In my last post, I noted the serious threat posed by the joint left/right effort to paint being “pro-Israel” as an inherently conservative position. The problem is less one of argument and more one of psychology: people tend to develop beliefs that are consistent with their broader cultural outlook and peers; hence, coding pro-Israel as a position of the right will almost certainly result in a collapse of that position’s favorability amongst the left. Overall, such a result would be disastrous for the standing of the American pro-Israel community.
Rather, the long-term stability of the pro-Israel consensus depends on resisting its cultural encoding as the province of a particular partisan side. The Iran deal debate, where much of the pro-Israel community has thrown its weight behind one side of an increasingly-ugly partisan throwdown, emphasizes the dilemma faced by the pro-Israel movement. Unlike some, I have no objection to the pro-Israel community intervening in such contentious debates, whether for or against. What matters is that these interventions are not perceived as entailing an alliance with a particular partisan camp. That’s what would trigger the disastrous cascade outlined in the last post, and that’s the outcome that must be avoided at all costs. To that end, the pro-Israel community must do three things, in increasing order of difficulty:
(1) Opponents on One Issue May Be Friends On The Rest. Treat Them Accordingly. The difference between a friend and an enemy often boils down to how one behaves during a disagreement. Friends disagree sometimes, and it’s not the end of the world—so long as one still treats them as a friend through the duration of the disagreement.
On the Iran deal, for example, the Anti-Defamation League has been a model of good behavior on this front. It came out against the deal, and it issued a strong statement attacking slurs against Sen. Chuck Schumer when he announced his opposition to the agreement. But it gave an equally impassioned condemnation of vicious attacks on Jewish Rep. Jerry Nadler when he came out in support of the deal. When this debate fades and the pro-Israel agenda moves forward, Rep. Nadler and his allies will remember those who treated him as an enemy to be crushed. And they’ll likewise remember that even in the midst of a heated disagreement, the ADL wasn’t among them. That’s what one does for a friend. And that behavior confirms that this particular disagreement does not signal some more radical rupture between the pro-Israel community and the Democratic Party. Pro-Israel activists needn’t temper their Iran stance to avoid the appearance of partisanship, just how they express it.
(2) Be Careful To Whom You Cede Control of Pro-Israel Discourse. In recent years, the traditional pro-Israel community has nurtured and encouraged a new wave of right-wing (often Evangelical) pro-Israel groups. The presumption was that these organizations would confine themselves to mustering conservative foot soldiers who would dutifully follow the broader pro-Israel consensus. But like Churchill’s proverbial tigers, emergent conservative groups like CUFI are growing hungry to flex their own independent political muscle, and they don’t much care about whether or not their advocacy interferes with the establishment’s carefully constructed political neutrality. They want to seize control of what pro-Israel means in America, and ultimately to sideline traditional, predominantly Jewish groups in favor of a highly polarized and highly Christianized conception of Israel’s place in American politics.
Ultimately, it’s up to the Jewish establishment to either rope these upstarts back into line or disavow their authority to speak on behalf of the Jewish pro-Israel community. To be sure, groups like CUFI have every right to present their conception of foreign affairs to the American people. But if they insist on sidelining Jews, and speaking over Jews, and demolishing hard-won Jewish political influence in furtherance of their own particular agenda, what they are not entitled to is to hold themselves out as friends of the Jews.
(3) There’s No Such Thing as a Second-Class Friend. Friends disagree sometimes. And sometimes they do so stridently. That’s fine. But it’s still important to treat one’s friends equally—including in how one deals with disagreements. If one friend is met with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line, while another must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent, the former will begin to wonder just how real the friendship is.
Frustratingly, it is clear that while liberal divergences from the pro-Israel consensus are policed to the letter, conservative deviations are treated with kid gloves. Major Jewish organizations have long declared that support for a “one-state” solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a redline that one cannot cross and maintain one’s standing as a member of the pro-Israel community. Their efforts on this front have overwhelmingly been devoted to the odd college speaker or obscure socialist crank. But the most prominent American supporters of a one-state solution aren’t random university grad students, they’re in certain precincts of the Republican party, members of whom have submitted Congressional resolutions supporting the annexation of the West Bank, and arguably endorsed a unified river-to-the-sea state “governed under one law for all people.” Such endorsements of a one-state solution from prominent conservative politicians have been met with scarcely a whisper from mainstream pro-Israel groups. Can anyone seriously argue that if the DNC had promoted something similar we’d see the same muted reaction?
Similar inequities can be seen on more serious matters as well. Opposition to the BDS movement—a movement largely of the radical-left—takes the form of millions of dollars in campaigns, thousands of manhours volunteering, and inordinate attention from movement leaders. And that’s great! But opposition to far-right “price tag” militancy amongst the settlers, while absolutely genuine, is usually confined to the occasional press release or condemnatory public statement—no millions of dollars, no conferences, no devoted staffers.
This inequality is noticeable and unacceptable. Arguably, it stems from a belief that conservatives, but not liberals, will turn on Israel entirely if they are not constantly treated with obsequious fawning. If that isn’t the explanation, though, then the clear message is that pro-Israel groups don’t really think of liberals (a group that, lest we forget, includes most Jews) as friends. Which is a problem that needs to be rectified.
The risk of Israel becoming understood as a partisan issue is a very real one, not the least because powerful organizations—left and right—have a vested interest in accomplishing just that. An America in which “pro-Israel” is perceived as “conservative” is an America which rapidly will mirror Europe, with Zionism being seen as bitterly controversial at best, reactionary and illiberal at worst, and always subject to the vagaries of broader partisan whims. The pro-Israel movement has and must continue to do whatever it takes to avoid that dangerous outcome.
David Schraub is Lecturer in Law at the University of California-Berkeley. He blogs at The Debate Link and can be followed on Twitter @schraubd.