Jewish Student Union in Berkeley boycotts J Street

Posted: December 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

The isolation of J Street and other Jewish groups that are critical of Israeli policies is evidence of a growing moral crisis in the American Jewish community

This post was updated.

A couple of years ago, while spending some time in the States, I was invited to a dinner at a Jewish friend’s home. “Just one thing,” my friend, a smart liberal lefty, said. “Don’t mention Israel by the table. The inevitable argument will ruin the evening.”

This, and a few similar experiences, led me to offer my editors in Haaretz a story about the Jewish community’s “Israel problem,” i.e., the inability to engage in a serious discussion about Israel. The working title we gave the piece was “Israel – not at the dinner table.” It was published almost year ago, and since then, things seem to have gotten worse.

Last week, the University of Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union rejected a request by J Street to join. This was the first time a Jewish chapter was denied membership in the union. Jacob Lewis, one of the leaders of the opposition to J Street at the Student Union, told San Francisco’s J Weekly that he has been suspicious J Street ever since he attended an event in which the group hosted Assaf Sharon of the Sheikh Jarrah Movement as a speaker. Sharon said that “everything beyond the Green Line is a settlement,” and Lewis concluded that this was “a virulently hateful event about Israel.”

I wonder if Lewis is not that knowledgeable on politics, or if he has joined the war on reality that some advocates for Israel have recently declared. What would you call construction projects east of the Green Line if not “settlements?” And it’s not just Assaf Sharon stating this position, but also every U.S. Administration to date.

The fact is that by Israeli political standards – which have seen a dramatic shift to the right in recent years – J Street’s positions are part of the mainstream. But even the very limited debate that is taking place in Israel seems to be too “radical” for the taste of many Jewish Americans these days (And also for the taste of many Americans. Prime Minister Rabin used to say that the occupation fuels hatred for Israel and for Jews, but repeat this in Washington today and your career might be in danger.)

Still, how could we blame 20-year-old Lewis, if the leaders of his community are too afraid to engage in those questions? Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Hillel Berkeley, which funds the Jewish Student Union, wasn’t present at the vote on J Street, and his comments on the matter to J Week were so careful that you need another Rabbi to explain what he meant:

“We have to be very careful in how we talk about Israel and how we define our tent, because the stability and strength of Israel’s future is dependent on the strength of our Jewish community, and by that I mean every facet of our community. We always have to be careful about who we include and exclude.”

If this is all the Rabbi has to say to his students in one of their most important political decisions ever, why do you need a Rabbi at Hillel? And if students are not encouraged to deal with new – and even “radical” – positions when they are in their early twenties, what hope there is of developing a new generation of sensitive, smart and sophisticated leaders?

The debate regarding Israel is probably the greatest moral challenge this generation of Jews will face, and so far, things don’t look very good. In my last visit to the States, I got the sense that many Jews, especially from the liberal side, prefer to walk away from this problem altogether (something which is in direct contradiction to the growing interest non-Jewish liberals find in the Middle East, and in Israel/Palestine in particular). I was repeatedly told of Rabbis who wouldn’t host events on Israel, fearing that the internal debate they would spark would get out of control to a point that would endanger their own position.

The question of J Street in Berkeley is not very important for future political developments in Israel and Palestine. The resistance to the occupation will continue and the pressure on Israel is likely to grow – not because of J Street or anything else American Jews will or won’t do, but due to the simple fact that Palestinians will continue to fight for their rights as long as Israel denies them. What’s at stake in Berkeley – and in many other places all across America – is the moral integrity of the Jewish community, and its ability to examine conflicting values.

I am not a big fan of some of J street’s latest positions (which I have criticized) and still, one has to admit that J Street is trying to offer a space to engage with those issues in a way that goes beyond echoing Israeli talking points. The isolation of J Street, and other progressive Jewish groups is further evidence of the spiritual and moral crisis into which the Jewish community is sinking.

UPDATE: It seems that some people in Berkeley Hillel, including Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, regret not voicing a stronger opinion before the vote on J Street at the JSU. Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman and Barbara Davis, President of the Board of Directors of Berkeley Hillel, have sent this letter to the J Weekly (it is yet to be published):

Dear Editor

Berkeley Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State with secure and recognized borders and as a member of the family of free nations.  Berkeley Hillel supports a range of student groups whose activities advance our mission.  The JStreetU chapter adheres to our Israel policy and Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines and will receive the support of Berkeley Hillel as do the broad spectrum of other Israel-focused groups working with Berkeley Hillel including, Bears for Israel (AIPAC group), Tikvah: Students for Israel,  Israel Action Committee, Tamid, and Kesher Enoshi.

We respect the right of the Jewish Student Union, an organization sponsored by UC Berkeley student government, to make its own decisions, but we encourage JSU to reconsider its vote and include JStreetU as a member.

Berkeley Hillel is committed to creating a pluralistic community that embraces the diversity of our Jewish tradition.  In honoring the spirit of college students, we work to guide, mentor, and facilitate their unique Jewish expression. At a time when Jewish students are seeking community, we are careful not to exclude Jewish students, and we embrace the wisdom of our namesake Hillel by embodying the value of an inclusive community.

Barbara Davis
Board President on Behalf of the Board of Directors of Berkeley Hillel
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman
Executive Director

As I said, I have a feeling we will witness many more such cases in the months and years to come.


Further reading on this issue:
Bradley Burston in Haaretz: When Jews in Berkeley vote to cut support for Israel

Rebecca Vilkomerson thinks that BDS is both legitimate and effective

Posted: March 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments »

Earlier this week, an Israeli security company named Hashmira has announced it will stop supplying equipment to the West Bank. Hashmira is owned by Danish giant G4S, which was under considerable pressure due to its projects in Israel. This was another success for the boycott campaign, which seems to gain momentum, especially when it targets activities directly involved in the occupation.

The Boycott is extremely controversial in Israel. While there is some tolerance, especially on the left, for the boycott of the settlements, supporting the BDS is a political taboo. Furthermore, a new Knesset bill would make it illegal for Israelis to support all kind of political boycotts against the occupation.

I would like to bring here things said by Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson during J Street’s panel on BDS. Rebecca makes some very good points, especially with regards to the nature of the boycott as a none-violent, grassroots action (Bernard Avishai, who also spoke at the J street Panel, makes the case against BDS here).


I want to take a moment to make sure we all are clear about what BDS is.  BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a Palestinian led, globally active, non-violent movement in support of equality and freedom for the Palestinian people.

As Kathleen mentioned, I lived in Israel from 2006 to 2009.  My husband and children are Israeli, so obviously I am deeply invested in what will happen in Israel.  I actually learned about BDS largely through Israeli activists and friends, who had increasingly come to support it, especially in the wake of the Gaza War. I find it to be the most hopeful strategy that we can engage in — a way to act on principles of equality and human dignity that I value as a Jew and as a human being.

In the last month or so, three events, in particular, have reinforced this for me.

1) The Palestine Papers revealed that the “peace process,” which has been going on for 19 years now, is bankrupt.  The U.S. is not an honest broker, Israel is not willing to compromise, and the PA is too weak to fight for Palestinian rights, willing to make enormous concessions –which still were not considered enough by Israel.  Throughout this almost 20 year process the settlements have grown enormously, creating de facto bantustans that make a two state solution hard to imagine.

2) The U.S. vetoed a resolution at the U.N. which was an exact reflection of its own foreign policy.  The U.S. is simply unwilling to use any of the many tools it has at its disposal to force Israel to stop violating international law, to stop violating human rights, and to stop violating U.S. policies.  Obama stood in Cairo and said that settlements must end—and yet he has proven that in this case he believes only in words, not action.
Frankly,  we need to be realistic about the current power dynamics.  The strategy of relying on governments –our government—to bring about change on its own has shown itself to be completely ineffective.

3) In contrast: the Arab uprisings. Many of us watched in awe as Egyptians took to the streets in their millions, to non-violently call for freedom, democracy, and dignity.  Now from Bahrain, to Libya, and Yemen, thousands more are doing the same.  Last night, Mona Eltahawy’s call for solidarity for Arab struggles for freedom and dignity got a standing ovation.  The Palestinian BDS movement is part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region, and deserves the same respect.

So on the one hand we have government-driven processes that have shown themselves to be corrupt and hypocritical, and on the other we have a movement rooted in civil society, in principles of non-violence, which draws on the long and noble history of BDS efforts against apartheid, for civil rights, for many other righteous struggles.  These are the tools of our heroes—Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez.

BDS is an opportunity for each of us, personally, to act on our values.  To express, directly, our support for freedom, democracy and dignity.   It can create—is creating—the pressure that will eventually be much more successful than current lobbying tactics have been to create a true change in U.S. foreign policy, to create the conditions for negotiations that are between equals.

I want to highlight just one company that is being targeted in a global boycott campaign as an illustration.
Veolia is a French company, one of the largest in the world, which manages transportation systems, waste systems, and water treatment around the world (including here in D.C., where it manages the bus lines).  It operates a land fill in the West Bank (using Palestinian land and resources to serve the settlements), runs bus service to the settlements on road 443, which was built on Palestinian land but is only open to Israelis, and had a contract to build and manage the light rail to connect West Jerusalem to the settlements around it, effectively annexing Palestinian territory.

Veolia has been the target of a boycott and divestment campaign worldwide , and as a result Veolia has lost literally billions of dollars in new contracts.  In June, 2009, Veolia announced that it was withdrawing from its contract to build the rail, though it is still managing its implementation, and continues to lose contracts because of it.

The campaign against Veolia is a great example of why BDS is so exciting and so effective:

It works.

It educates people about the way corporations are implicated in the settlement project and in building and expanding the infrastructure of occupation

It enables people to take action once they understand what is happening—Veolia is in local communities all over the country, collecting garbage, operating buses and trains, and all over the country people are organizing campaigns  in their own cities and campuses to build the pressure on Veolia to stop profiting from the Occupation.

This is just one example.  One of the strengths of the BDS movement is that it is both loose and broad, all sorts of campaigns and targets fit within it, depending upon local priorities and conditions.

BDS movement is inspired by a call that was put out by Palestinian civil society in 2005, but it is a very diverse movement of acts of nonviolent resistance occurring every day in ways big and small.

Some just do it quietly by bypassing settlement goods at the store-which is common in Israel among my friends and family, and I would guess in this room. Israeli artists boycott performances in Ariel, and U.S. artists, like Steven Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Mandy Patinkin, support them. Some picket in front of stores, or ask artists not to play in Israel, or like JVP, focus only on companies that profit from the Occupation.

We have groups in Israel like Boycott from Within, that have been supporting the full Palestinian call, and groups like Peace Now that ask supporters not to invest in the occupied territories.. Here in the U.S., Meretz USA, recently put out a statement supporting BDS in the occupied territories.

It really varies and not everyone agrees on every campaign. But we all have in common a belief that Israel must abide by international law, must be a true democracy for all of its citizens, and cannot continue to subjugate another people.  That stand for democracy and freedom is what motivates the BDS movement, just as it motivated the movement for civil rights in the U.S. in the 1960s, and what we are seeing today in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

One of the beautiful things about watching those movements unfold has been watching people under dictatorial regimes who suddenly found the courage to take their governments, and their lives, back.  The BDS movement strives to fulfill these same basic human needs and in the same spirit of non-violence.  After years violent attacks on civilians that were rightfully condemned, how could we not respect and encourage these non-violent means, that bring together Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists in common cause?

It is very encouraging to have this conversation in a Jewish space. It’s great that J Street has rejected the attempts of right wing groups to split progressive Jews from one another, and is not following the lead of groups like Hillel (and Ameinu, if I want to be brutal!), that are creating political litmus tests for inclusion in the Jewish community. Its exciting to be able to sit together and have this discussion about tactics—there should be room for all of our approaches.

But is also of utmost importance to recognize that to have this conversation only in this space is not enough.  Many of us in this room have been to Bilin or Sheikh Jarrah.  These places are inspiring, because though led by Palestinians, as is appropriate since it is the Palestinian’s struggle to be free, they are joint Palestinian-Israeli efforts. In those places you can imagine a future in Palestine and Israel where all people are free to be full citizens, and where life is richer for everyone for it.

One of the strengths of BDS is that it actually requires conversation and coordination. So as a next step, I would put out a plea and a challenge that we not have this conversation only among Jews, but respect the agency of Palestinians in this struggle.  They are the ones most affected, they are the initiators of the call, and they need to be able to represent themselves in this debate.

More on BDS:

Roi Maor: BDS is ineffective.

Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal: BDS targets the right group in Israeli society.

Video of the BDS debate in Princton. Debating: Max Blumenthal, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Dan May, Daniel May.

Akiva Eldar vs. AIPAC and “self-loving Jews”

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Following House resolution 1765, which I wrote about yesterday, Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar goes after AIPAC:

The dominant view among the centrist group of the Jewish community – that “we support every Israeli government, right or wrong” – reminds one of a situation in which a parent finds out that his child is addicted to drugs and hands him his credit card.

The activists of Peace Now and the moderate group J Street, are called “self-hating Jews” by members of the Jewish establishment. People at AIPAC and their allies in Congress are, on the other hand, “self-loving Jews.” Indeed, they love themselves. Especially themselves.

Jews who truly love Israel go to synagogues in New York and tell people that if Jerusalem will not be the capital of two nations, it will never be recognized as Israel’s capital.

Jews who love themselves may know there is no two state solution without dividing Jerusalem, but they prefer to receive enthusiastic applause when making the empty declaration that “a unified Jerusalem is Israel’s capital forever.”

Read the rest here.

The Israel Project vs. J Street: from pro-Israel to pro-Netanyahu

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments »

In the current political context, groups like “The Israel Project” and “Stand with US” represent more than anything the interest of extreme rightwing Israeli politicians

I have first heard of The Israel Project (TIP) when I traveled to Denver in 2008 to cover the Democratic National Convention for Maariv. TIP had a press conference with pollsters Frank Lunz and Stan Greenberg. Lunz is the guy who is teaching speakers for Israel to call the Palestinians “Arabs” because it makes Americans think of oil and money rather than refugees. Greenberg is the endangered specie of our time: a pro-Israeli liberal.

The spirits at Denver – and later, at the GOP convention at Saint Paul, were a similar event was held – were high. American support for Israel was at an all-time record, and the buffet was excellent.

The halt of peace negotiations, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or the rapid expansion of the settlements didn’t seem like a problem. If these issues bothered anyone (They probably didn’t make Stan Greenberg happy), it was for what was labeled as the “challenges” that they might present for those repeating Israeli talking points abroad.

It’s easy to forget how many things have changed in the last two years. Now, Jennifer Mizrahi, Founder and President of TIP, has some concerns. Still, it’s not the expansion of settlements or the future of Israeli democracy that worries her. Her problem is J Street, which seems to deceive the Jewish-American public into thinking that opposing settlements is desirable.

This is what Mizrahi writes about the left-wing Jewish advocacy group on TIP Blog:

The real problem with J Street… is not that it misled people by hiding the fact that it received contributions from people whose support of Israel is suspect. Rather, it is that J Street uses a false premise to take time and resources from thousands of people – including American leaders — whose concern for Israel is unquestioned.

You get that? J street is dangerous because it makes pro-Israelis waste time and money on ridiculous ideas, such as actively engaging with the Israeli government over its control over the life of 2.5 Palestinians in the West Bank.

The same can’t be said about The Israel Project. TIP never wasted their time on such original thoughts, or any new idea regarding the Palestinian problem for that matter. They simply follow orders from Jerusalem, regardless of the identity of the person seating in the PM office.

No Israeli official is too hawkish for TIP. Mizrachi describes PM Netanyahu and his government – the one with Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman as his senior coalition partners – as one that is willing to make “painful sacrifices” for peace. Both those ministers deny it, but let’s not get too obsessed with such details.

“20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs who have full rights,” she writes, while at the same week Israeli Foreign Minister is calling in the UN General Assembly for “population exchange”.

“Why is it so hard for some Arabs and Iran to accept that Israel should be the national and democratic homeland of the Jewish people,” adds Mizrahi, while Deputy PM Moshe Yaalon is declaring that there is not even a chance of a peace deal, and claims that all seven top cabinets ministers agree with him on this one.

TIP and similar pro-Israeli groups argue that Israelis want peace and quote polls showing that the Jewish public opposes the settlements and supports a Palestinian state, but at the same time, they go against the will of those very same Israelis and fight for settlements expansion. In short, they are not interested in Israel (and surly not in the Palestinians) but in the desires of the current political leadership in Israel, and especially those of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Recently, Netanyahu found himself facing some decisions that might force him to replace his coalition partners, so he can carry on the talks with Mahmoud Abbas. But TIP doesn’t want Netanyahu to be cornered. They want Abbas to face the pressure. So they attack J Street for not taking its talking points from the Israeli PM office.

I wonder where Jennifer Mizrahi is drawing her moral and political lines, if she has such. What kind of Israeli act or which politician she wouldn’t support? Twenty Five years ago, would she have explained why the Sabrah and Shatila massacre was OK? Will she be speaking for PM Lieberman in a decade?

Right now we have a very extreme Israeli leadership and a very moderate Palestinian one – to the point where most Palestinians don’t think Abbas and Fayad represent them. Jerusalem is currently insisting on its right to built settlements – something the entire world opposes, and even considerable numbers of Israelis. And we have a Foreign Minister who is our proud version of the neo-Fascists in Europe. Yet TIP and other Jewish lobbying groups are doing all they can to lead the Jewish community – one of the most liberal groups in the US – into supporting them.

And they say J Street is the one deceiving people.

“If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?”

Posted: May 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

An interesting article from Peter Beinart on the the New York Review of Books. Though he overestimate the power and presence of the liberal left in Israel right now, Beinart does hit the point regarding not only the carte blanche the Jewish establishment is giving Israel, but also on the dangerous effect this blind support has on the Israeli society.

There is an epidemic of not watching among American Zionists today. A Red Cross study on malnutrition in the Gaza Strip, a bill in the Knesset to allow Jewish neighborhoods to bar entry to Israeli Arabs, an Israeli human rights report on settlers burning Palestinian olive groves, three more Palestinian teenagers shot—it’s unpleasant. Rationalizing and minimizing Palestinian suffering has become a kind of game. In a more recent report on how to foster Zionism among America’s young, [Republican pollster Frank] Luntz urges American Jewish groups to use the word “Arabs, not Palestinians,” since “the term ‘Palestinians’ evokes images of refugee camps, victims and oppression,” while “‘Arab’ says wealth, oil and Islam.”

Of course, Israel—like the United States—must sometimes take morally difficult actions in its own defense. But they are morally difficult only if you allow yourself some human connection to the other side. Otherwise, security justifies everything. The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference should ask themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make them scream “no.” After all, Lieberman is foreign minister; Effi Eitam is touring American universities; settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset. If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?

hattip: Joseph dana.

UPDATE: it seems that this article is making some noise. Many friends and contacts of mine have mailed or posted it, and Jstreet issued a statement echoing Beinart’s concern.

Tel Aviv University professors vs. Alan Dershowitz

Posted: May 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, the US and us | Tags: , , | 5 Comments »

Last Saturday, law Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University. In his speech (which can be seen here, starting from 50:00. full text here), Derhsowitz, who is not an Israeli, attacked “Israeli academics” for being too anti-Israeli, aiding the international campaign against Israel, teaching their students political and historical theories similar “to the earth being flat”, and imposing their views on students in a way which reminds sexual harassment.

In response, members of the History faculty sent the following letter to Joseph Klafter, President of TAU, demanding the university renounce the words of Mr. Dershowitz. Dozens of other university members added their signature to the letter once it got circulated.

Here is the letter, as it appeared on the Israeli-Academia-Monitor, a rightwing watchdog group whose stated mission is to expose “the people working to support the enemies of their own country during a time of war”.

To Professor Joseph Klafter, President of Tel Aviv University

Dear Professor Klafter,

We the undersigned, are members of the General History Dept at Tel Aviv University, heard in full the speech of Mr. Alan Dershowitz in the name of the Honorary Doctorate recipients as broadcasted live on video.

As Historians who know very well the periods of the past where the  enlightened democracy declined into a dark regime, we are very concerned with some of the things said. Mr. Dershowitz viciously attacked academic members of the university criticizing the policy of the government, he specifically named some members of staff and accused them for leading narrow-minded thinking as they impose their opinions on students (and he compared it to sexual harassment).

As you know there is no single proof that member of staff imposed his/her political opinions on students.

Mr. Dershowitz is allowed, of course, to enjoy the freedom of speech and to express his opinions, but the fact he named lecturers and accused them of hurting students and of hurting the strength of the State of Israel – These words are on the verge of defamation and may put those members of staff at risk.

We ask you, as the university administration to renounce the words of Mr. Dershowitz and to announce it will continue to protect the freedom of speech of all members of our academic community in any way. As you wrote in your article in the Jerusalem Post in 15th of February 2010 – The university must protect the freedom of thinking and freedom of expression of members of staff and students.

Bad winds blow these days in Israel and in the West in general, which are anti-Intellectual and anti-Democratic. The universities are – as you said – the beacons protecting from them. Negation of some views or others and the attack on those expressing them, from the podium of the university destabilize such protective walls.

We are sure you will find a way for the university administration to renounce those words of Mr. Alan Dershowitz.

(13 names)

Update: Haaretz reports that TAU has released the following statement:

“Prof. Dershowitz enjoyed the right to freedom of speech and to express his views. Klafter emphasizes that the university will continue to unequivocally defend freedom of expression of all the members of the academic community.”

Read also what Harvard Jstreet students had to say to Dershowitz.

Poll: Most Israelis don’t believe Netanyahu willing to take “real measures” for peace

Posted: May 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off

Only 17 percent view President Barack Obama as “hostile” to Israel

In their report today of the new poll for the War and Peace Index, Yedioth Ahronoth chose to emphasize the fact that 48 percent of the public blames US President Barack Obama for the recent crisis between Israel and the US. Yet a closer look reveals some very interesting numbers, and possibly a slightly different picture:

To the question: “In your impression, what is President Obama’s attitude toward Israel?” 43% replied that it is pragmatic-neutral, 34% that it is very friendly or friendly, while 17% defined his attitude as hostile or very hostile toward Israel (6% did not know).

Furthermore, on the eve of the proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians, a majority of the Israeli public does not believe Netanyahu is sincere in claiming he is willing to take substantial measures to reach a peace agreement (the Jewish public is split almost evenly on this question, with a slight advantage to those who don’t believe Netanyahu).

As for whether Binyamin Netanyahu genuinely wants and is taking real measures to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the public is divided. The rate that agrees with this (45.5%) is only slightly higher than the rate that does not (43%). In the Arab sector, a sweeping majority of 72% goes to the naysayers.

The important lesson is this: AIPAC, Elie Wiesel and Ed Koch would have found themselves in a minority here. They represent Netanyahu, not Israel.

Liberal Jews and Israel / a case of split personality disorder

Posted: January 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: the US and us, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »


Last Saturday I met an Israeli-American friend who came for a short visit from his studies in Europe. We talked some politics, and finally came to an issue which always puzzles me: the fact that American Jews are unwilling – almost unable – to criticize Israel, both in public and in private, and even when Israeli policies contradict their own believes. My friend noted that if some of the articles on the Israeli media – and not even the most radical ones – were to be printed in the US and signed by none-Jews, they would be considered by most Jewish readers like an example of dangerous Israel-bashing, sometimes even anti-Semitism.

I’ve became more aware of this issue myself since I started writing this blog. Things I say or write which are well within the public debate in Israel are sometimes viewed as outrageous by American Jewish readers; at the same time, events which would make the same readers furious if they happened in the US – for example, the Israeli municipality which tried to prevent Arabs from dating Jewish girls – are met with indifference.

Naturally, I’m generalizing here. Between millions of Jews you can obviously find all kinds of voices – and this is part of the reason I hesitated before writing this post – but I think one can recognize some sort of mainstream opinion within the Jewish community, which both echoes the official Israeli policies, regardless of the identity of the government in Jerusalem, and at the same time, turns a blind eye on events which might distort the image of Israel which this community holds. And this is something which is hard to understand.


All known data indicates that the vast majority of US Jews supports the democratic party, and many consider themselves as liberals (Barack Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote). Yet except for a group of well known activists, you can hardly hear these people criticize Israel, which is not exactly a picture-perfect liberal democracy.

I am not talking here about the old Jewish establishment or about AIPAC. AIPAC are professional politicians. Their status is based on their connections to the Israeli governments, and their ability to promote Israeli interests in Washington. Breaking up with Israel – even just criticizing Israeli politics – will not just hurt their status, it will simply leave them unemployed. Expecting AIPAC or other Jewish leaders with good ties in Jerusalem to declare that, for example, Israel should lift the siege on Gaza, is like asking an insurance lobbyist to speak in the name of the public option.

Naturally, I don’t expect anything from Jewish neo-cons either. These people like Netanyahu, they supported George Bush, and they will go on speaking about culture wars and Islamo-Facists versus Judo-Christians even on the day Ismail Haniya converts to Zionism. You can agree or disagree with them, but at least their views are consistent.

With the Liberals it’s quiet a different story. It’s obvious they care much about Israel, and some of them are very passionate about politics and extremely well-informed about what’s going on here, but from time to time, I get the feeling they hold back some of their views.

I don’t think many liberals, if they really are ones, can accept the siege on Gaza. Even if they think that Hamas is to blame for the current state of affairs, surly they don’t support collective punishment against 1.5 million people, do they? What would they say if the US was to seal the areas in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan where the insurgents are hiding, not letting even basic supply in or out, preventing civilians from growing food or working, and practically leaving the entire population on the brink of starvation? I presume many Americans will oppose such policies.

But let’s leave geo-politics aside, and talk about the current wave of anti-Arab legislation in Israel. There are things happening here on a daily basis which would make most American Jews go out of their minds if they occurred to Afro-Americans in Alabama or to Native-Americans in Oklahoma, rather than to Arabs in the Galilee. Take for example the temporary order preventing Arab citizens who marry none-Israelis to live with their partners and children here, or the new legislation which will make it legal for Jewish neighborhoods and settlements to refuse to accept Arabs. Is this something Americans – not just liberals – would tolerate? I’m not even talking here about the de-facto discrimination of Arabs, but on a legal effort to introduce ethnic segregation in Israel. Isn’t that the same issue Jews fought against throughout our entire history? Weren’t American Jews an important part of the civil right movement? What’s the difference between Blacks in Birmingham and Arabs in Katzir?

I guess that part of the reason for not criticizing Israel is that many Jews are extremely sensitive to the existential threat Israelis sense, so they don’t like to speak against security measures taken by Israel, since it’s not them who would be hurt when these measures are lifted. This is understandable, but many of the problems the Arab minority faces has nothing to do with national security, but with the desire of many in the Israeli public – and their elected officials in the Knesset – to make Israel not just a Jewish state, but a state for Jews, and Jews only. It’s not about terror, just racism.


Given the sense of shared history and even close family ties between the two communities, there is something very natural with the American-Jewish community’s desire to take side with Israelis in what seems as its conflict with the Arab world. I guess taking sides also means avoiding looking at some of the faults of your partner. But the problem with the Jews’ attitude towards Israel is much deeper than that, and it shows the most on issues which have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and are purely an internal matter of the Jewish people.

Here is an example: as we all know, the Orthodox Jewish establishment has an official statues in Israel (unlike most Western countries, state and religion are not separated here, and the chief Orthodox Rabbi has a position similar to this of a supreme court justice). The same Orthodox establishment is very hostile to none-Orthodox Jews, which happen to make most of the American Jewish community. A few weeks ago, Fifth-year medical student Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel. I expected all hell to break in the States. After all, this concerns Jews’ right to practice their faith in the most holy place in the world. I wouldn’t say the event went unnoticed – I saw some blog posts and articles referring to the incident, and Forward published Frenkel’s account of the day – but it certainly wasn’t enough for people in Israel to notice. If American Jews spoke on this matter, it was with a voice that nobody heard.

Now imagine the public outrage if Frenkel was arrested anywhere else in the world for wearing a talit. Read the rest of this entry »

Fire Ambassador Oren

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, believes that supporting a two states solution and a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, or opposing the war in Gaza, are illegitimate positions, which open the door for no less than the distraction of Israel. J street, the pro-peace lobbing group which advocates such ideas, is in Oren’s view “a unique problem”.

Forward reports:

Addressing a breakfast session at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial convention December 7, Ambassador Michael Oren described J Street as “a unique problem in that it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream.”

After a speech that touched on the spiritual basis for and the threats to the state of Israel, Oren issued an unscripted condemnation of J Street.

“This is not a matter of settlements here [or] there. We understand there are differences of opinion,” Oren said. “But when it comes to the survival of the Jewish state, there should be no differences of opinion. You are fooling around with the lives of 7 million people. This is no joke.”

If I were one of Meretz or Labor’s member, or even Kadima’s, this would have been enough for me to demand for Dr. Oren to be sent back to Jerusalem. These parties hold some of J Street’s views (in Meretz’s case, probably all of them), so Oren is practically accusing them of “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people”. Even if he didn’t cross the line of talking about elected members of the Knesset, he got very close to it, considering the fact that Meretz, Labor and Kadima even sent representatives to the J Street convention.

James Besser touched this point on his blog at The Jewish Week site, when he wrote that “[according to the ambassador's approach], guys like Rabin and Ariel Sharon must have been secretly anti-Israel.”

It is no surprise that Oren is turning out to be the Likud’s ambassador to Washington, rather than Israel’s. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Oren was an associate researcher on the Shalem Center, the rightwing think tank and publishing house which is financed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson (who is also the publisher of the free rightwing tabloid Israel Hayon). When Netanyhau returned to the PM office, he appointed people from the Shalem Center and Israel Hayom to senior positions in his administration. These are the hardcore ideologists behind Israel’s current policies. Read the rest of this entry »

Israel Hayom Deputy Editor: J-Street same as Jews who defended Nazi Germany

Posted: November 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: media, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Gonen Ginat is deputy editor for Israel Hayom, the free paper billionaire Sheldon Adelson has launched last year in support of Benjamin Netanyahu and that since became the second widely read paper in Israel.

(The not-so-secret admiration of Israel Hayom for the PM was demonstrated again this week, following a visit by Netanyahu to a navy base. The PM slipped on a boat, and nearly fell to the water. The day after three out of four dailies printed the pictures of Netanyahu loosing his footing, while one showed the PM in full command, standing next to the Chief of Staff. You can read more about it and see pics here.)

Back to Ginat. This weekend, Israel Hayom published its first weekend edition (what caused great concern among the other tabloids). Ginat holds the prestigious last page column of the political section, and he decided to make its debut with a brutal attack on J-Street. His entire article was dedicated to comparing the new lobbying group to a Jew named Yaakov Trachtenberg who published in April 33′ a statement in support of Nazi Germany. Read the rest of this entry »