One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.
That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.
Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.
But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.
AIPAC’s position and that of the overwhelming majority of the American people is that Israel’s people have the right to govern themselves and not have solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians imposed on them from the outside. But in Beinart’s twisted reasoning, backing the verdict of the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters who elected the current government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu—and gave parties that share Beinart’s views only a small percentage of their votes—is somehow anti-democratic. Since Israelis believe they have no choice but to stay in the West Bank until the Palestinians are ready to make peace, Beinart has adopted the ludicrous and hypocritical position that they have no claim on the word democracy.
Attempts to create a Palestinian democracy faltered in the last decade. Gaza fell under the despotic rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, Israel’s supposed peace partner Fatah has as little interest in liberty as their Islamic rivals. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is serving the 10th year of the four-year term to which he was elected. None of this is Israel’s fault. Israel would welcome the creation of a real democracy as opposed to an Islamist dictatorship or a Fatah kleptocracy posing as one. But, as Beinart knows, that isn’t in the cards, whether or not Israel withdraws from the West Bank.
More to the point, three times in the last generation Israel has offered to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and even a share of Jerusalem in order to create a Palestinian state. Three times they were turned down because Yasir Arafat and his successor Abbas could not bring themselves to sign a treaty that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to renounce the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Even the supposed “right-wing government” that Beinart and his fellow letter-writers so despise is now negotiating with the PA and has reportedly expressed its willingness to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank and make territorial swaps to create a Palestinian state. No one, except perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry, expects the Palestinian response to be positive. If Israeli voters have rejected Beinart’s pleas to withdraw from the West Bank regardless of the dangers, it is because they have been paying attention to the events of the last 20 years during which the Jewish state has continually sought to trade land for peace and received only terror in return.
The point here is not so much that Beinart is out of touch with both Israeli opinion and the reality of Palestinian intransigence, but that in order to justify his stand he is willing to trash the idea that Israeli democracy matters. The position of AIPAC is not that it seeks to justify perpetual Israeli rule in all of the West Bank. It is one of support for the right of Israel’s democratic government to wait until the Palestinians are ready to make a genuine peace before risking a repeat of what happened in Gaza when the Jewish state withdrew every settlement and soldier.
Rather than Israel’s defenders engaging in dishonesty, it is Beinart and his colleagues who have twisted the truth in this debate. The question in the Middle East is not whether Israel will let the West Bank become a democracy but whether the one true democracy in the region—Israel—will continue to exist. AIPAC and its supporters stand with the people of Israel in their efforts to defend their country. Those like Beinart, the BJ rabbis, and the assorted anti-Zionists who joined with them to denounce de Blasio have placed themselves in opposition not so much to AIPAC but the people of Israel and echoed the arguments of those in the BDS movement that wage economic war on the Jewish state. If they wish to truly renew and cleanse Jewish life as they claim, they should look in the mirror before casting aspersions on either Israel or its defenders.