Volume II 1993 Number 3


RELATIONS BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE ORGANIZED AMERICAN JEWS

Israel Shahak

Dr. Shahak, Holocaust survivor and retired Professor of Chemistry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is Chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights.

The politically prodigious and financially unprecedented support which Israel has received from the United States since the early 1960s can be attributed to two factors. On the one hand, Israeli policies serve American interests, not only in the Middle East but all over the world. Whenever the United States finds it inconvenient to get directly involved in something particularly unsavory, for example in supporting a regime or an organization whose reputation is particularly opprobrious, Israel comes in handy to do the job on the U.S. behalf. On the other hand, however, Israel wields tremendous influence within the United States, in my view, regardless of whether Israeli policies match U.S. interests or not. Although to some extent this fact can be attributed to the support Israel receives from many strains of Christian fundamentalism, there is no doubt in my mind that its primary reason is the role performed by the organized Jewish community in the United States in backing Israel and its policies unconditionally. The proportion of organized Jews within the body of U.S. Jewry can be roughly estimated as close to one half. This article will describe the newly emerging relations between the organized American Jews and the Rabin regime, and their impact on possible shifts of Israeli policies.

Why should some American Jews be inclined to pro-Israeli chauvinism, while others be free of any such leanings? The first factor is the exclusivism of Jewish organizations. They admit no non-Jews into their ranks, and draw social and therefore also political power from that fact. Those who can be called "organized Jews" spend most of their after-work time in the company of other Jews, thus upholding Jewish exclusivism and, as a natural consequence, reinforcing their Jewish chauvinism. Amounting to no more than 3 percent of the U.S. population, it would be impolitic of them to express their real attitudes toward non-Jews in the United States openly. An exercise of their influence in support of Israel as the "Jewish state" compensates them for this constraint upon their freedom of expression.

Let me proceed to the shape of current relations between Israel and organized American Jews. Yo'av Karni (Ha'olam Ha'ze, September 8) describes a new and important stage in these relations which began with the rise of the Rabin government to power in Israel, but was prepared by American sympathizers of Labor even beforehand. Karni fully concurs with my assessment of chauvinism and, more important, of the totalitarian streak manifested by organized American Jews. He quotes the words of Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, to the effect that "Israel needs criticism just as much as the Sahara desert needs sand." Karni treats this saying as descriptive of U.S. Jewry over the years. Incidentally, Commentary is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, which in the United States has the reputation of being "liberal." I find it hard to imagine an American liberal saying that any other state, and particularly the United States, "needs criticism just as much as the Sahara desert needs sand." Only if he belongs to the ranks of organized Jewry and says it about Israel, may his liberalism remain unquestioned. But, as Karni notes, Podhoretz, the first among the better-known organized Jews, began in April 1993 to viciously oppose the Rabin government, to the point of casting doubt over whether this government "is loyal to the Jewish people."

It has obviously never crossed Podhoretz's mind that Israeli governments are obliged to be loyal to the State of Israel and its laws, as the Israeli ministers undertake in an oath they have to swear upon taking office. In my view, there can hardly be a better illustration of the contrast between Israeli law, however discriminatory, and the expectations of Jewish chauvinists in the United States. But why did Podhoretz begin criticizing Israel? According to Karni, the reason was that "a criticism such as his, unlike that of the doves against the Shamir government, could not encourage the antisemites." While in my view Jews, like all other human beings, have an obligation to speak their minds with all candor, without concerning themselves over whether a particular view of theirs may or may not encourage the antisemites, I also think that nothing I can imagine does actually encourage the antisemites more than the opinions of Norman Podhoretz.

With "the exception of the 'Who is a Jew?' issue," over which the Reform Movement shepherded a rather timid protest campaign against the threat of enacting in Israel a law which would in effect define a large part of them as non-Jews, Karni cannot recall any other occasion when organized American Jews opposed any Israeli policies. He recalls how their support of the most extreme positions of Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir surpassed in zeal any such support in Israel. He finds it even more important that respectable American organized Jews show no restraint in abusing not only, say, the Jews who support the right of the Palestinians for self-determination and their state, but also faithful Laborites who oppose such self-evident rights.

For evidence of this, he relies on the experience of an organization named Nishma [in Hebrew "we shall hear"] set up some years ago by Laborites to make their views legitimate in the eyes of the organized U.S. Jews. Nothing can better illustrate the militarism and totalitarianism of the latter than the methods resorted to by Nishma in Shamir's time in order to publicize its views. For the most part, it avoided expressing them directly. Instead, it invited Israeli colonels and generals in the reserves to lecture or write articles for its organ. Karni says that this recourse of Nishma to the cult of the military can be explained by "the founders of Nishma' s sophisticated approach to grappling with the instinctive urges of the U.S. Jews." Their last propaganda effort was a pamphlet displaying on its cover a photo of Rabin in the chief of staffs uniform. The caption under the photo claimed that "no one knows better than Yitzhak Rabin" what Israel needs. It can be safely presumed that in Israel a photo with such a caption could only be poked fun at.

Karni, an Israeli Jew, scoffs at what he calls the "Yitzhak-is-always-right pamphlet." He recalls that Rabin

is the man who 24 years ago proposed to wipe out all Egyptian cities located close to the [Suez] Canal from the earth's surface; who 19 years ago did everything he might to encourage the growth of Gush Emunim; who 12 years ago foreclosed the chances of his own party's return to power in order to make sure that Shimon Peres would not be prime minister; who 11 years ago supported the devastation of Lebanon; and who five years ago virtually stupefied the friends of Israel in the United States by ordering Israeli army soldiers "to break the bones" [of Palestinian detainees]. The enthusiasm with which Nishma tries to sell Rabin in the United States can only arouse suspicion.

Karni nevertheless notes that Rabin's is the first Israeli government which is not only openly criticized but also abused by many among the organized American Jews. Karni quotes some hate letters, all equipped with sender's slips, which the Nishma director, Tom Smerling, keeps in his office. One of them, while "returning the 'Yitzhak-is-always-right pamphlet' reads: 'Rabin in effect murders the Jews. The time has come to kill him."'

Smerling claims that the letters he showed Karni "are more abusive than those his organization used to receive when he was criticizing the Israeli government" under Shamir. Their vehemence took him by surprise, since he had publicized widely that

Nishma was already supported by the [Israeli] government. What a delight! Our relations with the [Israeli] embassy in Washington have dramatically improved. The embassy staff have become wonderful. They had campaigned against us in the Jewish community before, whereas now they are the first to appreciate our efforts to help the United States understand the recent changes in the Middle East.

Smerling says that has he always supported the right of diaspora Jews to criticize Israel, but Karni qualifies this by observing that his attitude was dictated not by freedom of expression as a principle but by Jewish national interest. "When you see your brother injuring himself," says Smerling, "you are duty-bound to help him by raising your voice." Karni comments that

the problem is that different Jews have different opinions about "injury to oneself." Some believed that Yitzhak Shamir was injuring himself, while others claimed that he was doing his best to advance his own and other Jews' cause. And the same goes for Rabin.

I myself believe, and I suspect Karni shares this belief, that the opinions of organized U.S. Jews are bound to remain anti-democratic as long as they are based on considerations of Jewish national interest.

As the formation of Nishma proves, the sages of the Israeli Labor party anticipated long ago the troubles to be caused by the chauvinism of organized American Jews. By July 1993 the Hebrew press was already quite apprehensive about the noxious impact of organized American Jewry upon Israeli policies. Let me mention two wntings in this vein. Orri Nir, then the Haaretz correspondent in Washington, reported (July 6) on a quite frantic appeal of U.S. Jews to "the Israeli government" to open a campaign intended to "restore the harmony" between that government and them, sadly upset of late. Nir deplores "the plight in which AIPAC finds itself these days," since a major part of the organized Jewish community in the United States, including some activists who form the real backbone of AIPAC, have not yet accommodated themselves to changes in policies of the new [Israeli] government."

Nir approves the fact that "the Washington-based leadership of AIPAC accommodates itself rapidly to changes on the political agenda of the new Israeli leadership," but, like a real Bolshevik, deplores AIPAC's inability to impose its authority over "the 55,000 AIPAC activists scattered all over the United States whose accommodation to those changes is much slower." Unless they so accommodate themselves, they can, in his view, damage Israel badly, when "an administration with a 'Jewish connection' as firm as Clinton's sits in the White House. Since Clinton feels so committed to the Jewish vote and even more to Jewish campaign donations, Jewish opinion has great importance as against the danger that the present U.S. administration may stop heeding the voice of U.S. Jewry as carefully as heretofore." To avert this danger, Nir proposes several measures closely resembling the Nishma methods, like sending "people with authority in security affairs, plenty of generals," to educate U.S. Jews, because their prestige in the eyes of U.S. Jews remains intact, while that of the Rabin government sadly does not. Otherwise, Jewish influence, "the most important tool of Israeli politics in the United States," may decline.

A deeper, but still unsatisfactory insight came from the pen of Meron Benvenisti (Haaretz, July 15). His opinions deserve to be quoted at length. After noting that "the Jewish American community" bears no less responsibility than anybody else for "the status quo" in the territories, Benvenisti proceeds to describe this community's ways of influencing U.S. policies. He recalls that

when the [U.S.] mission headed by Denis Ross came to Jerusalem, a Hebrew paper [Maariv] described it as "the mission of four Jews," and gloated with pride while talking about the Jewish and even Israeli roots of all its members.

Benvenisti's general comment is that

the ethnic origin of American diplomats sent here to promote peace may be irrelevant, but it is hard to ignore the fact that manipulation of the peace process was entrusted by the United States in the first place to American Jews, and that at least one member of the State Department team was selected for the task because he represented the views of the American Jewish establishment. The tremendous influence of the Jewish establishment upon the Clinton administration found its clearest manifestation in redefining the "occupied territories" as "territories in dispute." The Palestinians are understandably angry. But lest they be accused of antisemitism, they cannot, God forbid, talk about Clinton's "Jewish connection."

Benvenisti acknowledges that "Israel benefits from Jewish influence," but he also points to the resultant dangers, such as their increasing financial support for Israeli parties and movements. He indicates the crucial difference between Israeli Jews and organized U.S. Jewry:

The Jewish community in Israel is a sovereign body, its membership is determined by binding state laws, and it bears full responsibility for its fate in every walk of life. U.S. Jewry is a voluntary body, has power only over those who choose to accept its authority, and even this power is limited in scope. Whoever wants to bear full responsibility should come and bear it here, whereas those who prefer to bear only a partial or marginal responsibility are free to choose to, provided they do not demand for themselves a status they do not qualify for.

Financial support from U.S. Jews is far from being distributed equitably among Israeli political parties. As is well-known in Israel, almost all wealthy Israelis now support the Labor party or other "left" groups. By contrast, Likud, the religious parties, Gush Emunim and other extremist groups depend primarily on financial support from abroad. To all appearances, most of that support comes from English-speaking countries, a partial exception being the Shass party, which also gets some support from France and Morocco. The Hebrew press reported that after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as Likud leader, he used to spend most of his weekends on fund-raising tours in the United States. But Likud remains as bankrupt as it has been since July 1992. The reason behind it is that for most wealthy, right-wing diaspora Jews Likud is not extremist enough, as a result of which they now prefer to contribute to other recipients.

Let me quote a report by the Jerusalem Post New York correspondent Sue Fishkoff (August 1):

Convinced that mainstream American Jewish organizations, notably the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC, have lost their effectiveness, an international group of powerful, affluent Jews has created a new organization dedicated to preserving Israel's security and territorial integrity.

It is named "The World Committee for Israel" (WCI) and "headquartered in New York." Fishkoff named some of the richest Jews of the world as affiliated with WCI. One of WCI's founders, Dr. Manfred Lehmann of Miami, told Fishkoff,

We are an affluent group. We are not looking for donations and we won't be doing fundraising. ... We are saying that the Rabin government must understand that any decision about the Land of Israel must have the approval of Jews in the Diaspora. Shimon Peres, Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid-they are falling all over each other in their rush to offer Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Gaza to the Arabs. But who has given them the legal, moral and historic right to give away Jewish land?


Indeed, in terms of authentic Zionism, Lehmann is certainly right. After all, the Zionist doctrine postulates that "the Land of Israel" belongs to all the Jews, not only to those who happen to live on it. But for a considerable time, even Likud has failed to stand by these sacrosanct principles, whether in deed or even in words. I cannot recall in the last 16 years a single speech of Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu or even Anel Sharon that would reaffirm that "any decision about the Land of Israel must have the approval of Jews in the Diaspora," or that "the Land of Israel belongs to all the Jews." The last major Israeli politician who gave public support at least to the lastquoted statement was Golda Meir in 1972, while furiously rejecting King Hussein's proposal to form an Israeli-Jordanian confederation. It was on her initiative that a law was then enacted by the Knesset, to the effect that Jews, and Jews alone, had national rights over the entire Land of Israel. The law in question remains binding although no one pays any attention to it.

The WCI may thus be said to be a guardian of ideological traditions which in the early 1970s were accepted unquestioningly both in Israel and in the diaspora. While the bulk of Israelis have explicitly or tacitly transcended those traditions under the impact of the military stalemate of the 1973 war and the Lebanese debacle, the bulk of diaspora Jews, groups like the WCI, have stood by them faithfully to this very day. The WCI may therefore be expected to donate money only to Israeli groups with views according with those dominant in the early 1970s, that is, to the religious settlers and their close supporters but not to Likud.

The publication of the Oslo Agreement sparked a long-anticipated crisis in the Rabin government's relations with the bulk of organized U.S. Jews. This was why on Friday, September 10, the Hebrew press devoted a huge amount of space to discussing the reactions of U.S. Jews to the news that the Israeli government had violated all the taboos it had upheld until a short while earlier. Let me confine myself to a discussion of three articles published in Haaretz on that day. Emmanuel Sivan, a Hebrew University professor on good terms with Israeli establishment, begins his article by recounting two stories from his life which in his view are descriptive of "the deep strain" now appearing in relations between Israel and organized U.S. Jews:

In mid-August I received a letter from Mr. G. L. Greenberg of Seattle, Washington, who apparently is a major donor to the institution in which I am employed. He enclosed a clipping from The New York Times which quoted some criticism of certain aspects of the "Accountability Operation" of my authorship. "It is deplorable," wrote Mr. Greenberg, "that the Hebrew University is either unwilling or unable to inculcate its employees in an amount of pride and respect for the State of Israel, sufficient to make them realize that anything they may say might damage Israel. I have contributed to the Hebrew University for years, but from now I no longer will give it even ten cents, which can be used for a salary of someone petulant enough to besmirch Israel's good name. I hope you will understand the reason of my decision to discontinue donations to your employer."

In the process of replying to Mr. Greenberg, I realized that the right wing [of the U.S. Jewry] has no monopoly in resorting to such methods. Years ago, Michael Lerner, the editor of a Jewish bimonthly [Tikkun] published in San Francisco commissioned from me an article analyzing some developments in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Two weeks after I delivered my work, the editor phoned to tell me that the article was O.K., provided it were supplemented by 2-3 paragraphs upbraiding the Shamir government's response to the described developments. I told him I disagreed, because the article was analytical and already contained parts critical enough. "But your criticism is too tame," argued the editor. "It must be more direct and emphatic. Do you know what we might do? You will add just one really juicy paragraph, and I will double your fee. Do we have a deal?" I hung up the receiver.


Digressing for a moment from Sivan's story, I have two observations. The first is personal. I have the honor to be the first Hebrew University professor whose "besmirchings" since 1968 have provoked a spate of letters of protest from organized U.S. Jews to the university, even more hostile in their tone than the letter quoted by Sivan. Many such letters, or copies of letters written to the university, or vice versa, were also addressed directly to me. Unlike Sivan, I refused to answer any of them. I left the job to the university authorities, who persevered honorably to stand by my right (within the limitations imposed by Israeli law) to speak my mind, regardless of the financial losses incurred in their defense of this right of their employees. Sivan is undoubtedly right when he says that the "liberals" among the organized U.S. Jews have totalitarian leanings no less strong than overt chauvinists. I would go even further to say that, much as I abhor Commentary, I can abhor Tikkun more for its sanctimonious hypocrisy and for its methodical mendacity about everything that concerns Judaism. I prefer to deal with the overt chauvinism of a Podhoretz, which is at least intelligible, than with "the politics of meaning" of a Lerner, which is devoid of any meaning, and therefore more dangerous. Sivan is right in pointing to an attitude shared by nearly all organized U.S. Jewry which most Israeli Jews find increasingly intolerable: namely to the former's conviction that they can buy the latter, or even that they have bought them already.

Sivan perceives the financial benefits derived by Israel from donations by U.S. Jews as "a necessary evil," acceptable "during the first years of Israel's existence or during the crisis in the aftermath of 1973. But by now the volume of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) collections is already smaller, not to mention the fact that about 60 percent of its revenues are destined for local [Jewish] organizations." According to news items sporadically appearing in the Hebrew press, far less than the remaining 40 percent ever reach Israel. It is difficult to trace what happens to those funds. Sivan hints that

the sums which do reach Israel should not be downplayed because for the most part they are used to finance the fund-starved sectors of education, welfare and health, with the effect that such [Israeli] budget increments can sometimes determine the survival of an institution. Still, after the American guarantees, the value of the appeal's funding is declining steadily.

It is true that the funds which Israel has been obtaining from the UJA have long been paltry as compared to the amounts received from the federal budget of the United States. The role of the UJA is political: it helps AIPAC and other bodies of the organized U.S. Jewry force the 97 percent of the non-Jewish U.S. citizens to contribute to Israel indirectly through the medium of their federal taxes. This method is more efficient than relying on the goodwill of the organized half of the 3 percent of the Jewish citizens for voluntary donations.

Sivan expects peace to be immensely profitable to Israel in financial terms. Accordingly, he thinks that once peace is reached, Israel could and should dispense with such methods of securing its revenues. This idea has nothing to do with discrimination against non-Jews, which he does not even mention. If anything, his thinking reflects the emotions of the new power elite in Israel. So he strongly resents the humiliation involved when

in order to get money from the appeal, we need to display to them our wounds, our defects and the poorest among us. For that purpose, our most heroic generals need to recount stories of their deeds under personal danger, because otherwise the hearts of American Jewish millionaires won't be warmed enough. And the same goes when they address [Jewish] provincial audiences. We can only hope that those humiliations will be no more. The abolition of the UJA should be one of the dividends of peace.

I will proceed to discuss the two other articles published by Haaretz on September 10 by its Washington correspondent, Akiva Eldar and by its New York correspondent, Shlomo Shamir. Unlike Sivan, they both deal with developments among U.S. Jews in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Oslo agreement. They both say that it was quite easy to persuade the leaders of the organized Jews to toe the new Israeli line, but that their rank and file were less amenable to such persuasions, thereby posing the risk that in spite of all precautions against it, they may yet be able to publicize their views far and wide, thus revealing all their hostility toward the Rabin government. Shamir relates how Sharon, who happened to be in New York when the Oslo news was published, urged his Jewish friends to organize protest demonstrations before the Israeli consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. His suggestion evoked utter shock and was rejected. It was in my view the same kind of shock that would have been felt if somebody suggested to some members of the American Communist party to organize a demonstration before the USSR embassy in protest against the memorable Khrushchev 1956 speech or against Gorbachev's reforms. Shamir also reports with great satisfaction that "when some rabbis from the 'Association of Orthodox Rabbis' (an association with membership of over 1,000) proposed to name the coming Sabbath 'a Sabbath of protest,' and to make all the Association's rabbis sermonize against the agreement, some influential rabbis within that organization managed to prevent the proposal from even being discussed."

He also reports that due to the latter's "influence," whose nature he does not care to clarify, the attempts of the opponents of the Oslo agreement to organize protest meetings in synagogues or other halls were frustrated. Another piece of Shamir's information is that "leading Jewish publicists" were afraid to publish their views in opposition to the agreement in the American media. To illustrate this information, he has a story, clearly originating from behind the scenes of The New York Times. After that paper published "some reactions of prominent Jewish leaders enthusiastically supporting the agreement," it wanted to publish a Jewish voice with opposite views. Among Jews otherwise acceptable to The New York Times, it could at first find only Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature. Sensing that Wisse was not representative enough, The New York Times finally turned to Norman Podhoretz as well.

Eldar is much more informative. His article contains an interview with Gail Pressberg, the current president of "Friends of Peace Now" in the United States, the organization which has clearly become a "thought police," charged with controlling organized U.S. Jewry on behalf of the Clinton administration and Rabin government. "Last week Gail Pressberg was asked by the White House to draft a list of influential leaders of Jewish organizations to be invited to the ceremony of signing the agreement. The idea was to exploit their influence in favor of the peace process." Other Hebrew papers reported that the number of Jewish invitees amounted to over 1,000, out of the total of 3,300. Only some Orthodox groups, whose rabbis forbade their flocks to attend, rejected the invitation. Eldar informs that "the sympathizers of Friends of 'Peace Now' are now holding many key positions in both regimes," i.e., the American and the Israeli. Pressberg told Eldar that donations to her organization have soared, "reaching the magnitudes received in the good days when we supported Begin after Camp David."

Parallel with this flow of money and with the spectacle of Jewish leaders rapidly changing sides, the advancement of Pressberg to what could only be described as the White House superintendent of Jewish affairs has achieved its purpose. Pressberg says with glee that "many Jewish leaders are leaving the organizations which used to support Likud in order to join us." But there are still no indications that a comparable process of changing sides is occurring in extremist Jewish organizations. On the contrary, other Hebrew papers report that many former Likud supporters are now switching to more extremist organizations. Also, the stand of the White House has failed to move the U.S. Jewish masses in the direction of Peace Now. Eldar reports that

a demonstration of support organized by Peace Now on the evening of September 8 in front of the Israeli embassy attracted no more than about two dozen rather bewildered participants. I think Peace Now still has a lot of hard work to do in America, until it really reaches crowds of ordinary Jews and until it manages to shake their blind faith in the Entire Land of Israel to which these crowds still adhere.

In spite of her "present exultant feelings," Pressberg shares Eldar's assessment of the situation. She told him Israel can still expect dangers on the part of organized U.S. Jewry. "The greatest danger is that the [Israeli] extreme right, especially the religious settlers, may be capable of soliciting huge amounts of money from the American Jewish community." To avert this danger she proposes the same remedy as Nishma's, namely to invite Israeli generals or other "major figures" to speak in American synagogues. Eldar asked Pressberg to comment about another danger: Jewish columnists in influential papers, "such as Rosenthal [in The New York Times]" who oppose the agreement. Pressberg agreed that "they are very dangerous."

The most important part of the interview, which I am going to quote extensively, concerned the Peace Now manipulation of the media aimed at influencing the White House. Eldar:

Suppose President Clinton, for whom Jewish support has its weight, comes eventually to the conclusion that the articles by [Jewish] opponents of the agreement do represent the authentic position of the Jewish community. May it not deter him from persisting in supporting the deal? What are you doing in order to persuade the administration that its support for the agreement is not going to make the Jewish supporters of Clinton and his campaign contributors change their minds?

Pressberg:

The president knows that the responsible community leadership has published a declaration of support for the agreement. But we also run a campaign to let thousands of our supporters cable the White House or address it otherwise. We are using all our influence to make the papers accept for publication lots of articles authored by both Israelis and Americans who support the Israeli government. We are providing instructions to anyone willing to subsequently write letters to the editor.

It can be presumed that Peace Now influences the papers, and, to all appearances, television even more, not only to publish what it wants to be published, but also to conceal what it wants to be concealed from public knowledge.

Two conclusions can in my view be drawn from these developments. Organized U.S. Jews are chauvinistic and militaristic in their views. This fact, unnoticed by other Americans, is already apparent to some Israeli Jews. As long as organized Jewry remained united, its political power remained unchallenged. But now there are clear indications of a split in its ranks, in addition to a silent protest by many Jews who may not yet be ready to rebel outwardly, but who already refuse to support actively the Israeli government and its policies. Parallel with that, there have appeared indications of unease within the Israeli power elite. These two new developments may yet lead to a major change in Israeli policies. Concretely, Israel may yet try to rely more on its own strength and less on the influence of U.S. Jewry upon American politics.



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