by Mitchell Plitnick
On Monday, I attended the National Leadership Assembly for Israel. The gathering was more than a little disquieting.
Big names who addressed the audience included National Security Adviser Susan Rice, House Speaker John Boehner, Former Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and current Chairman Ed Royce, and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Leaders from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs also spoke. One of the most troubling aspects was that they all mostly had the same thing to say.
Some speakers went further than others. Paul De Vries, the evangelical preacher and president of the New York Divinity School, called Hamas “evil” and said the Islamic State was Hamas’ “twin.” While most statements were not that stark, every speaker placed full blame for all the casualties in Gaza on Hamas. Israel was defended without an ounce of criticism and not even a hint from anyone that maybe, just maybe the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children in less than one month could mean that Israel is not doing all it can to avoid harming civilians.
The vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein, summed it up this way: “Hamas exists to kill; Israel sometimes has to kill to exist. [There must be] no more pressure on Israel to do what it thinks is not in its best interest.”
But it was the Conference of Presidents’ chairman (who is not as powerful as Hoenlein), Robert Sugarman, who really chilled my bones.
“We are not there,” Sugarman said. “We are not experiencing the rocket attacks. Whatever our personal views may be, we must continue to support the decisions of the government (of Israel). And we must continue to urge our government to support them as well.”
Sugarman knows his audience. There can be no doubt that this particular audience entered the room in passionate support of Israel. He was speaking to the broader Jewish and pro-Israel Christian community across the country. And he was speaking to something worth noting.
Why, one wonders, did Sugarman feel a need to address “whatever our personal feelings are?” What he understands is that this onslaught is making pro-Israel liberals uncomfortable. Yes, they’re uniformly concerned about Hamas’ ability to keep ringing the sirens not just in southern Israeli cities like Sderot and Ashkelon, but also in much of Israel, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Yes, they’re worried about their friends and relatives.
Yet they can’t avoid the images of devastated Gaza on their televisions and computers. Despite continuing anti-Palestinian bias, the tone of the media coverage of this chapter of the confrontation between Israel and Hamas is markedly different from what we’ve seen in the past. Many more images of injured children, destroyed houses, and general carnage are reaching people, and they’re disturbing quite a few who, in the past, found it much easier to give Israel unequivocal support.
Sugarman is worried. He knows very well that when pro-Israel voices become critics of Israeli policies, the Conference of Presidents and, yes, even AIPAC are weakened. He is not sanguine about the turning tide of opinion. He is not deluding himself that the lock-step support of Congress behind every one of Israel’s claims and actions in this onslaught is invulnerable. US policy changes only at a glacial pace unless a calamity pushes it forward. Congress, certainly in this case, will change even more slowly. But Sugarman realizes that such a change can come as Israel portrays itself as ever more heartless, ever more militant and ever more right-wing.
Sugarman is also aware that the hardcore supporters of the most extreme Israeli policies are not the heart and soul of the punch that the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC carry in Washington. Many of the masses from whom they raise money, whose votes and donations Congress values, are essentially liberals who have always had to balance their values with their support for Israel and the occupation.
That support was initially shaken way back in 1987 with the first intifada. I would argue that this, among other factors, was perhaps the key reason that the United States and, soon after, Israel, changed its tactics and embraced a “peace process.” But since the second intifada and the 9/11 attacks, a much more militaristic and rigid rejectionism has gripped both countries, culminating in what we have today where the Israeli government openly, albeit informally, rejects the idea of a two-state solution and the United States accordingly offers Netanyahu unwavering support.
But the Lebanon War in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and, most powerfully, the current attacks on Gaza have all produced images of Palestinian civilians — women and children — being killed and maimed by a massive Israeli onslaught that appears wildly out of proportion to the stated objectives. The more liberal-minded people among pro-Israel Christians and Jews in the US and Europe also often read Israeli newspapers. There they find that Israel knew about Hamas’ tunnels for quite some time and did nothing — and, not to be lost in the shuffle, that Hamas also didn’t use them for any sort of militant or terrorist activity until after this operation started.
That’s what Sugarman is worried about. But what I worry about is his proposed remedy.
Sugarman tells his listeners not to listen to their conscience or their own judgment but to blindly follow Israel over this Solid Cliff.
This chills me on three levels. First and foremost, as a person of conscience and a critical thinker, mindlessly following the decision of any government is anathema to democracy. People, not politicians, must be the ultimate arbiter of policy. Granted, that’s not the way the world is, but it is the world we must work towards.
As a US citizen, this message also horrifies me. Our foreign policy has rarely been humane or even sensible. That’s not limited to the Middle East by any means, although it’s probably most focused there these days. But the idea that we should surrender any foreign policy decisions to the judgment of Israel, a country that has moved very far to the right in the past fifteen years and which is embroiled in a vexing, long-term ethnic conflict is simply terrifying and unacceptable. If the United States ever decides to really remove itself from this conflict — and that means ending our obstruction of UN actions that are critical of Israel and stopping the $3.5 billion per year of military aid as well as our many joint military operations — then there would be a case for letting Israel handle its business without US interference. Until then, the responsibility of the United States is clear even if it has failed to live up to it at every turn.
Finally and most personally, I am filled with dread by Sugarman’s call as a Jew. Is there a more pernicious anti-Semitic trope than that of dual loyalty? Yet here is the leader of a major Jewish organization calling for Jews and other US citizens to subsume their country’s foreign policy to the whims of the Israeli government. Such a call is anathema to the very essence of the Judaism I and many others, including many who support Israel even in this onslaught, have come to embrace. Judaism was founded on critical thinking and asking tough questions. More than that, can there be better fuel for those who only wish harm upon Jews wherever we may be than for so prominent a figure as Sugarman to call for a US policy amounting to nothing more or less than “do exactly what Israel tells you to do, no questions asked?”
Sugarman’s words should be a wake-up call for US citizens about the weakness of Israel’s case in its repeated devastation of Gaza. It should also be ringing in the ears of Jews everywhere. Even if you can’t be concerned about hundreds of dead civilians in Gaza, you can probably still realize that it’s not just Netanyahu who is increasing hatred of Jews around the world. So-called “Jewish leaders” like Sugarman are also fomenting massive anti-Semitism that will eventually come back to haunt us all.
Photo: Palestinians walk past the collapsed minaret of a destroyed mosque in Gaza City, on July 30 2014 after it was hit in an overnight Israeli strike. Overnight Israeli bombardments killed “dozens” of Palestinians in Gaza, including at least 16 at a UN school, medics said, on day 23 of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Credit: Ashraf Amra