The seminal moment in the transformation of pro-Israel advocacy occurred in the summer of 1993, when the Oslo accords were finalized, and then signed, on the White House lawn.
“The Jewish community essentially had trained itself in one direction and was being asked to turn around immediately,” said Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University. “It had advocated that the enemy was the PLO, and the question was, if all of the sudden [the PLO] are friends, they felt betrayed.”
It was at this moment that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) broke a decades-old code and criticized the Israeli government. While most Jewish American organizations got behind the landmark peace agreement, ZOA President Morton A. Klein predicted the accords would not only fail, but that they would empower Yasser Arafat and endanger Israelis.
“They were completely wrong and we were completely right,” Klein said last week. “Peace is impossible.”
Seven years and 300 murdered Jews after Oslo, the Second Intifada broke out, rupturing the ground beneath American Jewry. Within one more year, 19 Muslim terrorists would hijack four American planes and inflict the worst domestic attack in U.S. history; Jews and the West found a common enemy in the Muslim world, and the crack in the Jewish community severed into two pieces—hawks and doves, hardliners and peaceniks, right and left.
In Los Angeles, the American Jewish Congress had dissolved its local office in 1998 and reformed the following year as the PJA, a liberal organization concerned mostly with domestic issues related to social justice. But the AJCongress reopened here in 2000, bearing little resemblance to its former self.
“People who believed that we could have peace with the Palestinians were shaken out of their misguided view and realized they had no desire for peace,” said Gary P. Ratner, the group’s western region executive director. “Their goal was what they stated openly: The destruction of Israel, whether through the violence of groups like Hamas or through negotiations, that will weaken Israel. I think some of us woke up to the fact that Oslo was a disaster and the peace process would only lead to the destruction of Israel.”
The Jewish state was under attack with no partner for peace; the old model of resolving conflict through compromise had failed. With climbing anti-Israel rhetoric on American campuses and the perception that international media had joined liberal Christians in taking up the Palestinian cause, the hardliners quickly captured the upper hand among Jewish groups in the debate on what it meant to be pro-Israel.
“It’s a painful moment in Jewish life, because there isn’t a place for honest and open discourse,” Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told this paper in a 2002 article titled “The Silencing of the Left?” “People can have very strong differences of opinion about where to go and how to resolve things, but that discourse does not have a place right now. Rather, there is a vituperative argumentation and excoriation.”
Amid this climate, major Jewish organizations slid into the shadows, abdicating their leadership.
“Whatever they said would upset somebody,” Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said. “As a result, Jews who were frustrated, who wanted to defend Israel and didn’t really know how or didn’t have the ability, they gravitated toward The David Project and its sort of counterpart in StandWithUs.”
That is a portion of my cover story for this week’s paper, mentioned here and here and here, about the ascendacy of organizations that have redefined what it means to be “pro-Israel,” of which I focus on StandWithUs. In seven years, a gathering of 50 L.A. Jews has grown into an international organization with a major presence on college campuses, where they claim pro-Palestinian professors and student groups intimidate and harass Jewish students. The rest of the story is here.