Burt Siegel's Remarks at the Israel Advocacy in the Age of Carter, Walt and Mearsheimer Forum

Over the last few years I sometimes find myself thinking back on a speech my friend, former Philadelphia JCRC president and JSPAN Board member Barry Ungar delivered many years ago, entitled something like “What feels good is not always what is good for us.” Barry argued that when confronted with phenomena that appear to be anti-Semitic or perhaps grossly unfair to Israel, or simply make us very anxious, we sometimes too quickly muster our considerable resources, be they financial, political or intellectual, to put the miscreant in his or her place. He observed that while doing so may make us feel good, our reaction might not always be in the Jewish community’s best long-term interests. Certainly, Barry was not suggesting that we react in this fashion simply to satisfy the emotional needs of our community. We do so, no doubt, in the real belief that it is always important to set the record straight, certainly an admirable goal, and perhaps to punish and also to warn others of their fate if they do the same. Such a response no doubt feels very good. After all, who doesn’t want to have a sense that they effectively taught an evildoer not to tangle with our tribe or us again. But I question whether doing so is always, as an uncle of mine would frequently say, “gut fur der Yidden”----- good for the Jews. This is sometimes not an easy question to answer. First of all, we may not always be so certain of what it is we actually want. Is it to isolate whomever it is that has discomforted and outraged us by their ideas, expressions or behavior? What if the person is already on the margins of legitimacy, such as a Holocaust denier like David Irving or a hate monger like David Duke? Suppose he is wrongheaded, mean spirited and deeply outrageous in his contentions, but not all that influential beyond those who hold similar views, such as a Norman Finklestein . But sometimes even marginal individuals become heroes in select circles, due to their alleged victimization by Jewish “powerful interests”. Suppose he or she is a not at all marginal, such as a Mel Gibson? In spite of our profound unhappiness with Mr. Gibson's portrayal of the Jewish leadership in his blockbuster film "The Passion of the Christ", and his later drunken anti-Semitic tirade after a traffic arrest, talk of retribution that was bandied about in some Jewish circles was simply silly and went nowhere. I recall speaking to a synagogue gathering in which just about every member vowed to never see a Gibson film again. They said they were organizing a nationwide e-mail campaign urging others to take the same pledge. I asked the person who seemed to be the organizer of the boycott if he thought this tactic would be effective, and more importantly, what was the desired result? Other than “showing Gibson that he couldn’t get away with this”, he did not have a lucid answer. I wasn’t even sure what “this” referred to: making a not-good-but-gory film based on the worst antipathy to Jews contained in the Gospels, or an alcohol-induced anti-Semitic tirade. I imagine that fighting back against Mel Gibson felt good to some. But people more expert than I have made the argument that the Jewish community’s reaction to the film created a buzz far beyond anything Gibson expected (or perhaps he expected it all along!). If this is so, then we probably should have asked him for a percentage of the film’s gross, as our reaction most assuredly drove traffic to it and increased his revenues. I seriously doubt, however, that the film increased anti-Semitism, although it probably provided comfort and a sense of affirmation for those who already believed that we were responsible for Jesus’ execution. This question of how much response and what the nature of our response should be then is a difficult one. I can’t help being reminded of reading a comment by David Duke that he could never have been able to pay for the amount of free publicity Jewish organizations, although he no doubt said “ the Jews”, gave him. I think there are several overarching and entry-level questions we must always ask ourselves when we get involved in such frays. Among them is: What is the desired result? Is this result, or at least something approximating it, likely to be achieved? Who are our actual or potential allies ? Is there any potential downside for us in such a relationship? An example of this was acceptance by our community of the overture from a Christian fundamentalist leader to be part of a community program in response to a particularly horrendous terrorist attack. He proceeded to attack both Islam as a faith that fostered terrorism and an elected official who had agreed to speak at a Muslim event. Needless to say, very little good was accomplished, but a great deal of fence mending on our part was necessary. What is the most effective response when those we are responding to are neither an extremist nor an alcoholic Biblical literalist actor? What is the proper course of action when we are responding to highly regarded political scientists or a former president of the United States whose reputation has been burnished by good works? I must note that while I cannot claim that this is anything more than anecdotal, it does seem to me that many more members of the Jewish community have read articles about or detailed criticisms of both the notorious book The Israel Lobby by Mearsheimer and Walt and Jimmy Carter's equally as disturbing Palestine Peace or Apartheid than have read the books themselves. Not for one moment am I asserting that the criticisms are unwarranted. A good bit of the material contained in both is profoundly unfair and demonstrates, especially on the part of the former, bias and real animus to the Jewish state. What I found especially offensive is that both books come disturbingly close to resurrecting the image of a Jewish cabal that is willing to jeopardize the common good to benefit Jewish interests, or in this case specifically the interests of the Jewish state. While I must make it clear that I don’t believe Walt and Mearsheimer to be anti-Semitic, one can readily imagine the author of the late 19th century hoax, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, nodding in agreement from his grave. Not at all surprisingly, toward the very beginning of the book the authors attempt to create a prophylactic to ward off accusations of either anti-Semitism or being anti-Israel. They state, “ The Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy or anything of this sort.” They then go on to paint an ugly picture of Israel as a nation quite indifferent to the political and security needs of the rest of the world, especially her overly generous uncritical patron, the United States. About US foreign aid to Israel they write, “We are indirectly subsidizing activities that are not in our national interest." The “Israel lobby” and Israel are blamed, at least in part, for the invasion of Iraq. We read, ”But there was another variable in the equation (that is the decision to go into Iraq) and the war would almost certainly not have occurred had it been absent. That element was the Israel lobby.” A little later on, the same lobby is blamed for an increasingly bellicose US posture toward Iran. They tell us, “Israel and the lobby have pushed the US to pursue a strategically unwise policy toward Iran," and then a few paragraphs afterward that, “US efforts to deal with Iran are further undermined by Israel’s repressive policies in the Occupied Territories.” These themes run throughout the Carter book as well. Now it is not only the Pat Buchanans of this world that attribute failed US policies in the Middle East to the manipulations by “ Israel’s amen corner”, but from more credible individuals as well. So what to do? Is there a well-tested road map that shows us how to most effectively respond to these challenges? I fear too often we don’t pay attention to what we have learned over the years, but fall into a pattern of what might feel good. As but one example, what did we think would be the likely result of the proposed boycott of Brandeis University’s alumni campaign as proposed by more than a few, including many who had no connection with the University, because of a speaking appearance by Carter? And while it is certainly understandable that Jewish members of the Carter Center’s Board of Counselors felt compelled to resign over his naïve and distorted views regarding Middle East peace, the absence of any non-Jew from the group that resigned probably diminished the influence this act might have had. It is incumbent upon us to refute both biases and inaccuracies. An example of such an inaccuracy is Walt and Mearsheimer's assertion that Israel greatly exaggerates the intentions of those who threaten her existence as well as their ability to do great harm to her population. However, by attacking the integrity or intelligence of Israel's critics, I doubt that we convince very many that there are justifiable reasons for Israel to remain so mistrustful of her Arab neighbors. For some Israel advocates that seems to be our modus operandi. For instance, I assume it is correct, as claimed, that a great deal of the international funding of the Carter Center comes from the Muslim world. The implication, however, that the motivation for Carter's harsh critique of Israeli policies was the desire for more generous support by Arab donors probably looks childish on our parts and not very effective with those we wish to influence. There is not any doubt that those of us who care deeply about and advocate for Israel have much about which to be angry. Those who are profoundly hostile to Israel and who wish for her demise are a strange but powerful and influential amalgam. I imagine that few, if any other issue, can bring together the Western European intellectual left, including the Lord Mayor of London Ken Livingston, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, South American liberationist Catholic priests, the Sunni extremists of Al Queda and the Taliban, the Shia demagogue President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, who heads the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester and David Duke of the KKK. And then we have those who, while perhaps not as vicious in their criticisms of Israel, nevertheless use a standard rarely, or at least not very often, applied to any other nation to judge her. Among these I would include Jimmy Carter, a number of liberal mainline Protestant leaders, a mixed bag of American Jewish academicians, and, to a lesser degree, some very good American journalists. In response to those both in the former category as well as in the latter, many in our community have responded with vitriol that at times borders on hysteria. The first group is clearly beyond the pale, and nothing short of exposing them for what they are makes great sense. But how do we react to the second group? First, I think it is required that we thoroughly examine their real impact on the thinking of most Americans. I have long observed that when research is conducted regarding American public opinion about Jews and Israel, if the news is bad the reports of that result are bandied about throughout our community and is the topic of numerous rabbinical sermons and editorials in the Jewish media, but for some reason, positive results not only do not seem to give us much comfort, but we often ignore them. Let me do a quick check among you. According to the most recent study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, which of these 4 countries scored “most favorable”? Mexico, Israel, Turkey or France? The result was Israel, Mexico, France and Turkey, with Turkey, in spite of the lack of the sort of negative attention Israel often receives in books and learned op-ed pieces, actually scoring 14 points lower than Israel. Many of us, myself included, have been concerned that the American public would accept the contention made by Walt, Mersheimer and Carter, but others as well, that it was the Jewish lobby or perhaps the neo-cons, a term that at least the Jewish community has taken to mean hawkish Jews in the Bush administration, that pushed us to go to war with Iraq .The overwhelming majority of Americans believe the war was a mistake and that the rationale originally given by the Administration of weapons of mass destruction was a deception. So there must have been a much darker reason, perhaps a conspiracy to go to war, right? Do you think the number was 8%, who believe that reason was Jewish or neo-con influence, was it 18 % or 38%? (It was only 8%). A few more questions-- Walt, Mearsheimer and Carter have all documented American Jews' disproportionate influence in shaping US Middle East policy, and in the interest of total candor, I think we must admit that Jewish “influence” in this area IS indeed very significant, as is the influence of Cuban Americans in our still not recognizing Cuba. So then does a large percentage of Americans buy into that hypothesis? ---About two of every ten, according to several surveys. As for Iran, again there are new and strident influential voices that accuse both Israel and American Jewish organizations of advocating, or as Walt and Mearsheimer write, “pushing” the US to “go after Iran” and “act(ing) to derail several earlier opportunities for détente.” The result is, they claim, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have increased. So in other words, pro-Israel elements are actually in part at least responsible for increasing Iran’s threat to Israel and the US. This theme is also contained in Carter’s writings. And he asserts that it is not out of animus to Israel that leads her critics to cast blame on her and her political supporters, rather it is out of their deep concern that her alleged belligerence and intransigence place her AND the US at greater risk. But most Americans quite simply don’t buy that contention. I must say that I think we often underestimate the intelligence of the non-Jewish American public. Some of us will recall that in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, Arab oil-producing nations greatly reduced production and distribution to punish the US for support of Israel. Gas prices shot up dramatically; there were long angry lines at gas stations. Independent long distance truck drivers were especially hard hit and organized protest rallies in Washington. Crude oil deliveries to other Western countries were greatly reduced as well. The economies of the industrialized countries across the globe were damaged; by early 1974 most of the industrialized world was hit by the worst slump since the Great Depression. Prices of food and heating oil rose, as did unemployment. The message was quite clear: any sympathy, let alone support, for Israel will cost you dearly. It was a period of great anxiety for the American Jewish community. Many of us were convinced that sympathy for Israel would sharply decrease. There were stories across the nation that there were bumper stickers on cars reading “ Next time put a Jew in your tank!”, a play on the "Put a tiger in your tank!" slogan of a major gas company. So what actually happened? In spite of attempts to document who was making these outrageous bumper stickers, none were ever actually found. But typical of urban legends, as this was, there remained large numbers of people who insisted that a friend of a friend (an FOAF in urban myth jargon) absolutely had seen one. In reality sympathy for Israel not only didn’t drop, it increased. I recall one truck driver saying on network TV, “ No one gets away with blackmailing Americans.” A prominent Philadelphia Black talk show host told his listeners, “ We can’t let anyone tell us to desert our friends.” In another important survey, commissioned by the Israel Project in the aftermath of the National Intelligence Estimate which very much downplayed the level of the Iranian nuclear threat, 64% of those questioned said that the report put the US at greater risk because it might lead to reduce pressure on Iran to permanently stop its nuclear ambitions. In fact, hardly more than 25% even believed in the accuracy of the NIE assessment, 85% consider Iran a threat to world peace, and 44% believe that nation is an “immediate threat to the US.” The same Greenberg Quinlen Rosner study found a number of results that should be much more recognized in our field. Only 9%, a marginal number in surveys, identified themselves as supporters of the Palestinians, as contrasted to 62% who identified themselves as supporters of Israel in the current conflict over land and peace. Almost the identical percentage believes that the US Government should support Israel, while a paltry 10% wanted a change in US policy. Other findings indicate that 63% believe that Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians are understandable "given the security threat they face,” and 70% oppose Palestinian acts of violence “no matter what conditions” they live in. And in spite of what Carter, Walt, Mearsheimer and numerous national church working groups and policy experts believe, 55% of average Americans believe that “a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would not have much impact on terrorism around the world.” So then what does this say to those of us who operate outside the Beltway, the pages of the NY Times or the inner sanctum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace? It might tell us that most Americans are fair minded and quite astute people. As Marty Peretz of the New Republic noted in a recent interview in Haaretz, people like Walt and Mearsheimer are "facing a stone wall, which is the fact that the American people like Israel and identify with it. .... That support has little to do with the Israel lobby." Actually, I think the community relations field well knows what to do. I have had the good fortune to be part of several non-Jewish community leaders' trips to Israel organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and I have seen how eyes have been opened and minds changed. In Philadelphia, as in many other communities, we sponsor a similar annual mission to Israel. We particularly reach out to individuals who may not already be supportive of Israel, but with whom we have a relationship built on trust and our reputation of credibility. I can tell you of NAACP leaders, religious leaders and labor leaders from my community who have become public advocates on Israel’s behalf by virtue of meeting with thoughtful Israelis dedicated to peace but realistic about the lack of needed partners. We not only take about 20 such leaders to Israel each year, but we also undertake a fairly detailed analysis of attitudinal change. Furthermore, we attempt to document tangible evidence of such change. Recent examples include the Bishop who, after a previous trip to Israel sponsored by his denomination, had organized a letter among his colleagues calling for the demolition of what he then called the "wall." After going to Israel with us and meeting the families of victims of terrorism, he wrote to the same audience that while he still saw the “fence” as an abomination, it paled with the abomination of killing children, and if he was an Israeli he would have asked his government why it hadn’t been built sooner and higher. This past fall the outspoken state president of the NAACP and the publisher of a highly regarded newspaper in the African-American community wrote a full-page piece about how a Black mother in Philadelphia who lost a son to gun violence and the mother of a kidnapped Israeli soldier are sisters. He had met Ehud Goldwasser's mother on a JCPA mission. Just this week, upon his return from the Philadelphia mission, the head of a judicatory that had in the past invited the rabidly anti-Israel Palestinian center in Jerusalem Sabeel Institute to his churches refused them for a program this spring. As one participant noted, “Israel’s story is a compelling one that is not heard nearly often enough.” It would seem to me that rather than spending as much time as we sometimes seem to do in being reactive, we should spend even more time than we already do in being proactive. While we cannot take everyone to Israel, we can do briefings for opinion molders. Many Christian clergy receive critical information about Israel through their national organizations. We have created an extensive e-mail list of ministers to whom we send selected news and information from more sympathetic sources, such as Israeli publications, the New Republic and the Wall Street Journal. From time to time, I’ve been told that recipients have distributed this information among their colleagues. So we do know what works well and what doesn’t. We are too smart to keep banging our heads in anger against a wall. For some reason this banging of our heads makes some of us feel good. But pain is not good for any of us. Unlike some faiths, Judaism places no value on suffering. Furthermore, the image of a hostile world where Jews and Israel have no friends is not one that is likely to encourage affiliation by future generations of Jews. And certainly no one thinks that will feel good.