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After the neocons

The slaughter in Palestine has led to a significant breach in the walls of the Israel lobby in the US. For the first time, Jews who saw what the occupation was doing to the country are speaking out and setting up organisations that break with the traditional leadership, says Philip Weiss

February 1, 2009
9 min read

If I could sneak one message out to the world on a scrap of paper from inside the Israel lobby in America, it would be that the plague years are over. Not that things are so great here. The blacklists and smearings of Israel’s critics continue, the intellectual lockdowns in all of public life are still going on. But the huntings and houndings and scorn for those who question Israel – they have eased.

The change began before the horrors of Gaza. Obama’s election had a real effect. A large political fact that went largely unreported – certainly it went unreported in the US – is the extent to which the Obama-McCain race was about the role of neoconservatism in our foreign policy. McCain was all mobbed up with neoconservatives. Obama had his share too, but far fewer, and certainly he dislikes neoconservative ideology. He would talk to Iran, for example. The neoconservatives rallied around McCain desperately, against all hope – they have always been visionaries and dreamers – although some of the shrewder of them made the migration to Obama, as shrewd neocons had in past phases of their lunacy migrated from Democratic Party to Republican Party, and back again, depending on who they thought was better for Israel.

Almost immediately after the election, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the central hive of neoconservatism, began purging neocons. It was a beautiful thing to watch. The AEI is based near the White House -Dick Cheney and his wife used to hang out there. Now feverish ideologues who had been granted status by the conservative think-tank, supported by oil men and hedge fund kings, were turned out into the street. They have had to do what we on the left have done and start blogs on a shoestring, so that they will have a place to replay their arguments for the Iraq war for the rest of their lives.

At the same time as the AEI did its purge, Foreign Policy magazine began hiring realists; the school that says that we must talk to Hamas and talk to Iran. Obama also said we must talk to Iran. Not Hamas, mind – or at least not yet, and not directly. Obama had promised the Israel lobby that he looked on Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Space for dissent

So much for the larger factors at work. What is it like here on the ground, for someone like me, a leftist Jewish dissenter? What space exists in Jewish and American life for a unorthodox view of Israel? The answer here is finally somewhat encouraging. Little by little, the space is growing. Not that we are asked to contribute to op-ed pages; no, the New York Times still turns to Israelis to interpret what is happening in Israel. But our voices are beginning to be heard in regional newspapers – I’ve just been quoted in the Los Angeles Times – and we are all over the blogosphere. What’s more, there are three or four Jewish organisations that are responding to this anti-Israel feeling and not trying to excommunicate dissenters for once.

Gaza has only accentuated trends that have been evident for a couple of years – for instance the pro-Israel community’s concern about the growing alienation of young Jews from Israel. These Jews did not grow up with heroic battles interrupting their high school classes, but with photographs of Israeli shoulders firing on Palestinian demonstrators in front of the hateful wall. A recent study by pro-Israel sociologists said this alienation was sharpest among intermarried Jews; and 62 per cent of American Jews under 35 have married gentiles (including me).

That alienation has become more and more visible in ways that I could not have imagined a few years ago when I first got into these issues and felt pretty lonely. Every day during the two weeks of the Gaza slaughter, young Jews, and some older ones, have come forward to speak out against disproportionate violence and the damage to Jewish life. A lot of them have broken a personal or professional seal in doing so. My favourite is Rabbi Marc Gopin, who in a conference call with the media said that Jews who are disturbed by the violence must stop arguing with the right-wing members of their family and spend that mental energy instead on meeting and talking to Palestinians.

Many Jewish families have smouldered over these questions for years without the fight breaking out. To get a pass from a rabbi to essentially break with family over the slaughter was for me somewhat mentally liberating. My usual load of anguish over my stance has lessened.

Angry response

Dissenters have met with an angry response from the ethnocentric. One of the leading editors in the country is 70-year-old Marty Peretz of the New Republic. I knew him when I was young; he gave me work in a magazine that was extremely helpful to my making a career. Lately he has attacked the young Jewish journalists who have broken with Israel over the slaughter as ‘haters of their inheritance’, a fancy new way of saying self-hating. Peretz’s anathema is very much in line with a recent report for the American Jewish Committee decrying the new wave of anti-Zionist Jews as anti-semitic.

The pushback was inevitable. I don’t think it’s easy for Europeans to understand how solemn are the duties of the Israel lobby – how responsible American Jews feel for Israel’s well-being and very existence. Most American Jews have never been to Israel, but between 1917, when the Brits issued the Balfour Declaration, and 1948, when they stepped out of Mandate Palestine, the US became the superpower upon whom Israel is dependent.

That statement is the sum and substance of the Israel lobby’s identity: Israel has always been dependent on the fierce support of a western power because it has been contemptuous of the opinions of its neighbors. The result is that American Jews feel that they hold the lifeline for Israel. If they let go, the country goes down the tube. It hardly matters that, as playwright Tony Kushner once said to me, the American Jewish idea of Israel is a ‘delusion built on top of a fantasy’ – this is a keen responsibility, tinged with Holocaust shadows. ‘Never again’ has come to mean ‘never quit loving Israel’.

I am moving now away from the grassroots and into the organisational level of Jewish life, and here too there have been significant fractures. Till a year or so back, Jewish leadership was united around a neoconservative agenda. Even the Reform Jews, the most liberal and assimilated branch of the Jewish church, shamefully supported the Iraq war and worried about Islamic jihad. This combined with a tendency even in supposedly liberal political precincts of a Jewish flavour, such as prestige newspapers and the Brookings Institution and other think-tanks, to overlook the endless occupation of Arab lands as irrelevant to American foreign policy.

Of course there were Jews who were against the occupation, but they were on the margins. And the dreaded AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said nothing about the occupation at all. Israel was happy to get out of those lands, AIPAC said, if it could obtain peace, but it couldn’t.

Breaking with the Israel lobby

Many blows were struck against that complacence: the Iraq war, the writings of Jimmy Carter and the realist scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the desperate cries from the Israeli left. And a year ago, Jews who saw what the occupation was doing to Israel – basically turning it into an apartheid state – at last broke with the leadership and formed their own organisation, J Street, the so-called alternative lobby.

J Street’s heresies so far have been very mild indeed. (I’m not a member, but I’ve been supportive in my way.) It has been tepid on dividing Jerusalem and abandoning the settlements. It didn’t take on the neoconservatives frontally; no, the neocons are, as Gilbert and Sullivan would say, their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. Still, J Street broke with the mainstream, and this has been a giant symbolic strike against the Israel lobby. For a lobby works by insisting on the urgency of its message. If suddenly that message is bifurcated, the lobby loses its threat.

J Street’s bravest moment has come with the Gaza attacks, which it has condemned (mildly) as disproportionate and ill-advised. Still: it has condemned the attacks, and had the support of three other liberal Jewish groups in doing so. The response from the Zionist elders (sorry) has been swift and furious. Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Reform Jews has called J Street ‘morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve’. The battle has been joined. Lately, an ally of J Street, Daniel Levy, has said that all Jews are being tested by the Gaza attacks and Yoffie’s call was ‘terribly wrong’.

I believe that J Street has taken its stand partly because the ethnocentric walls of Jewish life in the US have been breached, and the organisation knows that non-Jewish Americans have reacted in horror and even anger to the images from Gaza. The interest among ordinary Americans in the issue gives all of us heretics more room to run. And lo, for the first time mainstream publications are questioning whether the ‘special relationship’ with Israel is in America’s interest.

Of course it is horrifying to consider that Palestinian slaughter night be the price of a shift in American Jewish consciousness, but for myself this has been the most gratifying period of working on this issue in nearly three years. A couple of my own family members have expressed distress over Israel’s behaviour and perhaps even conceded that I am not crazy. Many of the neocons have folded their tents. The others are screaming on street corners.

Suddenly I have company all around me. I am even getting a little employment. Maybe even mainstream publications will begin to question the wisdom of Zionism when the whole philosophy has been turned on its head – Jews are so empowered in the west and so endangered in their ‘homeland’.

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