What does “pro-Israel” mean in 2013?

Last weekend I was lucky enough to take part in the J Street U Student Summit, speaking on a panel that addressed the above question. It was a real honor to be asked to participate, and I was so impressed with the level of discourse and engagement shown by everyone present. Following are my notes for what I said on the panel (I tried not to read directly from the page, so if you were there, it might have come out a little differently! But this is what I meant).

Thanks for having me, J Street U!


j-street-u-logoFirst of all, whenever I have to write or speak about the term “pro-Israel” I like to start by saying what the term means to me, and to do that, I kind of have to break it down to a granular level.

For me, the first question has to be: Do we accept the paradigm of nationalism? The international community has been organized along national lines for over a century now, and there’s very little reason to believe that will change in the near future. This is not without its problems and I can understand why some people have decided to reject nationalism all together. Having said that, I’m not among those people, and I further think it’s important to work with people and nations where they actually are, not where they might someday be. And nationalism is, in fact, the international community’s organizing principle.

Then my next question has to be: Do I accept the notion of a Jewish nation? When the idea of nationalism first emerged in the late 19th century, Jews had long shared a language, a culture, and a land – the very building blocks of modern nationalism. The fact that the Jewish people hadn’t lived on their land for centuries wasn’t a choice, it was the result of a rolling genocide that ultimately failed. So yes, to my mind, by any measure, ancient or modern: The Jewish people constitute a nation.

These questions are important to clarify for ourselves when we have today’s conversation because the State of Israel is the successful outcome of the Jewish national movement, aka: Zionism. When I say that I am “pro-Israel,” what I’m saying is that I am in full support of Jewish nationalism and thus in full support of the fact of a Jewish State.

What I am not saying is that I am, by definition, in full support of a particular Israeli government or governmental policy.

This goes to the very heart of the notion of democracy and pluralism: Can I support a political body with which I identify, and yet reject the decisions of the people elected to lead that body for a certain time?

And here’s where we run headlong into the American “pro-Israel” establishment, or what my boss Peter Beinart once referred to as “the carnivorous world of politicized Israel devotion” – people who have appointed themselves, and for a long time were largely accepted as, the gatekeepers of what it means to be pro-Israel.

Over the years, the acceptable working definition of pro-Israel – and with greater and greater frequency, the acceptable working definition of “real Judaism” – has become an ever-narrower version of toeing the line laid down by the government of Israel as expressed through its policies.

We can’t avoid the fact, though, that this thinking didn’t apply to Yitzhak Rabin or his efforts toward a two-state peace via the Oslo Accords – in the mid-1990s, AIPAC coordinated with Netanyahu against Rabin and against Oslo.

This is our sign that the self-appointed guardians of pro-Israel discourse, and the people with the money who fund them, are not (as they present themselves) disinterested parties worried solely for Israel’s best, but are a group of real people actually have strong opinions about what they think Israel needs. And they think (I believe genuinely, for whatever that’s worth) that what is best for Israel is a kind of management of the conflict, in which the Palestinians and various other parties are forever kept at a distrusting arm’s length.

Sadly, these folks are increasingly involved with, or in fact represent, the American far right, as well, and as a result, the politics of “what’s good for Israel” has gotten terribly entangled with the question of “what does the far right think America should do with its power in the world?”

I simply can’t accept that any of this is, in fact, good for Israel, in no small part because it presumes endless war. On the contrary, it is this Zionist’s opinion that continuing to conduct Israel’s affairs in a state of low-boil ethnic anxiety can only lead to national disaster, and I mean that quite literally: I’m fairly well convinced that if we don’t manage to achieve a two-state solution in the next decade or so, history will look back on the Jewish State as yet another in a long list of Jewish disasters.

So I would say that for people who call themselves pro-Israel but do not identify with the traditional standard bearers of that title, we need to do two things simultaneously:

We need refuse to let other people frame this conversation for us, and we need to continue to engage with and criticize Israeli policies that we feel to be a danger to Israel itself.

When we are accused of being self-hating, or pro-Hamas, or neo-Nazis, or even just naïve, we need to politely reject the characterization, restate our position as caring deeply for Israel’s future – and continue with the work of advocating for a future that will include peace and justice. As Americans, we need to tell our politicians and institutions in positions of power – again and again and again – that the old definition of “pro-Israel” simply does not apply, and those people do not speak for us.

For my money, one of the most powerful things we can do is simply to stand up and be counted – to refuse to be silenced by those who would accuse us of ill-intent, and furthermore to refuse to be cowed by their opposite numbers on the left who want to shame us for loving Israel in the first place. As someone who actively advocates for the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state, I cannot accept the idea that my people deserve anything less.

The State of Israel is a legitimate political entity, and within its internationally recognized borders, it is a democratic entity. We are told in nearly every Jewish setting in which we ever find ourselves that we belong to Israel, and Israel belongs to all the Jews.

If that’s the case, then we have a right to an opinion, and we have a right to disagree with the politicians currently in Israel’s government. Thus to my mind, the logical extension of being pro-Israel is working for what we know to be best for the Jewish State, in spite of what other Jews may tell us.