The Israel litmus test
‘You’re nothing but a self-hating Jew, and your boss is an anti-Semite.” It was the spring of 1990. I was an advisor to then-Secretary of State James Baker, and I was briefing a Jewish group from Atlanta -- and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Baker was tough on Israel when he needed to be, but he was no anti-Semite. I told Mr. Atlanta that if he wanted to argue about policy, fine; otherwise, we should keep the ad hominem out of it.
Almost 20 years later, here we go again. This time, a Democratic candidate for president, not even the official nominee of his party, is under attack from some deeply confused and ill-informed American Jews. Again, the charges of hostility toward Israel are being irresponsibly bandied about.
Some of this, to be sure, is the seasonal silliness associated with political campaigns. But the persistent attacks on Sen. Barack Obama -- and especially on former Clinton administration official Robert Malley, one of his many informal advisors -- shouldn’t be casually dismissed as crackpot commentary. They reflect two troubling reactions, or, more precisely, overreactions, within the American Jewish community that undermine its credibility and harm American interests in the process.
First, some full disclosure. I’m not associated with any political campaign and am not running for anything. For nearly 20 years, I worked at the Department of State, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of State, on the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
What’s more, I am a close friend of Malley, who served as special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs between 1998 and 2001. Malley and I continue to collaborate on Op-Ed articles and conferences.
In recent weeks, I’ve been extremely disturbed to see him attacked as an enemy of Israel and as an apologist for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Perhaps most offensive, several publications have run personal attacks on Malley because his father, in the 1960s, founded and edited a left-wing magazine called Afrique-Asie, which was friendly toward the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Third World movements.
But so what? These charges are ridiculous. There’s no question that Malley has been critical of certain Israeli actions and behavior (as have I). He was criticized, for instance, for an article he wrote in the New York Review of Books that took issue with the notion that Arafat was solely responsible for the failure of the Oslo peace process. But he is not “anti-Israel,” let alone the Israel hater his critics portray him to be. He is well-respected by Arabs and Israelis alike, and he believes deeply in the idea and the reality of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign and secure Jewish state. He would never do anything to jeopardize that.
In a joint letter last month, five of his longtime colleagues (former Clinton national security advisor Samuel R. Berger; former U.S. ambassadors to Israel Martin Indyk and Daniel Kurtzer; former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross; and myself) made Malley’s commitment to Israel unmistakably clear. As for the mean-spirited guilt-by-association charges having to do with his family, Malley told the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, that while he loved and respected his father -- who died in 2006 -- he did not agree with him on everything.
The attacks on Malley (which are, of course, really attacks on Obama) don’t merely reflect concerns about the views of a single mid-level advisor; they flow from a deeper dysfunction. The first piece of that dysfunction is what you might call the “cosmic oy vey” -- the tendency of many American Jews active in pro-Israeli causes to worry about everything, without a capacity to identify what is important and what isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. Jews -- and yes, I am one of them -- worry for a living. Their history compels them to and to be always vigilant. Yet in America, where they have achieved a level of security, acceptance and power unparalleled in their history, their existential worries paradoxically seem to have grown even greater. When Jimmy Carter writes a book -- a bad book, incidentally -- comparing Zionism to apartheid, many American Jews go crazy. When two university professors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, write another bad book -- about what they call “the Israel lobby” -- many Jews react as if the sky is falling.
The fact is (and many American Jews are reluctant to accept it), the conflict in the United States between Israel’s supporters and its detractors is over. And the pro-Israel community has won. No figure in American mainstream politics can be viable without being firmly supportive of Israel. Americans overwhelmingly back Israel’s right to exist safely and securely as a Jewish state. For reasons of shared values, as well as strong domestic political support, Israel has become an organic part of American culture, religion, politics and foreign policy for Jews and non-Jews alike. Our most recent presidents, Clinton and George W. Bush, have been the most pro-Israel presidents -- ever.
For too many American Jews, these successes haven’t created a greater sense of security; they have only persuaded them to keep up the fight to ensure their good fortune continues. Too often this means stigmatizing people who criticize, or even question, particular Israeli policies as detrimental to U.S. interests or to the peace process or to Israel’s security itself. There is a strong tendency even in parts of the mainstream American Jewish community to interpret any such questioning -- of the type that occurs every day in Israel itself -- as outright hostility.
I’ve lost count of the number of times Jewish activists or friends have said to me that this official or that journalist or this academic must be anti-Semitic. On other occasions, I have been told that I myself should not to be so publicly critical of Israel, lest we give our enemies grist for their propaganda mills.
This “us versus them” mentality still runs deep, and it is particularly harmful when it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue. That conflict is not some kind of morality play in which the forces of evil do battle against the forces of light. It is a conflict in which both sides have legitimate needs and requirements and do both good and bad things in pursuit of them.
To be called an Israel hater for speaking out against Israeli actions when they are wrong and counterproductive -- actions such as building settlements and bypass roads or confiscating land -- or to be called an anti-Semite for suggesting alternative ways of thinking when the status quo is leading nowhere is not only absurd, it’s dangerous.
In the end, American Jews who impose a litmus test of boundless commitment to every single Israeli action hurt not only their community but the United States as well. Israel is a tiny country living in a dangerous neighborhood. The U.S. and Israel need a special relationship based on confidence and trust to further their mutual interests -- but that does not mean we need an exclusive relationship in which America acquiesces to everything that Israel or its supporters in the United States think is wise. This is a critical distinction. One can only hope that, next time around, we are fortunate enough to get a president and Middle East advisors who understand it.