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Seems like old times
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Seems like old times

The New Israel Fund under attack. Right-wing Jewish groups accusing left-wing Jewish groups of undermining Israel. Left-wing groups accusing right-wing groups of stifling dissent. A Likud-led government in power in Israel.

When did 2010 become 1990?

For anyone who lived through the Jewish communal wars of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the current controversies over the “pro-Israel” credentials of NIF and J Street seem eerily familiar. Gray-haired activists probably remember Breira, founded in 1973 by young Jews who said it was time to meet with Palestinian moderates and who felt the Jewish establishment didn’t speak for their generation. They might also remember the sometimes vicious debate over Breira’s “legitimacy” and whether it deserved a seat, quite literally, at American Jewry’s communal table. Ridiculed from without and divided within, the group disbanded in 1979.

Some of its members would go on to found the New Jewish Agenda in 1979, a group similarly committed to Palestinian self-determination and to pressing the Jewish establishment to embrace a new set of domestic priorities. NJA had a little more success joining the mainstream than Breira, partly because it agreed to cooperate in some of the major initiatives of the day, including the Soviet Jewry movement.

The New Israel Fund was founded at the same time — supporting organizations in Israel that reflected a distinctly American conception of “civil society.” Its leaders tended to have unassailable Zionist credentials, making it a tougher target for the usual critics on the Right. NIF grantees support women’s rights, Arab-Jewish coexistence, human rights, and civil rights for Israel’s Arab minority. That some of its grantees can be harsh critics of Israel left NIF vulnerable to the recent attack by Im Tirtzu, which claimed that NIF grantees provided the Goldstone commission with the ammunition to accuse Israel of war crimes. NIF denies the charge.

It’s amazing and a little sad that after three decades the terms of the debate over who’s “pro-Israel” and over the limits of dissent within organized Jewry have changed so little. The same questions being asked today about J Street and NIF were asked of Breira and NJA:

Must the organized Jewish community speak in one voice on Israel to be an effective advocate for its interests, or must it tolerate disagreements within its ranks lest it write off important Jewish constituencies?

Must Jewish organizations echo the policies of the elected Israeli government (whose citizens must live with the consequences of policy decisions, after all), or do all Jews everywhere have a stake in the kind of society Israel creates for its people and its Palestinian adversary?

I thought most of these questions were settled back in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin came to power and was promoting the sort of peace process advocated by Breira and NJA, perhaps prematurely, a decade earlier. That’s when the American-Jewish Right performed its exquisite pirouette: The same folks, like Norman Podhoretz, who demanded “consensus” surrounding Likud policies were now the ones out of step with Israel. Eager to be heard, they loudly nullified their prior conviction that “American Jews had no moral right to criticize Israel’s security policies.”

In fact, right-wing groups like Americans for a Safe Israel and The Zionist Organization of American have been among the harshest critics of Israeli policy over the past decade. ZOA head Morton Klein fired off release after release condemning Ariel Sharon for advancing the Gaza pullout, and roundly criticizes Netanyahu for agreeing to a settlement freeze.

AFSI, a tiny group that issued harsh and influential reports on Breira, NJA, and NIF, regularly lambastes Netanyahu and his cabinet. Its current newsletter accuses Netanyahu’s government of being “anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, illegal, immoral, untenable, and suicidal” for supporting a two-state solution.

The Left plays this game too, calling the other side “anti-Israel” if they don’t support a two-state solution. J Street has suggested as much in its criticism of Christians United for Israel, a group that strongly supports the settler movement in Judea and Samaria.

I think everyone has to take a deep breath here. All those who consider themselves “pro-Israel” have to find a way to disagree with each other without impugning others’ motives or credentials. We have to stop trying to define those who disagree with us out of an elusive and ever-shifting “consensus.” Those who believe in broadening the public policy debate (if, for nothing else, out of self-interest) have to tolerate those whose views they find wrong-headed — or at least stop trying to delegitimize them.

Of course, many in the pro-Israel community do not believe in broadening the public policy debate — or at least at a time when the sitting Israeli government seems to share their views. That’s a strategy. But it is an impractical, unenforceable, and short-sighted strategy, and it dooms us to bitter fights like these.

“Pro-Israel” is to the Israeli debate what “patriotic” is to the American debate: a word that one side uses to discredit another, as opposed to one that could remind us of the love we share.

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