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A Liberal Jewish Lobby?

April 3, 2008

As Bob Dylan, put it in one of his more famous songs, `the times they are a changing’. I must admit I wish the pace were a bit faster, but then there isn’t much one can do about that. Change and social movements have their own timetable and agenda.

An example of the changing times came to me earlier today.

A piece is circulating on the internet by Gerson Gorenberg, an Israeli Zionist Jew, calling for a progressive alternative to AIPAC, the Jewish Lobby well known for its one-sided support for Israel (plus its support for the war in Iraq, and currently for pushing the United States into a military confrontation with Iran). The article, available in full by simply clicking on the above title, is an interesting read, the general substance of which I agree with. It first came to me from an old friend in NYC, then it appeared on `Portside’ – electronic voice of the Marxist Committees of Correspondence – where my wife read it. She forwarded it on to me.

Gorenberg gives a fair number of statistics essentially reinforcing the notion that American Jewry is not so rightwing on Middle East questions – be it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq or Iraq – as AIPAC or the ADL, that it remains in its great majority, moderate if not somewhat left leaning and that organizations like AIPAC and the ADL – or the Rabbinical Council here in Colorado – are actually out of step with mainstream American Jewish sentiment and that as a result, the door is opened for new American Jewish formations more in line with mainstream policies. This is the latest of such surveys done over the years, most of which echo the results of the current report.

Gorenberg takes the opportunity to criticize Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique of AIPAC for overstating the extent of AIPAC’s power, although in so doing he makes it clear that he too is a critic of AIPAC’s legacy and describes it rather harshly as a barrier rather than a bridge to peace making. While Mearsheimer and Walt overstate AIPAC’s strength and leave out other key players in shaping US Middle East policy towards Israel-Palestine, I do believe that their piece pierced a taboo of openly criticizing organizations like AIPAC, made it easier for the rest of us to do so, and that in so doing performed an important intellectual service that Gorenberg should have acknowledged but didn’t.

If they are a bit off base – and they are – neither are anti-semites and both showed no small amount of political courage. They might have gotten some things wrong, but their critique of the reactionary – there really is no other word for it – role that AIPAC has played in the US body politic is accurate. They simply left out some of the other players and magnified AIPAC’s power out of proportion. AIPAC does have power, but it doesn’t have and never has had `all the cards in the deck’. By opening up the discussion, Mearsheimer and Walt help all of us, put AIPAC into perspective so that we can more objectively – without being accused of being anti-semitic – evaluate both the extent and the limits of its power.

Gorenberg also criticizes – or at least exposes – Hillary Clinton’s groveling support for Israel noting that Barak Obama’s position is not much different. He goes on to admit that the one-sided pro-Israeli positions of both Clinton (the other one – Bill) and the little putz currently in the White House, actually go against US strategic interests in the region, citing an interesting paper written by McGeorge Bundy some forty years ago. Gorenberg calls openly for a two state solution, for an end of the Israeli occupation of the 1967 territories arguing that peace with the Palestinians is vital to Israel’s long term interests as is Israel’s integration as an active partner – politically and economically – into the broader Middle East region as a whole.

In making his case, Gorenberg – more or less – point by point – argues positions that I have held for the past 40 years – and still hold. I’m glad to see them coming from a self-defined Zionist (I am not particularly enthusiastic about Zionism although I do support Israel’s right to exist within its 1967 borders) and believe that the trends of which he is speaking exist and are taking shape in the Jewish Community nationwide, including in the backwater, provincial, politically insulated environment of Colorado.

These shifts are taking place at a somewhat uneven pace …as usual far more slowly and unevenly than I would like, but then, as mentioned above, it seems that political change has its own frustrating rhythm and the chemistry necessary to create new viable and progressive social movements (in this case among the nation’s Jews on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) remains elusive. Had a long talk about such mysteries (under what circumstances movements do or don’t take off) with a student today.

Still, there is much activity, new movements (B’rit Tzedek, Jewish Voice for Peace, Tikkun), some fresh blood at least in the sense of new players on an old playing field, some voices, until recently were more or less silent, now speaking up. I don’t know that I would call these developments `heartening’ – it’s dangerous to be too hopeful – and too early in their evolution to evaluate their contribution, but it is good to see some Colorado Jews speaking up, showing a bit of courage (now and then anyhow) and exploring ways both to reach out to get to know Palestinians and to explore how to raise the issue in the Jewish Community itself. Can they maintain themselves as an independent voice within American Judaism, or will they succumb to the intense pressures under which they function (and for which we should have some sympathy for what is they are trying to do) which will be coming at them from all sides?

It is unfortunate, although not so surprising in a way, that in `finding their voice’ as I call it, some of these folks find it necessary to distance themselves from, and/or openly oppose groups like the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, an organization which has done more good to change the thinking of Coloradoans towards the Middle East conflict than any other movement I can think of. Without the work of the peace center, I would argue, these new trends in the Jewish Community would not have had the space – or the courage – to emerge.

Although there is no way of proving it, I believe the peace center’s efforts have, at least in Boulder County, helped changed the public dialogue on the subject. Nay, there virtually was no dialogue, or very little to speak of. Their work opposing the war in Iraq and on, if possible, preventing a US military strike against Iran also deserve mention.

And although I am not deeply involved in the Peace Center’s activities very much (did help a few years ago with the first Middle East Series) and really am not `affiliated’ with any organization these days, nor do I intend to be, I consider the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center something of a spiritual home whose activities for peace in many areas – going back close to 30 years – are unparalleled in the Rocky Mountain region, and not just on the Middle East question.

It’s not that the peace center has done everything `right’ or is above criticism, but on the Israeli Palestinian issue it is they who have carried the moral torch by addressing the issue head on and refusing to back away from it. For the work they have done, these past five years or so on the Israeli-Palstinian issue, they deserve support, not the kind of scorn to which most recently they have been subject to.

It all represents to my mind, the very best of what a peace movement is capable of: becoming a moral compass, and through peaceful, non violent means, working to shift public opinion away from war and in the direction of peace making. Whatever criticisms – some valid, most not, (at least the ones I am hearing) – to which they might be subject, these should be dealt with with an eye on strengthening, not undermining this precious, hard earned resource and institution.

As with new movements feeling their oats, getting off the ground so to speak, in the new movements for Middle East peace, both Jewish and otherwise, there is quite a mix, saints, assholes and everything in between. New `players’ trying to stake out their turf, some trying to establish a political base where there is none or hardly, the usual fair share of opportunists combined with some extraordinarily decent and humane people who are – at long last – seriously grappling with the issue, with the moral bankruptcy and extraordinarily inhumane reality of the Occupation.

There are also the `old players’, the old guard who work out of the ADL, AIPAC, the rabbis and the like. These days, they feel `the earth shake under their feet’ and are busy,,,no, `frantic’ is a more apt term, to blunt the new initiatives whose political visions and view points are out of their control. Some of them are quite skilled at snuffing out new social movements, having spent a life time honing such skills. But the tactics have shifted a bit. Unable to stop the grassroots tide, they, the old guard, now try to tame these movements into irrelevance by first embracing them with a kind of Russian bear hug, and then gutting them of their substance, by trying to control the debate on the issue, and defining what is `kosher’ and `non-kosher’ progressive.

There are some, working under what I believe to be an illusion, that think organizations like AIPAC and the ADL can be reformed from below. In a somewhat different context, I tried that once. The idea is that good organizers, sincere and progressive in old organizations, can out organize the old guard and pressure it to change it ways, to genuinely reform such organizations – in this case, to have a more humane, moderate policy more in line with mainstream Jewish-American thinking as suggested above.

Perhaps it’s overstating the case to say that such initiatives to reform the old structures are impossible. Ok. I won’t say that. What I’ll say is that it is almost impossible and highly unlikely, particularly in organizations that have developed a long history and internal culture and approach. But then, in the struggle to do so, something positive can emerge, even if one gets the shit kicked out of oneself, figuratively or literally (as some of us have along the way).

But such Sisyphean efforts build character. Besides, whatever is `new’ and `humane’ is only born in pain and struggle, or so that seems to be the way things go from what I can tell. So for those who take such paths — and do so sincerely — (after all there are also a fair share of hypocrits), my thoughts, my solidarity, for whatever that is worth, is with them. My only advice, worthless as it might be, is to suggest, to the degree possible in going about such goals, try not to be schmucks about it. This is, of course, acheived only with the greatest degree of difficulty. And it is very difficult not to be a schmuck, especially when one is going through that born-again self righteous phase of starting to learn something about an issue but thinking, really one already knows everything. But enough advice. It never helps anyhow. No one listens. Ever.

It’s all very interesting to watch and, in the long run, it is possible that something wholesome, some genuinely new direction will emerge. The new liberal Jewish lobby that Gorenborg calls for, is coming together. Hopefully it’s not too late. So much damage has been done, of the kind that is not so simple to undo. There are an awful lot of settlements in the West Bank these days with more being constructed, expanded etc to such an extent that a viable Palestinian political and economic entity appears to be fast slipping away.

Israel’s policy of talking peace and building settlements continues as does US support for such policies. What is happening in Gaza – Israel’s seige of the area, turning it into a huge prison, not unlike the Warsaw Ghetto, is choking the life out of Palestinian society there. The US contribution to all this has been to support all Israel’s military actions and to help engineer a profound split in the Palestinian movement that has only weakened Palestinian negotiating position that much more.

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