A recent article in the Washington Jewish Week provides us with an excellent assessment of the quandary in which AIPAC finds itself as it struggles to be the “bipartisan” voice of the American Jewish community. With AIPAC seemingly caught amidst conflicts between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, liberal and conservative, the piece examines how AIPAC can operate effectively to support Israel while navigating the treacherous shoals of our country’s current strident political partisanship.
Many of us seem to take for granted a natural causality that a Jewish American’s overarching political affiliation does, and even rightly should, influence one’s thoughts and feelings about Israel. While our current incipient polarization of American politics should perplex and prompt us to push back, too many accept this state as normal and advocate in the name of party, ideology and righteousness. Thus, AIPAC is vulnerable to this dynamic and caught in a vise as the dysfunctional sins of the political parties are transferred to an organization challenged to harness the good will and positive efforts of the Jewish American community to support Israel.
How then do we help AIPAC to steer within these superimposed conflicts? I do not believe that we can fully free ourselves from secular party affiliations or ideologies, but I do think we can diminish their influences by raising and sharing with other Jewish Americans our consciousness as to what we commonly hold dear in our love for Israel. The result hopefully will lessen the need for AIPAC to straddle the persuasions of outside political forces and rather develop its vision and objectives organically from within Jewish frameworks less tied to party influences.
A quick review of two pivotal moments in Jewish history along with an examination of core Judaic principles might show how we might begin. At the First Zionist Congress in Basel 120 years ago, Theodore Herzl, in formulating a prototype version of an “Israel Public Affairs Committee,” had to contend with the contentious scuffling among 200 participants from 17 countries, with many representing various Zionist organization on the left/right of political and religious continua. Perhaps Herzl’s success in hammering out within three days an opening consensus on the basic goals of Zionism had much to do with the dream and vision within the hearts and minds of the participants to create a Jewish homeland. Most resonated to Herzl’s article of faith that “it goes without saying that the Jewish people can have no other goal than Palestine [Israel] and that whatever the fate of the proposition may be, our attitude toward the land of our fathers is and shall remain unchangeable.”
Has anything changed now that the dream was willed to reality through the sacrifice of so many across disparate political, ideological and religious persuasions? Might each of us with a commitment to “derech eretz” and its encasement of humility look within and quietly ask, “Does the goal I wish to promote further the welfare of Israel, or does it further my affiliated party platform, party ideology, party leadership, or calls for party unity and thus dictate my position on Israel?” Even if at the end the goals are not mutually exclusive, the self-questioning should always be done.
Much is being written these days about the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. For those of us who remember early June 1967, American Jewry of most every religious and political persuasion rallied for Israel first through the desperate fear and then in celebration of the victory. Through nonpartisan lobbying, fund raising and multiple volunteer efforts, American Jewry sprang ferociously to support Israel. No one checked to see if one’s emotions were in line with external political affiliations.
Much has occurred over the last 50 years to challenge and attenuate the bonds that American Jews have with Israel. The fledgling Jewish state has grown up with a vigorous multi-party democracy, multi-faceted economy spanning agriculture to hi-tech and a military more sure of its ability to defend the country. Yet many of us still picture Israel as the land of the “chalutzim” (pioneers), the Yishuv, the miracle of surviving the War of Independence in 1948, and then, yet another miracle in 1967. Israel in a way was our vulnerable child, and perhaps we have retained at least a small notion that we know what’s best for the child who now has moved into adulthood.
But for some who were too young to remember 1967, Israel appears to be a strong nation, able to repel its enemies, holders of territory perhaps belonging to the Palestinians, entrepreneurial, rife with religious and cultural conflicts that seem very much like our own, and seemingly in need of solutions to their problems that match our own favored political, ideological, and religious predilections.
Older or younger, in our efforts as American Jews to support AIPAC’s mission, we may want to keep faith with Herzl’s maxim while assessing the fairness by which we react to Israel. I believe all American Jews who care for Israel very much do share a sense of “kol yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” (all Jews are responsible for each other) and keenly wish for Israel’s well-being, but when dealing with Israeli issues, again we must interrogate ourselves and ask if our response is truly based on the contextual realities and exigencies within Israel, or are we reacting with emotional pronouncements and devised solutions emanating from our own political and cultural frameworks.
Let’s ask ourselves, does what constitutes being right or left, conservative or liberal in the two-party American system ipso facto translate politically and ideologically to the Israeli parliamentarian system? Do such facile distinctions make Benjamin Netanyahu a “Republican” and Isaac Herzog a “Democrat,” with party lines automatically drawn for us and discord installed accordingly? Rather, might we dig more fully into the issues that divide the various Israeli political parties so that we become more informed consumers of information and fairer brokers of discussion within AIPAC and the larger community?
Is it possible that Israel really does know how best to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians? Yet, do we feel sorry for ourselves for being weary from 70 years of war? We have given so much emotionally and financially, and so do we let our own exasperations establish a pique that makes us angry with Israel for not having achieved peace? Do we then feel as if Israel is a child that needs our superimposed guidance because we or our political party knows better?
If so, let’s step back and consider if we are weary, how much more so are the Israelis mired in endless threat and loss. Let’s step back and both trust and respect Israel as an “adult” nation still under an existential threat, yet still democratic with its own facts on the ground, politics, and desire for and approaches to peace. Let’s step back and bring to AIPAC forums our most mindful selves.
Because the change to how we conceive and contribute to the operations of a Jewish advocacy group such as AIPAC depends on our ability as individuals and as a community to recast accepted narratives, the task will be arduous. We must proceed, if not for our sake, then for our children. Consider what legacy we leave for our next generation if we allow Israel’s security to be placed in jeopardy not just because we as American Jews cannot agree to speak in melded voices of support but because our divisions are driven by forces outside of our community.
Saul Golubcow lives in Potomac.