The stuff on Israel which Americans may not see

August 29, 2017
Sarah Benton

Israel and Palestine: alternative perspectives on statehood

Edited by John Ehrenberg and Yoav Peled.

Published 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland

Israel and the Closing of the American Jewish Mind



Chapter 3, posted in Academia, 

By Richard Silverstein
August 29, 2017

The 1967 war was one of the watershed moments in the history of Israel and American Jewry. The jubilation and religious triumphalism that followed Israel’s military victory led to the founding of the Greater Israel movement, which became the theological inspiration for the settler enterprise (Wikipedia 2015, Movement for Greater Israel). Later, after the 1973 war, it became institutionalized through the founding of Gush Emunim, which launched the first permanent Israeli settlement in the West Bank (Wikipedia 2015, Gush Emunim).

This mood of Israeli national celebration evoked a parallel response in the American Jewish community that, over the decades, has transformed Israel into a secular religion. Zionism has eventually become a litmus test of Jewish legitimacy; even, in some circles, a substitute for Judaism itself.

Nevertheless, in the intervening decades, Jews here have generally (with some exceptions) become more secular and gradually turned away from religious affiliation. Though some have distanced themselves from their Jewish identity entirely, many have only turned away from religious expression.

For many of these who retain a sense of Jewish identity, Israel has taken Judaism’s place. A 2014 Pew poll on Jewish identity showed that younger American Jews are increasingly choosing not to affiliate with the mainstream community— either Jewish federations or synagogues (Lugo & Cooperman 2013). Of all the religious denominations, the poll showed that the Conservative movement was declining fastest, while the Orthodox was growing fastest (though still a marked minority), followed by Reform. American Jews, especially the youth segment, are increasingly secular, and do not see Israel as the defining identity issue for the Jewish people.

But the older generation has not given up. Wealthy pro-Israel corporate titans like Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt have joined other donors in pouring one billion dollars into Birthright (Taglit) Israel (Mayer 2013). It has sent three hundred thousand American Jewish youth to Israel for two-week trips called a form of “Jewish penicillin,” which will ensure continuity into the next generation. Adelson even brags that the trips are meant to promote sexual liaisons which he hopes will lead to future marriages and pro-Israel families (Feldman 2011). Another critical goal of Birthright is to introduce participants to a distinctly pro-Israel world-view.

Tour groups are accompanied by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who inject their security-oriented perspective into the discussions. The agenda of speakers and places visited focuses largely on a nationalist view of Israel and its role in Jewish identity. Israel is presented as an embattled enclave amidst a sea of Arab enemies. Trips visit Israeli settlements, but never view, visit, or meet with West Bank Palestinians, whose lives are deeply entwined with those of Israelis due to the ongoing occupation. These young Jews return to the United States with a mission to support Israel and promote its interests wherever possible.

Steinhardt has invested millions in supporting academic studies that “prove” the utility of Birthright in promoting Jewish continuity. This social science research, funded through a Brandeis University institute bearing his name, is conducted by Professor Len Saxe (Saxe 2015).

Such research, funded by a single individual or self-defined (pro-Israel) group, and meant to validate a project also funded by the donor, is a model of self-interest. In a broader sense, this critique applies to Israel studies as an academic enterprise on American campuses.

L. Richard Silverstein
As someone who is a product of the pre-Birthright generation, which for
me included decades of Jewish education, summer camps, and Jewish studies, there is no quick fix, no one-shot inoculation that can guarantee the future of the Jewish people. Anyone who believes that two weeks of intensive pro-Israel indoctrination, fraternal bonding, and sexual frolic will do this is fooling himself.

In the past, Jewish leaders saw the future as guaranteed by promoting a closer bond between young people and Jewish tradition. They promoted the institutions I mentioned above (schools, synagogues, camps, seminaries, universities, etc.). But increasingly in this generation, the menu is restricted to a single item: Israel. Though the community does continue to focus on education and the other programs I mentioned above, even these are increasingly refracted through a pro-Israel lens.

These largely secular pro-Israel philanthropists no longer feel that Judaism is the mortar that will hold the Jewish people together. Instead they see the only viable future for world Jewry is in Israel. That has turned the debate over Zionism and Israel’s future into a set of landmines. In past decades, American Jewry had respected leaders who held progressive and dissenting views on these issues like Rabbis Judah Magnes, Arthur Hertzberg, and Leonard Beerman, and secular leaders like Henry Siegman.

L, Henry Siegman, R. Rabbi Judah Magnes

These were the courageous leaders who first advocated a two-state solution in the 1970s (or in Magnes’ earlier case, a bi-national state), when such a concept was anathema in the Jewish mainstream. But increasingly, there are litmus tests for leadership and any dissent from a narrow communal consensus is no longer tolerated. Our current Jewish leadership is pro-Israel and lacking in political diversity.


The Israel Lobby in the United States has two major agendas.

The most obvious is promoting Israel’s interests in the legislative and public policy arena. That’s the mission of groups like Aipac and the think-tank founded in collaboration with it, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Another arena is activism among young Jews and particularly on campus. The Lobby sees colleges as the place where it can have the greatest impact in shaping future generations. Academia is also an intellectual laboratory for ideas which later make their way into the body politic. For that reason, faculty, their ideas, courses, and publications are viewed as on society’s cutting edge. They are critical focuses in the battle for public opinion around Israel.

Hillel International, the umbrella body for Jewish student organizations on campus, several years ago announced a policy which restricted the events that campus Hillels may sponsor. Henceforward, they must adhere to a pro-Israel agenda. This eliminated programming that explored any perspective other than Zionism and excluded discussions about Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS). Recently, an insurgent response to this has arisen called Open Hillel (Open Hillel 2015). As its name implies, it rejects constraints on Israel-related speech. Campuses at Swarthmore and Vassar have joined it and eschewed any ideological constraints. But Hillel chief executive officer Eric Fingerhut has put them on notice that if they sponsor forbidden programs will lose their affiliation with Hillel (Kwait 2013).

Eric Fingerhut, CEO Hillel; he threatens dissenting Hillels with disaffiliation

Two Jewish museums in New York cancelled talks by University of California, Berkeley, Professor Judith Butler and New Republic senior editor John Judis because pro-Israel groups and donors threatened to withhold funding (LeVine 2014). Several years ago, Anti-Defamation League Chief Abe Foxman pressured the Polish consulate in New York to cancel a talk by the late New York University Professor Tony Judt, another Israel dissenter. The Minneapolis Jewish Community Relations Council pressured the University of St. Thomas to cancel a talk by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Mprnews2007). The Jewish Community Relations Council included in its charges against Tutu statements he never uttered, which were manufactured by the Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein.

Under pressure, the college president cancelled the talk. But after a national uproar ensued, he backed off and reinstated the invitation. The faculty member who’d invited Tutu was dismissed from her position and Tutu refused to come unless she was reinstated. She wasn’t. Tutu didn’t speak. Some years ago, after the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened the documentary Rachel, about the life and death of Palestine activist, Rachel Corrie, the local Jewish federation introduced rules precluding grantees from hosting events deemed “anti-Israel” (Jweekly 2009). These guidelines resulted from pressure exerted by major local pro-Israel Jewish foundations like the Taube and Koret Foundations.

They are also major funders of what’s come to be known as the Islamophobia industry, portrayed in the Center for American Progress report, Fear Inc (Ali, et al. 2011).

In 2006, when the producers of a play about Corrie, My Name is Rachel Corrie, attempted to bring it to New York for the first time, the New York Theater Workshop agreed to present it. But after theater subscribers and other New York pro-Israel forces conveyed their alarm at Corrie’s story, the Workshop backed out, leaving it with a black-eye, and the producers, Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, livid (Borger 2006). Though Corrie was produced at another theater venue, yet another major New York cultural institution had been cowed by fear and the Lobby.

The Metropolitan Opera recently revived the John Adams’ opera the Death of Klinghoffer. Adams is of one of America’s greatest living composers and his opera, first performed in 1991, is considered one of his finest works. The history of its production is marked by instructive lessons in the power of Israel when linked to terrorism and the power to silence artists and sabotage careers. The Guardian called Klinghoffer “cursed.” Five opera companies commissioned the work originally. The premier was offered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Three of the other companies abandoned it after realizing the controversy involved. It was not performed again until twenty years later (2011), when a St. Louis company mounted a production. Adams didn’t write another opera for years afterward.

The librettist, Alice Goodman, was, in her words, “uncommissionable.” Instead, after converting from Judaism, she became a rector of the Church of England.In 2014, the opera world looked forward to hearing a production that hadn’t been performed in New York in over twenty-five years. Until Abe Foxman and the Klinghoffer survivors raised a furor, accusing the opera of expressing too much “sympathy” for the terrorist who murdered Leon Klinghoffer (Ross 2014). The surviving daughters of Leon Klinghoffer had earlier released a statement after seeing the 1991 premier:

“The juxtaposition of the plight of thePalestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabledAmerican Jew is both historically naive and appalling” (Jeffries 2012).

Other detractors accused Klinghoffer of supporting terrorism and the murder of Jews. Supporters of the opera, including Adams himself, clarified that dramatic tension and exposition of the views of all the major characters was necessary for the audience to understand the conflict at the heart of the opera. Foxman, the consummate inside-player, met with the Met’s director, Peter Gelb, ostensibly to work out a deal that would enable the production to go forward while assuaging critics. The deal amounted to a capitulation of sorts: instead of a live production viewed by thousands and pay-per-view production viewed by millions more, Gelb agreed to forego the screen showing. It would only be seen live. Adams too acquiesced and made no public comment except to express sorrow at the misunderstanding of his opera.

Each of these cultural and academic institutions were forced to make a calculation when threatened by the power of the Lobby. How financially secure are you? How much controversy are you willing to withstand? Hows strong are your principles? Are you prepared for your friends and donors to desert you? Are you willing to write off your career? Is it worth it? Very few are willing to withstand the full shock. Very few are willing to take a pure stand for principle. Most are prepared to compromise or relent. And when they do, the Lobby learns it can get its way by threats and intimidation. It learns that it has more discipline and stamina than the other side. Thus the bullying behavior is reinforced as a successful tactic.


The communal retreat from intellectual and political diversity has resulted in the impoverishment of its leadership. Until a decade ago, there were respected liberal Jewish groups like the American Jewish Congress (once led by Siegman), which espoused a generally liberal Zionist perspective. The American Jewish Congress eventually lost membership and donors, and was taken over by real estate tycoon and acolyte of some of the world’s autocratic leaders, Jack Rosen (Rosenblatt 2013). It now espouses a pro-Israel agenda that reflects Rosen’s own hawkish views.

The sole remaining national Jewish group with a liberal approach to Israelis J Street. It is essentially a Jewish lobbying group on behalf of Obama administration policies, a “Jews for Obama” of sorts. Liberal financier George Soros has been a major funder of the group. But he does so in as low-key a manner as possible because right-wing groups and media have launched vicious attacks on him.

Separately, Alan Dershowitz and Glenn Beck have each accused him of surviving the Holocaust (as a child) by collaborating with the Nazis. Such smears are another tool by which pro-Israel forces control and manipulate the debate (Knickerbocker 2010). The only group that espouses a truly progressive agenda on Israel is Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). It was one of the first national Jewish groups which espoused an explicitly non-Zionist position. It refused to take a position favoring either a two or one-state solution:

We support any solution that is consistent with the full rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, whether one binational state, two states, or some other solution. It is up to Israelis and Palestinians to reach a mutually agreed upon solution. (JVP 2015)

It is also the first and only Jewish organization to endorse BDS. The organized Jewish community, steeped in the Zionist narrative going all the way back to World War II and the Holocaust, has been shocked by these heresies. Despite its tens of thousands of members, JVP is largely demonized in the mainstream community (Anti-Defamation League 2013). Not even J Street will permit JVP to co-sponsor its national conferences (though last year, for the first time, it invited JVP’s director to sit on a panel). JVP cannot host events at most Jewish federation–funded community venues. It is foreclosed from campus Hillels. Even J Street U campus groups have been excluded from many college Jewish communities.

As Israeli politics and occupation policies grow increasingly extremist, even mainstream figures like the nation’s most popular daily columnist, Nahum Barnea, and President Reuven Rivlin concede that a one-state solution is an almost certain outcome (Remnick 2014). They recognize that if Israel will not accept a return to 1967 borders and the sharing of Jerusalem by two states, then there’s not much left to talk about. Barnea told an Israeli TV audience: “Everybody knows how this will end.” When asked what he meant, he answered, “There will be a binational state west of the Jordan …the two-state solution is no longer possible”
(Silverstein, 2012).

In Barnea’s case, it is not because he supports this outcome personally, but he is a realist and recognizes that continued Israeli rejectionism can lead to only one possible outcome: a unitary state incorporating all Israeli Jews and Palestinians from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. There has been no parallel development within the American Jewish community. There are no leaders willing to see the unvarnished truth, the handwriting on the wall.

American Jews and the Israel Lobby continue to mouth support for a two-state solution as if it were a political mantra, though the Likudist governments in power for much of the past thirty-five years utterly reject it. The result has been a strange bifurcation of reality with American Jews advocating a solution which has never been popular or achievable under Israel’s nationalist governments. The leadership’s refusal to exert any pressure on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution has made it a mockery as a policy option. The result here has been a stultifying effect on political discourse. What American Jewry needs is more of the spirit of Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Where are the Jewish multitudes? Instead of embracing contra-diction and contentious debate, instead of welcoming the multitude of opinions and ideas about Israel, American Jews are increasingly closing their minds. In the past, American Jewry entertained wider debate on these troubling issues. If we didn’t exactly “contain multitudes,” we hosted Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, I. F. Stone, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Hertzberg, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Herschel and Marshall Meyer, and gave birth to Magnes, all of whom competed vigorously with more parochial-conservative ideas in the political-intellectual arena.

Now, who are our “dissidents”? Peter Beinart? He proudly calls himself a liberal Zionist. His politics on Israel are more conservative than those of a number of those past leaders mentioned above. Yet even he receives a hostile reception from much of the organized Jewish community, where a number of his appearances promoting his books criticizing Israeli policy have been cancelled by Jewish sponsors (Severson 2012). Is his the best, most outspoken voice we’ve produced in this generation as far as Israel is concerned?

Art Spiegelman, [above] the renowned graphic novelist who produced the Maus series about American Jewish identity and the Holocaust, holds progressive views about the Israel-Arab conflict. But he’s shied away from making any major statement on the subject until Operation Protective Edge, when he published a graphic attacking the Israeli massacre (Sucharov 2014). Jewish cultural and public intellectuals like Spiegelman have to weigh their career options when they take this subject on. Are they willing to confront the massive wall of hostility that will accompany them if they make this part of their oeuvre? Are they willing to lose the next book contract or an opportunity for tenure?

Max Blumenthal is another case in point. He’d made a reputation as a muckraking journalist who explored the seamy underbelly of pre–Tea Party Republican oddity in his Republican Gomorrah. After that book, Blumenthal became increasingly interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He made trips to Israel documenting the aberrant behavior of the radical Israeli right in a shocking video series called Feeling the Hate (Blumenthal 2010). He trans-formed the videos into a provocative book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

Like Mearsheimer and Walt’s “The Israel Lobby” “Goliath” was a lightning rod. Pro-Israel advocates not only hated it, they found it antisemitic, because Blumenthal used rhetoric describing Israeli settler phenomena which, critics claimed, echoed Nazi-era phraseology. But no one was prepared for the vicious assault on the book mounted by fellow Nation contributor, Eric Alterman (Alterman 2013). Known as a progressive on domestic issues and liberal on Israel, Alterman not only detested the book, he became the spearhead for all the attacks on it. His rhetoric was intemperate and overheated, and his facts were sparse or downright false. Considering that “Goliath” was published by the Nation’s publishing imprint, Nation Books, the Alterman attack was inexplicable. But for the Lobby, Alterman’s intervention was a gold mine. It gave them a liberal fig-leaf behind which to launch their own attacks.

The Nation had little choice but to stand back and let their two contributors engage in mortal combat in the pages of the magazine, while the audience looked on in shock and horror. It was a nadir of liberal American discourse on Israel. The result of all this is that Blumenthal, one in a long line of Jewish intellectual dissenters, has been driven from mainstream Jewry. He finds instead a far more comfortable home among the Palestinian activist world, which includes more than its fair share of fellow dissident Jews.

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