Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Israel's Ad Dust-Up Says About US Jewry

The decision by the Israeli government to pull an ad campaign encouraging Israeli expats to return to Israel is an attempt by Prime Minister Netanyahu to navigate the delicate subject of differences between the U.S. and Israeli Jewish communities. The case is an interesting one and illustrates the complexity of the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel.

In particular, the outcry of some American Jewish organizations to the ads reflects the particulars of the norm against American Jewish criticism of Israel's government. The leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League both condemned the ad campaign. ADL chairman Abraham Foxman has recently condemned what he considers anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset. However, the ADL also recently came out with a unity pledge, co-sponsored with the AJC. It called on American presidential candidates to avoid making Israel a campaign issue. But, it also called for "American voices raised together in unshakable support for our friend and ally," indicating reticence to condone criticism of the practitioners of U.S.-Israel relations.

The Israeli ad campaign dust-up indicates that there is a norm governing criticism of Israel's government. Despite calls for unity, the leaders of traditional American Jewish organizations clearly consider certain criticism legitimate at certain times. Statements from the centrist ADL and more conservative organizations like the ZOA and RJC demonstrate this point. Though their statements are directed at President Obama rather than Prime Minister Netanyahu, the criticism relates to particular tactics both leaders use in negotiating the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, for the American Jewish leadership to call for unity among the ranks while simultaneously entertaining criticism from its own apparatus is indicative of a deeper issue, one which goes beyond simple elitism.

Simply stated, the U.S. Jewish community lacks unity on Israel. The traditional American Jewish leadership is trying so hard to demonstrate unity of thought on Israel precisely because the community is ideologically fractured between traditionalists and progressives. The reason J Street is sanctioned for making similar statements to the ADL about democracy in Israel is because it is willing to openly acknowledge this fracture. Given that ideological unity is a source of political leverage, it is sensical for traditional Jewish leadership in the United States to uphold the illusion of unity for as long as possible. However, the new progressive voice in the conversation can no longer be ignored. Hillel's ideologically diverse pro-Israel initiative, the Talk Israel tent, is an excellent example of the best way for traditional American Jewish organizations to remain relevant, supported, and strong voices for Israel.

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