Game-Changer? American Jews Reaching a Tipping Point on Israel

Human Rights

The rules of the game played by the U.S. and Israel may very well be changing. Over the past four decades, those rules have been simple: The U.S. nudged Israel occasionally, the latter did pretty much whatever it liked anyway, and the Palestinians got the shaft.

Now there’s a chance that the U.S. will actually begin to take on the role of evenhanded broker that it has always claimed to play. That’s why so many are watching President Barack Obama so eagerly, to see which way he will go.

But Obama, as admirable as he is, remains a politician, ever sensitive to the winds of public opinion. Though many individuals and groups propel those winds, none are as crucial as America’s Jewish community.

If the fiction of a monolithic "pro-Israel" Jewish community is dispelled -- for it is indeed a fiction -- and the group begins to move publicly toward a more balanced view of the conflict, the Obama administration will be far freer to find and maintain a truly evenhanded position. All that could happen if Jews publicly express the wide diversity of views they do in fact hold about Israel and Palestine.

And it could happen surprisingly soon. The American Jewish community is rapidly moving toward a tipping point. Discussion of the issue among Jews is far more open and diverse than anyone in the tiny American Jewish peace movement of 10 or 20 years ago would have predicted.

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the pro-Israel, pro-peace group, has over 40 chapters across the country and support from nearly a thousand rabbis. The J Street lobby, supporting much the same program, is growing faster than its hawkish rival AIPAC.

The change is reflected in the media, too. A recent New York Times Web article told the truth about the so-called generous offer the Israelis made at Camp David in 2000 and have been making ever since: The Palestinians could only take an archipelago of disconnected bits of land and call it their state -- a state with no economic viability or real sovereignty.

That’s a truth the Times, like all the other American mass media outlets, has been ignoring for nearly nine years. Now it’s getting out. And just two days earlier, the Times published an interview with Hamas leader Khalid Meshal, letting him speak in his own words. Obviously, something is changing.

Of course it’s not yet enough. The narrative of an innocent Israel mortally threatened by the Palestinian monster still dominates our public discourse. As long as it does, the president and his administration are politically bound to act as if it were true.

But once the Jewish community begins to debate the issue openly, for all the world to see, that narrative can no longer be taken for granted as the only possible view. That’s when the tipping point comes.

How soon it is reached depends on how soon a critical mass of American Jews can break out of the "Israel is always right" mind-set and speak out publicly for peace. That, in turn, depends largely on what Jews hear from their family and friends. The most potent factor in changing anyone’s political view is conversation with people they care for and respect. So the administration’s policy will change when enough Jews are encouraged -- in living rooms and break rooms and chat rooms across the country -- to take a more realistic view of the Middle East conflict and voice that view publicly.

All Americans have a stake in Middle East peace; our national security depends on it. That’s why all, whether Jewish or not, have a right -- perhaps even a duty -- to get involved in those conversations, help nudge the Jewish community toward its tipping point and thus help change U.S. policy.

There’s certainly some risk here. The "Israel right or wrong" crowd is quick to hurl the spurious charge of anti-Semitism at anyone who questions Israeli policy. It’s no fun being called nasty names. One has to develop a thick skin, repeating over and over a simple affirmation: "It’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel’s government. Plenty of Jews, especially in Israel, do it every day, because they want the best for the Israeli people." 

But that’s the relatively easy part. The greater challenge, for those who want peace and justice in the Middle East, is to find the right words to help move Jews in that direction.

The greater risk is that many progressives, who are somewhere between outraged and disgusted by Israeli policies, will enter the conversation with their moral indignation blazing. No matter how justified that approach may be, it can inadvertently push Jews back away from the tipping point.

Like any people approaching a tipping point, American Jews are bound to be ambivalent, probably confused and perhaps frightened by losing the security of old and familiar certainties.

Their anxiety may be heightened by what psychologists call cognitive dissonance: believing two contradictory things at once. Many Jews are convinced (from a lifetime of conditioning) that Israel must be an innocent victim. Yet they now see obvious evidence that Israel bears significant blame (though certainly not all the blame) for the ongoing conflict.

Since changing long-held views hurts, and cognitive dissonance hurts even worse, there is always an impulse to escape it by denying the new truth and retreating to the old.

If Jews who are near the tipping point get blasted with moralistic condemnations of Israel, many are likely to hunker down in a defensive crouch, closing their ears and their minds to the message. And as they fall back on their old truths, they’ll take an attack on that truth as a personal attack on them, which only makes matters worse.

Jews who have already passed the tipping point in their own minds, and recognize the need for American pressure on Israel, face a different kind of problem: Should they express their new views in public? They can pretty well bet that they’ll suffer some unhappy consequences for taking that risk.

But they can’t predict at all just what the consequences will be, or how bad, or (worst of all) from whom. That’s why it’s such a big risk. Close friendships and even families have broken up over this issue. No Jews who have "seen the light" should be expected to speak out quickly and loudly, as if it were an easy thing. They are probably going to move quite cautiously toward a public stance. If they’re pushed too far or too fast, they may be less likely to move at all.

So as advocates for peace enter the Jewish conversation about Israel, their impact depends on how they approach it. Since the moral issues seem so clear-cut -- since so much of Israeli policy is indeed so outrageous -- it’s hard not to insist on immediate public criticism of Israel. But those who give in to that understandable impulse may find themselves standing on the moral high ground with little political impact to show for it.

The alternative is to show genuine respect for the Jews’ fears and uncertainties, along with sincere concern for the best interests of Israeli Jews, as well as Palestinians.

Respecting all these sensitivities may push some to the limits of their patience and tolerance. But good political strategy always takes full account of psychological reality. The sensitive approach will help the Jewish community move more quickly toward the changes it eventually must go through.

And only then can the Obama administration make the policy changes that the people of the Middle East and the United States so desperately need. 

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