Does Israel advocacy have to be defined by the extremes

A number of my family members are devoted to AIPAC. They regularly attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and return energized and recommitted to supporting Israel unconditionally. Like me to an extent, I think they live under the shadow of both the Holocaust and the existential threat to Israel. As a result, they are prepared to overlook or soft-pedal issues that seem to matter more to the younger members of our family, who are much more interested in issues of internal governance, civil rights and equitable treatment of both Israel’s Arab minority and those who live in the occupied West Bank.

I feel caught in the middle.

To me, AIPAC seems to be in a time warp. I remember listening to the keynote address of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the AIPAC meeting in 2011. The speech could have been delivered by David Ben-Gurion 40 years previously.

But Israel, to me, is no longer the idealistic socialist state that I grew up with. We were so proud of that Israel that we gave it a free pass when it came to civil liberties and other social issues. In part we did so because we didn’t focus on the Palestinians as people with their own hopes and aspirations (and rights). In part we trusted Israel to, eventually, do the right thing and acknowledged that the necessity of survival against relentlessly hostile enemies was an overarching priority. Basically, we accepted that Israel had its heart in the right place and eventually things would work out if only the Arabs finally reconciled themselves to the fact of Israel’s existence.

Unfortunately, these premises gradually were undermined by the sea change in Israel’s government when Labor lost its mandate to govern back in 1977, by the increasing influence of the extreme religious and secular right in Israel, not to mention the continuing

refusal of the Arabs to do what we both expected and hoped they would do, which was to negotiate a permanent settlement.

As a result, when I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu giving the same old ’70s-era speech to an adoring crowd, it just did not move me, and it also seemed divorced from reality. (I was also shocked by the scant applause given President Obama when he spoke to the same group.)

In comparison, a younger generation of American Jews, not traumatized by the Holocaust the way people like me were, and who have always lived with an Israel (and a victorious one at that), just did not approach matters the same way. Among other things, they refuse to accept the notion that American Jews should just sit down and shut up when it came to abuses of power or, at least, “keep it in the family” by not going public. In a sense, this is where the tension occurs. To me AIPAC represents expediency — the ends are so important that its supporters justify the means (which is not a historically Jewish concept).

Nevertheless, I tried to buy into AIPAC. But when I attended an AIPAC luncheon some years ago in San Francisco featuring a Republican senator as keynote speaker, I came away feeling that the room was full of users: The politicians were professing undying love for Israel for the sake of the Jewish vote and campaign contributions. The Jewish “leaders” were professing love for the Republican senator solely on account of her pro-Israel positions, and many of the participants were busily networking with each other for the sake of business development. It was not a pleasant vibe, and I did not go back.

Yet I also don’t feel comfortable criticizing Israel in public, and I agree with Rabbi Danny Gordis that J Street’s “big tent” is too big for my taste — there are people within its embrace that I just don’t come close to agreeing with, principally because I am not convinced that they are unconditionally committed to the existence of Israel, which is my personal litmus test.

It is also very much my impression that unceasing Arab intransigence and increasing political correctness on the left has taken a toll on support of Israel, at least for those who identify themselves on the left of the political spectrum. Otherwise put, it is “politically incorrect” in such circles to support Israel, and that is the case even when that support is nuanced.

So what does someone like me do? AIPAC doesn’t seem to be the right place. But I don’t know that J Street is either. I also have concerns about J Street’s political advocacy, which seems intended to undermine if not Israel’s standing with the United States and in the world at large, then that of the government of the day. While I can understand and to an extent sympathize with J Street’s discontent with Israel’s government, I’m not prepared to go that far.

I am deeply grateful that President Obama does not seem to have held against Netanyahu (or at least not against Israel) the prime minister’s regrettable attempt to influence the Jewish vote in the last election. However, it is also clear to me that American-style “come let us reason together” solutions are not going anywhere. But maintaining the status quo also seems to me to be a losing proposition, as time does not seem to be on Israel’s side. That’s the dilemma.

So the long and the short of it is that I haven’t found an advocacy group that really works for people like me. I know that I care passionately about Israel even if I don’t approve of many things the government does and/or the way it does them. Maybe if there was something out there called MIDPAC (Middle-of-the-Road Political Action Committee), and if that group could somehow advocate for Israel while not just keeping silent when Israel does something that is inconsistent with both Jewish and American ideals (which are pretty much the same thing as far as I’m concerned), I’d have something to join. But until there is such a group (and assuming that such a group is even feasible), I don’t believe I have a home in either AIPAC or J Street.

Robert E. White is a San Francisco attorney who writes about Judaism, law, social policy and technology at www.rwhitesf.blogspot.com.