It's Time for American Jews to Speak Up!

By GorenberG, Gershom | Moment, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

It's Time for American Jews to Speak Up!


GorenberG, Gershom, Moment


There's an old story from the cold war era, the kind of unsourced anecdote that probably never happened but nonetheless contains a truth about history. A Soviet diplomatic delegation once visited the West--so goes the story--and a Jewish member of the team spoke to journalists. Asked about the Middle East, he parroted the party line and attacked "Zionist imperialism."

Afterward, a reporter cornered him and said, "You're Jewish. You must have your own opinion about this."

"Yes," said the Jew from Moscow, "but I don't agree with it."

Sadly, quite a few prominent American Jews--claiming to represent the entire Jewish community--often behave in a surprisingly similar fashion. The party line, in this case, comes from Jerusalem. I'd like to believe that these sometimes self-appointed spokespeople doubt the wisdom of expanding West Bank settlements, or question the attempt to ban two Arab parties from Israeli elections, or feel qualms about the firepower that Israeli forces directed at civilian areas during the war in Gaza. But if they have those doubts in private, they don't agree with themselves in public. To revamp another cold war saying, originally about Western communists: When it rains in Jerusalem, they open their umbrellas in New York.

And sometimes they open their umbrellas--or rather, their mouths--even when officials in Jerusalem are tactful enough to keep theirs closed. Take President Barack Obama's appointment of George Mitchell--the former U.S. senator and special envoy to Northern Ireland who laid the groundwork for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement--as his Middle East envoy. In response, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman told The Jewish Week, "Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed," and then made clear that he regarded this as a fault: "So I'm concerned ... I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East." The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem didn't express such doubts. But then, it had Foxman to do the job on its behalf.

As a way for Jewish leaders to approach U.S.-Israel relations, umbrella politics always raised questions of personal integrity. Now it has been rendered bankrupt in simple pragmatic terms by three developments: the Gaza war, the Israeli elections and the Obama presidency.

The Gaza war was one more attempt by one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to bend the will of the other through ferocious force. At a minimum, the goal was to use Rumsfeldian "shock and awe" to stop Hamas missile fire into Israel. In a wider context, the offensive was the latest effort to convince the Palestinians of Gaza to reject Hamas rule. But the ceasefire that ended the fighting was just as fragile as the ceasefire that could have been achieved before the war. Among Palestinians, support for the hardline Hamas grew--a predictable shift to hawkish politics by people under attack. …

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