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Gaza And American Jews: ‘We Are One?’
Wed, 07/23/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Jerome A. Chanes
Jerome A. Chanes

‘We Are One!” 

That’s the oft-articulated mantra of American Jewish groups, expressing solidarity on core public-affairs matters, especially those threatening Israel’s security.

Almost, but not quite.

And if the reaction of American Jewish groups is an indicator as “Operation Protective Edge” grinds into its third week (the third war in Gaza in the last six years), “almost, but not quite” seems an apt description of where the community is right now.

The vast majority of Jewish organizations, citing Hamas’ unceasing missile and rocket attacks on Israel, have expressed unequivocal support for Israeli air and ground action. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, in a statement issued as the Israeli ground action was beginning, asserted, “We fully support Israel’s decision to expand its military operation in Gaza with the goal of ending the unceasing rocket attacks on Israel.”

In effect, Hamas’ continued intransigence and rejection of a cease-fire ensured broad support, at least to date, of Israel’s actions.  Additionally, the Obama administration also made it easy, with its strong support, to this point, of Israel’s goals and activities in Gaza. 

The major task of American Jewish organizations is now, and will be in days and weeks to come, to ensure that the U.S. and Israel remain closely aligned. The American Jewish Committee’s Steven Bayme, one of the more canny observers of American Jewish public affairs, said it best: “Obama said that Israel has the right to defend itself. The job of Jewish organizations, therefore, is straightforward. It is to remind public opinion both inside and beyond the Jewish community what Hamas is all about: a commitment to destroy Israel, and that the current conflict resulted from Hamas terrorism.” Added Bayme, “The moral clarity is there.”

And indeed, at least in the first three days of the ground action, Israel has held the moral high ground.

But not all American Jewish groups are on this page. Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), following the position of Israel’s Meretz party, called upon Israel “to unilaterally end Operation Protective Edge; we especially oppose its expansion into a ground invasion.”

And the progressive lobby group J Street, perhaps smarting from criticism from some quarters that the group is not sufficiently “Zionist” — or Zionist at all — is saying similar things, but in a more emollient manner. Reemphasizing its call for a political solution, J Street averred support for “President Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to promote an end to the current round of violence between Israel and Hamas.” English translation: Israel ought to withdraw, and soon.

Dissenting voices notwithstanding, there has not been, to date, the kind of internecine fighting that characterized the debate in 2009.  At the time, J Street declared, in strong language, its opposition to Israel’s Gaza campaign. “While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers,” said J Street exec Jeremy Ben-Ami, “There is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million-and-a-half already suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then-president of the Union for Reform Judaism — itself a progressive American Jewish voice — took umbrage at the J Street remarks.  Writing in the Forward, Rabbi Yoffie said that J Street “misread the issues and misjudged the views of American Jews.”

Rabbi Yoffie wrote, “[Ben-Ami’s] words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment, and also appallingly naïve. … Hamas, it should be noted, is not a government; it is a terrorist gang. And as long as the thugs of Hamas can act with impunity, no Israeli government of the right or the left will agree to a two-state solution or any other kind of peace.  Doves take note: To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions.”

In response, Ben-Ami wrote that J Street “understands that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a harsh enemy. We are neither dovish nor pacifist, nor are we blindly opposed to the use of force. We believe, however, that force cannot be Israel’s only or preponderant response — even to Hamas.” Ben Ami continued, “We are pragmatists grounded in the real world and the lessons it teaches. As such — and as avid supporters of Israel — we are asking whether the specific actions taken by Israel in Gaza actually do advance Israel and America’s interests. J Street believed they do not.”

The significance of this exchange was not that it took place, but that it implicated issues that are salient in 2014, and that still may be played out within the Jewish organizational world.  Additionally, the exchange involved American Jewish groups that are highly visible as progressive voices in the community taking pot-shots at one another. We were not talking about Mort Klein and the ZOA having a bird over a J Street statement. The J Street statement generated a firestorm of criticism within the broad community — including the left. 

Will family conflict in our community emerge from “Operation Protective Edge?”

It’s too early to tell.

Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, is the author of four books on American Jewish history and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center.

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Since (one hopes) Jewish groups stand for Jewish ethics, let's hope that some Jewish organizations do break the warmongers' stranglehold and begin to show solidarity with the victims of Israeli violence.

For anyone who chooses to know, the reality is painfully obvious. Even setting aside the fact that the assault on Palestinians began before any rocket fire from Hamas -- Israeli stepped up deadly violence against Palestinian officials and children alike as soon as Hamas joined a unity government with the PA, agreeing to accept Israel's existence and to renounce violence -- there would still be no justification for Israel's slaughter of hundreds of civilians and deliberate destruction of homes, schools, mosques and vital civilian infrastructure. We know that Jewish groups would immediately denounce such violence if it were aimed at Jews; what excuse is there for condoning it against others that isn't patently cynical or racist?

For the record, Jewish Voice for Peace has expressed solidarity with all victims of the current violence, the overwhelming majority of whom, of course, are Palestinian civilians. Yet JVP isn't mentioned in the article above. Do you have to pander to the Israeli government to count as a "Jewish organization"?

Excellent comment, and Anonymous (below) notwithstanding, in no way untrue.

Micheal, your statements are just not true. That's sad. This following thought is true and it doesn't get enough attention. Hamas has invested millions and millions of scarce resources which their people desperately need on an absurdly elaborate network of tunnels. No one in Israel knows the full extant of the Hamas insanity, but suffice it to say that these are some very sick dudes. These underground passages have only one purpose. They are to be used as a diabolical weapon against Israel. How else do you explain the enormous dig of miles of passages under the sand? The meaning of these tunnels is clear. Hamas is a ferocious, inconsolable enemy of the Jewish state, and should be crushed.

'...said J Street exec Jeremy Ben-Ami, “There is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million-and-a-half already suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.'

By one Israeli account, the typical tunnel cost $1 million to build over the course of several years, using tons of concrete desperately needed for civilian housing. By design, many of the tunnels have entrances in the heavily populated Shijaiyah district, where the Israeli offensive has been concentrated. One was found underneath al-Wafa hospital, where Hamas also located a command post and stored weapons, according to Israeli officials.

Only highly paid leaders of organizations and over-inflated gas bags can get through life without a smidgen of understanding. 1) The million and a half Gazans voted for the extremists. You don't get to say 'the Palestinians deserve democracy' then say 'the Palestinians suffer because of the government they elected'. 2) By the latest count I've seen, there are over 66 tunnels - many in populated areas. The cost is more than 66 million dollars and thousands of Gazans had to know. It is the lamest of crippled excuses to blame Hamas's war on Israel as the work of a few extremists. 3) Clearly, it is impossible to deny with a straight face, that Gaza exists solely as a military enterprise of the Palestinian people, dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Nothing else explains their allocation of scarce resources and the network of tunnels. Every Gazan knows what is going on in their hospitals, their schools, and their mosques, and every Gazan is responsible. The German's didn't get to say in WW2 'you Allies are immoral for bombing us because it was this extremist Hitler's fault.'

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