Commentary Magazine


Re: What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel?

Evelyn’s post articulates well what should be the governing paradigm for how diaspora Jewish leaders can criticize Israel responsibly.

Strangely absent though from the Moment symposium she linked to is any mention of the traditional consensus that has for so long governed the thinking of American Jewish communal leaders and is now under threat.

This consensus holds that organizations or individuals who claim to speak in the name of American Jewry –especially when lobbying the government – should support the policies of the elected government of Israel. It has a far deeper moral and practical basis than its many critics seem to understand.

On the practical level, the founding of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is the oft-told allegory. The story goes that the Conference was organized in 1955 at the behest of Dwight Eisenhower and his powerful Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who were annoyed by the
multiple Jewish organizations lobbying them on Israel policy from a variety of different positions, all allegedly in the name of the American Jewish
community. Supposedly, they threatened to cut all Jewish organizations out of the White House if they did not come together and agree on a common position
with a single representative.

Whatever historical memory may be, these organizations had disputes with one another about Israel that were probably at least as hot as those in the Jewish world today. Many of the major organizations were in fact in the 1950s still coming out of a traditional non-or anti-Zionist stance that had governed their thinking before World War II.

The existing policies of the Israeli government were therefore a baseline position, determined by no single American group or faction, that could serve effectively as a consensus position. The successes of more than 55 subsequent years of Jewish advocacy speak well themselves to the power of that consensus. Today, then, and for the history of this default position this has meant that organizations on both sides of the political spectrum who have found themselves privately out-of-step with Israeli policies must publicly bite their tongues.

The heat of debate on this issue now derives from the fraying of the consensus. During the Oslo years, there were those on the right who felt teir view of Israel’s best course demanded they speak out. And increasingly, there are now voices today on the left who feel they must publicize their disagreements with an Israeli government that leans more to the right.

None have made an argument stronger than the continuing one for the traditional consensus, especially on moral terms.

The consensus leaves room for independent writers or publications to air their views, so long as they do not claim to do so on behalf of the Jewish people. And it can grant a degree of freedom to groups which operate on campus, because we are not speaking directly to the American government.

Most importantly, it recognizes the still very much salient truth that the Jews of Israel are those who both best understand their own situation and must live with the immediate consequences of their decisions, and that the democratic process is the best way of determining what those decisions are.

Today it remains as unseemly as ever for Jews living thousands of miles away from the Jewish state to demand its people and leaders choose a course they believe threatens their lives. Those so certain they know better would do well to chew over the dose of humility that acceptance of the traditional consensus demands.