Two recent stories in the news have reignited debate on what it means to be pro-Israel.
The first concerns Leslie Cockburn, a Democrat running for the U.S. House in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. About 25 years ago, she co-authored a book targeting the American-Israeli relationship.
In its review of the book, The New York Times said, “Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace. The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”
Her political opponents have accused her of anti-Semitism based on this book.
However, Cockburn recently reminded voters that the book was written 27 years ago. She also said, “the U.S. should support Israel, and yes, the U.S. should be supporting, to some degree, the Palestinian Authority.”
Furthermore, she said she was seeking the support of J Street, a pro-Israel advocacy organization that, while supporting Israel, is often critical of the current government’s policies.
The second story concerns the advocacy organization If Not Now, which is primarily composed of Jews highly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, who want a forum with campers at Camp Ramah, a group of Conservative movement camps around the United States and Canada. Proudly pro-Israel, Camp Ramah has rebuffed this group, some of whom are its alumni.
In the Israel advocacy world, there are many national organizations, spanning the political spectrum from very left to very right.
I cannot emphasize enough the number of conversations our organization has had about the proverbial pro-Israel tent – who is in, who is out – but I will shine some light as best I can.
Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. While some pro-Israel groups specifically do not criticize Israel’s actions under any circumstances, those that do love Israel no less.
Our own national organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has criticized Israel recently on its treatment of asylum seekers and non-Orthodox Jewry. While there is less national criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, most that engage in it remain deeply Zionist.
Case in point: J-Street, a pro-Israel organization. Its voice needs to be heard. Should J-Street endorse Cockburn, it should go a long way towards dispelling any thoughts that she is anti-Zionist.
Conversely, criticizing only Israel is anti-Semitic; that’s why we oppose BDS in all its forms. Advocating for a boycott or sanctions against Israel, and not China, Russia or any other country, whose human rights record is far worse (even if you believe Israel is guilty of all the crimes it is accused of, which is ludicrous) is anti-Jewish. One BDS response to this goes, “Well, you have to start somewhere.” Well, when that start always appears to begin with the world’s only Jewish state….
That brings us back to the proverbial tent, which tells us who is kosher on Israel and who isn’t. While the range is wide, our measuring stick should be basic Zionism: Belief in a Jewish and democratic state composed of some part of the biblical land of Israel.
There can be strong disagreement on what that parts of the land should be Palestinian, but this is fundamental. Recognition of a Palestinian entity must also be a part of entry to our tent.
There are groups on the extreme right that deny that there is even such a thing as a Palestinian. Some advocate mass land confiscations, evictions and population transfers. All this should be anathema to Jews.
For Jewish groups, the same rules apply. Jewish Voices for Peace is clearly anti-Zionist and often promotes blatant misinformation about Israel. It cannot be taken seriously. But a group like If Not Now is more complicated. Its writings, while certainly one sided, are not propaganda-type lies. I would propose that all Zionists and pro-Israel advocates read about them and think long and hard about some of the things they are saying.
Israel is a complicated nation but the “Israel is always right” people and the “Israel is always wrong” do have something in common: Their messages will always be unable to convince those with nuanced views.
Why? Because Israel, like all nations, is sometimes wrong and sometimes right.
Our goal as pro-Israel advocates ought to be to emphasize the good, while not denying bad. Hopefully, Israel continues to strive to live up to its own high moral bar that it rightly sets for itself.
(Matt Goldberg is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.)