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Jewish World Review May 23, 2003 / 21 Iyar, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The 13th Tribe Speaks

Left-wing opposition to Sharon grows here, despite the collapse of the Israeli left | With both anti-Israel terrorism and worldwide anti-Semitism on the rise, Israel's supporters find themselves hard pressed these days.

But Jerusalem's advocates may soon find that their most worrisome foes are not the Palestinians. Jewish critics of Israel are getting bolder and louder.

Despite the staying power of the old slogan, the idea that American Jews and Israelis are "one people" is, I'm afraid, just another foolish myth. This isn't exactly news, as the vast cultural, linguistic, religious and political differences between these two populations were always considerable.

But recent developments have raised the political differences between many American Jews and their Israeli counterparts from the minor to the major mode. American Jews are moving from basing their activism on Israeli issues that were primarily dictated by Israelis to one that is completely divorced from them.

While this might be seen as a sign of political maturity, it also means the two groups are headed for serious problems.

In the past, most American Jewish activism for Israel was, primarily an echo of Israeli politics. Whether we were speaking of the left or the right, the American Jews were clearly the tail, not the dog. The spectacle of wealthy and influential American Jews rushing to do the bidding of Israeli politicians - who often could barely conceal their contempt for their Diaspora partners - was more than a cliché, it was reality.


And even when some American Jews arrayed themselves (and their money) against the policies of an Israeli government, they were almost never acting on their own. For more than two decades, the discussion among Jews over Israeli policies often took on the tone and the terms of Israeli politics, albeit a watered-down echo of that bitter debate.

Despite Israeli disclaimers, American liberals who sought to undermine Likud prime ministers like Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir were usually doing the bidding of Labor leaders such as former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres.

And when Rabin and Peres took Israel on its Oslo odyssey, American Jewish right-wingers were closely coordinating their attacks on the Labor government with Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud.

But times are changing, and a lot of American Jewish activists sound as if they are in business for themselves.

This trend is not limited to either end of the political spectrum. But while those Americans who lean to the right on Israeli politics can claim to be acting on the wishes of the majority of Israeli voters these days, those who sympathize with the left cannot.

Far from the even split that characterized Israeli politics for decades, the current political landscape of the Jewish state shows the Labor Party and its leftist allies in ruins. After consecutive landslide defeats inside of two years and the humiliating exits of party leaders Ehud Barak and Amram Mitzna after those debacles, this once-dominant institution is on the verge of extinction.

Should interim leader Shimon Peres take what is left of Labor back into coalition with Sharon, then the remnants of the party may split along ideological lines.

None of this is necessarily permanent, but there is no denying that the bloody demise of the Oslo process has altered the sensibilities and the voting patterns of Israelis.

That has left Sharon in charge with what appears to be little coherent opposition either in the Knesset or on the streets. The Israeli left has, more or less, gone to ground, awaiting a time when its erstwhile Palestinian peace partners will give up terrorism.

But that's not the case with their American Jewish counterparts. Just as the Israeli left has quieted down, their American "friends" are getting louder.

The Israel Policy Forum, the Washington-based group that was founded as an alternative to mainstream Jewish activism for Israel, has organized a series of initiatives to cut Sharon off at the knees.

One was a letter to President Bush signed by prominent Jewish philanthropists, urging him to press ahead with the "road map" peace plan despite Israeli government objections. The lead signer for that letter was Connecticut bagel baron and former United Jewish Appeal president Marvin Lender, who was once close to Yitzhak Rabin. Now, he is no longer taking his cues from Jerusalem.

That letter was meant to diminish the influence of another missive on the same subject that had been organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and signed by hundreds of members of Congress, and which urged Bush to be mindful of Palestinian deceit and Israeli security.

Now comes another letter from the IPF, this time signed by prominent donors to the Democratic Party, which urges Democratic presidential candidates not to take stands that would be too supportive of Israel.


Signed by such luminaries as blabbermouth actor Richard Dreyfuss and former top Democrat fundraiser Alan Solomont, it seeks to prevent Democrats from trying counter President Bush's appeal to Jews. The message: If you attack Bush as insufficiently supportive of Israeli security, you'll get no money from us. The key to understanding both letters is that they are geared toward encouraging American pressure on Israel, not support for Israeli democracy.

Yet another scheme is a recent effort to raise funds to get Jews to leave their homes in settlements in the territories. This counter-Zionist appeal is gaining traction from supporters such as actor Ed Asner.

Led by their cheerleaders in the American press, including New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Trudy Rubin, his mediocre echo in The Philadelphia Inquirer, lately the Jewish left is taking on the appearance of a 13th tribe of Israel. And they are gaining strength as they go all out to demonize Sharon, the settlers and the Evangelical Christians who have become an important factor in securing support for Israel.

Given the state of the Israeli left, this has led to a situation where groups like American Friends of Peace Now could be forgiven for thinking of themselves not as the support group for an Israeli movement, but its home office.

All of these groups claim they are acting in Israel's best interests. But while Americans can still bask in the long lost glow of Oslo peace euphoria, most Israelis have been bombed out of their illusions.

Even worse, the spectacle of Jews mobilizing to counter the efforts of Israel's supporters can only energize Israel's Arab opponents and their terrorist cohorts.

It isn't likely that the efforts of American Jews will revive Labor, but anyone who thinks that such appeals do not encourage Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas in their intransigence is kidding themselves. Ironically, those who demand peace "now" may be serving to make the already slim chances for peace even slimmer.

This bizarre contrast between the American Jewish left and their moribund Israeli cousins ought to make the Americans feel slightly embarrassed, if not give them pause. But this is not a group that blushes easily.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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