Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rabbi Eric Yoffie

Free Speech and the Left’s War on AIPAC

The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

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The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

Rabbi Yoffie is right that some liberal rabbis who criticize Israel may worry about offending some of their congregants as do others who are, as he notes, pressured from the left to disassociate themselves from the Jewish state. But my point was not to deny that such rabbis have their critics but to point out that efforts to restrain them are almost universally ineffective, as the continued tenure of the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis illustrates. Moreover, my point was not merely about the way rabbis use their pulpits to undermine Israel but to highlight the fact that, contrary to the myth promoted by the left, such figures, be they clerics or not, are generally richly rewarded by the praise of the secular mainstream media. For a Jew to speak out against Israel and/or AIPAC is to invite praise from a liberal media that is always eager to lionize such critics and to falsely portray them as courageous.

It should also be pointed out that the anti-AIPAC letter signed by Matalon, Sol, and Beinart was not about promoting diversity of views or a debate about the peace process so much as it was an attempt to shun and delegitimize AIPAC and its supporters. Though Rabbi Yoffie believes the signers crossed no “red lines” of offensive conduct, I would insist that by seeking to demonize AIPAC, those letter-writers were reinforcing the offensive and bigoted stereotype about the pro-Israel lobby promoted by those who see it as a conspiratorial group that doesn’t really speak for Jews and manipulates U.S. policy against American interests. No one is saying that AIPAC’s critics don’t have a right to voice their differences with the group, but what they want is not so much to debate it as to destroy it. Much as one would wish to bridge such differences, this is one argument where both sides are not right. One must either defend the right of the pro-Israel community to speak out on behalf of the democratically-elected government of the Jewish state as the BJ congregants have done or one joins with those who wish to isolate and pressure it, whether to save it from itself as Beinart thinks or to destroy it as the open anti-Zionists who signed the anti-AIPAC letter seem to want.

What is at stake here is not a right to speak up against Israel and AIPAC but the ability of the pro-Israel community to survive an all-out attack designed to silence it. As Rabbi Yoffie eloquently states:

I don’t agree with AIPAC on everything, but I agree with them most of the time; and the harsh dismissal of AIPAC by the signatories to the letter troubles me greatly. A Washington without AIPAC would not mean an Israel at peace; it would mean an Israel isolated and vulnerable, lacking the anchor that AIPAC has long provided and without which peace would be impossible.

Freedom of speech is not an issue in a community where dissent against Israel is widespread and generally rewarded with praise while supporters are often dismissed as stooges or hypocrites. Those who would destroy what Yoffie rightly called “Israel’s safety net” are not going to be silenced, but they should be held accountable.

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Mistaking Tom Friedman for America

If Israel were to lose mainstream support in the United States, it would be a grievous blow to the nation and place the wisdom of its political leaders in question. But the problem for the Israeli left and their supporters in the United States is that while they may think Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government deserve to lose American support, there is no evidence this is taking place. Indeed, every indication, including the desperate attempts of the Obama administration to pander to pro-Israel opinion as part of its election year Jewish charm offensive, indicates that there is no reason to believe most Americans think ill of the Jewish state or view its policies as being responsible for the failure of the peace process.

But that didn’t stop Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past head of the Reform movement in the United States, from writing in Haaretz today that “Israel is losing the battle for public opinion in America.” What does Yoffie, a dedicated liberal as well as a stalwart believer in Zionism and Israel, have to back up this startling assertion? Believe it or not, he thinks a typically nasty column about Israel by Tom Friedman in the New York Times (whose purpose was to denigrate Mitt Romney and bolster support for President Obama) is reason for Israelis to start soul searching. Even Yoffie concedes that “the poisonous nature of Palestinian politics makes clear that the failure to achieve peace cannot be placed primarily at Israel’s door.” If that is so, then why should Israel seek to appease Palestinians who have demonstrated no interest in peace by making more concessions in the absence of a sea change in their political culture that might make peace possible?

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If Israel were to lose mainstream support in the United States, it would be a grievous blow to the nation and place the wisdom of its political leaders in question. But the problem for the Israeli left and their supporters in the United States is that while they may think Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government deserve to lose American support, there is no evidence this is taking place. Indeed, every indication, including the desperate attempts of the Obama administration to pander to pro-Israel opinion as part of its election year Jewish charm offensive, indicates that there is no reason to believe most Americans think ill of the Jewish state or view its policies as being responsible for the failure of the peace process.

But that didn’t stop Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past head of the Reform movement in the United States, from writing in Haaretz today that “Israel is losing the battle for public opinion in America.” What does Yoffie, a dedicated liberal as well as a stalwart believer in Zionism and Israel, have to back up this startling assertion? Believe it or not, he thinks a typically nasty column about Israel by Tom Friedman in the New York Times (whose purpose was to denigrate Mitt Romney and bolster support for President Obama) is reason for Israelis to start soul searching. Even Yoffie concedes that “the poisonous nature of Palestinian politics makes clear that the failure to achieve peace cannot be placed primarily at Israel’s door.” If that is so, then why should Israel seek to appease Palestinians who have demonstrated no interest in peace by making more concessions in the absence of a sea change in their political culture that might make peace possible?

There’s no question that Yoffie and other critics of the Netanyahu government are unhappy with the current situation. The overwhelming majority of Israelis, most of whom once enthusiastically backed the peace process, have lost interest in chasing after the Palestinians and begging them to accept a two-state solution. Having turned down three offers of an independent state in 2000, 2001 and 2008, and having refused even to negotiate since then, the Palestinian Authority has proven it is unwilling to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The status quo is not ideal for either side, but when compared to the danger of a withdrawal from the West Bank that might replicate the terrorist state in Gaza, its understandable that standing pat rather than inviting such a disaster seems to be the consensus opinion.

So while most Israelis would happily accept a two-state solution that would involve territorial withdrawals in exchange for an end to the conflict, they understand there is little chance of that happening anytime soon. This is a judgment shared by most Americans and their leaders; the polls showing U.S. support for Israel are still strong. The efforts of both Republicans and Democrats to compete for pro-Israel votes confirm this is true.

That leaves inveterate Israel-bashers like Friedman gnashing his teeth at a reality that neither he nor any of his fictional cab driver sources predicted. Friedman was so angry about the bipartisan support for Netanyahu that he indulged in an anti-Semitic stereotype to falsely claim AIPAC purchased a standing ovation from Congress for the Israeli last year. The idea that he represents American public opinion is ridiculous, though perhaps not so comical as Yoffie’s fawning description of him as “the most important foreign policy columnist in the world.” Nor can he claim Friedman’s position represents a change from the past, as he has been blaming Israel for the lack of peace since before the Oslo process began.

Yoffie worries that unless Israel is “seen at all times as aggressively pursuing peace,” disaster looms. That is a position that has some merit. He rightly concedes the possibility that the perception that it is not pursuing peace is unfair. But given PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s continued refusal of Netanyahu’s invitations to talk, blaming Israel for not wasting more time chasing after him is not a serious argument.

The Reform leader’s real excuse for writing this piece seems to be the op-ed article published by the Times a couple of weeks ago by settlement leader Dani Dayan which ignored the question of how to govern the million Palestinians in the West Bank in the absence of a peace agreement. But as Yoffie knows, Dayan’s views don’t represent those of most Israelis or even the government.

Until the Palestinians decide to seek peace, there is little Israel can do. The last 20 years of peace processing has shown that neither settlement freezes nor even territorial withdrawals will buy Israelis the peace they long for. Castigating them for not repeating those mistakes or reinforcing the false notion that a failure to do so is undermining U.S. support for the country does no one any good.

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