Skip to content

American jewish community sharply divided over Isaraels actions in Gaza

  • by

American Jewish Community Sharply Divided Over Israel’s Actions in Gaza
By Allan C. Brownfeld

ISRAEL’S assault on Gaza was vigorously supported by many leaders of American Jewish organizations. A delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot, where missiles from Gaza had landed, to show solidarity. The visiting group included Harold Tanner, a past chair of the Presidents Conference, as well as its executive vice chair and current interim chair, Malcolm Hoenlein, and Alan Solow, president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, who has been nominated to chair the Presidents Conference.

According to the Jan. 8, 2009 Washington Jewish Week, Tanner and Hoenlein declared: “We’re paying this visit to show our support and solidarity with the people and government of Israel as they confront Hamas terrorism and the continuous rain of rockets on civilian populations. We take seriously the threats issued by Hamas and their Iranian sponsors to destroy the Jewish state…”


The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) placed advertisements defending Israel’s actions in a number of newspapers. One, in the Jan. 12 International Herald Tribune, aimed at residents of London, asked: “Imagine if Hamas terrorists were targeting you and your family. No country would allow such danger on its border, and neither will Israel. That’s why Israel is fighting back.”

“We sat silent and quiet for too long in this country.”Other Jewish groups took a far more nuanced position—shattering the efforts to promote the idea of “unity” in support of Israel’s actions. Editorially, The Forward of Jan. 9 noted that, “It would be wrong to catalogue the history of the latest crisis and ignore Israel’s share of the blame. Israel helped to undermine Egypt’s Palestinian unity efforts, meant to win tacit Hamas acceptance of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, by insisting it would not negotiate with a unified Palestinian team. It ignored opportunities to strengthen Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas—by giving him the concessions he needed—removing West Bank roadblocks, releasing prisoners, rerouting the security barrier—to show his public that negotiating can improve their lives. Most of all, Israel failed to honor its written agreements to halt settlement construction and dismantle unauthorized outposts. That has arguably done as much to undermine popular trust in the peace process among Palestinians as terrorism has done among Israelis.”

A number of groups—Americans for Peace Now, J Street, Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom—voiced concerns over Israel’s decision to launch a wide-scale military operation. “This is the moment in which you need to stand up and say what you believe,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. “We sat silent and quiet for too long in this country.” He pointed to the vibrant debate being waged in the Israeli press about the length and breadth of the military operation.

A statement issued by the group said that Israeli attacks “deepened the cycle of violence” and that “only diplomacy and negotiations can end the rockets and terror and bring Israel long-term security and peace.”

The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) called on the Bush administration to act immediately to reach a cease-fire. “The cycle of violence runs counter to Israel’s long-term security,” said Nick Bunzl, IPF’s executive director. Brit Tzedeck v’Shalom, a grass-roots pro-peace movement, issued a statement warning of the possible negative consequences of Israel’s military operation: “We can already anticipate yet another failed attempt to resolve this fundamentally political conflict by military means.”

According to The Forward, “The dovish groups’ ability to be heard in the corridors of power received a boost recently when the groups were invited along with other, more established Jewish organizations to meet with the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama.”

On Dec. 18, Obama’s transition team held a meeting with more than two dozen American Jewish organizations, representing a broad range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the Bush administration, liberal groups like Brit Tzedek and the IPF were excluded from similar meetings. IPF didn’t “set foot in the White House during the Bush administration,” said M.J. Rosenberg, IPF’s director of policy analysis.

According to one participant, the viewpoints articulated at the meeting fell into three categories, described by The Jerusalem Report of Feb. 2 as follows: “the pro-peace, pro-Israel camp, which believes in resolving the conflict through a negotiated settlement, including J Street, APN, IPF, and Brit Tzedek; the centrists, who also believe in a two-state solution but are much harder on the Palestinians than on the Israelis, such as AIPAC and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; and those who completely oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state, such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Those falling into the first camp drew hope from the December meeting that the Obama administration will be more open to hearing and considering their viewpoints than the Bush administration…Few question that the dynamics in Washington, DC and thus throughout the American Jewish community have changed dramatically.”

The IPF’s Rosenberg believes the idea of a single, unified voice for American Jews with regard to Middle East policy is a thing of the past: “The American Jewish organizations in the past were working too much together,” he argues. “Until recently, they supported whatever the Israeli government wanted. It is now a much more vibrant place.”

Evidently. Commentary’s Noah Pollak called the peace groups “contemptible,” “dishonest” and “anti-Israel.” James Kirchick of The New Republic called J Street an American Jewish “Surrender Lobby.” Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard called J Street “obsequious” to terrorists and “hostile” to Israel.

“Whether or not one shares J Street’s views,” Eric Alterman argued in The Nation, “that language is obvious evidence of panic among those whose positions as the self-appointed spokesmen for American Jews has grown increasingly tenuous, especially since their uncritical cheerleading for the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and Israel’s failed incursion into Lebanon three years later.”

Indeed, anyone critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza remains subject to the harshest attacks. When PBS commentator Bill Moyers expressed criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman accused Moyers of “moral equivelancy, racism, historical revisionism, and indifference to terrorism.” However, noting that Moyers “is one of the most admired figures in America,” the IPF’s Rosenberg predicted that the “attack will harm not at all. It will, in fact, enhance his reputation just as Ed Murrow’s was enhanced by the attacks on him during the McCarthy era.”

Discussing Foxman’s attack on Moyers, Alterman writes that “for the likes of Foxman, any action Israel takes is de facto defensive and solely in the interests of peace, no matter how warlike. He goes so far as to attack Barack Obama’s choice of George Mitchell as the U.S. envoy to the region—get this—Mitchell is ‘fair’ and ‘meticulously even-handed,’ and Foxman says he is ‘not sure the situation requires that kind of approach.’”

Despite such attacks, however, many Jewish voices—in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere in the world—have been harshly critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the respected Israeli author David Grossman termed the Gaza operation “just one more way-station on a road paved with fire, violence and hatred…our conduct here in this region has, for a long time, been flawed, immoral and unwise.”

Professor Avi Shlaim, the Israeli author of The Iron Wall: Israel and The Arab World, wrote in The Guardian: “The only way to make sense of Israel’s senseless war in Gaza is through historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians…I served loyally in the Israeli army in the 1960s and have never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the 1967 War had little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism.”

In Shlaim’s view, “Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with ‘an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders’…As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression, but the asymmetry of power leaves little doubt as to who the real victim is…A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses WMD, and practices terrorism—the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors but military domination…”

On Jan. 14, Israeli human rights groups issued a detailed report alleging serious human rights violations by Israel’s military in its three-week campaign in Gaza. The coalition of nine groups, which include Physicians for Human Rights, the Israeli section of Amnesty International and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, charged that Israel’s conduct “constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask to be investigated, of the commission of war crimes.”

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and an accompanying report based on their own information gathering, the human rights groups offered some of the most detailed allegations of human rights violations:

In six cases, the army shot at medical teams. Twelve medical personnel have been killed, and 17 were injured. In 15 cases, the army attacked medical facilities, including a medical supply warehouse, three mobile clinics and a mental health center. The groups assert that there were “direct attacks” on the European Hospital and the Dura Hospital, among other buildings. In most cases, the army does not respond to requests for coordination with medical teams to evacuate or transfer casualties. When it does respond, there are delays of anywhere from two to 10 hours. In one case, the groups state, a family of 21, six of whom were injured, waited seven days until the army allowed Red Cross representatives to evacuate them. In an essay entitled “Eyeless In Gaza,” Roger Cohen, writing in the Feb. 12 issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that, “The high-tech security fence built to wall off the West Bank and the near-hermetic sealing of Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 are in the end attempts to shut out reality. Palestinians have become a vague abstraction to most Israelis not within range of Hamas rockets; out of sight, out of mind. Israel, shamefully, has even prevented international journalists from getting into Gaza to tell the story as they see it…Israel has the right to hit back at Hamas when attacked—but not to blow Gaza to pieces, or deprive people of food, water and medicine…Israel denies targeting civilians, accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields and says it works in ‘close cooperation’ with international organizations. But at some point—and I would say a couple of hundred dead children in Gaza are already well past that point—such denials become pointless. The facts speak for themselves…There is another right that Israel does not have: to delude its people into thinking that peace is achievable without coming to terms with the deeply entrenched Middle East realities that are Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Whatever one thinks of these critical analyses of Israel’s actions in Gaza, the fact is that they reflect a growing division in Jewish opinion—in the U.S., in Israel and in the rest of the world. The days when groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations can say that they represent Jewish opinion clearly seem to be coming to an end.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.


A Letter to My Fellow Jews—By David GlickWhat, I ask, has come of us? “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” say Israeli leaders Simon Peres and Tzipi Livni. Have we, who historically have been subjected to such horrific prejudice, persecution and even genocide, become so callous that we are now morally blind to the violence and oppression that Israel is inflicting on the people of Palestine, a large number of whom are innocent civilians?

We, who once were the victims of the Nazi genocide, which murdered six million Jews while the world was silent, have now become the perpetrators of violence. After the experience of the Holocaust, “never again” quite understandably meant that we Jews would never again allow ourselves to be so vulnerable that we would go to slaughter like lambs to the kill.

But “never again” must never be the sole possession of the Jewish people. That cry belongs to the world—to all who suffer under the boot of an oppressor who visits violence and death upon them.

It is the great tragedy of the Palestinian people that they are the victims of victims. Consequently the crimes and suffering they have endured have gone unacknowledged by all those who disingenuously use the Holocaust to justify whatever Israel does as self-defense. That manipulative use of the Holocaust desecrates the memory of all those who perished in the ghastly inferno of that Nazi hell.

The killing of innocent civilians is deplorable, whether by Hamas rockets or Israeli fighter planes and helicopter gunships. But let’s be honest. Enough of the lies and self-deceptions. Israel’s aggression against Gaza is not a legitimate act of self-defense. The rockets being fired upon Israel are an understandable, if regrettable, act of resistance born of the despair of an ongoing illegal and barbaric occupation that is at the heart of the conflict.

Israel argues that it evacuated Gaza two years ago only to have Hamas rockets rain down upon its civilian population. But let’s be honest. Israel imposed a ruthless siege on Gaza after Hamas, like it or not, won a fair and honest election monitored by international observers. In response Israel turned Gaza into a virtual open-air prison by totally sealing off its borders and cutting off supplies of food, water, medicine and electricity. Israel’s recent bombing and invasion have magnified that crisis into what the U.N. has called a humanitarian disaster with a dreadful loss of life and limb among Palestinians. In this latest assault, Israel lost 13 soldiers, while killing more than 1,300 Palestinians and seriously wounding 5,300, among which were more than 400 children.

Israel’s collective punishment of the people of Gaza, its excessive, disproportionate use of force, and its indiscriminate bombing of civilians are war crimes under the Geneva Convention.

We Jews who criticize Israel do so out of the values of our Jewish moral heritage. It is high time that we Jews reach back and embrace our proud tradition of social justice and honestly admit to ourselves that the Zionist enterprise, in its urgency to find a sanctuary, made the Palestinians pay the price for Europe’s anti-Semitism and the horrible crimes committed against us prior to and during the Holocaust.

Palestinians could not understand why they had to give up their homeland to remedy something for which they were not responsible. And so one tragedy was heaped upon another. Let us be big enough to acknowledge this reality and ask the Palestinians for their understanding and forgiveness, and in return genuinely commit to seek as just a remedy as possible.

To that end there are only two realistic solutions to this terrible tragedy. One is for Israel to completely end the occupation and evacuate all settlements, return to the pre-1967 armistice lines and support the formation of a truly viable and independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, along with a negotiated settlement of the right of return. The other option is to agree to one secular democratic state in all of Israel/Palestine, with equal rights for all its citizens.

Let no more children die, whether Israeli or Palestinian, when the solutions are apparent to all people of good will.

David Glick is a psychotherapist in Fairfax, CA and a member of the Marin Peace and Justice Coalition and Jewish Voice for Peace.