is happening with Jewish supporters of the state in the West. At the same time, an objective look at this shift in support in terms of its relevance to the historical rights of the Palestinian people and from the perspective of real diversity with Western Jewish attitudes towards Israel, demonstrates how remote it is from the promotion of a just peace.
America’s J Street lobby attempts through its opposition to AIPAC to identify itself with the Jewish political left. The reality is that it remains a liberal Jewish lobby that tries to save current support for Israel at the expense of certain groups and individuals who have actually opposed actively Israeli policies since the state’s establishment; orthodox Jewish groups such as Neturei Karta are a case in point.
The same applies to Europe’s J Call which caused many Jewish groups genuinely supporting Palestinian rights to denounce the hypocrisy of an irrational “Call for Reason” which carries with it implicit racism towards Israeli Arabs. As a result, no matter how deep this shift in attitude towards Israel might seem, we are still a long way from the emergence of a broad movement within the Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic that is able to meet the challenge of campaigning for Palestinian rights or, at the very least, of neutralising the pernicious influence of traditionally racist institutions such as AIPAC.
Adel Latifi is a Tunisian university lecturer
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.