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.
Â©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 firstname.lastname@example.org.