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Opinion

Op-Ed: Why ‘pro-Israel’ is a dangerous label

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March 2015.
(Pete Marovich / European Pressphoto Agency)

On Monday, Israel holds its third national election in less than a year, with Benjamin Netanyahu likely to continue as Israel’s longest serving prime minister. This week in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — whose website urges visitors to become part of the “pro-Israel” community — holds its annual policy conference, with over 18,000 participants.

These two mega Jewish happenings will invariably reduce every action or position to pro-Israel — or not.

Am I pro-Israel? Of course. I was a student there, I’ve traveled there countless times and as a rabbi I’ve led more than 20 congregational trips to Israel. I’m headed there in April with a group of inner-city youths of color, having raised the money to make the trip possible.

But pro-Israel is a phrase I’ve come to abhor. Far from being useful or accurate, it’s meaningless, and even dangerous. How can one’s feelings about another country be reduced to a binary state? Is there really a line that, when crossed, transforms one from “pro” to “anti?” And who gets to decide where that line is?

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For example, I strongly disagree with some Israeli policies, like the theocracy that discriminates against women and non-orthodox Jews, tacitly endorsed by generations of Israeli leaders. The current Israeli government uses scare tactics to inflate a sense of threat, diverting attention from Israel’s myriad social inequities, like the far longer life expectancy of Israeli Jews compared with Israeli Arabs. I am also uncomfortable with the ties being forged by the Israeli government with authoritarian leaders of Hungary, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Does voicing my opposition to these policies make me less pro-Israel? Some would say yes.

Netanyahu isn’t a popular figure. The key to his power is his skill in convincing Israelis that only he can ensure Israel’s safety. In 2018, he championed Israel’s controversial “nation-state law,” which defined Israel as a country where only Jews have the “right to exercise national self-determination.” And last year, he said, “Israel is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

What could be more Jewish, and more pro-Israel, than to question such dogma? Like something out of Lewis Carroll, lots of people with nuanced views would be (and are) declared persona non grata and kicked out of the pro-Israel camp.

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And when used in American politics, the pro-Israel label is just as reductive and damaging.

Take Bernie Sanders, who has often said that he’s proud to be Jewish and that Israelis and Palestinians have a right to live in peace and security. He’s not attending this year’s AIPAC convention because he says AIPAC provides a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” AIPAC — which gave “donor credit” to members who financed Sanders attack ads in Nevada — shot back that Sanders had made “an odious attack on this mainstream, bipartisan American political event.”

I suspect AIPAC, which mentions its “bipartisanship” at every opportunity despite its intensifying romance with the Republican Party, was miffed that Sanders refused its invitation to the dance.

But consider two people who did accept invitations to speak at AIPAC: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose government coalition includes, as Joel Swanson wrote in the Forward, a party founded by “a literal former Nazi,” and a Hungarian cabinet minister whose boss, prime minister Viktor Orban, called George Soros “an enemy that … speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the world.”

These two are considered pro-Israel but the leading Democratic candidate for president isn’t?

AIPAC and many in the Jewish world think Bernie is not pro-Israel. If I support Sanders (which I don’t) or vote for him if he becomes the party’s nominee (which I will) does that mean I, too, am not pro-Israel?

Clearly, there are many days when I wouldn’t pass the pro-Israel test with AIPAC or die-hards who embrace every bit of Israel’s policies.

But I’ve decided their judgments and their labels are irrelevant. Israel has a sacred role in my understanding of the Jewish people. I care about Israel’s well-being and I defend Israel when it is endangered. As a Jew, my engagement with Israel is central to who I am. And as a rabbi, that is what I want for all Jews.

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Clifford M. Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J.


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