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October 16, 2012 12:37 pm

The Failure of the American Jewish Left

avatar by David Brog

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villagairosa, the convention chairman. Photo: Screenshot.

In early September 2012, many in the pro-Israel camp were disturbed by a series of events at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. First, the committee drafting the party platform eliminated traditional language recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Next, the party elders chose to restore the language and called for a pro forma voice vote from the delegates in support of this amendment. Instead, what looked and sounded like an angry majority of the delegates voted against recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

This hostility should not have come as a surprise. For many years, the liberal base of the Democratic Party has been steadily turning against the Jewish state. So much so that for the first time since 1948, one of America’s two major parties has begun to abandon its commitment to Israel. This trend has less to do with the behavior of President Obama or other national party leaders than with the far more troubling phenomenon of changing opinions at the grassroots. The Jerusalem flap at the Democratic convention was not a warning sign. It was the final bell.

The Democratic Decline

Freeze the frame right now, and you could still imagine that all is well. True, President Obama seems to identify with Israel less passionately than the Republican who preceded him, George W. Bush. But then again, Republican George H.W. Bush also seemed to lack the warmth toward Israel of his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan. And even if one believes that Obama has erred in ways that have endangered Israel, this alone is not evidence of a more permanent grassroots shift.

When one moves from the White House down the street to Congress, the support for Israel only grows stronger. The bipartisan nature of this support was clearly displayed in May 2011 when Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress and received repeated standing ovations from both sides of the aisle. Outspoken defenders of Israel on Capitol Hill still come from both parties. Pro-Israel resolutions continue to pass by overwhelming bipartisan majorities.

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Yet the signs of a shift are evident. And they are too clear—and too alarming—to ignore. While Congress is still overwhelmingly pro-Israel, the list of those who dissent from this consensus is growing. And these dissenters are overwhelmingly Democrats. To cite just a few recent examples:

  • In November 2009, the House of Representatives passed U.S. House res. 867 criticizing the U.N.’s Goldstone report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza (and which was later criticized by Goldstone himself). The resolution passed the House by a vote of 344 to 36, with 52 abstentions. Of the 36 who voted against the resolution, 33 were Democrats. Of the 52 who abstained, 43 were Democrats.
  • On January 26, 2010, 54 congressmen sent a letter to President Obama urging him to pressure Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. All were Democrats. A U.N. investigation has since concluded that the blockade is legal under international law.
  • In March 2010, the administration was outraged when Israel advanced an East Jerusalem building project during a visit by Vice President Biden. In response, 333 members of the House signed the Hoyer-Cantor letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance. Only 7 Republicans declined to sign this letter. But a full 91 Democrats—more than one third of the entire Democratic caucus—refused to sign.

Even more troubling than this shift in Washington is the shift at the grassroots. On Capitol Hill, at least, most Democratic congressmen still stand with Israel. Out in the grassroots, only a minority of Democrats continue to do so.

Over the years, a series of polls has asked variations of the following question: “With whom do you sympathize more, the Israelis or the Palestinians?” The results increasingly indicate a broad partisan divide with only a minority of Democrats siding with Israel. For example:

  • A March 2006 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Republicans and only 47 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis than the Palestinians.
  • A July 2006 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 81 percent of Republicans and only 43 percent of Democrats sympathized more with Israel than the Arab nations.
  • A February 2010 Gallup poll found that 85 percent of Republicans and only 48 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis than the Palestinians.
  • An October 2011 Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of Republicans and only 36 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis than the Palestinians.

Other measures of support demonstrate an even greater disparity. A March 2010 Zogby International poll, for example, found that 92 percent of Republicans—and only 42 percent of Democrats— had a favorable opinion of Israel.

As Gallup summed up the situation in 2011, “Over the past decade, Republicans have consistently shown greater support than Democrats for Israel; however, the partisan gap has widened.”

For decades, historian Daniel Pipes has been carefully monitoring these trends on the basis of ideology—conservatives vs. liberals—rather than party. In 1984, he concluded that there was no ideological divide, stressing that “conservatism does not predispose an American to favor one side, nor does liberalism.” Writing almost twenty years later in 2003, Pipes recalled his earlier observation and wrote, “Today all that has changed. The Middle East has replaced the Soviet Union as the touchstone of politics and ideology. With increasing clarity, conservatives stand on one side of its issues and liberals on the other.”

As the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg observed in April 2011, “Particularly among liberals, Israel’s reputation is waning dramatically.”

The Flight of the Left

The response of most pro-Israel liberals to the erosion of support for Israel among the Democratic base has been to surrender. With limited exceptions, there has been no effort to make the case for Israel on the merits. As the Jewish state stands accused of the worst of crimes, many have waved the white flag at best and joined in the attacks at worst.

Pro-Israel liberals are not cowards. On the contrary, many are failing to defend Israel because they believe that it is guilty as charged. Like Israel’s critics, they blame it for the failure to achieve peace through a two-state solution. Like Israel’s detractors, they see it as a flawed democracy on the verge of apartheid. They are unashamed to state that they—Jewish liberals living in America—will save Israel by dispensing tough love to Israeli Jews who have lost their way. But their tenuous grasp of Middle Eastern reality makes a mockery of their messianism. A prerequisite to saving Israel is that one knows at least as much as most Israelis.

To the extent that pro-Israel liberals have identified villains outside of Israel, they are the pro-Israel conservatives here in the United States. Liberals have sought to scapegoat those who have worked to ensure that America’s conservatives stand with Israel. Rather than emulate these efforts, they prefer to blame conservatives for their own failures. Instead of doing the hard work of ensuring that the progressive movement remains solidly within the pro-Israel camp, they prefer to expel conservatives from that camp.

There are certainly exceptions to this sorry state of affairs. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is a proud progressive who does not shrink from defending Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) remains staunchly bi-partisan and effectively makes the case for Israel to both sides of the aisle. Liberal members of Congress such as Harry Reid, Robert Menendez, Shelly Berkley, and Elliott Engel remain among Israel’s most outspoken defenders on Capitol Hill.

But the real problem is not with current party leaders or the current Congress. The problem is with the rising generation of liberal leaders—the people who will fill these roles in the coming decades. And the self-appointed leaders of this new generation have been quick to condemn Dershowitz and AIPAC as part of the pro-Israel establishment they seek to replace.

The Kids Are Not All Right

The problem is best exemplified by the two most high-profile spokesmen for the disaffected Jewish Left, Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben Ami. Both men have received enormous attention within the American Jewish community. Both men care deeply about Israel. And both have led the retreat from reality that has enabled the collapse of left-wing support for Israel.

In the summer of 2010, The New York Review of Books published an article by Peter Beinart entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The article stirred a whirlwind of debate that turned Beinart into a mini-celebrity in Jewish circles—he is now invited to address the very Jewish establishment he disdains. He has since released a book—The Crisis of Zionism—expanding upon the article’s themes.

The article in particular focuses on Jewish youth. Beinart suggests that the rising generation of Jews is increasingly apathetic towards Israel. He then concludes—with sparse supporting evidence—that since most Jewish youngsters are liberal, this alienation must be the result of Israel’s abandonment of liberal ideals.

Beinart has done a great service by sounding an alarm about the declining passion of young Jews. But while Beinart’s descriptions may be valuable, his prescriptions are disastrous. When confronted with these negative attitudes toward Israel, Beinart does not seek to correct them; he fetishizes them. Beinart hangs the feelings of Jewish students as his moral north star.

Speaking of these alienated Jewish youth, Beinart writes, “The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs.”

Note the divorce from reality explicit in these words. Jewish youth purportedly want a Zionism that recognizes Palestinians as “capable of peace.” But what if the facts of the conflict cast doubt on this capability? What if Israelis have come to the conclusion—through repeated trial and error—that Palestinian leaders are not currently interested in peace? Beinart presumes that Jewish students are simply not interested in such details.

Another prominent exponent of this view is Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of J Street. In his 2011 book, A New Voice for Israel, Ben Ami makes clear that he is likewise prepared to bow down before the altar of student sensibilities. He states, “The problem is that the policies of the State of Israel and the behavior of parts of the Jewish community in Israel are simply tremendously disturbing to large numbers of students and even to their professors. A response grounded in denial that there is anything wrong with the ongoing occupation of the West Bank simply deepens the anger rather than alleviating it.”

But what if Israel has tried repeatedly to end this “occupation?” What if Israeli troops left almost all Arab population centers in the West Bank only to be forced back in to stop a new wave of suicide bombers?

The elevation of emotion in political discourse is the abandonment of reason. And it also sells America’s students short. One should not be surprised that so many students blame Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East. Few people are telling them otherwise. College campuses are increasingly hostile places where myths about Israel are spread by both faculty and students. America’s students have a lot to learn, and most are actually quite hungry to do so. The Arab-Israeli conflict is far more complex than either Israel’s leading detractors or critics like Beinart and Ben Ami care to concede. There is history—much of it very recent—that casts serious doubt on their one-sided claims.

Reality Check

Intellectually speaking, Beinart and Ben Ami are frozen in 1999. They express perfectly the views that most American Jews and most Israelis held at the close of the twentieth century. Jews not only supported a two-state solution in the abstract but believed that the time was right to aggressively pursue it. Simply give the Palestinians a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza, it was argued, and there will be peace in the Middle East.

The consensus of that hour was best expressed by the man who embodied it: Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak. In a 1999 meeting with Barak, then-senator Arlen Specter (Rep.-Pa.) asked him why he was pursuing a two-state solution so aggressively when there were so many causes for concern with his Palestinian partner, Yasser Arafat. Barak replied, “We all know what the ultimate two-state solution will look like. So we have two choices. We either sit down and negotiate this deal now, or we fail. If we fail, there will be a war. And after that war we will bury our dead and return to the very same table to discuss the very same deal.”

Barak was right. There is a general consensus on where most of the borders of a two-state solution should be drawn. And when Arafat rejected Barak’s proposal of these borders at the Camp David summit in July 2000, and his even more generous offer at Taba in 2001, there was another war—the so-called second intifada. And after the war was over, each side buried its dead and returned to the same table to discuss the same deal.

Barak was only wrong about one thing. He overestimated Arafat’s desire and ability to end the conflict. Arafat was not moved by Barak’s powerful logic. Instead, he was motivated by an alternative logic that reminded him that if he agreed to this deal he would have to end the conflict with Israel and give up the Palestinian “right of return.” And the Palestinian leader who made these concessions would likely not live very long.

Barak made a mistake about his partner for peace. But to his credit, he learned from this mistake, recognized the reality, and changed his policy accordingly. And most Israelis learned along with him. After 2000, even the Israeli Left—a robust band of progressives—largely recognized that a two-state solution would have to await a real partner.

Those who hoped that Arafat’s successor—Mahmoud Abbas—was such a partner have since been disappointed. In 2008, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas an even better deal than Barak had offered Arafat at Taba. Abbas’s response was to turn the offer down. He made no counter offer. And he has since abandoned negotiations altogether and instead asked the United Nations to recognize unilaterally a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Such recognition would give Abbas all of the benefits he seeks without requiring him to make those dangerous concessions regarding ending the conflict and relinquishing the right of return.

These events changed the views of most Israelis and American Jews. While many of Israel’s supporters might continue to believe in a two-state solution in the abstract, they cannot blame Israel for the failure to achieve it on the ground. While they might not like the presence of Israeli troops near Arab population centers, they remember what happened the last time they were withdrawn in the name of peace. And they realize that they have a duty to inject this historical reality and polemical nuance into a debate dominated by the black-and-white assertions that Israel alone is to blame.

Given this painful reality, one becomes quite interested to see what Beinart and Ben Ami might have to say on the topic. These are bright men. So upon what insights do they base their conviction that the Palestinians are now ready to accept the deal they have repeatedly rejected?

Anyone looking for such insights from these sources will be disappointed. Beinart blames Israel’s ongoing presence in the West Bank—and a host of other sins—on a flawed Zionism that is so blinded by past Jewish traumas that it is incapable of moral behavior today. But he never mentions Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offer, the Aqsa intifada that followed it, or Abbas’s rejection of Olmert’s offer.

Even worse, Beinart slips the bounds of intellectual honesty to portray Netanyahu as an opponent of a two-state solution. In his article, Beinart quotes from Netanyahu’s 1993 book, A Place among the Nations, in which the future leader expressed his opposition to a Palestinian state. But Beinart completely ignores Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan University speech, in which he called for the creation of a Palestinian state, and his frequent reiteration of this position since then.

The fact is that a significant transformation has taken place in the Israeli body politic. The two-state solution that had once been the policy preference of the far Left became the policy of the center Left and has now even been embraced by the center Right. But Beinart prefers to quote opinions from almost twenty years ago in his effort to portray Israel as the problem.

Ben Ami does no better. Earlier this year, he issued his manifesto entitled A New Voice for Israel. Yet the reader will search the 240 pages of this volume in vain to find anything that is new. Ben Ami’s core thesis is one that has already been voiced by Israeli prime ministers and embraced by a majority of the Israel public: Israel should accept a two-state solution with the Palestinians to avoid presumed disasters of demography and democracy. There is nothing new at all about stressing the desirability of this solution in theory.

What is new is that unlike most Israelis, Ben Ami ignores Israel’s experience with the two-state solution over the course of the past two decades. He blithely dismisses Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s far reaching offer at the Taba summit by claiming that the “clock simply ran out on the Clinton effort before the negotiators could push the deal to the finish line.” Sprinting from the false to the ridiculous, he adds: “Let’s remember that Arafat himself has been dead since 2004. To the extent that failure was related to his personal failings or flaws as a leader, it’s time to move on.”

Ben Ami does not mention Arafat’s flat rejection of Barak’s offer. Nor does he mention Arafat’s bloody counteroffer: competing with Hamas to see who could blow up more Israelis. Nor does he mention Olmert’s more recent and more generous offer to Abbas and its summary rejection. When dreams confront reality, it seems, reality must bend.

Henry Wallace Lives

This is hardly the first time that some in the American Left have been slow to recognize troubling realities from abroad. Luckily, a prior generation of liberals rose to the challenge far more effectively and responsibly than the current one.

After World War II, many on the American Left felt a deep kinship with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had been a U.S. ally in the war against Nazi Germany. They had suffered enormous losses and were thus entitled to obsess over their security. And the Soviets were ostensibly dedicated to the same general principles as our progressives: helping the working class and creating a more equitable society. Yet in the months and years following the war, evidence began to mount that the Soviet communists were fundamentally different from American liberals. At home, the Soviets were totalitarian. Soviet premier Joseph Stalin was interning and murdering his people by the millions. Abroad, the Soviets were imperialistic. They were subverting democracy in their sphere of influence while simultaneously seeking to expand that sphere by exporting revolution.

What was a reasonable position toward the Soviets during the war and in its immediate aftermath became increasingly untenable with the passage of time. In March 1946, the U.K.’s Winston Churchill presciently alerted the West to the Soviet threat in his famous Iron Curtain speech. A year later, President Harry Truman changed U.S. policy to contain this threat when he promulgated the Truman doctrine.

Yet a core of the Democratic base found this mounting evidence too troubling to internalize. They continued to ignore the facts and blame Soviet aggression on insufficient U.S. will for peace. Blaming Washington would mean that the West did not face a long twilight struggle with a determined ideological foe. Blaming the United States—like blaming Israel—held out the possibility of “peace in our time.”

Former vice president Henry Wallace emerged as the leader of this fantasy movement. He persisted in the view that if U.S. officials only understood the Soviets and addressed their legitimate concerns, they could maintain the World War II alliance and avoid conflict. As the record of Soviet abuses and atrocities mounted, Wallace’s search for excuses and scapegoats grew more desperate.

Wallace went so far as to challenge Truman for the presidency in 1948 as a third-party candidate. He kicked off his campaign by warning that Truman’s “reactionary war policy” would make “inevitable the day when American soldiers will be lying in their Arctic suits in the Russian snow.” Asked about the 1948 coup in which Soviet-backed communists seized control of the Czechoslovakian government, Wallace blamed the Truman doctrine and U.S. foreign policy.

The same scenario is playing out again. Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian Authority have not lived up to the hopes and dreams of Israel’s supporters. Thus most have abandoned these dreams and begun to face the grim prospect of a longer struggle for Israel’s survival. But there are many who refuse to let this reality percolate into their politics.

In 2006, an up-and-coming liberal intellectual framed this tendency to flee from reality as follows: “From Henry Wallace in the late 1940s to Michael Moore after September 11th, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.”

This intellectual was none other than Peter Beinart. Wisdom often comes more easily in hindsight.

The Conservative Triumph

The fact that the Democratic Party is the one distancing itself from Israel is still surprising to those who remember a different era. There was a time when the Democratic Party was solidly pro-Israel. Indeed, the party’s base—young activists, academics, and unionists—were among Israel’s most passionate supporters in America.

The Republicans, on the other hand, were cold toward the Jewish state. In Israel’s early years, the party still had a strong isolationist wing. The party was populated by business Republicans who seemed willing to sell Israel for access to Arab oil. And predominant in the party were the Cold War pragmatists who appeared ready to sacrifice Israel for strategic gains in the far more populous Muslim world.

This “pragmatic” wing of the Republican Party produced President Eisenhower, and later President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Pat Buchanan. With the exception of Buchanan, these men were not inimical to Israel. But they lacked an ideological commitment to the Jewish state. And when decisions come down to dollars and numbers instead of ideals, Israel has rarely fared well.

Facing this establishment discomfort with Israel, pro-Israel conservatives blamed neither Israel nor Israel’s liberal supporters. Instead, they began the hard work of making the case for Israel on the merits. To security hawks, pro-Israel conservatives stressed that the Jewish state was a Cold War ally. To fiscal conservatives, they demonstrated the true bargain that is U.S. aid to Israel. And to social conservatives, they highlighted that supporting Israel was a religious and moral imperative.

The current generation of pro-Israel conservatives has continued this work. Most are well aware of Israel’s shortcomings. But they are not so myopic that Israel’s faults blind them to the overwhelming justice of its struggle for survival. Nor do these conservatives presume to be saviors of Israel’s soul. They instead focus on the job they are best suited to perform—ensuring that the conservative base knows the truth about Israel.

In the process, pro-Israel conservatives have welcomed key friends and core constituencies into the pro-Israel coalition. When Christian conservatives began to emerge as a powerful pro-Israel voice in the 1980s, many liberals sought to bar them from the pro-Israel camp by spreading myths about their motives. Instead, conservatives made the effort to know them and, in the process, came to understand them, their theology, and ideology. Today, men like Pastor John Hagee and Gary Bauer, and groups like Christians United for Israel, play a prominent role in the pro-Israel coalition.

Over the summer of 2011, the same tactics of vilification were brought to bear against a new entrant into the pro-Israel camp: media giant Glenn Beck. On the flimsiest of evidence, Beck was accused of being an anti-Semite. Pro-Israel conservatives made the effort to know Beck and to experience firsthand his deep love for Israel and the Jewish people. He has now taken his rightful place within the pro-Israel camp.

Pro-Israel conservatives have not only welcomed friends but have taken on opponents within their own house. A non-Jew, William F. Buckley, led the successful effort to excommunicate Pat Buchanan from the conservative movement for his anti-Semitism. When Jesse Helms emerged as a last stalwart of old-school Republican opposition to Israel in the 1980s, pro-Israel conservatives brought him to Israel and challenged his assumptions. He returned as one of Israel’s greatest friends in the U.S. Senate.

Today, the few remaining conservative opponents of Israel reside in the libertarian wing of the party and look to Ron Paul and Rand Paul for leadership. Thus pro-Israel conservatives are taking on these two opponents. Christians United for Israel has generated tens of thousands of emails to each of them stressing that the conservative base wants them to stand with Israel. Citing his “misguided and extreme views,” the Republican Jewish Coalition refused to invite Ron Paul to a presidential candidate forum featuring all of the other major contenders.

Go and Do Likewise

Israel must never become a partisan issue like abortion or the Department of Education. The Jewish state’s supporters must do everything in their power to avoid a situation where the U.S.-Israel relationship is alternatively strong when one party is in power, then abandoned when the other party rises. In such a world, Israel’s enemies will simply build their bombs, stockpile their missiles, and await the inevitable swing of the U.S political pendulum.

At this dangerous juncture, pro-Israel liberals have an opportunity and a responsibility. Of everyone in the pro-Israel camp, it is Israel’s liberal supporters who are best positioned to fight this battle. They are the ones who can most effectively defend Israel by invoking progressive principles to their progressive colleagues. But they are largely shrinking from the fight and are offering up the weakest of excuses for their failure. In the process, they are doing severe, possibly irreparable, damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This failure is tragic. Now is not the time to abandon the battle of ideas. Nor is this the time to seek to purge from the pro-Israel camp those with different views on other, unrelated issues. America’s pro-Israel activists must instead redouble their efforts to expand the pro-Israel coalition and ensure that all major streams of American political thought have a home there.

If Israel ultimately becomes a partisan election issue, it will not be Israel’s fault. And it will not be the fault of Israel’s conservative friends in America. It will be the result of a Left that has focused on the wrong fight in the wrong context at the wrong time. This failure will be the result of an American Jewish liberalism which, to quote liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul.”

David Brog, the executive director of Christians United for Israel, is the author of In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity (Encounter, 2010). This article was originally published by Middle East Quarterly.

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