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COLUMN LEFT/ MICHAEL LERNER

American Jews Need to Stand for Peace

Being pro-Israel doesn't mean doing the bidding of Netanyahu's rejectionist government.

April 12, 1998|MICHAEL LERNER | Michael Lerner is the editor of Tikkun Magazine and the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco

Ever since the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, pro-peace Americans and American Jews have deceived themselves into thinking that they no longer had to push much for the peace process. Even after right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to unravel the process by expanding West Bank settlements and refusing to implement Oslo, many of us imagined that President Clinton would eventually push the process back on course.

Last week that fantasy was dispelled when the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful legislative arm of the Israel lobby, managed to get 80 U.S. senators to sign a letter to Clinton urging him to not go public with his proposals.

AIPAC has long had the reputation of being one of the most powerful lobbies in the U.S. because it is able to persuade many elected officials that the American Jewish community will only support the electoral efforts by those deemed "pro-Israel"--operationally defined by them as meaning you do not oppose the policies of the current Israeli government. By that definition, you can't be pro-Israel if you are publicly pressuring Israel to move toward peace.

Not that what Clinton proposes would have constituted a serious move toward peace. With AIPAC allies like Al Gore already shaping the Middle East agenda from within, the administration was not likely to put forward any plan that would give the Palestinians the one thing that could actually end the struggle: a state that is economically and politically viable. Yet even the watered-down proposals of the Clinton administration proved too incendiary for the Israel lobby.

Inside the White House a powerful battle has ensued. On the one hand, those who are really friends of Israel (and who understand that Israel's long-term interests are better served by the withdrawal from the West Bank outlined in the Oslo treaty than by the rejectionism of Netanyahu) point out that most polls indicate that a majority of American Jews strongly support the peace process.

AIPAC supporters, however, have a powerful response: "The majority who support peace don't care enough about this issue to mobilize politically, whereas the minority who support Netanyahu care so fanatically that they are willing to use all their political and economic resources against anyone who bucks them."

They have a point. The fact is that the major institutions of Jewish life in America are controlled either by people who are opposed to putting pressure on Netanyahu, or people who believe that their organizations should stay neutral and just celebrate Israel's many accomplishments as the Jewish world moves into the season of Israel's 50th anniversary.

Of course, in the real world of politics, this neutrality, not wanting to "politicize" the 50th anniversary celebration, is actually a vote for the status quo. The AIPAC crowd can point to the outpouring of support for "Israel at 50" and warn elected officials that these sentiments can easily be mobilized into political trouble should they be labeled "unfriendly to Israel" by the Israel lobby.

Most American Jews are not affiliated with these organizations, but they have failed to create alternative institutions. Many have been so alienated by the Jewish world, and so angry at being labeled "self-hating" when they dared to raise questions about Israeli policy, that they've voted with their feet, simply walking away from Jewish affiliation.

The pro-peace forces inside the administration and Congress need to see something more than polls--they need to feel the active support of a pro-peace movement in the Jewish world. One first step is this: Instead of passively participating in "Israel at 50" celebrations that are interpreted as blanket support for current Israeli policies, pro-peace forces could be creating alternative celebrations whose main focus is "honor the peacemakers, the forces of reconciliation and religious pluralism in Israel."

In every community there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who, by speaking out against the Israeli lobby, have potentially endangered their jobs, their relationships with customers or clients or friends and family members. It is these "little heroes" that should be the focus of our celebration in the coming months.

Until these kinds of activities take place and are given media visibility, AIPAC and the Jewish right will continue to intimidate the White House and mobilize mass support in Congress for actions whose ultimate impact is to prolong the occupation, make terrorism more likely and ultimately undermine Israel and the Jewish people.

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