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The National (UAE): "American Jewish groups break with hawks"

"While conservative, hawkish groups presume to speak for American Jews, Americans for Peace Now actually represents the positions held by the majority of our community," said Ori Nir, a spokesman.
APN Spokesman Ori Nir

by Sharmila Devi, Foreign Correspondent

May 14. 2008

NEW YORK // "Israel, right or wrong" might once have summed up the attitude of American Jews towards the Jewish state. But as it approaches its 60th anniversary, a growing number in the community are deciding that the best way to help Israel is to tell it where it is going wrong.

Hidden behind the official declarations of support for Israel expressed by the majority of American Jews, there is a growing anxiety that current policies are noticeably diverting from the path to peace.

American Jewish officials and leaders say there is a vigorous debate over how best to achieve a two-state solution and the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Liberal groups such as Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace and the Israel Policy Forum were recently joined by a new organisation called J Street to counter more powerful and conservative lobbyists.

These groups say they better represent the majority opinion within the six million-strong Jewish American community but that their voice is hijacked by right-wing lobbyists.

The most vocal and hawkish group is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the most powerful organisation representing American Jews.

However, more American Jews are speaking out, for example, against Israel's settlement construction in the occupied West Bank or about the need to engage in some way with groups such as Hamas.

"These left-wing views sound like they could leave Israel vulnerable and it's harder to make the case or reduce it to a slogan," says Andrew Silow-Carroll, the liberal editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. "It's hard to be too right wing on Israel or care too much because it involves the very visceral, existential fears of Israelis."

Some American Jews say these fears, stemming in large part from the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust, have been exploited by the Israeli and US right wing, but are also too often overlooked in the Middle East.

Arab American voices remain disorganised and disparate. Some American Palestinians say they have been frustrated by their own officials in reaching out to American Jews. Given the sensitivities of the conflict, few Palestinians or Israelis and their American supporters are willing to go on the record criticising their respective leaderships.

"The Palestinian leadership has grossly overlooked an influential and interested sector in American society: American Jews who don't support Israel's occupation," said a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Ramallah, who requested his name not be used.

"Such American Jews are not a fringe minority. Instead, they are mainstream Americans who are conscientious and who could be empowered by, in part, outreach from a Palestinian leadership who understood that allies need guidance and support to be effective."

The first American Jewish groups were formed as social organisations after Jews arrived in the United States to escape anti-Semitic pogroms in eastern Europe and Russia at the turn of the last century. They provided welfare and a forum to fight rampant anti-Semitism present also in the United States.

These early American Jewish groups reflected the rise of Zionism and became overwhelmingly pro-Israel after 1948, with the exception of some ultra-Orthodox organisations that oppose the creation of Israel on religious grounds.

Some American Jews say part of the support for Israel stemmed from guilt at having not done more to protect European Jews during the Second World War.

American Jews were euphoric after 1967, when Israel defeated the Arab allies and began the occupation of east Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Anti-Arab attitudes then became stronger after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war in which Israel eventually pushed back Egyptian and Syrian advances.

"The mood definitely hardened and American Jewish groups became more hawkish and anti-Arab," said an American Jewish left-wing activist.

The peace camp grew significantly in the 1990s after the Oslo Accords in 1993 gave limited autonomy to Palestinians in the occupied territories. But the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and then the Sept 11 attacks in 2001 left many peaceniks unable to counter the respective Israeli and US backlashes.

Americans for Peace Now and its Israeli counterpart support the Israeli government in its pursuit of a two-state solution. But it also speaks out against Israeli action it perceives to be counter to this goal.

"While conservative, hawkish groups presume to speak for American Jews, Americans for Peace Now actually represents the positions held by the majority of our community," said Ori Nir, a spokesman.

"Polls consistently show that most American Jews support a two-state solution and agree with the Israeli government's position that only peace will ensure Israel's security, prosperity and continued viability as a Jewish, democratic state."

Closer questioning of US foreign policy comes as previous policies have done little to stop the violence in Israel and the occupied territories. Adding to concern over the wider region is the morass in Iraq and the pressure from US and Israeli hawks for action against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

He said many liberal American Jews could not support the essay The Israel Lobby by two US academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, because one of its central tenets - that Israel pushed the United States into war against Iraq - was simply wrong and gave ammunition to anti-Semites, who inflate the Jewish role in American life to a sinister, shadowy force.

"An opportunity to discuss the role and place of Jews in the US was squandered because of shoddy scholarship," he said. "If you look at the footnotes, you can see the authors did not talk to anybody and relied on journalistic accounts."

Diane Balser, executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, said more American Jews are moving away from the right on Israel. Such momentum is often masked, for example, by recent coverage of the vocal American Jewish animosity generated by the recent talks between Hamas and Jimmy Carter, the former US president.

Ms Balser's group has 38,000 active supporters but she believes it reflects the views of many thousands more.

"There is a greater diversity of voices in Israel than in the US," she said. "Our target is for the US government to change its policy and it's up to us to make change."

Polls show that many American Jews consider themselves liberal and support the Democrats while many Arab Americans lean towards the Republicans because of their conservative stands on religion and the economy.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is a hawkish organisation but it has had success in reaching out to the Arab world. Jason Isaacson, director of the office of government and international affairs, said there is "no great distance" between the AJC and Aipac and they share "similar" positions, such as prohibiting contacts with Hamas.

Nonetheless, he has been to the Gulf three times in the last year as part of outreach work to explain the AJC's support of Israel and to discuss issues of "non-proliferation" - a reference to Iran's nuclear stance, which has caused discomfort in the Gulf as well as Israel.

"The AJC has tried to make connections with scholars, journalists, leaders in the Arab world," he said. The organisation has an Arabic website ( and in March, it sent a delegation of American Jewish women to the Women as Global Leaders conference in Dubai.

In the US, the group works with other minorities such as Latinos and African-Americans although it has been more difficult to create a dialogue with Arab Americans because of the passions that Israel arouses. "We minorities should stick together," he said.

Nonetheless, the AJC's views different from those of J Street, which plans to persuade, if not pressure, Israel more actively to promote a two-state solution.

J Street's small budget - a reported US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) compared to Aipac's endowment of more than US$100m - could mean a diluted impact, some liberal Jewish Americans say. J Street and Aipac did not reply to calls and e-mailed requests for comment.

Meanwhile, some Palestinians look on and hope their leadership will seek further engagement with the liberal mainstream.

"The Palestinian Authority has utterly failed to reach out to liberal American Jews," said another Palestinian former adviser to the previous Fatah-led government.

"Millions have been spent on private jets and fancy hotels and pennies spent on lobbying. Their efforts would have been much better spent on reaching out to natural allies - whether Jewish or otherwise."