Historically the US political and media mainstream has often dismissed those who are critical of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic, making it difficult for solidarity activists, including Jewish Americans, to speak out. And although the climate is changing, even today critical conversations that are commonplace in Israel are often still taboo in the US. So what impact will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's appointment of Ron Dermer as Israel's new ambassador to the US have on Jewish American voices?
First we need to establish who Ron Dermer is.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz describes Dermer as a "right-wing neo-con" whose "positions on policy are far more extreme than Netanyahu's." Even The Jerusalem Post calls him a "pugnacious loyalist" to the Prime Minister. +972 Magazine reports that Dermer once penned a letter in defense of a controversial statement made by Netanyahu, arguing that it was totally justified for Israeli politicians to support policies that reduce the Arab population in Israel, and that in fact this is the kind of Zionism that should make Israelis proud, thus exposing the racist tendency of that political ideology and practice.
Dermer, who is known as Netanyahu's closest advisor, was born in the state of Florida and is reportedly close to the Bush family, particularly former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is considered a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Dermer is an active supporter of the Republican Party and organized former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign visit to Israel last year. Although he immigrated to Israel in 1997, Dermer has continued to maintain close ties to many political elites in Washington. For example, he is also thought to have orchestrated the Israeli Prime Minister's 2011 speech to the US Congress, where Netanyahu received more standing ovations than President Obama did in his State of the Union address that same year. An outspoken critic of the "two state solution," Dermer is reportedly viewed by the Obama Administration with suspicion, although Secretary of State John Kerry apparently welcomed his appointment.
Unlike former Ambassador Michael Oren, who reached out to many Jewish American organizations and sugarcoated Israel's occupation of Palestine as well as its system of apartheid, Dermer is known to be dismissive of those with whom he disagrees. Indeed The Jerusalem Post reports that in 2009 Dermer admitted that he considers "cultivating ties with the American Jewish community's liberal wing a waste of time." He also led efforts to ban foreign funding of human rights organizations working in Israel, which are often bankrolled by Jewish American benefactors, and "is believed to be behind the liberal lobby J Street's inability to secure meetings with high-level officials during its Israel trips." Even so, J Street publicly welcomed his appointment.
And yet perhaps Dermer's honesty and dismissiveness are a blessing in disguise, because as Sydney Levy from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) explains, politicians and diplomats are not the problem - Israel's oppressive policies are. Putting a nice face on these policies only helps to prolong the occupation and system of apartheid. Furthermore, Levy suggests that Dermer's honesty may actually end up leading to conversations that break current taboos. Because if the new Israeli ambassador to the US is opposed to two states and strongly calls for Israel to maintain its Jewish majority, then the continuing dispossession of Palestinians from their land will be required. Thus Jewish Americans may soon find themselves in a position where they finally have to confront the issue of what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. And according to Levy, although always ever present, up until now this subject has been difficult for many Jewish Americans to openly discuss.
From an international perspective, it is all too easy to characterize Jewish Americans based on the power of the Israel Lobby. However as Levy points out, the idea of a "Jewish voting bloc" in American politics today is a myth. Jewish Americans hold diverse views and many vote according to issues unrelated to Israel, as illustrated in the recent presidential election. Pro-Zionist politicians and organizations campaigned to mobilize votes for Romney because he was supposedly better for the government in Israel. This failed, with 69 per cent of Jewish Americans casting their vote for President Barack Obama. Indeed it is not Jewish Americans who unquestioningly stand by Israel.
And neither do supporters of the Democratic Party, as was evidenced by the dubious vote at the 2012 Democratic National Convention regarding a motion to include a statement in the party platform that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. For those of you who did not follow this news, participants clearly voted against the measure, however it was included regardless by party leaders. Thus while the Democratic Party officially remains unquestionably loyal to the government of Israel, internally there is growing dissent.
Jewish organizations that support the "peace process" and "two-state solution" while actively opposing Jewish settlements are very popular in the US. But however important this kind of work may be to counter other trends in American politics that seek to undermine Palestinian rights in the occupied territories, the framework of the current "peace process" that seeks to establish a "two-state solution" usually ignores the critical issues of Palestinian refugees and Israel's system of apartheid.
While there are many Jewish Americans who are critical of both stalled peace efforts and Israel's policies more broadly, Levy admits that up until now few Jewish American institutions have moved from words to actions. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is an opportunity for more and more Jewish Americans to take action, but to do so they must first confront what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state, because BDS calls for "recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality" and "respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194." So they must ask themselves, is being a Jewish State a question of religion? Or is it a question of maintaining a Jewish majority? And if it is about a Jewish majority, what kinds of policies are required to make that happen? Or are there other interpretations, and if so, what are they? Dermer's strong position on Israel's current policies may force Jewish Americans to confront not only the policies, but also the rationale behind them.
JVP is a grassroots community of activists that is interested in Jewish Americans confronting these issues and having that conversation, however it may play out. The group is deeply committed to the BDS campaign, which is a movement that Israelis are finally starting to pay attention to because its recent successes show that the State of Israel is increasingly becoming isolated, as illustrated by the European Union's recent decision to restrict financial dealings with Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The EU is also conditioning all future agreements and contracts with Israel on the latter's recognition of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as occupied territories. Earlier this week Haaretz also published a foreboding editorial warning that BDS may force the Israeli economy to pay a steep price for its continued occupation of the West Bank and its diplomatic inaction. Note – the newspaper did not say that Israel is likely to pay a price because its opponents are anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli, but instead because the state's policies are objectionable.
Although Jewish Americans remain divided, BDS has gradually been gaining momentum here in the US, especially on college campuses and in churches, and the grassroots mobilization for justice in Palestine is increasingly diverse. Indeed Levy calls it a rainbow coalition, including people of color among other activists mobilized around various civil rights issues, such as LGBT rights and immigrants' rights. And although the Israeli Lobby is spending vast amounts of money to try and recruit minorities into the pro-Zionist camp, Levy points out that Israel's oppressive policies speak for themselves.
So while it is hard to predict the future, based on what we know of the past it is likely that the new Israeli Ambassador to the US will continue to articulate these policies in an honest way that is dismissive of dissent - in other words, perfectly for those Jewish Americans who seek to mobilize their community for change.