Democracy is on the march in the Middle East — forward in Egypt and Tunisia; backward, alas, in Israel.
The Israeli parliament’s Immigration, Absorption and Public Diplomacy Committee held a hearing last week to determine whether an American Jewish organization that favors a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conundrum could call itself “pro-Israel.”
If that sounds bizarre — a committee of Israel’s Knesset presuming to instruct an American Jewish organization on how it should characterize itself — well, that’s because it is. At the risk of telling the committee how it should characterize itself, it might consider changing its name to the Knesset Un-Jewish Activities Committee.
This outbreak of Middle East McCarthyism came in response to a position that the organization in question, J Street, took on a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn Israel’s settlement policy — a resolution based in part on statements that administration officials had made in opposition to the settlements.
When young people in the Arab Middle East are scrutinizing America’s support for democratic change, J Street argued, the United States should reaffirm its opposition to the settlements by abstaining from voting on the resolution rather than — as the administration ultimately did — vetoing it.
In a larger sense, though, the real quarrel the Israeli right, and the American Jewish right, have with J Street is that it has provided an alternative for American Jews who support Israel but don’t support the determination of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other intransigents to do nothing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian standoff or end the 44-year occupation of the West Bank. (Indeed, by continuing to authorize new settlements, Netanyahu has made resolution more difficult and the occupation more onerous.)
What J Street has done is set itself up as an alternative to the organizations and funders around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who support Israel’s intransigence. Just as AIPAC’s allies raise funds for congressional candidates it pressures to stick with Israel’s occupation and settlement policies, so J Street’s political action committee raises funds for candidates committed to a two-state resolution to the conflict and more active American involvement in pursuing that resolution.
The Knesset hearing on J Street’s Zionist credentials has upset a broad range of American Jewish organizations that don’t share J Street’s views. The American Jewish Committee and Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, both criticized the undue interference in American Jewish organizational life. The hearing also riled Israeli advocates of a two-state solution, including other Knesset members, four of whom traveled to Washington last month for a J Street conference.
Some Knesset members who disagree with J Street nonetheless condemned the efforts to label the group as beyond the pale. “I do not agree with most of the opinions of the organization,” said Nachman Shai of Israel’s centrist Kadima Party, “but we cannot boycott them.”
But boycotting is precisely what the Israeli far right would like to do — and the Israeli far right is well represented both in the Knesset and the Netanyahu administration. In recent weeks, for instance, the Knesset enacted a law that allows communities of 400 or fewer households to keep out potential residents who may not “fit in.” It establishes the same kind of restrictive covenants that Jewish, black and civil rights groups in the United States fought against for decades before the Supreme Court declared them discriminatory and illegal.
As Israel shifts to the right, it increasingly alienates younger American Jews — a generally very liberal group (the Orthodox excepted) that sees in Israel a nation moving toward apartheid unless it changes course.
J Street is one of the few points of connection between those younger Jews and the Zionist democratic ideal. “You’d think a country as small as Israel would want to broaden its base of supporters,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, told me. Declaring groups such as his to be enemies of the state, he notes, “isn’t much of a survival strategy.”
It also doesn’t comport, he might have added, with the most fundamental Jewish traditions. If the Old Testament were purged of its prophets’ attacks on the Israeli people for failing to live up to their ideals, it would be about half its length. In the Book of Isaiah, Israel is described as “a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers.” In Jeremiah, the Jews are a “foolish people” who “have eyes and see not, that have ears and hear not.”
Maybe the Knesset’s Un-Jewish Activities Committee should hold hearings on Isaiah and Jeremiah. Pretty subversive stuff, if you ask me.