February 14, 2008
Whither the Left?
The L.A. battle for Israel's survival
Gallup reports from Israel and the West Bank on Israeli public opinion regarding the Middle East peace process
When, after seven years of violence, President George W. Bush brought the Israelis and Palestinians together last November to resume peace talks at Annapolis, right-wing groups in America and Israel mobilized their members in protest. The unified message: Jerusalem should not be divided.
Breaking ranks was out of order, and when the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky offered a Shabbat sermon to his Los Angeles congregation, reprinted in the Op-Ed pages of this newspaper, allowing for the fact that Israel might need to put Jerusalem on the negotiating table -- though that was not his preference -- he caused a huge outcry that was even reported in the Los Angeles Times. Now the rabbi declines to discuss the matter: "Getting slotted politically has not been good for my rabbinate, and that's where my first obligation is," Kanefsky said this week.
But what turned out to be most surprising about Annapolis was not the unified right, or that one Orthodox rabbi was censured just for keeping an open mind, but rather that the left remained mostly silent.
Think about it: For the first time in his two-term reign, Bush announced support for a peace treaty, with a two-state solution to be signed by the end of 2008: "We meet to lay the foundation for the establishment of a new nation, a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security," he said.
His announcement might have been followed by mass public approval shown by rallies in Washington, outpourings of donations or letter-writing campaigns to Congress to show the American government that there is a vibrant, pro-Israel pro-peace movement in America.
But is there?
What exactly is the state of the pro-Israel peace movement in America? Does the Jewish institutional establishment represent the position of the American Jewish community? And if not, why are alternate voices not being heard?
Splinters of the Left Wing
In the lead up to Annapolis, one group did mobilize its base to show support for the peace process. Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (BTV), a grass-roots organization that educates and mobilizes American Jews in support of a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, put out a letter with more than 500 rabbis' signatures in favor of Annapolis. But for the most part, Annapolis -- and the entire idea of peace talks -- seems to be on the back burner.
BTV is one of a number of pro-peace, pro-Israel organizations based in Washington, with chapters or offices in other states, that essentially share the same politics: a desire for peace negotiations to establish two secure, democratic states.
But one of the reasons the left has not managed to get this message across is that the many organizations that it comprises mostly work separately, and each takes on a different aspect of an issue. Although they sometimes work together, such as making the Palestinian anti-terrorism act of 2006 less punitive to the Palestinians. Divisions avoid redundancy, but the lack of unity also has kept the pro-Israel leftist movement in the United States from having a strong, uniform voice.
For example, there is the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), which was founded in 1993, after the Oslo accords, as an "independent, mainstream organization dedicated to mobilizing American Jews in support of sustained U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East." IPF tries to shape public discussion by producing news analysis and recommendations, and delivering policy messages to legislators in Washington.
Older than IPF is Americans for Peace Now (APN), created in 1981 to aid and support the Israeli Shalom Akhshav movement, which educates the American Jewish Community on the benefits of peace in the Middle East.
"We're Washington based. We really try to influence the corridors of power on the Hill and with the think tanks and the media. We're not chapter based," APN spokesman Ori Nir said.
BTV is a chapter-based organization, with 39 chapters around the country and a mailing list of 38,000 people.
"Our niche is bringing the grass roots," working with people rather than on policy, said Diane Balser, BTV interim executive director. "I think we've made it known that there's a growing pro-Israel and pro-peace force in the United States."
"I do think the American Jewish community is supportive of a two-state solution and is willing to make compromises to make peace," said Larry Garber, CEO of the New Israel Fund (NIF), another left-wing organization in Los Angeles that advocates for social change in Israel, but does not directly deal with the peace process. "Our job is to provide them with information on how this is doable, and what are the various options that will lead to this result."
That, Nir said, is the crux of the issue: "There are so many Jews who are pro-peace, but no one has yet effectively found the formula of how to bring them into play and mobilize them into actual activism. I think it can be done."
Out of Step With the Jews?
Many on the left believe the American Jewish institutional leadership is out of touch with what American Jews really want.
According to the American Jewish Committee's 2007 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, a majority of American Jews do not believe that negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will lead to peace in the foreseeable future (55 percent versus 36 percent), and an overwhelming majority do not believe that Israel can achieve peace with a Hamas-led government (74 percent versus 17 percent), yet a majority -- 46 percent -- still support the establishment of a Palestinian state (versus 43 percent who do not).
"We think that many American Jews are more mainstream than the organizations that purport to represent them," said Naomi Pais, director of communications for NIF. While it may be a matter of semantics to call the left "pro-peace" and the right "pro-security" -- the right also says it wants peace and the left says it is concerned, too, with security -- there are many on the left who say organizations calling themselves "center" or "non-partisan" are often right-wing organizations unwilling to push for a continued peace talks or a pro-peace agenda, despite the fact that they say they toe the line of the Israeli government.
For example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby is "consistently hostile to the Palestinians and to the Palestinian right to statehood -- that's almost their raison d'etre," said IPF director M.J. Rosenberg. "All Israel organizations endorse the two-state position formally, but I don't believe they do support it. Their whole game is a one-sided attack on the Palestinians: Israel can do no wrong. Hardly anyone in the world sees it this way. But that's the way these organizations see it."
Rosenberg believes their main task is to make sure the administration maintains the status quo and not end the presence in the West Bank.
"When they talk about a united Jerusalem, what they're really talking about is continuing the occupation," he said.
Because Jerusalem will never be physically divided with walls or barriers, speaking of its division is a "straw man" intended to create fear and mobilize the masses.
But no matter where on the spectrum one positions organizations like AIPAC (in the much castigated book, "The Israel Lobby," John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt say AIPAC and the Conference of American Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations are "controlled by hardliners who generally support the Likud's expansionists policies, including its hostility to the Oslo Peace process"), most agree that AIPAC's positions dominate the U.S. debate about Israel.
"They are the 500-pound gorilla," Rosenberg said of the right-wing organizations in America. "We're like a Scotch terrier," he said. "They have the money. We don't."
Money, of course, is the name of the game. BTV has a budget of less than $3 million. APN and IPF do not disclose their budget, but admit money is a challenge. AIPAC is rumored to have a budget in the tens of millions, and a mailing list of 100,000.
"There have been resources pumped into organizations on the right who are much more skeptical of peace and much of the Arab world -- and clearly the last seven years have made the argument for these organizations much more saleable," Garber said.
Not a High Priority
Politics is also the reason why -- if there are so many left wing, liberal, pro-peace Jews in America -- the organizations are having trouble mobilizing support.
Gone are the heady days of Oslo, as well as its major players -- with Yitzhak Rabin assassinated, Yasser Arafat dead and Bill Clinton out of office. The current political situation -- the bloody resurgence of the Second Intifada, a withdrawal from Gaza that has sent the region into chaos and rockets being fired into Israel, and the democratic election of Hamas to lead the Palestinians -- makes peace negotiations a tough sell. Tack on to that a post-Sept. 11 climate of fear, and talk of "peace in the Middle East" seem almost delusional.
"It's been very difficult for the left -- not because what they want has changed, but it's hard with all these political travails to remain hopeful," said one Washington left-wing activist who asked not to be identified because she works with the various organizations. "The Hamas election has been very difficult for American Jews to reckon with."
But people always have reasons to be afraid and say no, Rosenberg said: "A lot of things changed because of the Second Intifada, and rightfully so: Everyone got terrified.... We think the answer to violence is to change the situation, not to embrace the violence."
Another part of the left's problem is that for liberal Jews who may support the peace process, focusing on Israel is not their main concern.
For example, in deciding on their candidate for president, the issue most important to respondents of the AJC survey was "economy and jobs" (23 percent) followed by "healthcare" (19 percent), "the war in Iraq" (16 percent) and "terrorism and national security" (14 percent). "Support for Israel" tied with "immigration" and "education" (6 percent), ranking only slightly higher than "not sure" (5 percent).
"The truth is that for most American Jews, Israel is not the single biggest thing they care about," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a statewide organization devoted to social justice. PJA is one of the few progressive Jewish organizations in America that even lists Israel in as part of its mission.
"We're a pro-Israel and pro-peace organization that's in favor of a two-state solution," Sokatch said. "Our position is consistent with other values we hold."
Similar organizations in Chicago, in the Twin Cities and in New York don't deal with Israel.
Today, the association between social justice and Israel has become "problematic," BTV's Diane Balser writes in an essay in the book "Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice" (Jewish Lights, 2008), an anthology of writings about Jewish justice work in which one out of seven sections is devoted to Israel. "It may seem safe to assume that the majority of 'progressives' [left of liberal] are peace advocates, but only a very few have made solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top political priority."
"They'd rather get involved with their museum or alumni group, and they don't get involved in Israel even in a positive way. It hurts progressives like us, because we are always looking for people to get involved in a progressive way on the conflict," said Richard Silverman, who, in 2003, created the blog "Tikun Olam," devoted to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Silverman believes blogs like his (which lists some 40 other blogs of similar interest) have also opened up what was once a controlled message on Israel to liberal Jews like himself. In Ha'aretz, he writes: "In the age before blogs, Jewish leaders were like political bosses. They ruled their roosts, and anyone who questioned them was easily frozen out of communal discourse. Their politics were conservative and generally supportive of the Israeli right.... Blogs have changed that."
In a recent interview, Silverman went further in his theory on the role of blogging: "American Jews are following blogs as seriously as everyone else in society. Just as blogs have always changed the politics, I think the same thing is happening regarding Israel. Ideas that might have been anathema before can at least be discussed." Even so, the fact of the matter is that progressive Jews engage in many issues, such as Darfur, labor, hunger, education. "A lot of single-issue focus comes from the right, but a lot of people on the left have a far wider array of causes they put their money behind: this isn't the top of their list or the only thing they do," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a Washington-based consultant who last year was reported to be involved in a major pro-peace effort but declined to discuss his project specifically.
Talk Is Cheap
"I think what's needed is a political effort," Ben-Ami said. "There's a sense on the part of candidates and elected officials that they can't speak as freely and put it on the table as openly."
Ben-Ami said the left needs to mobilize technology and funding and show there is support for people who talk about the issue from a progressive point of view. "If we create that political space, the policy dialogue will be much more open and much more rich."
Ben-Ami is planning to launch a major initiative in the next few months, Washington insiders say. (One of the reasons he may be keeping it under wraps is that early press reports called it a George Soros project; the businessman was "at the table," but is not currently involved.) Some believe the project involves uniting the existing organizations under one umbrella, others believe it may channel funds to existing organizations to continue their work.
Speaking generally, Ben-Ami said: "The sum of the parts is greater than the individual pieces, and if there were a way to bring the disparate parts of this community together, we would actually be a more effective voice."
The question, then, might be what a new, unified, pro-peace movement would look like. Would it be a left-wing AIPAC? Would it take on the multimillion dollar lobby? And would that be a good thing, or would it weaken America's support for Israel?
While there are some, like IPF's outspoken Rosenberg, who would take on AIPAC, many in the pro-peace camp believe the point would be not to be anti-anything, but rather just to provide an alternate voice for peace.
"There's plenty to be worked on together," Ben-Ami said. "The pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby can agree on the strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israel. We all have the same goal in mind: to ensure the best interest between Israel and the United States. The overall goal is the same."