The Israeli newspaper is inviting American Jews to conferences that reject happy talk in favor of couple’s therapy.
- By Ron Kampeas<p> Ron Kampeas has been the Washington bureau chief for JTA since 2003. He worked for the Associated Press as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem from 1998 to 2000. </p>
From the establishment of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby in the early 1950s, at the behest of the nascent Jewish state’s foreign ministry, to the romances that routinely blossom between co-eds and the soldiers watching over them on Birthright trips, Israelis’ attempts to get to know Americans are a recurring drama.
Like so many other cross-national courtships, Israeli-American wooing more often than not starts off swimmingly and eventually takes fraught turns into miscues, mistakes, and misgivings about how and why it all began.
A conference in New York this weekend co-hosted by Haaretz, the flagship newspaper of a liberal Israel that has been in retreat in recent years, is the latest iteration in the decades-old dance. But this time there’s a twist: The organizers want you to know from the outset that this thing we have is a complicated, difficult, even angry affair.
The “unbreakable bond” talk that permeates pro-Israel conferences is in little evidence here. Consider the topics on the schedule Sunday at the Roosevelt Hotel: “Unifying or separating: Is Israel dividing American Jewry,” “Don’t let friends drive drunk: What can foreign intervention accomplish” and “Friendship under stress: What will Israel U.S. ties look like following the Iran deal and amid growing regional turmoil?”
Rather than the cheery talk at the massive AIPAC annual springtime bash, the fascination here is with the dysfunction of the relationship, made flesh over the last seven years in the overt tension between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Two top Obama administration officials, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and the White House’s “anti-Islamic State czar,” Rob Malley, spoke at the conference, and Obama himself recorded a surprise video message that played for attendees. “Over the years, I’ve turned to you for your reporting and analysis,” the president told Haaretz’s journalists.
The debate in the U.S. Jewish community over the relationship with Israel is flourishing. One such organization, the New Israel Fund, which promotes human rights, pluralism, and democracy education in Israel, is Haaretz’s co-sponsor at the conference. J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East lobby, has grown in leaps and bounds since its 2008 establishment. But what distinguishes the Haaretz conference is that it is an Israeli brand bringing its dissent to U.S. shores. (Disclosure: Haaretz subscribes to my employer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a wire service for Jewish media.)
“There is a debate within the American Jewish community about Israel, which has been going on for a while and has been exacerbated by the Obama-Netanyahu relationship,” said Aluf Benn, the paper’s editor in chief, in an interview. “We represent liberal Israeli policy, and especially now when it is so different from the [Israeli] government, we’d like to reach out and engage with like-minded and not like-minded voices here.”
More substantively, Benn said, American Jews could help steer Israel back from what he described as the brink of extremism.
“Israel went through a quiet revolution with the election” in March, he said. “You can argue we had the same prime minister before and after, but in a way, Netanyahu ousted his former self after six years,” during which time he formed coalition governments with relative moderates.
Benn ticked off the ways Netanyahu has lurched rightward, with regards to not only the peace process, but also Israel’s political culture: The prime minister had limited the powers of the High Court and the influence of human rights NGOs, he said, and had stripped away whatever niceties remained in the political rhetoric.
“Right wing politicians speak openly about raising the Israeli flag over the Temple Mount,” the Jerusalem site also known as Haram al-Sharif and holy to Muslims and Jews. “They openly call for the annexation of the West Bank. We are a lonely voice in Israel, in major Israeli media, that sees things differently and challenges these notions.”
Haaretz is an elitist brand — its Hebrew abjures the bastardized Englishisms that infect copy in Israeli tabloids — that has never been broadly popular among Israelis. Since the early years of the last decade, it has faced the same struggle for relevance in a post-print age besetting dead-tree publications worldwide. But despite its relatively small reach at home — under 5 percent of Israel’s population — its online English edition is the go-to address for Americans who see a relationship in crisis.
With Israel moving toward the right, the paper hopes to find a more sympathetic reception in the United States. But whether the model on display at Sunday’s gathering is sustainable remains to be seen.
“Right now, there is an audience for this,” said Amos Schocken, Haaretz’s publisher, in an interview. “Whether it will be as successful as conferences we’ve had in Israel, we’ll see.”
Abe Foxman, who recently retired as the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and is one of the most experienced watchers of the relationship, was doubtful, in part because the conference agenda is populated heavily with leftists conversing with leftists.
“It would be nicer to have a conference where you could exchange rather than reinforce views,” Foxman said in an interview. “It’s like-minded talking to like-minded; I’m not sure they need a conference to connect.”
Schocken acknowledged the weakness, with the caveat that one of the most prominent speakers, Israel President Reuven Rivlin, comes out of Israel’s ruling right-wing Likud Party.
“We were not successful in bringing in Likud and Jewish Home members,” Schocken said, referring to two of the parties in the governing coalition, the most right wing in Israeli history. “I’m sorry for this.”
Israel-critical Jewish voices are also forced to contend with the diffuse interests of American liberals. America’s 5.5 million Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, successive polls have shown — but the tens of thousands of activists among them who gravitate to AIPAC and similar groups are single-issue voters. They might not represent the majority of their community, but they are the ones likeliest to call their lawmakers and start their pleas, “As a Jewish American.”
By contrast, more liberal Jewish-American activists are likely to have a range of interests in addition to the Middle East, including reproductive rights, the environment, economic disparity at home — the whole bleeding-heart shebang, in other words. The contrast between two major Jewish funders of political causes is emblematic: Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has thrown tens of millions of dollars at causes that shore up Israel’s most hawkish positions, while financier George Soros funds a bevy of left-leaning causes, and occasionally drops several hundred thousand dollars backing Middle East policy doves.
Peter Beinart, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, acknowledged the disparity, but said a case needed to be made to young Jewish skeptics of the relationship that they needed to be at least as devoted to changing the status quo as hawks are to preserving it.
“It’s great, you are invested in social change in the United States and around the world,” said Beinart, whose 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” sent ripples throughout the Jewish world. “But if the future of your people matters to you, if one of the central themes in your life is the future of Israel or the Jewish people, then you have to make it a kind of priority,” he said in an interview.
Only time will tell whether Haaretz’s push into the United States can spark that sort of movement. The conference was structured as a debate intended to draw in the participants, who paid $536 for full access. It is called HaaretzQ, and the “Q” is for questions organizers hoped would be abundant. That’s a departure from the frontal lectures typical of conferences in the conventional pro-Israel sector.
“We need to take every opportunity to visit, to speak to people, as a better way of understanding the audience,” Benn said.
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