by Ali Gharib
Two years ago at the annual conference hosted by the Jerusalem Post, the crowd booed Alan Dershowitz. Why would they attack a man who seems to have no shame in excusing each and every one of Israel’s missteps? Though Dershowitz hews closely to a standard hawkish pro-Israel perspective, he’s also a nominal supporter of a two-state solution, and that’s enough to run afoul of a certain brand of right-wing Zionist, the kind you might find enthusiastically attending a Jerusalem Post conference. The same thing had happened the year before: when Dershowitz implored the audience not to boo an American president when “speaking on behalf of the state of Israel”—whatever that means—they responded by booing.
Amid this sort of contempt for American presidents and pro-Israel stalwarts like Dershowitz, it should come as no surprise that attendees at the latest Post conference in New York over the weekend booed U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Lew appeared at the conference to make a case for Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. The June 30 deadline for a deal is rapidly approaching, and many analysts expect one to emerge. “A diplomatic solution is the best, most enduring path to achieve our goal of keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Lew told the crowd. That sort of talk alone raised the crowd’s hackles.
The jeering continued, making it difficult for Lew to continue his speech. It came dangerously close to a shout-down, the kind of behavior excoriated by the pro-Israel community when it happens to Israeli officials and their supporters. Someone in the crowd this weekend reportedly called Lew a “court Jew.” Another shouted “Chamberlain” at Lew. That’s right: Jacob Lew, an observant Orthodox Jew who served as an aide to Tip O’Neill when he was working to bring Soviet Jewry over to the U.S. (which Natan Sharansky later pointed out at the Post conference), is just like the British prime minister whose deal purportedly allowed Adolf Hitler to run amok and launch his ghastly genocidal campaign. Haaretz labeled it “one of the surliest reactions ever accorded to such a high-ranking administration official by a Jewish audience in the United States.” Eventually, Post editor Steve Linde asked the crowd to “please let Secretary Lew speak.” They didn’t oblige.
Embarrassing Even to Israelis
This is how heated the rhetoric over Iran has gotten. Chemi Chalev pointed to the irony of Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz defending Lew and expressing embarrassment at the crowd’s treatment of him: “Steinitz seemed quite oblivious to the significant role played by right wing Israeli politicians, from his party leader Benjamin Netanyahu on down, in creating the kind of atmosphere that has incited and inflamed right wing opinions, Jewish or otherwise, against Obama.” (Commentary, for its part, gave a qualified defense of the heckling: “The audience had a right to be upset with Lew.”)
Indeed, Steinitz himself led a disinformation campaign against the interim nuke deal with Iran, and others have been worse. In April, Steinitz’s cabinet colleague Naftali Bennett implicitly made a Neville Chamberlain comparison himself. Right-wing pro-Israel politicians have gone even farther: “It’s unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare him to Barack Obama,” Bill Kristol protégé Sen. Tom Cotton told The Atlantic. Sen. Mark Kirk has repeatedly compared nuclear diplomacy to appeasing the Nazis. And elite right-wing commentary has been even more off the rails: Bret Stephens, a sometime Jerusalem Post editor, took to The Wall Street Journal to say that Iran diplomacy was “worse than Munich.”
If the pro-Israel right is constantly predicting a genocide against Jewish people as a result of Iran diplomacy, should we then be shocked that the Israeli right’s devoted grassroots following in America would extend the Chamberlain treatment to Lew?
Why Curry Favor with Ideologues?
But if the Jerusalem Post crowd’s vocal hostility wasn’t a surprise, there was still something novel about Lew’s appearance: that he appeared at all. Israel’s “special relationship” with the U.S. is indeed unique in some ways. Even Democrats feel the need to pander to just about any pro-Israel audience, including irrevocably right-wing ones. This effect can be seen in the fight over Jerusalem’s place in the Democratic platform during the 2012 party convention, among other instances.
This is not, of course, to say that government officials shouldn’t appear before audiences with whom they disagree; they should and do. But they shouldn’t waste their breath on hopeless ideologues—and the Jerusalem Post has long been a bastion of hopeless right-wing ideologues, with the audience to match.
Any audience, of course, is liable to have its extremists. Obama was received at an AIPAC conference in 2011 with a smattering of boos amid the raucous applause, despite a warning from the group to act respectfully. Every crowd might have its extremists, but a Jerusalem Post crowd might have its moderates. The Obama administration ought to know how to navigate this distinction. But when it comes to Israel, the administration seems to think no audience is too far to the right.
To see the absurdity of trying to pander to the far-right pro-Israel crowd, think for a moment how likely it would be that Obama dispatches a cabinet-level official to a religious right confab like the Values Voter Summit. The chances are nil. The administration should realize that the Jerusalem Post has cultivated an audience no less to the right.
This realization, in an ideal world, would extend to calling out far-right pro-Israel activism when it arises. To be fair, we saw flashes of this from the administration in its reaction to Netanyahu’s bigoted election tactics. But it has not been nearly enough. Obama should stand up and say that Israeli officials like Naftali Bennett’s proposals for annexing most of the West Bank amount to calling for apartheid. Next, the Obama administration should take up the idea of liberal pro-Israel academics to instill “personal sanctions” against officials like Bennett. Given that the administration thought it could reason with Jerusalem Post readers, however, I’m not holding my breath. At the very least, though, Democrats should stop trying to appease or cajole the extreme pro-Israel right into coming around. If not going on the offensive, the administration in particular should defend itself against vicious charges like those hurled at Lew.