A New Voice For Israel

A review essay of A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation by Jeremy Ben-Ami. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). ISBN-10: 0230112749. Price US$26.00, 256 pages.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, a new interest group for Israel which presents an alternative, more liberal voice to the American government and media. His well-established rivals are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and allied groups which are conservative, powerful, and associated with the right in Israel.

The author begins with his family history, which though perhaps long and seemingly at times beside the point, serves two important purposes: it demonstrates that he has strong familial and emotional ties to Israel and that a long-standing establishment in the US does not always welcome voices of criticism, even from within the community.

Ben-Ami’s grandparents emigrated from Russia into British-ruled Palestine during the interwar years and scratched out a living as farmers. In the thirties, his father became a follower of Revisionist Zionism. He saw an impending catastrophe for European Jews and sought to bring them into Palestine, though it meant breaking the law, incurring the ire of British authorities, and entailing violence. His father also served in the Irgun, which fought the indigenous Arabs, the British, and even other Israeli forces once the state was established.

His father and like-minded colleagues travelled to the US seeking Jewish support there for their movement but found opposition from the establishment. Some American Jews were more concerned with political reform in the US; others thought it would raise the troubling matter of Jewish disloyalty to the US; still others thought that a messiah would prevent a catastrophe befalling the Jewish people. Events regarding the catastrophe were proven right yet to this day the Jewish establishment minimizes the importance of Ben-Ami’s father and his colleagues. They are allotted only passing mention in books and small spaces in Holocaust museums in Washington and Jerusalem.

Times have changed and another crisis is at hand. This one involves the damage to Israeli beliefs, institutions, and prospects for survival as a democratic nation. It comes not from foreign danger but from the continuing occupation of the West Bank. Shortly after the land was taken in the 1967 war, Israeli statesmen and at least one general (Yigal Allon) warned that occupation would turn Israel into a colonial power with all the twisted rationalizations and increasing oppression that would entail. He and many other concerned Jews in the US and Israel see that unfolding; a new and more powerful establishment does not.

Ben-Ami sees the establishment in the US comprising AIPAC but many other groups such as the Emergency Committee for Israel (closely tied to Neoconservatism) and Christian fundamentalist groups. He credits them with solidifying bipartisan support for Israel but sees them as representing only the right of US Jews ”“ chiefly the religious right and Neoconservatives. The establishment wields a good deal of power and defends it fiercely. Ben-Ami criticizes it for harsh methods in dealing with congress, for inattention to liberal Jews, and for alienating younger generations of Jews from Israel.

Members of congress and staff members complain that the establishment’s legislative affairs cadre are heavy handed and sometimes threatening. Legislation is to be put on the floor and passed without significant airing. Protests and demurrals lead to accusations of siding with Israel’s enemies. It’s a white-black, us-them approach, and resentment against AIPAC and its cohorts, according to Ben-Ami, is reaching a critical level.

According to data presented by the author, only a small number of American Jews see Israel as their foremost concern. They are far more interested in the length and breadth of American political life and global issues, many of them humanitarian. Eighty-two percent favor a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue; 69% oppose West Bank settlements in part or completely; 65% want the US to act in the peace process even if it means that Israel must make compromises.

Polls show that younger non-Orthodox Jews in the US are less tied to Israel than their older and observant kin. The establishment is upset and sees this as the baleful effect of secularization, leftist orientations, and detachment from political engagement. Ben-Ami sees the weaker ties to Israel as owing to a generational shift. Younger Jews do not see themselves or Israel as victims of the Holocaust or facing imminent destruction from foreign armies. The Holocaust is a vivid historical lesson but one with limited importance for today’s politics. Israel is a regional superpower and has a sizable nuclear arsenal. Younger Jews are alienated by Israeli policies, which conflict deeply with liberal political orientations. The occupation of the West Bank and continued settlements are offensive and are undermining the country’s democracy.

Four years ago Ben-Ami launched J Street, an alternative to establishment lobbying and public affairs efforts. It seeks to mobilize liberal and younger Jews to support efforts to bring about peace in the region. The establishment is striking back. It presses schools, synagogues, and Hillel chapters on college campuses to deny access to J Street speakers. Donors are asked to boycott Ben-Ami’s organization. Talk radio and mass e-mailings brand him as anti-Israel and even bent on destroying the Jewish state. One email likens his staff to ”œkapos” ”“ the term for Jewish collaborators in Nazi concentration and extermination camps.

The author presents four themes for his movement. First, supporting Israel isn’t a yes-or-no thing; there must be questioning and engagement. Second, a ”œmy country right or wrong” view isn’t helpful to solving problems or truly patriotic either. Third, supporters of Israel should not ally with groups such as John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, which has espoused hostility to Muslims, Catholics, and others. Fourth, support for Israel must not entail opposition to Palestinian causes, including the drive for statehood.

Ben-Ami sees settling the Palestinian issue as more than a moral issue; it is also essential to the security of the US and the future of Israel. He cites American thinkers such as retired general and present CIA chief David Petraeus, former CIA head and recently retired defense secretary Robert Gates, and the prominent realist strategist Anthony Cordesman, all of whom have noted that the Palestinian issue is an obstacle to America’s security interests in the entire Middle East.

A settlement is also vital Israel’s democratic form of government. Ben-Ami sees anti-democratic forces on the rise. Dissent is less welcome than decades ago and it is conducted in an atmosphere of declining comity; the legislature is pondering the formation of committees to look into domestic opponents. Further, thinkers and politicians are pondering implementation of a restricted form of citizenship for non-Jews. This would be the groundwork of a one-state solution with Jewish first-class citizens and Arab second-class subjects ”“ perhaps the goal of some in the establishment and in the far right in Israel.

©2012 Brian M Downing

Brian M. Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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  • until I realized Israel will never accept that. They have appropriated the entire West Bank and have no intention of giving it up, but they will not and do not really share it with the Arab population. By continuing to pretend a two-state solution is possible, they can avoid granting West Bank Arabs any rights. Keeping even the Israeli Arabs in 2nd-class status, they have lost all claim to being a democracy. Aside from those who are Right Wing as a political stance, the ultra-Orthodox have way too much influence and it is this group which aims for a Greater Israel.

    I have no problem with Judaism but strongly oppose the Zionist extremism I see today. Strangely enough, except for the hardcore fundamentalists, most Muslims feel the same. Historically, Jews have fared better as a minority under Muslim rule than under Christian rule.

    Israel plays the Holocaust Card with great skill and the US and much of Europe feels enough guilt to let Israel get away with murder, figuratively and literally. You’d think that eventually we’d realize you can’t bring back six million dead by killing and disenfranchising millions of Arabs.

    (Miko Peled – The General’s Son, worth reading – noted an event that turn his father from one of Israel’s top generals into a peace activist: Israeli troops in Gaza arrived in a neighborhood with a bulldozer, lined up all the males 13 to 80+ and shot them. Then they laid the bodies in the street and drove the bulldozer back and forth over them. The dead were only identified by their clothes).

    The IDF controls the West Bank through brutality and Israel itself is apartheid, without question. We don’t need AIPAC on one side or J-Street on the other.
    We just need to take off the blinders and look at the ugly facts. And tell the Christian fundamentalists to bugger off – it’s not their turf.

    Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.
    – Denis Diderot

  • your view on this topic has shifted dramatically. Kudos!

    I’ll be visiting Auschwitz in August. I wonder what kind of effect it will have on me.

    “OTP – Occupy The Patriarchy” ~ me

  • In a remotely rational environment, AIPAC would have lost all credibility over pushing for war with Iran. It would have been a disaster for Israel and the world in general.

    But it’s not rational. Congress is the chorus endorsing this type of violent fantasy.

    We are beyond trouble with AIPAC and the likeks of Congress. Ben-Ami’s efforts start to address that. I hope this and oher efforts like it will be able to get things done.

    Thanks for the review.

    The Money Party RSS

  • is to change it when appropriate.

    I understand and sympathize with the Jewish need for security, given several thousand years of history.
    Unfortunately, that legitimate purpose morphed into a drive for power.

    Re Auchwitz:
    Yad Vahshem in Jerusalem was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life – it felt just short of being fatal. Oddly enough, what struck me was not anything to do with Jews per se as with humanity in general. I think Israel is mistaken not to expand it to include the other six million – gypsies, communists, intellectuals, gays, mental cases, etc.

    Just outside Yad Vashem is a children’s memorial – 1.5 million were children – full of mirrors and yahrzeit candles. You automatically start to count the lights before you realize the impossibility of it, which really stuns the mind. There’s also a similar small private museum in Jerusalem, with walls and walls of ‘gravestones’, not for people but for towns and villages which were wiped out.

    If I were called upon to judge mankind, I’d make everyone go through Yad Vashem. Anyone who didn’t feel like their guts were ripped out would get sent directly to Hell as unfit for humanity.

    Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.
    – Denis Diderot

  • An experience I won’t forget. The worst were those things that you might not otherwise notice, like the way the stone landing at the top of the stairs was worn down by so many feet going down to the gas chambers.

  • which boggled my mind: large piles 5-feet deep of human hair, shaved from the victims and used to stuff mattresses.

    Someone remarked that the tragedy was not that six million people were murdered but that there were six million murders.
    (twelve million if you count the non-Jews).

    Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.
    – Denis Diderot

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