The pro-Israel divide

Every week, an e-mail circulates among hundreds of Jews in Los Angeles calling for my immediate firing. The subject line of a recent one was, “The L.A. Jewish paper needs a new Editor-in-Chief.”

I know when this happens, because the author is always kind enough to copy me on the campaign.

The author is usually one of a group of people who reads my editorials, or another essay or headline in the paper and decides that the fate of the State of Israel depends on ridding the Jewish community of what another anti-me organizer called my “über-left anti-Israel perspective.”

“Aren’t you upset?” a friend asked me.

Nope — more like bemused. The e-mails are so strident and convincing I feel bad not climbing on the bandwagon. “Yeah,” I want to write back, “this guy sounds terrible! Get rid of the bastard!”

The problem is, the person the e-mails attack doesn’t at all sound like me. Either I do a terrible job of explaining my positions here, or many in the pro-Israel community have a terrible time accepting and understanding opinions that differ from their own.

That was the crux of a discussion I had last Sunday on stage at the Pico Playhouse with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor was part of a panel I moderated called “How to Talk to Progressives About Israel,” sponsored by Democrats for Israel (DFI), that also included former City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, DFI-LA President Andrew Lachman and Councilman Paul Koretz.

The panelists identified two major challenges they face as progressive supporters of Israel. One is strengthening support for Israel in those parts of the left where it is flat or has declined. Among Democrats, support for Israel has held steady for years at about 60 percent. Among Republicans, it has grown 25 percent in a decade, to 85 percent.

“I don’t understand it,” Villaraigosa said of the flat-lining of progressive support. “From my vantage point, it’s the only democracy in that part of the world. I know Arab Spring is a hope, but we’ll see if the hope is realized.”

The other challenge the panelists identified is finding a way to defend liberal values in Israel and America without being denounced as “anti-Israel.” Goldberg was especially strident on this point.   

“Being pro-Israel leaves no room for any criticism of Israel,” she said. “There are many areas where [right-wing pro-Israel activists and I] agree, but we don’t even get that far to have that conversation, because people ask me why I’m anti-Israel,” Goldberg said. “I’ve never been anti-Israel, not a moment in my life.”

The discussion came almost exactly one year after journalist Peter Beinart published his essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in The New York Review of Books.

That essay set off a firestorm of controversy and handwringing, as Beinart accused the pro-Israel Jewish establishment of exactly what Goldberg described: alienating self-identified progressive Jews by suppressing criticism of Israel and supporting Israel “at any price” — even by sacrificing liberal values.   

Beinart’s argument was just a tad East Coast-centric — after all, he ignores the role of groups like Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and the open debate that takes place every week in “mainstream” publications like this. But his central point remains dead-on. The vast majority of American Jews and Americans support Israel because it is a democratic Jewish state that reflects American values. Lose liberal support, and you lose Israel.

“Saving liberal Zionism in the United States — so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel — is the great American Jewish challenge of our age,” Beinart wrote.

Last Sunday’s panel offered a way to at least do the former. Villaraigosa said when he addresses audiences that are less warm toward Israel, he can proudly stand behind Israel’s trade unions, its defense of a free press, gay rights and women’s rights.

“It’s a vibrant democracy,” he said.

I asked the mayor whether that meant he would reject any attempts here in Los Angeles to publicly acknowledge a United Nations vote for Palestinian statehood in September.

The mayor said that as long as Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction, is part of a Palestinian government, he would refuse any official sanction of a U.N. statehood resolution.

“I would look [supporters of Palestinian statehood] in the eye and say, ‘No,’ ” he said to applause. “It’s just as simple as that. How can we have a conversation about democracy in that context? We’re talking about Hamas.”

Villaraigosa said two things are crucial to reaching out to build, or rebuild, Israel’s support among progressives. One is establishing personal relationships, especially across ethnic and cultural divides, like the ones he has enjoyed with Jews throughout his life. The other is allowing for debate and criticism.

“Anyone who says you can’t question the policies of a government, that’s nonsensical,” the mayor said. “It’s alien to what democracies are supposed to be about.”

About 100 people filled the theater to hear the panel. Across town, at the same time, some 500 people were supporting Israel in their way at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting. 

Anyone who has looked at the history of the Middle East conflict long enough would have to say neither audience is privy to all the answers. But since we all care about Israel and its future, we’d all do well to heed the mayor’s last words of advice: “You’ve got to be willing to talk to people you disagree with.”

Or at least e-mail them, politely.

Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.