New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he’d be available to help out AIPAC, the mainstream–by which I mean it has by far the most broad-based support of any such group–pro-Israel lobby. A group of New York Jewish leftists signed a short public letter in response: “We understand that the job of mayor of New York is a complex one that often calls for your participation on the international stage, and we would not presume to define your job for you. But we do know that the needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and that no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.” The letter writers included two rabbis, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, who are affiliated with the popular Upper West Side synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun.
Putting aside one’s feelings about AIPAC (mine are overall positive, but not unambiguously so), these rabbis should be ashamed of themselves. The letter they signed constitutes not just lashon hara (malicious or derogatory speech about another person), which is hard to avoid when you involve yourself in public debates, but hotzaat shem ra (slander or defamation). The lashon hara is calling AIPAC’s supporters “right-wingers” in a derogatory manner; the hotzaat shem ra is that most of AIPAC’s supporters are not “right-wing,” but are liberal to moderate Democrats, and, Republican or Democract, support the two-state solution. This reflects the overwhelming Democratic bias of the Jewish community from which AIPAC draws most of its supporters. Orthodox Jews these days trend Republican and are far more active than average in the Jewish community, but many of them find AIPAC too left-wing because it promotes Israeli peace initiatives that would require extinguishing some West Bank settlements. It’s also false to state that AIPAC “speaks for Israel’s right-wing government.” Putting aside the question of whether a government that has reportedly made an opening offer of 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians is accurately deemed “right-wing,” AIPAC isn’t the Israeli government’s mouthpiece, and speaks only for itself and on behalf of its American members, promoting the priorities of its mainstream pro-Israel constituency regardless of who is in power in Israel.
As an aside, the problem staunch some left-leaning Jews have with AIPAC is two-fold: (1) As a nonpartisan pro-Israel lobby, it cooperates with both Republicans and Democrats, exactly as a non-partisan lobby should. But since the Jewish community leans left, Jewish support for a nonpartisan group pushes the community’s resources to the right; and (2) By not involving itself in Israeli internal politics, AIPAC fails to push Israeli politics to the left, where the the leftist Jews want it to be. Nevertheless, it takes a special sort of myopia to call AIPAC, a non-partisan group with a traditionally Democratic leadership, and mostly Democratic membership, “right-wing.”
But I digress. A group of congregants active in AIPAC signed a public letter quite properly taking their rabbis to task for the way they “mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members.” They wrote: “Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements.” They also note that while the rabbis don’t want to be associated with AIPAC and its members, including their congregants, they co-signed a letter with a leading proponent of boycotting Israel, widely seen as beyond the pale in the Jewish world. The congregants go on to briefly explain their support of AIPAC, but they really could have stopped there; their rabbis slandered them, and should apologize and withdraw their names from the letter (though they haven’t yet done so, to my knowledge).
Peter Beinart of Ha’aretz, who signed the letter, has meanwhile weighed in with a rather bizarrre non sequitur, disputing whether Israel can claim to be a democracy so long as the Palestinians don’t have full self-government in the West Bank. (Really? Was the U.S. not a “democracy” when it fully occupied Japan and Germany, or even Cuba and the Philippines?) But the letter he and the rabbis signed said nothing about democracy, or the West Bank, or anything else that Beinart focused on. Rather, it said that de Blasio should keep his distance from AIPAC because AIPAC is a right-wing mouthpiece for the right-wing Israeli government and its right-wing membership. Instead of confronting the falsehoods he signed on to, Beinart merely changed the subject.
Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, Jonathan Tobin shreds the substance of Beinart’s piece here.
Finally, Beinart suggests that the letter writers were acting courageously. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “nothing is more trite, and better for one’s career in left-wing circles, than to be a Jewish liberal/left intellectual publicly attacking Israel. Exactly how many pro-Israel left-leaning organizations and periodicals are there right now, beyond the New Republic?” And judging by John Judis’s new book, not even TNR.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a “right-winger,” but in the context of Upper West Side Jewish left-liberal culture, calling someone a “right-winger” is meant to convey the sort of negative implications that calling someone “pink down to his underpants” at a small town American Legion Hall in 1950 would have done. And surely the rabbis are well aware of that.