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American Jews: a guide to dissent

Take a page from Sheldon Adelson and get involved on the ground.

Last night, I received the following email from a liberal Zionist friend in the United States: “Well, after Meshal’s speech, how optimistic are you that you will live to see peace?” My answer: “You know me. I never believed the Palestinians would ever really accept us, but for our own sake we need to always keep trying.”

Though I had just about completed an opinion piece discussing dissent in the Jewish community and the question of who had the ‘right’ to criticize Israel, I was moved by my friend’s email to revisit my thinking on both that issue and issues surrounding Israel’s upcoming election.

During the years when I didn’t live here, I was always reluctant to criticize Israel. In the early 1970s I was a vocal opponent of Brieira, an American Jewish group founded in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Its members publicly opposed the actions of the Israeli government and called upon Israel to make concessions regarding territory and policy. In later years, and to a lesser degree, I expressed some opposition to J Street. My opposition arose not because I thought the Israeli government has been following the right policies – often they have not – but because I have always felt those who were putting their lives and their children’s lives on the line by actually living in Israel needed to be the ones making the decisions even if those decisions were questionable.

While in the States, I began writing an Israel Update column on my website and I made sure my articles were informative and rarely critical of the government. (I allowed myself some latitude, however, as my oldest child had returned to Israeli to serve in the army and one of my younger children was planning to follow suit.) As a weekly guest for the past six years on a secular radio program where I have their expert on foreign affairs, I have always been careful not to criticize the Israeli government.

I found myself returning to the eternal starting point: I have never believed that the Palestinians will ever be willing to accept us. Thus, I have had a hard time listening to the moral equivalency that American Jews critical of Israel tend to bring to the table. During Operation Pillar of Defense, a post appeared on my Facebook feed from J Street decrying the actions of both Israel and Hamas, stating that violence never accomplished anything, blah, blah, blah, clearly indicating a moral equivalency between the two sides – the Israeli actions that I felt were justified, but self-defeating, and the actions of Hamas, that are totally immoral and indefensible. It has therefore been difficult for me to interpret the actions of the Jewish dissenters on Israel as expressions of their “Love of Zion” rather than eruptions from some other, darker part of their souls.

On the other hand, I maintain – as I first came to understand many years ago while on reserve duty in Gaza – that an occupation, no matter its origins, is morally unsustainable in the 21st century and will not be acceptable on the world stage. I have always opposed our policy of settlement and, even with the harshness of 20/20 hindsight, still support the policies of unilateral withdrawal championed by Ariel Sharon.

The central problem is that our political system is unwilling to embrace pragmatism, the pragmatism that would force us to concede the unwitting harm our government continues to do to Israel both on the world scene and among the global Jewish community, while at the same time realizing that whatever we do, we will not get the Palestinians to even accept, let alone, love us. The failure to comprehend this reality reflects the failure of the majority of Israeli politicians to even attempt to educate the public. Example: current Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich’s excellent job of selling the line that since peace will not likely be reached with the Arabs any time soon, we can simply ignore the problem and concentrate on the problems of social justice.

This simplistic approach to our problems has been supported by a very special form of Israeli journalism championed by an American Jew – and friend of the Prime Minister – Sheldon Adelson. His commitment to Netanyahu resulted in Adelson’s funding of a free newspaper that now boasts Israel’s largest circulation but is, in truth, little more than a cheering squad for the prime minister. And, Israel’s Channel 10, one of only two non-governmental national television stations, is largely owned by Ronald Lauder, another American confidante of the Prime Minister.

In the past weeks, readers of The Times of Israel have been subjected to an exchange of opinions between Rabbi Gordis and Rabbi Brous on the issue of the role of American Jewish dissent. (Rabbi Gordis even wrote an article on this topic on a competing site). I think both Gordis and Braus are missing the point. It’s not a question of “if you dissent,” but “how you dissent.” All the criticism of Israel in the US by Jewish organizations is unlikely to sway the Israeli government and is even less likely to sway the Israeli public, who are the ultimate arbiters. If anything, it will have the reverse effect, strengthening the view held by many that ‘everyone is against us so we must do what we need to do regardless of the views of the rest of the world.’

My suggestion is that if American Jews disagree with the policies of the Israeli government, they should find truly productive ways of educating the Israeli public. This might require a subtlety and understanding of Israel that is hard to find in the Jewish community worldwide, but it is the only avenue to effect a real difference, while not harming Israel’s security in this very dangerous time. Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at such a proposal. After all, I would have huffed, who are American Jews to try to influence politics in Israel? But that barn door was left open some time ago and the horse is long gone.

The right wing in Israel has been successfully soliciting American Jewish money in an effort to influence events more and more in the last decade. We see this phenomenon repeatedly, in a variety of cases, such as Adelson and Lauder influencing media, or Irving Moskowitz financing the purchases of houses in East Jerusalem. Those who oppose Israeli policies from the left have to learn the winning strategies of the game. The way to change Israeli actions and policies is not in the halls of Congress, nor on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. The only way to bring about change here is to win over the hearts and minds of Israelis.

In my youth my simple answer to dissenting Jews worldwide would have been: “If you want to change things here, it’s simple… Just move here and vote.” As an adult, I know that is not a realistic or fair retort. Instead, today I advocate – if you disagree with the actions the Israeli government takes, then find ways to influence events in Israel on the ground. Get involved in organizations here. Support like-minded institutions and/or foundations in Israel. Through this sort of communal work you will develop constructive ways to educate the Israeli electorate.

Ultimately it is the Israeli citizens, reflected by their decisions at the ballot box, who will determine our future. It is way too late to influence events in this upcoming election. Given the late hour, the upcoming election will no doubt result in a continuation of the status quo. However, it is never too soon to begin the long-term educational, fund-raising and friend-raising efforts that will be required to change the outcome for the next election.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne