Loving Israel, The AIPAC Way
03/08/13
Jewish Week Online Columnist

I am an unabashed Israel junkie.  There is nothing that goes on there that I'm not interested in.  I make it my business to keep current on Israel's politics, music, sports... You name it, I'm interested in it.

To some extent, my interest in things Israel serves a professional purpose.  The more I know, the better equipped I am to share my perspective with the members of my synagogue who look to me for guidance.  But essentially, my interest is intensely personal.  As a Zionist, Israel's situation at any given moment- particularly in troubled times like these- is my concern.  It's not so much that I want to know what's going on there; I need to know.  Having lived in Jerusalem for two years, it is, in a very real sense, my other home, and could have been my other life.

But of course, there is a dimension to caring about Israel that is far more significant than my personal concern, or any one person's interest.  This higher dimension is the cause of political advocacy for Israel's existence and security in the halls of the United States government- Israel's only true and sure ally.  And when you're talking about political advocacy for Israel here in America, you're talking about AIPAC- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

I returned just a day or two ago from AIPAC's annual Policy Conference in Washington, DC.  Thirteen thousand pro-Israel activists from around the United States were in attendance.  Thirteen thousand!  As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I am particularly proud that 160 of my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate were there. But of far greater importance is the fact that, at one point or another, so were the overwhelming majority of United States senators and congresspersons, and the Vice-President of the United States, not to mention the Prime Minister of Israel (by satellite), and other government ministers and officials.  Virtually the entire government of the United States came to touch base with the pro-Israel community.  At last year’s conference, Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded all those in attendance that, during the darkest days of the Shoah, those who were trying desperately to alert the American government to the evolving genocide “couldn’t even get a lunch.”  And now, the whole government came to AIPAC.  How amazing is that!

Once upon a time in America, and in Europe as well, championing Israel's cause was a kinder and simpler challenge.  The underdog status of the tiny nation surrounded by enemies was clear for all to see, and supporting it required no mental or geopolitical gymnastics.

But the Six Day War of 1967 transformed Israel's status from underdog to military powerhouse, and, of course, changed the map of the Middle East by making Israel an “occupying power.”  And the 1973 Yom Kippur War saw the Arab world begin to use oil as an instrument of policy leverage and blackmail, forever altering the lens through which Europe and the United States would construct their foreign policies.  The price and ready availability of oil, so crucial to all Western economies, has been a weapon of the Arab world ever since.

It's been almost forty years since the Yom Kippur war, and advocating Israel's cause has only become more difficult with the passage of time.  The unrelenting assault on her legitimacy by the Palestinians and their sympathizers has taken a terrible toll on Israel’s standing, not just among the nations of the world, but also among Jews whose relationship to Israel is peripheral at best.  A staggeringly large number of American Jews have never been to Israel, and are largely ignorant of its realities beyond what they read in their local newspapers.  If all you know about Israel is what you read in the New York Times, you basically know nothing.  And worst of all is that these people don’t even realize what a distorted picture they are getting.  The alienation of so many American Jews is real, and terribly troubling.

At the most obvious level, the work of AIPAC is about educating America’s political leaders to the reality of Israel.  It is about helping them see and appreciate the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, and the extent to which Israel’s interests in that critical region of the world are consonant with America’s.  AIPAC does not ask America’s leaders for favors for Israel.  It encourages them, rather, to see and understand that by supporting Israel, they are strengthening America.  In that sense, the work that AIPAC does is without peer.  The legislative branch of America’s government is solidly behind Israel, on a bi-partisan level.  Being at that Policy Conference and hearing the roll call of Senate and House members who were in attendance was stunning.  Israel has major problems in public relations, as we all know.  But it does not have problems in the United States Congress.  To that, one can only say, kudos to AIPAC for the incredibly successful work that it does.

But I would also suggest an ancillary benefit of AIPAC’s advocacy, one that might not be visible to the casual observer, or the naked eye.  As advocating for Israel has become increasingly isolating and more difficult, with the negative voices all around often shrill and terribly hostile, AIPAC is the place– the home base– where you don’t have to apologize for loving Israel despite its faults.  Whether you’re a college student dealing with BDS pressures on campus, being made to feel like there’s something wrong with you for supporting Israel, or having to deal with Jewish friends whose posture towards Israel is ambivalent at best or negative at worst, AIPAC is where you can turn to– always– to be reminded that you’re not alone, nor is there anything necessarily wrong with your thinking.  It is the place where Israel activists of all ages share their passion and love for Israel, and their belief in her present and future.  And they act on that belief…

Thank you, AIPAC, for the shot in the arm, and for reminding me yet again of the importance of Israel advocacy work.  And thank you, also, for appreciating how important rabbis are in mobilizing the pro-Israel community.  We notice, and we are grateful!     

Last Update:

09/16/2013 - 19:48

Comments

Dear Rabbi,
So, why is it important for one to love Israel in spit of all its faults? Why can't one be just and fair, base ones judgment on a balanced views of what is being done in the name of all Jews to the Palestinian people? Why do we need to keep living on the euphoric fantasy of what we were told that Israel could have been and ignore the realities of what Israel is? This kind of sentiments ,coming from a religious man like yourself is important , but to desire this blind support and love affair for Israel-as to comfort one self-is also dangerous, dangerous to Israel/the Palestinians, and the rest of the world ultimately,as it ignores justice,harmony for the sake of ones living a false dream of what Israel was sold to us as. There are too many facts out in the open, and we can't keep ignoring them because of our dire need to love Israel and ourselves! Being a rational and just human beings should be as important as our need to love Israel ,right or wrong!

Rabbi Skolnik addresses what he sees as the positive work of AIPAC. But AIPAC also distorts and comes down with a heavy fist against those who disagree with its positions, closing off debate here in the U.S. over whether Israel should be, for example, bulldozing Palestinian homes of those who resist the Israeli occupation of their lands, holding hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians in prison under draconian conditions, walling-off Palestinian cities, and -- an increasing number of Jews in the U.S. are taking note -- acting in ways that are, in effect, counter to the interests (and history) of progressive Jewish culture and thought.

It is no "feather in the cap" that there is more debate on Israeli government and military actions in Israel than is permitted by AIPAC here among Jews in the U.S. If anything, AIPAC's policies and hammer-approach that shuts down debate is inimicable to Israel's very existence, let alone the democratic process.

Neither Israel nor AIPAC speaks for me. I urge Jews, especially, to open up the discussion, not shut it down as AIPAC seems to do at every encounter.

Mitchel Cohen
Brooklyn Greens/Green Party, and
Committee for an Open Discussion of Zionism*

*organizations listed for ID only. The views I express here do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations listed (although they are probably pretty closely matched).

As an American living in Haifa with dual citizenship I advocate for Israel too, but Israelis must remember to respect the United States and it's leaders whether they advocate for Israel or not for that respect is the core responsibility that comes with democracy.

That respect vitally must include the understanding that a Senator or member of the House of Representatives are advocates for the United States before they are advocates for Israel.

Any advocate for Israel who expects loyalty to Israel above the loyalty that Senators and HR members have sworn ("to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States") to their own country, is no friend of the United States.

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