Defending Israel, but maybe not its policies
06/11/2010 - 11:18
James Besser

 In recent days I've read a few eloquent pleas for American Jews to stand up and support Israel in the face of worldwide condemnation; now, the writers argue, is not the time to quibble about policy.

Some of these are written by people I really respect – and I'd respectfully like to take issue with them.

I'm nor suggesting that because Israel makes mistakes, we should turn away from our core support for its existence or activism on behalf of a close U.S.-Israel relationship. Nor am I arguing that we shouldn't stand up to the individuals, groups and nations around the world that see the Middle East through an “Israel is always wrong” lens.

But I can't help but wonder: doesn't the reflexive and sometimes tortured defense of every Israel action by pro-Israel forces in this country serve as an enabler for those Israeli leaders who - for internal political reasons, or just out of the shortsightedness by politicians that is a problem for every democracy, including our own – make bad decisions?

Doesn't this automatic cheer leading – not just for Israel, but for every policy by the Israeli government – give leaders there a false sense that Washington is likely to back everything they do, or at least that they can act without regard to U.S. concerns – never a good idea when you're part of a genuine alliance?

Doesn't that make it easier for Israeli leaders to make stupid decisions – like announcing new settlements every time a president, vice president or secretary of state comes calling in Jerusalem -- because they think they'll be protected by the powerful pro-Israel lobby?

Isn't the “Israel right or wrong” attitude a huge turn off to so many Jews, especially younger ones, who would never offer blanket support for their own political leaders? Group think is great for charging up your own core and raising money, but it doesn't seem likely to expand the pro-Israel tent, especially among a relatively progressive and independent-minded Jewish population.

That's a big part of Peter Beinart's recent analysis, and everything I've seen suggests he's on target.

I'm not suggesting pro-Israel leaders here should set themselves up as referees of Israeli policy. But perhaps vigorously arguing on behalf of every policy, every decision, sometimes resorting to the convoluted logic of the outright propagandists, isn't helping and is maybe hurting the Jewish state.

Maybe there are times when the best thing Jewish leaders here can do is tell their friends in the Israeli leadership – quietly and privately – that actions they are taking or contemplating will have a significant negative impact in this country. Maybe there are times when it's best to refrain from publicly defending those specific policies if they are implemented.

I'm also thinking that Jewish groups here lose a lot of credibility – and therefore, a lot of their ability to help Israel – when they feel compelled to defend every last Israeli policy decision.

Sure, it's appropriate to point out that letting the hopelessly biased UN Human Rights Council investigate Israel's botched flotilla raid is a travesty. But arguing that the way Israel's Gaza blockade has been imposed so far, with its ban on concrete, coriander and potato chips, is necessary on “security” grounds isn't helping Israel because almost nobody here swallows it – and it can only damage the credibility of the American Jewish groups making the argument.

I concede that there  are some pretty fine lines here. But isn't this a discussion worth having, if our goal is to genuinely help Israel and strengthen relations with its most critical ally?

Israel faces perilous challenges that will require smart, farsighted leadership. American Jewish groups that feel each new crisis demands their public support of specific Israeli policies may be making that goal harder to attain.


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I tend to agree with Mr. Besser's assertion. It strikes me that this so-called "Israel right or wrong" view may be contributing to ever more bad policy coming from the Israeli government just as the US's "Too Big to Fail" banking policy has led to increasingly questionable behavior and negative consequences for the US government and economy.
I think you misunderstand what we are trying to do. Mistakes in policy will always happen and a free press will always make disagreements public. We recognize that the world is so uniquely unfair to Israel that it becomes incumbent upon Zionists of ALL political persuasions to support the elected government, especially those in the disaspora. Let the Israeli government debate specific policies. Let us do the job of rebutting the grotesque lies. It doesn't matter whether Israel botched the raid or whether the raid was bad policy. What matters is that we defend Israel's RIGHT to blockade a blood thirsty enemy and that we remind the world of who Hamas is. Anything that weakens this argument plays into our enemies hands. There is no room for a major lobbying outfit such as J Street to make common cause with Israel's enemies at THIS particular time. There is always time for internal recriminations later.