America, American Jewry, and the US-Israel relationship have, beyond a doubt, benefited from the existence and just advocacy by The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
However, America, American Jewry, and the US-Israel relationship have all been hurt by their response to Israel’s expected annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Annexation is arguably one of the most consequential policies Israel has taken in the last generation, if not longer. There is much to discuss about what the policy says about the current Israeli government, but as American Jews, we should be looking first and foremost at how American Jewish organizations have or have not responded to this pivotal policy.
For anyone who doesn’t know, there is an amazing number of thriving American Jewish organizations impacting America in a positive way. There’s nowhere else in the world that Jews are so actively engaged in civil society, including even Israel, with an opportunity to shape their own destiny and even that of other Americans and America at-large. They do this in so many countless ways, one cannot begin to imagine.
A portion of these organizations are involved in one way or another with Israel. AIPAC and AJC stand out for their size, effectiveness, and the mission they aspire to fulfill. There are others, of course, but these two are exemplary in many ways. As a testament to their earned respect, they often have a seat at the table in matters of national security. One example includes the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. They have also shaped Israel’s security, a necessary reality in a hostile region.
Despite the exceptional work that these organizations have done, their achilles heel is on display in today’s moment, posing a great risk when we need their strength the most. This achilles heel is their modus operandi to never, at least publicly, criticize Israeli policies. There are some exceptions to this at times, but on the critical issue of annexation, which poses a challenge to American values, and even the values upon which Israel was founded, they fall silent or complacent.
The great irony of this disposition is that when it comes to Jews in the US and Israel, there is only one group that is so hesitant to criticize Israeli policies. Of course it is not Israelis themselves, who you will find passionately arguing in cafes, evening news, and the political stages, but rather in America where this vibrant discourse falls noticeably short.
As a result, I, and an increasing number of American millennial Jews across different spectrums, are failing to see how these organizations demonstrate their expected share of critical thinking and fair criticism of Israeli policies. This is demonstrated tragically well in the response or lack thereof to annexation. AIPAC told US lawmakers they could criticize annexation, but only to a certain extent. AJC focuses on a two pronged approach of defending annexation while highlighting its costs. Together both take positions that can be described as muddled, at best. Sometimes you cannot always be the diplomat. Sometimes you have to be the statesman with a clear position, especially on such an important issue when so many in our community are seeking guidance.
Annexation, which according to independent experts, including over 300 Israeli generals, poses a direct threat to Israel’s security, democracy, and Jewish identity. This plethora of experts suggest annexation could trigger a chain of events that could see the possibility of a future two-state solution evaporate, resulting in a shift to a one state solution that would see Israel no longer be democratic or Jewish, and an internal conflict with no end. Furthermore, the unilateral initiative by Israel is counter to the position of many parties, including the US, Israel, and even AIPAC and AJC, that any final status matters of the conflict should be decided by Israelis and Palestinians through negotiations.
On a deeper, more abstract level, many including myself are having growing unease reconciling the values we are taught to have, often by these organizations themselves, with how we see them act. AIPAC and AJC have taught us about leadership, advocacy, and diplomacy through their actions and their own leadership programs with which I have some experience. They have even spoken to us endlessly about Jewish values. But when the word Israel is in the sentence, something happens that leaves many younger American Jews uncertain about how to take forward their passion for Israel and Zionism with these organizations.
Some people will say we, especially as younger professionals, don’t fully understand. They’ll say relationships matter and that quiet diplomacy is the way to advance change. They may even say we have moved left as a way to delegitimize our credentials and intentions.
Well at least I’ll say…I do understand; I have a lot to learn about life, but have already learned something, including some awareness about how the world works. I’ll say I don’t enter relationships with the goal of having people like me because I am always agreeable, but respect me because I can constructively disagree and am values-oriented. I’ll even say let’s go with quiet diplomacy the vast majority of the time – I studied Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” – but let’s agree that it cannot be our only lever. There comes a time to speak up directly.
I’ll then say without hesitance that I am an ardent Zionist – I am not left or right. I, like many of my peers, have made concerted efforts to understand this conflict first-hand more than most. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I will stop supporting the right of Israel to exist as a secure, democratic, and Jewish state. However, I can imagine many ways of sticking to my values and being critical of certain Israeli policies with clarity, strength, and even love.
I’ll also add that I believe despite the aforementioned criticism, America is better off with a strong AIPAC and AJC. However, for us to have a bright future together we need to figure out how our policies, including our public statements, can reflect our values.
And please: don’t muddle my perspective with those of some other millennials, who seem only to be active on social media or twitter with statements that sound appealing for the masses. I, and many like me, bring nuance to these conversations. We are thoughtful. We know the policies. We sit with Israelis at their Shabbat dinners or in their cafes, agreeing and disagreeing in a flowing conversation of mutual respect. When we’re back in America, we are deepening our involvement with Jewish organizations, especially Israel-related ones, that build out policy perspectives upon a foundation of shared values.
Being committed to an Israel that prioritizes security, democracy, and its Jewish identity…those are values that aren’t just sentimental, but are the glue that binds our American communities together with our Israeli partners. They are the values that, once translated into or incorporated within policy, keep communities unified and secure. And more broadly, they allow us to see past political moods that by definition come and go.
We want to work with you. We know we can do great things together. We can abide by our values, especially supporting Israel.