It should be clear to all by now that Israel has a significant problem with the American political left. Polls have shown rising sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and, anecdotally, Jewish activists engaged in coalitional activity with church officials (especially from Protestant denominations), academics, civil rights leaders, and others report an increasingly toxic environment around Israel. This trend, over time, could threaten the crucial bipartisan support Israel has always enjoyed in this country.
How should we, who love Israel and wish to maintain that bipartisan support, respond?
First the evidence. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that, over time, sympathy for Israel compared to the Palestinians has increased among all ideological groups, except for liberal Democrats. Large majorities of conservative Republicans (79 percent) and liberal Republicans (65 percent) side with Israel. Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, side with the Palestinians by a margin of 40 to 33 percent. A more recent Pew poll, conducted in January 2017, found that liberal Democrats favored Palestinians over Israelis by an even larger margin, 38 to 26 percent.
This is not to suggest that the Democratic Party is on the verge of becoming hostile toward Israel. When one looks at the overwhelmingly pro-Israel votes in Congress and the party’s platform, one might be tempted to conclude that there is very little to worry about. In 2016, then-Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz declared it to be the strongest “pro-Israel” platform in the history of the party. It reaffirmed support for Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders, as well as a two-state solution that would provide Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.
Yet, there were vigorous efforts to include criticism of Israeli settlement building and a call to end Israel’s “occupation,” which were led by Bernie Sanders’ appointees to the platform committee, including Arab American Institute leader James Zogby and Professor Cornel West. Hillary Clinton’s appointees to the platform committee and the establishment party leadership successfully beat back those efforts. Now that Clinton is out of the mix and future leadership of the party seems up for grabs, what lies ahead for its 2020 party platform?
I spoke to several Jewish leaders actively involved in social justice causes, including Rabbi Marc Kline of Monmouth Reform Temple. He said that distancing from Israel is occurring among Jews, including synagogue members, who are “divesting” emotionally from Israel and refusing to stand up to defend the policies and actions of the current government, with which they strongly disagree. “If you say you’re a Zionist in progressive circles, and I am a Zionist,” Kline said, “you also have to explain that this does not mean supporting everything Israel does right or wrong.”
The issue of BDS, using boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, has become somewhat of a litmus test in the Israel advocacy space. If you support any form of boycott, even one limited to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as the proudly Zionist Theodore Bikel z”l did, you risk being labelled “anti-Israel.” Even failure to endorse anti-boycott legislation in the U.S., regardless of the motivation, can land you into that category.
We saw this scenario play out here in New Jersey as Republicans accused the Democratic Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, of being “anti-Israel” because she didn’t vote for the state’s anti-BDS legislation as a member of the Assembly in 2016. NJJN editor Gabe Kahn tackled this issue head on in his Nov. 1 Garden State of Mind, “Are opponents of anti-BDS laws anti-Israel?” His answer, and mine, is no.
As Kahn pointed out, there are clearly activists in the BDS movement who would like Israel to disappear. For me, they’re not only anti-Israel; they are also anti-Semitic. Still, it is a huge mistake to lump those who have reservations about anti-BDS legislation — or who may support limited boycotts as an expression of opposition to Israeli policies — with hard-core anti-Israel activists.
Trying to squelch all criticism of Israel is a misguided strategy. The non-partisan Reut Institute, a leading Israeli think tank, presented a seminal report on the dangers of a “delegitimization network” in 2010. The principal challenge for Israel and its supporters, according to the study, is to prevent the hateful ideology of the extreme political left and radical Muslim groups from penetrating into the moderate left and gaining respectability. Reut argued that to preserve this separation, Israel should not give its critics in the moderate left “a cold shoulder,” as it tends to do. Instead, it should actively engage them.
I fear the too many in the Jewish establishment fall into the bad habit of giving “a cold shoulder” to Israel’s critics. For example, I attended the meeting in 2014 of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP) at which J Street’s application for membership was soundly rejected. Is J Street strongly critical of current Israeli policies? Yes, absolutely. But it also strongly supports a secure and democratic Jewish state of Israel, alongside an independent Palestinian state, and rejects all forms of BDS. In fact, J Street U, the organization’s campus division, has proven invaluable in fighting back BDS resolutions on college campuses. Just ask the Hillel directors.
Did the CoP’s decision in 2014 damage J Street institutionally? Not really. The organization has continued to grow, as anyone who has attended its conferences in recent years can attest.
Yet according to Rachel Lerner, J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, the vote signaled a “total lack of interest and willingness” of Jewish organizations to acknowledge the legitimacy of J Street’s advocacy work for a two-state solution.
“This is the kind of thing that convinces people that the Jewish community isn’t interested in making real change or working for peace,” she said. “They resort to BDS because nothing else seems to move the Jewish community or Israel.”
In my opinion, J Street didn’t lose that day in 2014; the Jewish community did.
What then is a winning formula to retain support for Israel among liberals? Let’s be more tolerant of criticism, embrace open and thoughtful discourse on the issues, and not cavalierly throw around the label “anti-Israel.”
We also need to expose American liberals to those sides of Israeli society with which they can identify and feel an affinity. The best vehicle to accomplish this is by bringing as many of them to Israel as our resources will allow. Experience has proven that visits to Israel can help even the harshest critics understand the complexity of the conflict. They may not return as ardent Israel supporters, but they are less likely to fall prey to extremist messages coming from Israel’s detractors.