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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

What does it mean to be pro-Israel in the Obama era?

Common Ground News Service

June 18, 2009

By Jan Jaben-Eilon

ATLANTA - Did US President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo sharpen the differences in how American Jews espouse their support for Israel, or has it moderated the divergent opinions, bringing the wider pro-Israel Jewish community closer together? Hopefully, the President’s forceful new direction in the Middle East will now motivate more American Jews to join the discussion.

In the near term, the difficult tightrope act in which the largest, most-established pro-Israel lobbying groups have been engaged since the president’s election—and again with the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—is set to become even more challenging. As for the newer left-leaning pro-Israel, pro-peace groups, they are certainly more energised by President Obama’s words.

But what about the majority of uninvolved Jewish Americans who, according to a 2005 poll, say they care about Israel but have often been disturbed by Israeli policies?
Perhaps never before has it been so complicated for Jewish Americans to be pro-Israel.

In recent years, many American Jews discovered that there is more than one way to be pro-Israel. Until the 1967 War, the formula was quite simple—the new homeland of the ever-persecuted Jews was the “good guy”, and its opponents were the “bad guys”. The reversal of fortune from existential threat to a sweeping victory filled American Jewry with new pride and self-confidence. But then as now, most American Jews never bothered to visit Israel or indeed learn very much about this complex country. Support for Israel often simplistically meant supporting the Israeli government.

In the last few years however, American Jewish support has flowered from a simple black and white perspective into a more colourful array of viewpoints and advocacy, splitting the Jewish community over the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A new pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby has blossomed. Divergent opinions have widened, then narrowed, then widened again with the trauma of the Second Intifada, the declared support by successive Israeli governments for a two-state solution, and now with the dark shadow of a nuclear Iran hovering over the horizon.

Polls repeatedly show that the majority of American Jews support the two-state solution. The fact that both the previous US and Israeli governments espoused this position persuaded even the conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to adopt this stance. With apparent relief, AIPAC heralded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in which he too, called for a Palestinian state “side-by-side” with Israel. In their statement, however, they skirted the controversial question of settlement building.

Polls have shown that the majority of American Jews do not support settlements, echoing the objections of successive US governments since 1967. Yet, they’ve remained ignorant of the intricacies of outposts, Israeli High Court decisions, the Talia Sasson Report (official government report concluding that Israeli state bodies diverted money to settlements and outposts illegal under Israeli law) and Israel’s commitments under the 2003 Road Map, probably in part because former President George W. Bush himself overlooked the proliferation of settlements across the West Bank.

With the election of President Obama—overwhelmingly supported by American Jews—and his unflinching stance that Israel must stop settlement growth, the conventional pro-Israel advocacy groups find themselves in a quandary. The apparent gap opening up between the United States and Israeli positions is giving rise to a sense of an impending crisis: Which position do they support? Can they live in a new world of ambiguity after so many years of living with a stubborn certainty?

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel, pro-peace groups finally feel they are perfectly positioned for this new world order. With a higher profile and the door to the White House opened wider than ever before, groups such as J Street, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Americans for Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum are strengthening their voices and coordinating their efforts to reach out to the silent majority of American Jews who support the two-state solution and are against settlements, but who have been uninvolved in any pro-Israel advocacy. These groups believe they can speak for the vast numbers of American Jews who are unaffiliated, don’t have strong ties to Israel and who have traditionally been proponents of human rights. These are the Jews who joined their fellow Americans to vigorously campaign for the presidency of Barack Obama.

President Obama’s historic speech—including the reiteration that there is an “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel—most likely resonated with the majority of American Jews. The question now is whether his soaring words and bold new vision will empower American Jews, who have always felt comfortable criticising their own country when it acted against their values, to express similar criticism of the Israeli policies they oppose.

Perhaps Barack Obama has presented American Jewry with a new approach to being both pro-Israel—and pro-American.

 

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