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In defense of American support for Israel

Last Friday’s editorial, “AIPAC and the Blockade on Critiquing Israel,” perpetuates troubling myths about the roles of Jews in American politics, as well as inaccuracies about the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Middle East politics, and Zionism. 

For American Jews, criticism of Jewish pro-Israel groups in the United States for their excessive political influence recalls painful memories of the grotesque propaganda accusing Jews of similar influence that formed the basis for persecution and the Holocaust. Throughout history, anti-Semites have advanced the view that Jews have undue influence. Most notoriously, the book "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which was published in the early 20th century, became a foundation for Jewish persecution over the last hundred years throughout Europe and in the United States. It perpetuated the myth of influence of Jews as a way to “produce mass hatred,” in the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Today, the modern formulation of this historic trope is to use dog whistles of a similar theme by leaders around the world (including supporters and members of the Trump administration) who recklessly accuse opponents of being puppets of George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, whose work seeks to promote democracy and human rights globally. 

I appreciate that Representative Ilhan Omar has apologized for her tweet, and I think she was naively insensitive about how her comments would be taken, even though her play on the word “Benjamin,” which in origin is an Anglicized version of a Hebrew name, is ugly. And the discourse surrounding the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, notably by The Chronicle’s independent editorial board, is troubling and hurtful.

Laying all the blame on Israel for the intractable conflict is both inaccurate and misleading. It neglects to account for the role of groups like Hamas, an avowed terrorist organization. Hamas, which controls Gaza, is committed to eradicating Israel and pushing the “Jews into the sea.” The group’s leaders have used anti-Semitic imagery to encourage terror attacks against Israelis. Hamas is not interested in a peace deal. Rather, it is committed to murdering Israelis. Its practice of using Palestinian civilians as human shields is well-documented.

There are valid grounds to criticize the current Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Expanding the settlements in the West Bank have been an obstacle to peace. The Nation-State Law passed last summer fails to properly balance Israel’s status as a Jewish state and a democracy. And it is unconscionable that Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank live by different and unequal laws. However, movements such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Campaign are not serious about remedying any of these issues. In unfairly demonizing Israel and trafficking in anti-Semitism, such groups repel advocates of a two-state solution and further polarize both sides. 

Reasonable people can disagree with some of the policies AIPAC promotes. The group supports many of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies. It opposed the Iran Nuclear Agreement and supported the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Yet, while AIPAC seeks to influence U.S. policy in the Middle East, it is hardly alone. There are thousands of lobbying groups registered with the U.S. government, including others that seek to influence U.S. foreign policy in different directions, such as J Street, which advocates for a two-state solution. Contrary to the assertions of some of its critics, AIPAC does not make campaign contributions. Most of its work is through advocacy and outreach to elected officials and American Jews. Additionally, many advocacy groups who encourage a strong U.S.-Israel relationship are Christian.

It is simplistic and incorrect to claim that AIPAC is the main driver of U.S. policy toward Israel. Strategic interests and shared values play a far more prominent role in the American-Israel relationship. (And yes, despite the assertions of some of its critics, Israel is a democracy and the only one in the Middle East, which is perhaps the most volatile region in the world).  

We can criticize Israel without delegitimizing the Jewish state, just as we can criticize Donald Trump without calling for an end to the United States. Calling Israel a “settler-colonial” state trivializes the painful history of Jewish persecution and ignores the fact that Jews lived in Israel before being expelled by the Babylonians and then the Romans. For 2,000 years, the Jewish people lacked a state. Jews immigrated to Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because they were persecuted in Europe. During this time, America offered only limited safe haven to persecuted Jews. In the mid 20th century, Arab governments, such as those in Egypt and Iraq, expelled local Jewish populations. Jews did not arrive in Israel to colonize Palestinians; they came to flee persecution.

It is an ugly canard that Zionism is akin to white supremacy. (In fact, many white supremacists hate Jews along with other minorities). Zionism is a belief promoted in the late 19th century by Theodor Herzl that after centuries of persecution, Jews deserve a state. Anti-Zionism is opposition to this belief. Those who oppose Zionism believe that centuries of persecution and the lack of a secure homeland still do not justify the creation of a Jewish state in the land where Jews had lived for thousands of years. Anti-Zionism means holding Israel to different standards than other countries. This pernicious ideology goes beyond reasonable critiques of Israeli policy, to suggest that Israel should not exist as a state for the Jewish people. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are inseparable. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It is too simplistic (and factually inaccurate) to argue that Israel is a colonial project, just as it is overly facile to assert that the country always lives up to its ideals as a Jewish democracy. Our community should move on from relying on tired anti-Semitic tropes that seek to delegitimize Israel to a more constructive debate about how activism can promote an end to seven decades of conflict and ensure that Israelis and Palestinians can peacefully coexist. 

Max Labaton is a Trinity junior and a managing editor for the editorial pages of The Chronicle.


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