What Israel needs: advocacy, not partisanship

What Israel needs: advocacy, not partisanship

It was Lord Palmerston who said, “Britain has no permanent friends; she only has permanent interests.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, seemed to paraphrase Palmerston in his Nov. 16 talk at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. The role of the Jewish community, he said, is to advocate for Israel’s interests, rather than become political partisans. His extremely important insight appeared to be aimed at a number of organizations, supposedly pro-Israel, that are propagating the idea that President Obama is “anti-Israel.” Such organizations, one of whose leaders is William Kristol, a leading neo-con, are attempting to make support of Israel a partisan issue, and it is no secret which party they support.

In a recent op-ed piece in The Jewish Standard, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote that President Barack Obama “cannot be trusted on Israel.” In reply, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter listed nine issues on which the current Democratic administration has been extraordinarily helpful to Israel, including the sale of advanced weapons and the holding of joint military exercises. Another example he listed was the administration’s offering a diplomatic defense of Israel time and again, most recently at the United Nations, where Obama delivered, said Kirshner, the “most pro-Israel speech of any president in the history of the UN.” Echoing Harris, Kirshner concluded, “Woe to our Jewish homeland should we craft an ideology that espouses a particular political denomination as Israel’s real friend while questioning the commitment on the other side.”

This is not to detract from President Bush, who was also a great friend of Israel. Support from both major political parties not only sustains Israel militarily and diplomatically but gives Israel a much needed morale boost at a time when so much of the world is hostile. Keeping Israel above the partisan fray is a cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy, and it is of no benefit when Mitt Romney accuses President Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.”

Lorna Fitzsimons, of the British Israel advocacy organization Bicom, made a similar point on Oct. 16, when the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ and NJ AJC hosted an advocacy summit called Step Up for Israel. Fitzsimons stressed the importance of building alliances, saying that advocates should seek common ground with other groups, rather than demand support for every policy of the current Israel administration. This was exactly the strategy the CRC employed several years ago when it was invited to take part in a “Night to Honor Israel” sponsored by the evangelical organization Christians United for Israel. Despite their differences on a number of domestic issues, cooperation between the local Jewish community and CUFI, based on their common bond to Israel, remains strong.

Another speaker at the CRC summit, however, seemed more intent on settling scores with liberals than seeking common ground. Alex Safian, research director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, used his time on the podium to attack Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, Ha’aretz, The New York Times, and the BBC. He labeled Peace Now “anti-Israel” despite the fact that it was founded by veterans of the IDF. Similarly, the New Israel Fund supports human rights organizations and social welfare organizations that assist battered women, among others. It not only fills a void in Israel but makes it possible for Israel to dialogue with important human rights organizations.

Safian may regard the Times as biased and uninformed when it comes to Israel; in the question-and-answer period I pointed out that the Times staff includes a former columnist for The Jerusalem Report and the father of a son currently serving in the IDF. Mr. Safian is probably too young to recall how the late Peter Jennings fought against ABC’s having a Jewish correspondent in Israel.

Organizations such as CAMERA nearly always focus on “liberal” Jewish organizations instead of those supporting, say, the “settlers” or those advocating evicting Arabs from their homes in east Jerusalem. They demand that groups like the New Israel Fund open their books to outside scrutiny, while making no such demands of figures like American bingo king Irving Moskowitz, a major financial supporter of settlements in east Jerusalem.

There are real and troubling challenges confronting those of us on the front lines of “hasbara,” or defending Israel through public diplomacy. Foremost among these is the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which threatens Israel with economic distress and political isolation. To combat these efforts, there is a need to form coalitions with groups, such as the Latinos, with whom we have had too little contact. We must fight the ongoing battle for hearts and minds in the universities and the high schools.

But rather than turning our guns on ourselves, we must confront the real enemy. Otherwise, we may find ourselves quoting Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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