How they refuse to engage
by Seth Mandel, COMMENTARY
Something unusual happened in the world of Arab–Israeli negotiations early this year: The Palestinians were given a reason to come to the negotiating table. On January 28, the president unveiled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” to great fanfare at the White House. The plan leaves open a path to a Palestinian state without holding Israeli security needs and political legitimacy hostage. It calls for a settlement freeze in most of the West Bank and offers amnesty for illegal Palestinian construction, thus giving a boost to Palestinian sovereignty, while allowing Israel to retain control over the areas of the Jordan Valley it deems necessary.
Attending the White House ceremonial release of the plan were envoys from Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. In a statement, the Saudi foreign ministry said it “appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinian and the Israeli sides” and encouraged further talks using the Trump plan as the basis for negotiations. Similar statements came from Morocco and Qatar. Even Egypt chimed in with praise.
The plan is extraordinarily favorable to the Jewish state’s security without condemning a Palestinian state to the dustbin of history, and the Arab world—including Saudi Arabia, the authors of a competing peace plan—are comfortable with it. American Jewry must be over the moon, right?
Well, not exactly.
J Street called it “the logical culmination of repeated bad-faith steps this administration has taken to validate the agenda of the Israeli right, prevent the achievement of a viable, negotiated two-state solution and ensure that Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank becomes permanent.” A group called National Security Action penned an angry open letter from former administration officials, featuring past U.S. ambassadors to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Shapiro, denouncing the peace plan as “a recipe for perpetual conflict” meant to “help re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu.” (This even though Netanyahu’s opponent, Benny Gantz, also backed the plan and enjoyed a smiling Oval Office photo op with Trump the day before.)
The Israel Policy Forum—founded in the wake of the Oslo Accords to satisfy Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s desire for a rival to AIPAC and now advised by prominent philanthropists such as Charles Bronfman, Haim Saban, and Ronald Lauder—called the plan “an Orwellian exercise in doublespeak” intended to bury any chance at peace. The great irony of the Israel Policy Forum’s condemnation is that Rabin himself never expressed support for a Palestinian state and was a consistent opponent of Palestinian autonomy plans that endangered Israel’s security interests in the Jordan Valley.
The idea that the plan might be too favorable to Israel was a particular concern to the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “The complete absence of the Palestinians today speaks volumes about the illegitimacy and naiveté of the process that led to the plan’s creation,” the JDCA said in a statement, blaming everyone but the Palestinians for their intransigence.
True, the American Jewish Committee had only good things to say about it, and the Republican Jewish Coalition and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations endorsed it. But even AIPAC, while praising Trump’s effort and intentions, equivocated that “both Israeli political leaders view this framework as the basis to restart negotiations with the Palestinians,” distancing the organization from the appearance of a direct endorsement.
What’s happening here is more than a skirmish over a peace plan, or a distressing glimpse into the way American Jewry’s leaders privilege their partisan leanings over the fact that their leadership roles in American society are due to their Judaism and not their Democratic Party membership. What we are seeing is the way American Jewish leaders fail to take seriously the rising tide of anti-Semitism that masquerades as “anti-Zionism”—and even the way progressive groups enable it. Attacking an American plan for its pro-Israel lean is nonsensical for those who should, by the very nature of who they are and what they do, want the United States to have a pro-Israel lean.
There is no future for Jewry without a strong and surviving Israel. Indeed, for the modern Diaspora, no idea has more successfully preserved the notion of an egalitarian Jewish peoplehood—one that crosses languages and religious boundaries—than Zionism. Long before the reestablishment of the State of Israel, Zionists were the Jews dedicated to arguing compellingly for a coherent Jewish identity and thus for Jews as a minority deserving of the rights and recognition afforded others. If American Judaism is to have a chance at survival, it must first realize that that is what it is fighting for.
What does it look like when a national Jewish community understands what’s at stake? The United Kingdom offers a good example. Heading into the December elections, the Labour Party was (and is, for the moment) led by Jeremy Corbyn. He attempted to pass off his admiration for terrorists and his party’s harassment of Jewish politicians and Jewish voters as “anti-Zionism”—as though that were a good thing—but he still ended up proving that the word “Zionist” is just a stand-in for “Jew” in leftist discourse. He claimed that “Zionists,” even those who have lived their whole lives in Britain, “don’t understand English irony.” The Jew, to leftists like Corbyn, will forever be an outsider.
A full 87 percent of UK Jews denounced Corbyn as an anti-Semite. “What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?” Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote in late November in the London Times. “This anxiety is understandable and justified.” Jewish Labour groups fought to expose their own party’s bigotry, even as whistleblowers faced retaliation. Jews abandoned Labour. In the event, Labour lost the election in a historic landslide.
Such communal solidarity has become distressingly unthinkable in the United States. Consider the story of the anti-Semitic crime spree in New York. For nearly a year, the steady low-level harassment of visible Jews in the Big Apple spiraled deliberately into an open-ended, slow-rolling pogrom outside the city—a broad-daylight massacre at a Jersey City kosher market followed by a Manhattan man driving 30 miles to the Haredi town of Monsey, where he stormed into a rabbi’s house with a machete and hacked away at stunned victims.
The media ignored the violence until there was blood in the streets; the organized Jewish world reacted like a deer in the headlights; non-Orthodox rabbis sneered at the Haredi community as it absorbed daily assaults; Jewish intellectuals pretended nothing was happening. Well into the Brooklyn violence, anti-Semitism chronicler Liam Hoare insisted that “despite the endless handwringing about anti-Semitism on the left, it is far-right extremism which constitutes the paramount threat to American Jewish life today.” It was a line the Anti-Defamation League had been pushing hard as well. But the renewed violence in the New York area wasn’t coming from white nationalists or alt-right posers. Many of the attacks caught on tape featured African-American suspects in outer-borough neighborhoods where religious Jews were framed as land-grabbing outsiders, with some residents telling interviewers they viewed Israel as the point of origin for these Jews. In Jersey City, the shooters were reportedly Black Hebrew Israelites, a kind of extreme black nationalist group, apparently motivated by a conspiracy theory that Jews pull the strings of the police to kill black people—a calumny that took original form as a claim that Israel was training U.S. cops to persecute minorities. “Israel” very quickly becomes “Jews.”
The Jewish Democratic Council of America used these horrifying events to try to score partisan points. It tweeted in the wake of the attack: “We stand with the Orthodox community in NY, which has been increasingly under attack, including this past August when NY county GOP leaders launched and defended a Facebook ad campaign alleging Hasidic Jews were ‘plotting a take over’ of Rockland County.”
Such astoundingly vulgar politicking in the wake of a massacre of co-religionists was par for the course for the JDCA, which also announced a swing-state ad campaign calling Trump “the biggest threat to American Jews.” The home page of the group’s website files every instance of anti-Semitism in America in the past three-plus years under “Anti-Semitism Under Trump.” The JDCA even opposed Trump’s executive order applying civil-rights protections to Jews on campus with a garbled and petulant statement from its director, the ex-Obama political operative Halie Soifer, that boiled down to not liking it because Trump did it. (The president based his order on an Obama-administration opinion.)
As indefensible as this is, it’s tempting to say that we might expect this level of cynicism from an explicitly partisan organization like the JDCA. But there isn’t much of a distinction now. Take the ADL, now led—like the JDCA—by a former Obama-administration official guided by partisan politics. During the 2018 midterm election season, the organization put out a guide to “extremist” candidates. All were Republicans. Tablet, meanwhile, put out its own guide to the “Anti-Semitic 8”: Four were Democrats, four were Republicans. That is, the Anti-Defamation League had misled American Jews about dangerous anti-Semitism for purely partisan purposes.
What are those partisan purposes? Foremost among them is creating space for the ongoing Democratic Party shift against Israel, which often quickly devolves into rank Jew-baiting and classic anti-Semitic stereotypes. Just look at the Jersey City shooting. The aforementioned conspiracy theory behind it—that Jews manipulate cops to cull the African-American population, based on a program that sees police officers from the U.S. and other countries visit Israel—has been prominently spewed by Linda Sarsour. She was a key electoral ally of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and then she led the Women’s March, the flagship public protest movement of “the resistance.” But Sarsour—who signed a statement saying Zionism is racism, advocates a one-state solution, and says that Israel is built on Jewish supremacism (long a talking point of David Duke’s)—is in her most powerful position yet. She is a key campaign surrogate of Senator Bernie Sanders, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Until recently, the best that ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt could muster was to announce his “deep opposition to Sarsour’s views on Israel.” She finally earned tough criticism from Greenblatt late in 2019, but only after years of having her hate whitewashed as legitimate criticism of Israel. That has been the American Jewish leadership’s default posture: If a Democrat invokes the word “Israel” or “Zionist,” he or she is inoculated against accusations of anti-Semitism.
The result has been an American prefabricated version of Corbynism. Like Malcolm McLaren seeking to re-create the Ramones in London with the Sex Pistols, the Bernie Sanders campaign has become a knockoff, trendy domestic brand. Sarsour is joined in the Sanders camp by Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Tlaib has accused American Jews of dual loyalty and remorselessly spread blood libels from Palestinian officials. Omar has also accused Jews of dual loyalty, multiple times, and even faced the possibility of a congressional resolution criticizing her anti-Semitism before Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure from Omar’s protector Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others, backed off. Ocasio-Cortez is also part of the Bernie team and explicitly endorsed Corbyn.
With the backing of Democratic politicians such as these, the left has seized the moment to instigate an all-out attack on the nonpartisan Jewish establishment. In October, the far-left New Israel Fund launched a competitor philanthropy to the Jewish Federations of North America, formerly known as United Jewish Communities. This came after a JFNA would-be donor’s gift was rejected by the Federations because it was earmarked for IfNotNow, a radical anti-Zionist group whose members went so far as to facilitate the banning of the Star of David on pride flags at a major gay-pride march in Washington, D.C. As Jonathan Tobin explained at the Jewish News Service, “it is nothing less than an attempt by the Jewish left to topple the basis on which Jewish philanthropy in this country exists.”
Just how are groups like IfNotNow punching so far above their weight? The answer is that prominent Democrats, such as Ocasio-Cortez, are promoting them and using them as a shield to deflect accusations that their criticism of Israel strays well outside the mainstream of the American Jewish community. “There are really amazing organizations of young people, groups like IfNotNow, that they are young Jews organizing for justice because they realize that all of our fates and our destinies are intertwined and that there cannot be justice in Israel without justice for Palestinians, too,” Ocasio-Cortez told a radio station last July.
It’s a deliberate strategy to elevate fringe groups. Tlaib and Omar had a congressional trip to the Palestinian territories canceled by Israel when it was revealed the tour was being funded by an organization that seeks the destruction of the Jewish state. After ripping the Netanyahu government, Tlaib held Shabbat events with the viciously anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP, to complete the circle, has been one of the more vociferous propagators of the “deadly exchange” conspiracy theory held by the Jersey City shooters.
Substituting progressive politics for religion is one reason that neither the JDCA nor the ADL will cross Team Sanders. But it’s a longstanding problem. Following the October 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the Jerusalem Post asked the ADL whether it would finally drop its long-held opposition to federal security grants for synagogues and other houses of worship. The answer was no. The ADL, an official explained, was still opposed on constitutional grounds. In 2004, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, a project of Reform umbrella groups Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, put out a memo opposing security funding for Jewish institutions.
Sure, protecting shuls is important, the organization said, but there is “no need to do so in a manner that dangerously threatens the wall separating church and state, which has been a bedrock of democracy and the foundation of religious liberty in our country for more than 200 years.” The Reform organization finally dropped its opposition after the Pittsburgh shooting. The “constitutional” issues were a pretext to elevate liberal political stances over Jewish communal needs, but now appear to not be worth the public-relations headache. In December 2019, Trump signed the appropriations bill that included $90 million in federal security grants for religious institutions, a 50 percent increase over the previous year.
Peace plans that offer Palestinians a pathway to a state are bad; efforts to roust out anti-Semitism on college campuses are bad; federal support for guards protecting Jews at prayer are bad; these are views held in esteem by many rising Jewish organizations.
What happens when not even the Jews will speak out for the Jews?