For those involved in pro-Israel advocacy, now is the winter of our discontent. We’re on the defensive in virtually every part of the world. The BDS movement continues to spread across university campuses with even Jewish-populated Brooklyn College recently joining the fray. When I was in South Africa last week I treated to the usual orgy of anti-Israel comment in the media and even in the State of the Nation address of President Jacob Zuma. South Africa, a country I love has, sadly for now, become the new world ground zero of anti-Israel criticism.
In the UK Bradford East MP David Ward offered this jewel on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “Having visited Auschwitz twice… I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Not that the United State is a whole lot better. Come this week and despite the opposition of several courageous Republican Senators, the Senate will almost certainly confirm a new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who called the State Department “an adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office,” excused Palestinian terrorism by saying, “Desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away hope,” and famously said that Israel puts the Palestinians “in chains.”
And through all of this, some of the most important pro-Israel groups are adopting a new, more submissive posture, believing that the best way to stand up for Israel is to choose one’s battles and try and cultivate influential people rather than calling them out for their outrageous comments.
When I penned a column last month on AIPAC’s silence on Hagel, a few of their leaders, whom I count as close friends, took umbrage and told me that my analysis was just plain wrong. Hagel is going to be nominated. Israel has Iranian nukes to worry about and other, bigger fish to fry. Why make enemies?
I am a huge AIPAC fan. There is no more important American Jewish organization. Well beyond the Jewish community AIPAC is a model professionalism lobbying for an unqualified good. In 20 years I have barely missed an AIPAC policy conference, such is the ardor of my support. I publicly introduced my friend Mayor Cory Booker, now running for the United States senate, at an AIPAC summit in Chicago and we have jointly addressed AIPAC groups around the country.
But with 10,000 activists about to gather in DC next week for AIPAC’s annual policy conference the organization’s definition of friendly incumbents being based solely on a lawmaker’s voting record on Israel must undergo serious review.
When I ran for Congress last year against Congressman Bill Pascrell AIPAC designated him a friendly incumbent based on his voting record for Israel aid and in favor of Iran sanctions. The problem was that Pascrell had also signed the infamous Gaza 54 letter which falsely condemned Israel for collective punishment against the Palestinians rather than soundly laying the blame at the Hamas terrorists who have turned Gaza into a launching pad to kill Israelis. Now, I completely understand AIPAC’s policy of friendly incumbents. Why would any politician feel loyalty to AIPAC if someone who is considered more pro-Israel comes along and immediate gets their support? But my candidacy was an opportunity for AIPAC to approach Pascrell and pressure him to repudiate past statements. Israel’s battle today is not just one against bullets and bombs but against a ferocious attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. It is a war of words and pictures and what political figures say matters.
Now, what a lone congressman opines is far less serious than the contemptible comments coming out of an incoming secretary of defense. Hagel’s broadsides against Israel are shameful and he must be called on it. American Jewry gave President Obama seventy percent of their vote. Is Hagel the reward?
In 1991 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir requested $10 billion in loan guarantees to help settle Russian Jewish immigrants. President George H. W. Bush said Israel could only have the guarantees if it froze all settlement building and guaranteed that no Russian Jews would be resettled in the West Bank. Shamir demurred and called on the American Jewish community to mobilize in support of the loans guarantees. AIPAC drafted a letter that was signed by more than 240 members of the House and 77 senators supporting the loan guarantees. On September 12, 1991, Jewish lobbyists from all over the country descended in huge numbers on Washington. President Bush famously responded with a televised press conference in which he complained that “1000 Jewish lobbyists are on Capitol Hill against little old me.”
Then, on the very next day in a speech I will never forget and at which I was present, Tom Dine, AIPAC’s Executive Director, declared that “September 12, 1991 is a day that will live in infamy” as an American President had had the chutzpah to criticize the constitutionally guaranteed right to lobby our government, found in the very first amendment. It was high theater and I had chills down my spine as Dine directly challenged a sitting American president. We all know the rest of the story. Months later, the loan guarantees were approved. Bush would later receive only 12% of the Jewish vote and was trounced by Bill Clinton. President Bush’s son would eight years later become President of the United States and would take a completely different posture toward Israel, becoming its greatest ally ever to occupy the White House.
I also remember how, the following day, Ron Brown, Chairman of the National Democratic Committee, stood up and said that this November we had to send President Bush packing from the White House. The crowd erupted with huge applause. There was no attempt to disguise the hostility to a President whose policies were simply unfair to Israel.
I recognize that AIPAC is often accused of hijacking American foreign policy. I know that there are charges of AIPAC as a modern incarnation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and many believe that we have to be sensitive toward accusations of global Jewish dominance.
Should we allow anti-Semites who will despise Jewry and Israel regardless to cause us to lower our heads in proud pro-Israel advocacy just because of anti-Jewish slurs?
If Hagel has made disparaging comments about Israel, and he has done so repeatedly over many years, then how in God’s name can we not oppose him becoming the Secretary of Defense of the United States, whatever is being offered Israel behind the scenes? Israel is America’s foremost ally. It is also the Jewish homeland. We should stand proudly in its defense, regardless of people in high places.
As it is Purim, I am reminded of the words of Mordechai delivered to Esther when she hesitated to use her influence with Achashveirosh after Haman had decreed the annihiliation of the Jews. “Do not seek to save your own skin, to escape the fate of the rest the Jews. For if you are silent in this moment, salvation shall come to the Jews from elsewhere and you are your father’s household shall perish. And who knows if it is specifically for a time such as this that you were chosen for high office.”
Ancient words have never been so relevant.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.