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Uncritical Support for Israel Threatens Both Jewish Values and Prospects for Middle East Peace

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2016

Recent developments in Israel show a deterioration in that country’s  
democracy, an end to the peace process as settlements continue to grow in  
the occupied West Bank, and a growth of Jewish religious extremism. In the  
face of all this, establishment Jewish organizations in the U.S. continue to  
provide uncritical support. Many observers, both in Israel and the U.S.,  
believe that such support enables these negative trends to continue and  
represents a threat to both Jewish values and to prospects for peace in the  
Middle East.  
Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University, who is also a member of  
Ta’ayush: Arab-Jewish Partnership, a human rights advocacy group, notes  
that, “Israeli human rights activists .and what is left of the Israeli peace  
groups, including joint Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations, are under  
attack. In a sense, this is nothing very new; organizations such as  
B’Tselem, the most prominent and effective in the area of human rights and  
Breaking the Silence, which specializes in soldiers’ firsthand testimony  
about what they have seen and done in the occupied territories and in Gaza,  
have always been anathema to the Israeli right, which regards them as  
treasonous. But open attacks on the Israeli left have now assumed a far more  
sinister and ruthless character; some of them are being played out in the  
interrogation rooms of Israeli prisons. Clearly, there is an ongoing  
coordinated campaign involving the government, members of the Knesset, the  
police, various semiautonomous right-wing groups and the public media.  
Politically driven harassment, including violent and illegal arrest,  
interrogation, denial of legal support, virulent incitement, smear  
campaigns, even death threats issued by proxy — all this has become part of  
the repertoire of the far right, which dominates the present government and  
sets the tone for its policies.”  
Dr. Shulman, who received the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in  
February, argues that what he calls “state terror,” with which Palestinians  
in the occupied territories have lived for decades, has now become a part of  
the texture of life in Israel itself. He notes that, “Israelis with a memory  
going back to the 1960s sometimes liken the current campaign to the violent  
actions of the extreme right in Greece before the colonels took power …  
Israeli peace activists have graduated from being protestors, in theory at  
least, protected by the law, to being dissidents — that is, legitimate  
targets for government-inspired attacks. … Sometimes, on a good day, I  
think that the very starkness and horror of the occupation will eventually  
bring it to an end. Both in Hebrew and, I think, outside of Israel,  
throughout the world, the term ‘occupation’ has by now acquired something of  
the specific gravity of the word ‘apartheid’ in the days before the South  
African system collapsed … Michael Asgard, the human rights lawyer, recently  
published a humane and hopeful statement: one day, he said, the occupation  
will crumble, probably all at once. Asgard is not alone.”  
Challenging Free Speech and Dissent  
The efforts to challenge free speech and dissent in Israel are growing. One  
target are so-called “leftist non-government organizations” (NGOs). They are  
the object of legislation now making its way through the Knesset at the  
behest of the right-wing minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked. Like many  
right-wing NGOs, liberal groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem  
receive funding from donors in both Israel and abroad. The new law aims at  
forcing liberal and human rights groups to disclose all foreign sources of  
support every time they appear in a public setting. Initially, Shaked wanted  
representatives of such groups to wear identity badges whenever they entered  
the Knesset or other public spaces. Seeing the analogy to the badges the  
Nazis forced Jews to wear in public, Prime Minister Netanyahu quietly  
eliminated this clause.  
The legislation, known as the “NGO Transparency Bill,” calls for NGOs  
receiving over half their support from foreign governments or “foreign  
political entities” (such as the EU) would be required to cite this clearly  
in all publications and contacts with public officials. At the same time,  
the Netanyahu government defeated an Opposition bill that would have applied  
the same criteria to right-wing and settler groups who receive much of their  
funding from private foreign donors such as Sheldon Adelson, but not  
governmental entities.  
In an editorial titled “A danger to Israeli democracy,” The Washington Post  
(Jan. 2, 2016) declared: “Israel, surrounded not only by threats to its  
existence but also by governments and movements that practice tyranny, is a  
stubbornly free society. While its democracy is imperfect and rowdy, the  
bedrock commitment has remained … That commitment is precisely why Israel’s  
parliament should reject proposed legislation that would stigmatize  
nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from overseas. The  
proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to  
squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a  
democratic state.”  
Delegitimizing Progressive Groups  
While advocates of the legislation in Israel argue that it provides more  
“transparency,” the fact is, declares The Post, “… the legislation is aimed  
at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates  
for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as  
Peace Now, B’Tselem, New Israel Fund and others … The law would force them  
to carry an unpleasant label suggesting that they are somehow at odds with  
Israel’s interests. Millions of dollars are also being sent to Israel to  
support right-wing causes such as settlement activity, but it comes largely  
from individual donors, not governments … Israel’s nongovernmental  
organizations are already required, under an earlier law, to file disclosure  
reports of their funding, so the only effect of the new requirement would be  
to force them to wear a public badge in a way that is odious … It is not  
always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the state or those  
in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of  
democracy, and, ultimately, the mark of an open and free society.”  
Critics note that Israel’s proposed legislation mirrors that of Russian  
President Vladimir Putin, who has made NGO groups register as “foreign  
agents,” as if they were enemies of the state. In China, the new  
restrictions on NGOs will forbid support from abroad and give oversight to  
the security apparatus. In both cases, dissent is being silenced. This is  
precisely the policy advocated by Israel’s right-wing.  
The militant right-wing group Im Tirtzu, which has been publicly embraced by  
Prime Minister Netanyahu, branded Israel’s human rights groups “foreign  
agent organizations.” In a recent report, Im Tirtzu describes how, like a  
fifth column, these groups take European funding in order to operate “from  
within Israel against Israeli society, IDF soldiers, and the state’s ability  
to defend itself.” In an accompanying video showing a simulated terrorist  
knife attack followed by grainy images of four human-rights activists, a  
narrator tells viewers that “while we fight terror” these “moles” of  
European governments “fight us.” Im Tirtzu has also launched a campaign  
attacking artists. It refers to two of Israel’s best known (and liberal)  
authors, Amos Oz and David Grossman, as “foreign agents” and “moles.” The  
organization calls on Israelis to support a bill that would outlaw twenty  
progressive groups. Inspired by this call, seventeen members of the Knesset  
are sponsoring a bill that allows for the dissolution of NGOs engaging in  
“activity hostile to the State” and forbids employees of “mole  
organizations” from serving in the military due to their apparently suspect  
patriotism. The Netanyahu government proposal does not go as far as Im  
Tirtzu’s legislation — but it moves in precisely that direction.  
“Anti-democratic legislation”  
Daniel Sokatch, head of the New Israel Fund, a U.S. organization that  
donates around $25 million a year to about 100 progressive and civil rights  
organizations in Israel, called the bill “an ugly anti-democratic piece of  
legislation that does not provide any more transparency than already  
exists.” The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, met with Justice  
Minister Shaked to express American “concerns” about her legislation and  
suggested that the bill could undercut Israel’s standing as a thriving  
The irony is that Justice Minister Shaked and Prime Minister Netanyahu  
welcome foreign funds to influence Israeli policy and opinion, as long as  
those funds go to the right wing. In a series of investigative reports for  
Haaretz, Uri Blau shows how American donors gave settlements in the West  
Bank more than $220 million over the past five years — donations that went  
through tax-exempt American nonprofit organizations. Despite the  
longstanding U.S. Government view that settlements are illegal and an  
impediment to peace, at least 50 organizations in the U.S. are involved in  
raising money for settlements.  
Blau found that American donations fund everything from air conditioning for  
settlers to payments to the families of convicted Jewish terrorists. Among  
the recipients of tax exempt American donations is Honenu, a right-wing  
legal aid group that has provided stipends to Yigal Amir, the assassin of  
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The yeshiva whose rabbis wrote “The King’s  
Torah,” which states, among other things, that the commandment “Thou shalt  
not kill” only applies to killing other Jews, also benefits from tax  
deductible contributions from the U.S. Israel’s leading newspaper, a right-  
wing paper given away free, is funded by American billionaire Sheldon  
Stifling Dissent  
Naomi Paiss, Vice President for public affairs at the New Israel Fund, notes  
that, “The current governing coalition, the most hard line in Israel’s  
history, has made it clear that it will do everything possible to stifle  
dissent … The treatment of organizations with unpopular missions and  
activities is the canary in the coal mine of democracy. We who defend Israel  
as a liberal democracy must make clear to our counterparts in Jerusalem that  
we see through the hypocrisy and double-dealing and take a stand for an  
honest, free and democratic Israel.”  
The assault on human rights organizations and other progressive NGOs is only  
one example of Israel’s retreat from democracy. Prime Minister Netanyahu is  
supporting legislation which provides for the expulsion of a member of the  
Knesset if that member expresses opposition to Israel’s existence as a  
“Jewish and democratic state,” supports armed struggle against Israel or  
incites racism. Two of the actions, incitement to racism and support for  
terror, already constitute a criminal offense. Dr. Amir Fuchs, a researcher  
at the Israel Democracy Institute, points out that, “The third ground,  
opposition to a Jewish and democratic state is extremely vague — and could  
theoretically be invoked to disqualify religious MKs advocating a state  
based on halacha (not democratic) or secular MKs advocating the separation  
of religion and state (allegedly not Jewish). In practical terms, however,  
the main trigger for the legislation and virtually the only situation in  
which it might be used would be against Arab Knesset members allegedly  
expressing support for terror — a criminal offense … This damaging Israeli  
proposal will only intensify political witch-hunting and widen the Jewish-  
Arab divide … It will further erode Israeli democracy, undermining the  
crucial defense of its minorities and their untrammeled representation in  
the Knesset.”  
Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset Uri Avnery laments  
the growing assaults on free speech and democracy. He writes that, “Benjamin  
Netanyahu is totally absorbed in enacting a new law that would be a  
watershed in the history of Israel. This law will enable 90 of the 120  
Knesset members to evict any or all of the members from the Knesset  
altogether. The grounds for such a decision are nebulous: supporting  
‘terrorism’ — by speech as well as by deed, denying the Jewish character of  
the state, and such. Who decides? The majority, of course. The immediate  
impetus for proposing this bill was provided by the three Arab Knesset  
members who visited the parents of Arab ‘terrorists’ in annexed East  
Jerusalem. They had a good pretext — to help them obtain the bodies of their  
sons, who had been shot dead on the spot. But the obvious reason was to pay  
their respects.”  
Immune from Prosecution  
Avnery points out that, “By law Knesset members are immune from prosecution  
for any act committed in the line of their duties. For Knesset members to  
visit their voters in such circumstances may be such an act. Therefore, a  
new law is necessary. … Netanyahu was brought up in the U.S. He most surely  
has been taught there that democracy does not mean only the rule of the  
majority. Adolf Hitler was probably supported by the majority. Democracy  
means that the majority respects the rights of minorities, including the  
right of free speech. The right of free speech does not mean the right to  
express popular views … Free speech means the right to utter views that are  
detested by almost everyone … Everyone understands that the right of 90 to  
evict 30 is a threat to evict Arabs from the Knesset … This is not a law  
against ‘terrorist’ sympathizers. It is a law against the Arab minority. The  
Knesset will be Jewish, pure and simple. It will be a Jewish state without  
being democratic.”  
Even without such legislation, in Avnery’s view, “Israel is one of the least  
democratic countries in the world to which Israel wants to belong. In the  
West Bank, which is governed by Israel, there live about 2.5 million people  
who are denied any civil and human rights. We believed for a time that  
Israel could remain ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ while holding  
large occupied territories. The Arab citizens of Israel proper constitute  
some 20% of the population. These were the remnants of a large majority,  
most of whom had fled or were evicted. No country ever profited by throwing  
out its minorities. Nazi Germany threw out its Jewish scientists, some of  
whom went to the U.S. and built the atomic bomb for America. Long before  
that, the Catholic kings of France threw out the Protestant Huegenots, who  
emigrated to Prussia and turned a small garrison town named Berlin into a  
world center of industry and culture. If two thousand years have not taught  
us anything, when will we ever learn?”  
Those in Israel who are committed to democracy are concerned about current  
trends. The Jerusalem Report (Feb. 8, 2016), in an article headlined  
“Democracy Under Threat,” declares that, “After less than a year of the most  
right-wing administration in the country’s history, Israel’s robust  
democracy finds itself under severe pressure. Over the past several months,  
government ministers have made a succession of illiberal moves widely  
perceived as antithetical to democratic freedoms and principles. These  
include proposed legislation to silence and delegitimize critics, recurrent  
incitement against the Israeli-Arab minority, more nationalistic and less  
universal content in the school curriculum, artistic censorship by  
threatening to withhold funds from state-financed theaters, greater  
government control over the media and toying with new forms of religious  
Extremist Hilltop Settler Youth  
In the occupied West Bank, argues The Jerusalem Report, these challenges “…  
exist in heightened fashion. In the most obvious case, hilltop settler  
youth, with an anti-democratic Kingdom of Judea ideology (aimed at replacing  
Israel with a non-democratic Halakha-based Jewish kingdom), carry out  
potentially lethal attacks on anything not Jewish. Far more dangerous to  
Israel’s democracy, however, is the way the mainstream settler movement,  
which elevates the Jewish at the expense of the democratic, has no  
compunction about maintaining an indefinite coercive occupation, has  
infiltrated the corridors of power …”  
Examples of anti-democratic and racist extremism are growing. One Knesset  
member, Bezalel Smotrich, has said that the burning to death of three  
members of the Palestinian Dawabsheh family last July by a settler youth or  
youths was not terrorism, since, in his view, Jews by definition cannot  
perpetrate acts of terror. He described the killers as “well-intentioned  
youngsters gone astray.” In a recent Knesset speech, Smotrich declared, “We  
will annex the West Bank, whether you like it or not.” In March, Israel’s  
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef delivered a sermon in which he argued  
that Jewish law directs the state to expel all non-Jews from Israel. He adds  
some qualifiers: if they accept the Noahide laws, they may remain because  
they will be useful as servants to Jews. He suggested that Saudi Arabia  
would be a good place to send Palestinians and declared, “According to  
Halacha it’s forbidden for goyim to live … in Israel … A foreigner residing  
here who accepts the seven Noahide Laws may live here … They will serve us.  
That’s why we permit them to remain in the land. The previous chief rabbi,  
Ovadia Yosef (Yitzhak Yosef’s father) ruled that Palestinianx were “donkeys”  
meant to serve Jews.  
In December, the Education Ministry banned Dorit Rabinyan’s novel  
“Borderlife” for teaching in high schools because it tells a love story  
between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. The ministry stated that,  
“Large segments of society see such relations as a threat to their separate  
identities.” The ministry is also revising its civics textbook to prioritize  
“Jewish dimensions,” which critics say will be at the expense of democratic  
values. The right-wing Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, summed up his  
approach: “The education system should not promote values contrary to those  
of the state.” Culture Minister Miri Regev has threatened to withhold  
funding for the Israeli Arab Al-Midan theater because it staged a play based  
on letters by a jailed terrorist and from an Arab children’s theater in  
Jaffa because it’s director, Norman Issa, refused to perform in the occupied  
Control over the Media  
Another issue for Israeli democracy is the manner in which Prime Minister  
Netanyahu is extending his control over the media. He is not only prime  
minister but minister of communications, responsible for changes in public  
broadcasting. The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), with its  
institutional culture of free criticism, is to be replaced by a new body,  
funded directly by the government and not an independent license fee. As  
part of this reform, a new TV channel, Channel 20, has emerged with a strong  
right-wing, religious-settler bias. When Israeli President Reuven Rivlin  
appeared at a conference also attended by Breaking the Silence, Channel 20,  
on its Facebook page, accused him of “spitting in the face of IDF soldiers.”  
According to The Jerusalem Report, “Perhaps the biggest threat to Israeli  
democracy in the longer term is the close pact he (Netanyahu) has forged  
with the national religious settler movement … What that amounts to is an  
unshakeable core policy of perpetuating the occupation … The costs for  
Israel could be high: the emergence of an illiberal and intolerant Israel  
could lead to the loss of many of the best and brightest to more democratic  
pastures; it could also lead to the loss of international legitimacy and  
support …”  
The Israeli public appears to be supportive of the moves away from democracy  
initiated by the Netanyahu government, and racist attitudes appear to be  
growing. Almost half of Israeli Jews are in favor of transferring or  
expelling the state’s Arab population, according to the Pew Research  
Center’s report in March. At the same time, 45% of Israeli Jews say that a  
Palestinian state cannot exist alongside Israel. Tamar Herrmann, a professor  
at the Open University of Israel, who advised on the study, said that  
Israelis understand the “transfer” of Arabs as applying to Arab citizens of  
Israel. The word “transfer” in this context means “forceful expulsion,” she  
said, “putting them on trucks and sending them away” across the Jordan River  
to Jordan.  
Support for Expulsion  
Alan Cooperman, the Pew study’s lead author, says that support for expulsion  
comports with other data points in the survey such as the fact that four out  
of five Israeli Jews say Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews.  
The survey also found that 60% of Israeli Jews believe God gave the land to  
them, and that majorities of religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox feel  
that Jewish law should be the law of the state.  
The growth of racism in Israel was highlighted in a report in the London  
Daily Mail (March 17, 2016) about the group Lehava, which is engaged in a  
battle against religious intermarriage and interfaith relationships of any  
kind. The article’s headline reads: “‘Dial one if you know a Jew dating an  
Arab,’ shocking Israeli campaign group set up ‘hot line’ to inform on  
‘traitors diluting the Jewish race’ — and to split up model Bar Rafaeli and  
Leonardo DiCaprio.”  
Lehava, the Daily Mail reports, “… believes relationships between a Jew and  
a non-Jew is a Biblical sin. Racist extremists who set up a ‘hotline’ to  
inform on Jews in a relationship with ‘Arabs’ and who targeted Facebook  
founder Mark Zuckerberg are openly peddling hate and violence — but the  
Israeli government won’t act. Lehava hunts down people sleeping with ‘goys’  
— or non-Jews — then ‘persuades them to separate, attacks Christians as  
‘vampires’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ and is justifying attacks on churches … It  
accused supermodel Bar Rafaeli of ‘diluting the Jewish race’ if she did not  
split up with Leonardo DiCaprio.”  
“Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land”  
Despite being under investigation for four years, Lehava and its followers  
operate in the central square of Jerusalem where they openly incite violence  
every Thursday night. Its leader, Benzi Gopstein, boasted to The Daily Mail  
that he receives ten calls a day from Jewish people informing on friends  
dating non-Jews. Founded in 2009, Lehava means “the flame” and is also an  
acronym in Hebrew for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land.” The group  
has also launched campaigns against renting apartments to Arabs or hiring  
them in the workplace.  
A report by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an arm of the Israel  
Movement for Progressive Judaism, states that Lehava “advocates hatred of  
Arabs in Israel and is based on racially-oriented and alarmist incitement.”  
Benzi Gopstein, a follower of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane since the age of  
14, now leads a group similar to that of Kahane. While Kahane’s Kach Party  
was made illegal because of its racism, Lehava, in the different environment  
prevailing in Israel today, is free to pursue its goals. Occasionally, it  
goes too far. In 2014, three Lehava members were arrested for setting fire  
to a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem and spray painting, “There is  
no coexistence with cancer,” “Death to Arabs,” and “Kahane was right.”  
In January, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that Israel’s  
fast-moving expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands “raises honest  
questions about Israel’s long-term intentions” and commitment to a two-state  
solution.” Mr. Shapiro also said that, “Too many attacks on Palestinians  
lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities, too much  
vigilantism goes unchecked, and at times there seems to be two standards of  
adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for  
Ambassador Is Bitterly Attacked  
Ambassador Shapiro was bitterly attacked both by Prime Minister Netanyahu,  
who called his statement “unacceptable and incorrect,” and his former aide,  
Aviv Bushinsky, who said on television that, “To put it bluntly, it was a  
statement typical of of a little Jew boy.” Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew who  
speaks Hebrew and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  
Editorially, The New York Times (Jan. 22, 2016) declared: “The criticism of  
Mr. Shapiro, a vigorous advocate for Israel, was unusually personal and  
unfair. He correctly identified a serious problem. Since 1967, there has  
been a dual legal system in the West Bank in which Palestinians are subject  
to military courts, where, experts say, they are almost always convicted.  
Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian judicial system, with its  
greater rights and protections. Israel is moving quickly to establish facts  
on the ground that preclude a Palestinian state, leaving Palestinians  
increasingly marginalized and despairing.”  
In Israel, many prominent voices are increasingly critical of the  
government’s policies. The respected author Amos Oz says that he will no  
longer participate in official events sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of  
Foreign Affairs. He calls the Netanyahu government “the most militant,  
right-wing government Israel has ever had.” He referred to the “Hilltop  
youth,” Jewish settlers who commit attacks on Palestinians and Christian and  
Muslim places of worship in the occupied territories, as “Hebrew neo-Nazis …  
They’re not Nazis, but they have a great deal in common with neo-Nazi  
hooligans all over the world: desecrating churches and mosques, synagogues  
and cemeteries, violently attacking foreigners; filled with hatred and  
xenophobia; aspiring for some despotic central regime to replace what they  
regard as anarchy. These are the syndromes of neo-Nazism.”  
Blind Eye to Anti-democratic and Racist Trends  
The organized American Jewish community has largely turned a blind eye to  
these anti-democratic and racist trends in Israel and continued to provide  
unquestioning support to the Israeli government. Israelis who seek to  
maintain a democratic society and continue to work for the establishment of  
a two-state solution have noticed. Writing in Haaretz, columnist Chemi  
Shalev decries “the deafening silence of most American Jews in response to  
the waves of chauvinistic anti-democratic legislation and incitement in  
which Israel is increasingly drowning.”  
Israeli commentators noted that when Republican presidential candidate  
Donald Trump addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)  
in March, some delegates objected and walked out in protest of comments  
Trump had made about Muslims, Mexicans and others. At the same time, AIPAC  
continues to welcome and embrace Benjamin Netanyahu. In an article with the  
headline, “Protesting bigots and demagogues at AIPAC? Don’t stop at Trump.  
Call out Netanyahu too,” (Haaretz, March 20, 2016), columnist Roy Isacowitz  
writes: “Many American Jews are angered at the prospect of Donald Trump  
addressing the AIPAC conference … which would make perfect sense if not for  
the fact that the American community … has been sitting in silence and  
showing complacency in the face of demagoguery and racism for years already,  
without feeling the need to stand up and do something about it. AIPAC, that  
bastion of Jewish values, has gone even further. Rather than sitting in  
complacent silence, it has given repeated and resounding standing ovations,  
year after year, to Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli demagogues and  
racists, who not only talk the talk, as Trump has done, but walk the walk.”  
Isacowitz writes that, “Israel has already built the wall that Trump only  
talks about. it has blighted the lives of millions of Muslims, as Trump says  
he would like to do. Its behavior has been far more bellicose than anything  
Trump has exhibited so far and its racism is not only more extreme but a lot  
more deadly. The supporters of Israeli Trumpism have assassinated a prime  
minister, gunned down worshippers in a mosque, burned a Palestinian baby to  
cinders in its bed and committed thousands of other racist atrocities. But  
when the Israeli Trump-in-chief arrives in Washington, he is feted as the  
true representative of Jewish values … What perversion allows American Jews  
— or the majority of them it would seem — to regard Donald Trump as the  
antithesis of their Jewish values and Benjamin Netanyahu as their exemplar?”  
AIPAC Is “Destroying Israel”  
In Isacowitz’s view, American Jews, or certainly those who speak in their  
name, have adopted “a value system that exempts Israel from every value it  
purports to hold dear.” Another distinguished Israeli journalist, Gideon  
Levy, argues that, “AIPAC is destroying Israel, not safeguarding it.” He  
writes in Haaretz (March 20, 2016) of the approximately 20,000 people who  
gathered at AIPAC’s March meeting in Washington that “almost all are not  
friends of Israel, despite their organization’s name and pretensions.”  
Levy believes that, “AIPAC may be the organization that has caused the  
greatest damage to Israel. It corrupted Israel, taught it that everything is  
permissible to it. It made sure America would cover up and restrain itself  
over everything. That it would never demand anything in exchange. That Uncle  
Sam would pay and keep mum. That the supply of intoxicating drugs would  
continue. America is the dealer, and AIPAC the pusher … America’s second  
most powerful lobby, after the NRA, is considered ‘pro-Israel.’ But it is  
pro an … aggressive, occupying … and nationalist Israel. With friends like  
these. Israel doesn’t need enemies in the U.S. The day AIPAC weakens. Israel  
will grow stronger. It will be forced to stand on its own two feet and be  
more moral.”  
Israel, the recipient of more U.S. aid than any other country, is, Levy  
points out, hardly a weak and poverty stricken country in need of such aid:  
“The residents of the world’s most financially supported state, which is  
also the best at whining and playing the victim, live in a country that is  
ranked 11th in the U.N.’s world happiness report, four places above the  
country of its funders. Is Israel the neediest country in the world? After  
all, it’s also a military power, in a region where there are virtually no  
real armies left. So why should all that weaponry go to Israel, of all  
countries? … Thank you very much, dear brethren from AIPAC for bringing us  
to this point. Without your efforts, we would be in a better and much  
different place today.”  
Culture War in Israel  
Ori Nir, a former Washington bureau chief of Haaretz and The Forward, now  
associated with Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of the  
Jewish Peace Now movement, notes that many of his American friends are  
bewildered with recent developments in Israel. They ask him, “What the hell  
is going on there, have they totally lost it?” He responds that, “ … what  
seems like collective madness in Israel is not. What you are witnessing  
these days … the witch hunt against progressive non-profits and liberal  
culture icons, the efforts to quash dissent through legislation, the  
campaign to thrust chauvinistic content (including straight-out lies) into  
the civics curriculum, attempts to exclude and demean Israel’s Arab  
citizens, lobbing accusations of treason at those who publicly oppose or  
even criticize government policies — all these are manifestations of war.  
this is a culture war, a civil war Israel-style.”  
The silence from American Jews as the culture war in Israel proceeds,  
saddens Ori Nir. “American friends of Israel have admirably come to help her  
at past times of crisis, particularly at times of war. My friends, this is a  
time of war … There is a war being fought against what most American Jews  
consider to be ‘their’ Israel … This war is led by members of Israel’s own  
government … You can say that Israelis got the government they voted for …  
You can say that change in Israel should come from within … Fine. But then  
can you really claim to be a caring friend of Israel? … If you indeed care  
about Israel, it is time to speak up and act. Your natural allies in Israel  
need you.”  
Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, agrees that the American Jewish  
establishment has been silent in the face of the growing assault upon  
democratic values in Israel. She notes that, “Many of us treat an assault on  
liberal values in the Israeli context differently than if it happened here.  
What if the U.S. Government tried to ban a book from schools because it  
promoted racial intermarriage? What if a desperate Republican Party  
candidate appealed to his white constituents on Election Day by warning of  
‘droves’ of Hispanics swarming to the polls? Yet when the Israeli government  
banned such a book, or when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu employed such  
a cynical tactic, there was a response from predictable sources, but no  
lasting campaign of outcry.”  
Idolatry: Substituting Israel for God  
More and more American Jews are coming to the view that unquestioning  
support for Israel and making it the center of organized Jewish life has  
been a form of idolatry, with Israel replacing God and Judaism’s universal  
moral and ethical values. Beyond this, remaining silent as democracy erodes  
in Israel and the occupation continues, makes American Jews complicit in  
policies which, in the long run, are damaging to Israel itself.  
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University and co-author  
with Liel Leibovitz of “The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals  
of Divine Election,” spoke on March 15, 2016 at the Center For Jewish  
Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He makes the point  
that, “When Israel became an illegal occupier of the territories it  
conquered in 1967, it forfeited its universalist mantle. It made Israel look  
like a less compelling answer to the immense question of what might be left  
of chosenness … Israel interpreted chosenness as a title to land and a  
warrant for defying world opinion and international law. It justified its  
aggressions as defenses … Israeli exceptionalism abandoned the high moral  
ground … Israel becomes steadily more illiberal and thus more offensive to  
Jews who remain among America’s most liberal populations. Israel now,  
simultaneously, claims the privilege of victimhood and the right to be  
honored as democratic even as it abandons liberality. This is a hell of a  
climb down from tikkun olam, the injunction to repair the world and welcome  
the stranger. It offers little solace or cohesion for American Jews.”  
The division between Israel and American Jews, particularly young people, is  
growing, while the Jewish establishment’s uncritical support and persistence  
in claiming that Israel is, somehow, “central” to Judaism continues. Todd  
Gitlin notes that, “By now, a growing minority of younger American Jews are  
so intensely angry at the actually existing, increasingly illiberal Israel …  
as to reject ‘Zion’ as a dirty word and endorse the whole bundle of BDS  
politics … Not many liberal American Jews go so far, but the gulf that has  
opened up between Israel and American Jews will be a fundamental feature of  
the Jewish landscape for a long time … The more the American Jewish  
establishment colluded with Netanyahu, the more damage the Israeli right  
does to the prospects for peace.”  
“Jewish Selfishness”  
It is not only young people who are disillusioned with events in Israel and  
the manner in which American Jewish organizations make them complicit in  
developments which violate their ideas of what Judaism’s moral and ethical  
values embody. Rabbi David Gordis, a former executive at the American Jewish  
Committee, former president of Hebrew College and a former Vice President of  
the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes in Tikkun (Feb. 23, 2016) that  
Israel is “a failure,” and the Zionist dream has “curdled into Jewish  
selfishness.” He laments that, “After a life and career devoted to the  
Jewish community and to Israel, I conclude that in every important way,  
Israel has failed to realize its promise for me.”  
Rabbi Gordis, now a Senior Scholar at the State University of New York at  
Albany, says that from Israel’s creation, he believed in Israel but that the  
spiral of that society into occupation and Jewish particularism has caused  
him to change his mind. It is, in his view, a political, spiritual and  
political failure: “Israel is distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and  
fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behavior rather than the  
His indictment includes American Jewish leaders: “The establishment  
leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this  
dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel  
out of this quagmire … The Israel of today is very far from anything I  
dreamed of and worked for throughout my career … On the positive side,  
Israel’s accomplishments have been remarkable. Israel has created a thriving  
economy, and has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of the displaced  
and the needy. Israel has generated a rich and diverse cultural life and its  
scientific and educational achievements have been exemplary. In spite of  
these achievements, however, Israel in my view has gone astray. And it is in  
the area for which Israel was created, as a Jewish state, embodying and  
enhancing Jewish values, that I see this failure.”  
Two State Solution “Impossible”  
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is nearing a half century in duration,  
notes Gordis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “facts on the ground” steps  
“make a two-state solution impossible … Present day Israel has discarded the  
rational, the universal, and the visionary … Most depressing of all is that  
I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality.  
Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The  
establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the  
face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can  
move Israel out of this quagmire … Israel has failed to realize its promise  
for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.”  
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, says that he published the article  
by Gordis because he shares his views: “We publish it with the same sadness  
that Gordis expresses … because many of us at Tikkun magazine shared the  
same hopes he expresses for an Israel that would make Jews proud by becoming  
an embodiment of what is best in Jewish tradition, history and ethics,  
rather than a manifestation of all the psychological and spiritual damage  
that has been done to our people, which now acts as an oppressor to the  
Palestinian people.”  
In the presidential debate in Brooklyn in April, Sen. Bernie Sanders called  
for an “even-handed” U.S. policy in the Middle East. In response to a  
question about whether Israel’s response to missiles from Gaza was  
“disproportionate,” he responded: “Of course, Israel has the right not only  
to defend itself but to live in peace and security. But in Gaza there were  
10,000 wounded civilians and 1,500 killed. Was that a disproportionate  
attack? The answer, I believe, is it was. As somebody who is 100% pro-  
Israel, in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace, we are going  
to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”  
“Courage” to Criticize Israel  
Sen. Sanders criticized his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for her talk to AIPAC  
in which, he pointed out, there was no concern expressed for the needs of  
Palestinians. “There comes a time,” he declared, “if we are going to pursue  
justice and peace that we are going to have to say that (Prime Minister)  
Netanyahu is not right all of the time. You spoke on the Middle East and  
barely mentioned the Palestinians.” The audience cheered at these remarks.  
Some said that it took “courage” for Sen. Sanders to criticize Israel. But  
in expressing the views he did, Sanders was hardly alone. Indeed, The New  
York Times (April 16, 2016) carried a front page story with the headline,  
“Chiding Israel, Sanders Highlights Jewish Split.” According to the Times,  
“Jewish Democrats, like the rest of the party, have been struggling for  
years over the appropriate level of criticism when it comes to Israel’s  
policies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But that debate burst onto a  
big national stage … thanks to Mr. Sanders, the most successful Jewish  
presidential candidate in history. Mr. Sanders’s comments … buoyed the  
liberal and increasingly vocal Democrats who believe that a frank discussion  
within the party has been muzzled by an older, more conservative leadership  
that is suspicious of criticism of Israel.”  
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the progressive pro-Israel  
lobbying group whose more critical view of the Israeli government has gained  
influence on Capitol Hill, said Sanders’s comments were “very different from  
the stale talking points that have dominated those types of discussions  
before and contributed to a meaningful redefinition of what it means to be  
pro-Israel.” Peter Beinart, a leading voice in the liberal Zionist movement,  
said: “The roar of the crowd was telling. A Democratic Party dominated by  
progressive millennials, African-Americans and Latinos will gradually defect  
more and more from the AIPAC-Bibi line. Those aren’t their values. What  
Bernie said … and the crowd’s response were a sign of things to come.”  
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a growing  
organization that advocates pressuring Israel with the threat of boycotts,  
called the Sanders remarks “heartening,” and said, “Today showed that the  
movement for Palestinian rights is shifting the discourse at the highest  
political levels.”  
Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk  
It is not being a friend of Israel’s long-term best interests to provide  
uncritical support for a government which is in the process of turning its  
back on humane Jewish values and making peace with the Palestinians unlikely  
by continuing to settle land which both the U.S., the international  
community, and previous Israeli governments believe must constitute a future  
Palestinian state. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. Those who devote  
their time and energy to defending Israel’s retreat from democracy and the  
peace process aren’t friends. •  
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as  
Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and Editor of Issues. The author of  
five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of  
Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.