Almost Literally the Least I Can Do to Support the Israel/Palestine Peace Process

By Mike Dorf

Tomorrow, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resume peace talks.  As part of his assiduous efforts leading to these talks, Secretary of State John Kerry called for American Jews to express public support for the peace process.  As one such American Jew with what I regard as views that are fairly typical of what might be regarded as the "silent majority" of American Jews, I herewith submit my endorsement of such talks, with an aim of establishing something like the following: (1) A Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank to the east of the green line, with land swaps as necessary to compensate for the most-difficult-to-dismantle-or-relocate settlements; (2) security guarantees for Israel and Palestine; (3) Israeli access to Jewish holy sites in east Jerusalem, coupled with some arrangement that enables both Israel and Palestine to claim some measure of sovereignty in east Jerusalem; and (4) a full right of return for Palestinians to Palestine, with some scheme of compensation for Palestinians and their descendants with credible claims to pre-1948 homes in contemporary Israel.  That is more or less the only deal that has been on the table since the mid-1990s, and it should be blindingly obvious that it would represent a major improvement for both sides, relative to the status quo.

Having issued the foregoing endorsement, I can't resist adding an additional thought about the nature of American Jewish public opinion.  I refer to my views above as reflecting those of a "silent majority" of American Jews because the major American Jewish organizations that purport to speak for us in fact represent a minority view.  Strong evidence for that proposition can be found in many places, including Peter Beinart's 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism.  The book was predictably criticized by the right, but also from some fellow liberals.  For example, Jonathan Rosen's NY Times book review called out Beinart for focusing on Israeli policies without paying adequate attention to Palestinian and broader Arab rejection of land-for-peace measures.  I want to put aside the substance of Beinart's claims about what brought Israel and Palestine to their current situation, to focus on his claims about American Jewish public opinion.

Beinart's basic view is this: From the early 20th century through the late 1960s (with the Six-Day War serving as a turning point), American Jewish organizations saw Zionism as an outgrowth of liberalism, and the organizations accordingly supported liberal Israeli policies and criticized illiberal ones. However, with the waning of anti-Semitism in America, American liberal Jews increasingly found other outlets for their liberalism.  Thus, whereas Louis Brandeis channeled his liberal energies through distinctly Jewish organizations, modern-day American Jewish liberals are more likely to channel their liberal energies through universalist organizations like the ACLU or Amnesty International.  As a consequence, the major Jewish organizations are left with support from illiberal or at least conservative Jewish Americans, who see the whole point of such support as defending Israel from anti-Semitic existential threats.  Some of these organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, were once liberal, and so they struggle to reconcile their nominally liberal formal commitments with illiberal Israeli policies--especially the occupation and settlements.  But others, especially AIPAC, were never liberal to begin with.  Meanwhile, with religiosity waning among non-Orthodox Jews, a sense of historical victimhood--tied especially to the Holocaust--came to serve as the primary affiliation for many American Jews.  Victimhood replaced both religion and liberalism.

I think that story is essentially correct but I would offer two amendments.  The first concerns Beinart's failure to acknowledge how deep the fear-based affiliation goes, even for pervasively liberal American Jews.  I believe that is what fueled Rosen's strongly negative reaction to Beinart's book--the sense that Beinart does not take seriously the real security threats Israel faces.  Even many liberals active in J Street (an American Jewish organization that supports Israel but opposes the occupation) or Peace Now (an Israeli peace movement) who favor a two-state solution as the best possible outcome worry about the fact that Israel's Arab neighbors were hostile to Israel before 1967, not just in response to the occupation.  Times and attitudes change, and so there is reason for hope, but the difference between Israel's supporters who favor a peace process aiming at a two-state solution and those who oppose it is not simply a difference between those who worry about security versus those who care about justice for Palestinians.  It's a matter of degree and assessment of the alternatives.

Second, I think it's not quite accurate to characterize American Jews on the right with respect to Israel as illiberal.  No doubt that is true of a considerable number of Israeli hawks and at least some American Jewish supporters of Likud.  But in my experience, the sorts of people that Beinart describes are better understood as neocons who see themselves as having remained true to liberal values when most liberals made a wrong turn.  I can explain the attitude I have in mind best through an analogy to domestic politics.

Consider the position of contemporary conservative Supreme Court Justices on matters of free speech and race.  They would say--and they do say--that their positions favoring corporate speech and opposing affirmative action are the logical implications of Warren-Court-era liberalism, while characterizing contemporary "liberal" support for campaign finance limits and race-based affirmative action as a betrayal of the earlier values.  And mostly they believe that.

The same is largely true of the sorts of people who are active in and donors to AIPAC and the like.  At about the same time that American liberals were moving beyond formal equality in matters of speech and race, people on the left, especially in Europe but to some extent in the U.S. as well, came to see Israel less as a haven for an historically oppressed people and more as an imperialist outpost.  American Jews who take an Israel-right-or-wrong position believe that they have remained consistent in their support for Israel, whereas others have taken a dangerous wrong turn.

In my own experience, most of these people continue to be relatively liberal on U.S. domestic issues, even as the Republican Party has attempted to lure Jewish voters by portraying itself (at least in the last few elections) as the better friend of Israel.  It largely hasn't worked because Democratic elected officials tend to be just as staunchly in the Israel-right-or-wrong camp as Republican ones.  Thus, AIPAC types who continue to be liberal on domestic issues can vote for Democrats, while those who have drifted rightward on other issues, or were always down-the-line conservatives, can support Republicans.

Accordingly, while I stand by my claim that more American Jews hold views like those favored by J Street than views like those favored by AIPAC, the differences are somewhat more subtle, and the lines more fluid, than the differences between the organizations.