February 14, 2008
Whither the Left?
The L.A. battle for Israel's survival
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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."