Parted like the Red Sea
A divisive Northern California luncheon underscores how far apart Israeli-Palestinian views stand
When members of Jewish Voice for Peace sought to promote a series of readings by Dr. Alice Rothchild, author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish & Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, the activist group figured The Jewish Voice, the monthly newspaper serving the Sacramento region’s 25,000-member Jewish community, would be the perfect vehicle. They figured wrong.
Michal Kohane, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, oversees publication of the Voice. She rejected JVP’s request out of hand. She told JVP member Steve Meinrath in an e-mail that both Rothchild’s book and the group treat Palestinians too sympathetically for the publication’s taste.
“The Jewish Federation is highly committed to the diverse needs of its members and supporters,” Kohane wrote. “But when it comes to supporting Israel, we all stand on the same side of the street.”
When Kohane says “we all stand on the same side of the street,” she means it, literally. Born in Haifa, Israel, she served two years in the Israeli Defense Forces and still spends half her time in Israel. The Jewish Voice reflects her passion for her native land. The color centerfold of this month’s issue features Arden Fair Mall owners Mort and Marcy Friedman inviting readers to attend the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee luncheon, which was held Sunday (Dec. 16) at Sacramento’s Radisson Hotel.
AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C.; Mort Friedman is a former vice president. The luncheon is considered a must-attend event by the local Jewish community’s movers and shakers.
Members of JVP included—they were the ones standing on the other side of the street, just like last year, holding up protest signs that read, “AIPAC doesn’t speak for me.”
Not too long ago, few Americans had ever heard of AIPAC, which along with various affiliated organizations across the country is sometimes collectively referred to as the Israel Lobby, or simply the Lobby. Although it’s been around since 1960, AIPAC resurfaced with a splash last year, when University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor Stephen Walt published their controversial article, “The Israel Lobby,” in the London Review of Books.
Walt and Mearsheimer’s scholarly credentials, careful wording and thorough research opened up a topic that had long been taboo in polite conversation: AIPAC’s powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This fall, their results were expanded into the surprise best-seller, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, in which the professors conclude that “the lobby’s political clout and public relations acumen have discouraged U.S. leaders from pursuing Middle East policies that would advance American interests and protect Israel from its worst policies. The lobby’s influence, in short, has been bad for both countries.”
Since first making waves last year, the professors have been alternately smeared as web-spinning anti-Semites and lauded as courageous academic heroes. JVP member David Mandel believes the Israel Lobby has served as a vital tool for opening up debate on the U.S. and Israel’s policies. However, he disagrees with Walt and Mearsheimer’s contention that what’s at stake is truly in anyone’s national interest.
“It’s in the interest of the people who are controlling our economy and foreign policy. It’s about controlling the oil. It’s about the military industry,” Mandel said. “Is that in the interest of everyday Americans or Israelis?”
Probably not, and it doesn’t make it any easier to determine which side of the street Israel stands on, either.
Two weeks ago at the Annapolis Middle Eastern peace conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas smiled, shook hands and promised to make peace by the end of 2008. Olmert caught the next jet to Tel Aviv, where he reassured Likud hardliners that the conference was meaningless, even as Defense Minister Ehud Barak prepared the IDF for a major push into the Gaza Strip. As usual, the Bush administration, which controls an estimated $4 billion in annual economic and military aid to Israel, said nothing.
For all their talk of peace, Israeli hardliners and the Bush administration, aided by AIPAC’s lobbying efforts, have actively fanned the flames of war with Iran for months. Those plans got a thorough dousing earlier this month, when a newly released National Intelligence Estimate found with “high confidence” that Iran had curtailed its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The finding was a bombshell: The nuclear threat was the main rationale used by Bush to justify attacking Iran, by Congress to brand the Iranian Guards as a terrorist organization and by AIPAC to cajole the California Legislature into voting unanimously to divest all public funding from Iran last spring.
It would seem someone owes Iran an apology. But before negotiations could accidentally break out, neoconservatives in the Bush administration and the mainstream media moved in quickly to disavow the NIE.
The neoconservatives, or “neocons,” belong to a school of political thought that believes weaker countries can and should be taken by force and “democratized” (read: pillaged and plundered) by stronger states. Many neocons are American Jews, such as Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and Scooter Libby; some are gentiles, like Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and John Bolton. All share a strong belief in Zionism, which makes neocons extremely popular with AIPAC and Israeli hardliners.
Bolton called the NIE a political ploy by a disgruntled intelligence community. Barak dismissed it as more American incompetence—"We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the Earth, even if it is from our greatest friend,” he told Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli daily newspaper. Olmert insisted invasion was still on the table, even if Israel had to take matters into its own hands. By the end of the week, neocon pundits were pushing Bush to ignore the NIE and to attack Iran anyway.
Things weren’t always this confusing. Few stories of attaining statehood are more dramatic or morally compelling than Israel’s. The unprecedented horror of the Holocaust required an unprecedented response; for many survivors, Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 was a genuine miracle.
The nascent state quickly assumed the role of the biblical David, dispatching a series of neighboring Goliaths on its way to becoming a giant in its own right, the permanent protectorate of the Jews, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East and one of the United States’ staunchest allies.
That was the image of Israel that Alice Rothchild, 59, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, grew up with in Boston. Now an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, Rothchild began re-evaluating her view after repeated journeys with medical delegations to Israel and the occupied territories. In Broken Promises, Broken Dreams, she chronicles her encounters with brutalized humans on both sides of the occupation and charts her evolution as an activist and eventual member of Jewish Voice for Peace.
“Somewhere in this journey, I began to see Israel not only as the victim of Arab hatred, but also as the neighborhood bully,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “I began to realize as the Israeli occupation continued and as Israel became a major military power backed permanently by the U.S., that Jewish suffering could not legitimize the excesses of Jewish power.”
That’s forbidden speech in The Jewish Voice, which generally confines articles to profiles of local Jewish achievements in education, philanthropy and the arts. When it does delve into foreign policy, it’s often through speakers with a decidedly different tone than Rothchild’s.
In this month’s issue, a visiting Israeli press liaison explains how “the definition of human rights has been hijacked by those with an agenda to deligitimize Israel in the eyes of the world.” Another visiting Israeli media expert claims the Palestinian Authority is indoctrinating children in a culture of hatred and violence aimed not at Israel, but the entire Western world.
As to why an ad for Rothchild doesn’t appear in the newspaper’s contents, there’s a cryptic declaimer from Kohane on the cover: “… While all submissions to The Jewish Voice are welcome, the Federation reserves the right to decline publishing information that does not ‘serve and enrich the Jewish community and those who support and identify with it….”
Kohane says JVP wasn’t muzzled, as the group claims on its “muzzle watch” blog. She reiterated that the Federation is “under no obligation to advertise events of a group that … supports divestment from Israel, the U.S. not sending arms for Israel to defend itself as any other nation has the right to do, as well as other measures which would weaken the state of Israel.”
Jewish Voice for Peace maintains that safety and security for Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked. It calls Israel’s continued occupation of the territories seized in the 1967 war immoral, illegal, and a detriment to the safety and security of both Israelis and Palestinians.
As Israel’s behavior has become more aggressive, JVP’s membership has gone up. Last summer, after Israel’s war against Hezbollah killed 1,000 innocent Lebanese civilians and crippled the Lebanese environment and economy, JVP’s rolls shot up by more than 6,000 members nationwide, according to Mitchell Plitnick, national director of policy and education for JVP.
Founded in the Bay Area in 1996 and now headquartered in Oakland, the organization now claims 20,000 members nationwide.
On a Sunday afternoon in early December at Sacramento’s Belle Cooledge Library, Rothchild described the wasteland known as the occupied territories, where Israeli teenagers in military uniforms hold guns on Palestinian teenagers with rocks. The Gaza Strip, sometimes called the world’s largest prison, is actually worse than that, she scoffed: “In prison, the jailer is responsible for the prisoner’s well-being.”
The impressions built until Rothchild came to recounting her own painful recognition that Israel is becoming exactly what it ran away from. “Can’t you see?” she implored, as much to herself as to anyone else. “You’re making victims out of your own victimhood!”
Rothchild convinced the library crowd of 30 or so people, but an earlier audience with Kohane wasn’t quite as persuasive.
“We agreed to disagree,” Kohane said. “They are on the other side of the street. If they come over on this side, fine, then we can talk, we can have a debate.”
JVP supporters literally were on the other side of the street at Sunday’s AIPAC luncheon, renewing their protest.
Mandel is optimistic. For the first time in decades, it feels as if the tide is about to turn. The opportunity for true justice and peace for Israelis and Palestinians might yet be within grasp.
On the other hand, if things continue to go wrong for the United States in Iraq, as almost every military expert predicts, America will be in need of a scapegoat. Guess who again?
“There are real anti-Semites out there,” Mandel said. “I don’t think Walt and Mearsheimer are among them by any means. But real anti-Semites can take some of the same evidence and spin it in a way that makes it look much more sinister.
“They’re going to say those Jewish neocons led us by the nose into Iraq, as opposed to the real reasons that are much bigger than that. If Iraq proves to be what it is, a fiasco, there are going to be people who’ll look around and say, ‘OK, who got us into this?’ “