Transparency bill for NGOs advances in Israel

An Israeli bill requiring nongovernmental organizations to state publicly that they receive funding from foreign countries has advanced to the full Knesset.

On Sunday, the so-called Transparency Bill unanimously passed the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party sponsored the measure, which would disproportionately affect left-wing human rights organizations.

Under the bill, NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments must declare it publicly, including noting it on official documents. NGO representatives also would be required to wear identification badges when they attend Knesset sessions, as required of lobbyists.

“It is a black day for civil liberties, associations, and Israeli thought,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog tweeted. “The government decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world.”

Peace Now in a statement following the vote called the bill a “hate crime against democracy” and called on Shaked to “promote legislation requiring right-wing organizations to expose the millions they receive from private donors abroad and from the state budget.”

J Street, the book — expect more controversy

If there’s one thing J Street is good at, it’s getting attention.

Supporters, critics and relatively neutral observers all have conspired—with plenty of prodding from J Street’s own aggressive communications operation—to shine an intense media spotlight on the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization. The result has been waves of positive attention and tough scrutiny, often out of proportion with any actual accomplishment or misdeed.

The debate over all things J Street is likely to continue with the July 19 release of “A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation (Palgrave MacMillan),” the new book by the organization’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami.

Like the previous rounds of the J Street debate, the book will sway few people. Instead, it will serve as a Rorschach test or proxy fight on a slew of wider issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S.-Israel relations and the Jewish body politic.

What you think about J Street probably says a lot about what you think about Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC, settlements, terrorism, the peace process, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and the limits of criticizing Israel. The same probably goes for what you’ll make of the book.

Ben-Ami starts with a historical analogy that is sure to drive many of his critics bonkers: He compares J Street to the Bergson Group, the band of right-wing loyalists to Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The group was ostracized by the U.S. Jewish establishment in the 1930s and ‘40s for waging an aggressive campaign to finance illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine and publicly pressuring the Roosevelt administration to do more to help European Jewry.

What gives the comparison extra punch is that Ben-Ami—a former Bill Clinton and Howard Dean staffer—is the son of the late Bergson Group member Yitshaq Ben-Ami.

“My organization, J Street, is attacked … from the right for being left-wing, while the attacks in the 1930s against the Bergson Group came from the left and called them ‘fascist,’ ” the younger Ben-Ami writes. “If the experience of the Bergson Groups teaches us anything, it is that the appropriate way to deal with those new voices is not to reflexively shut them down but to engage them on the merits and see what value there may be in what they are trying to say.”

It is true, as Ben-Ami asserts in his book, that some right-wing and centrist critics of his organization have launched vitriolic and distortion-filled attacks against J Street and its leaders, often working to blackball them from various forums.

And he’s also right in arguing that many of J Street’s main policy positions—a Jewish state in Israel, a demilitarized Palestinian state, borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, no Palestinian right of return, a compromise on Jerusalem—fall well within the Israeli and Jewish mainstream. To boot, J Street has criticized Palestinian incitement and worked with other Jewish organizations to head off anti-Israel boycott campaigns.

At the same time, Ben-Ami papers over, outright ignores or misrepresents several controversies in which criticism of J Street was more widespread and rooted in reality.

Take George Soros-gate, the controversy over the news that the billionaire funder of anti-communist and anti-Bush causes—and a critic of some Israeli security and settlement policies—in fact had been a leading donor to J Street.

“The revelation of his support generated a storm of controversy,” Ben-Ami recounts. “So did the decision not to make his support public when it began.”

Well, not exactly. The issue wasn’t funding but credibility: J Street had spent years essentially denying Soros was a donor when in fact he was one of the organization’s biggest funders.

In another flash of denial, Ben-Ami writes that “if, God forbid, war were to break out tomorrow and Israel’s existence were to be threatened, the American Jewish community and Jews worldwide would—without a doubt and appropriately—rally to the flag.”

Maybe most Jewish groups would, but not J Street—at least not in December 2008, when Israel went to war against Hamas to stop rocket attacks on its cities. Just hours after the Israeli operation started, J Street criticized it on strategic grounds. And then, in a move that would upset even sympathetic liberals, one of J Street’s spokesmen sent out a mass e-mail suggesting that those backing the Israeli operation lacked “sanity and moderation” and proudly declaring that “there are many who recognize elements of truth on both sides of this gaping divide.”

But perhaps the most consistent blind spot are the repeated calls by Ben-Ami and J Street for a wide communal tent and respectful dialogue even while they are swinging sharp elbows.

Ben-Ami’s book is no exception. “A New Voice for Israel” contains several unfair and inaccurate generalizations about other Jewish organizations.

For example, Ben-Ami criticizes the Anti-Defamation League for its opposition to the Islamic community center near Ground Zero, and a few sentences later laments that “overall, the response from the established American Jewish community to growing intolerance all across the United States has been muted at best.”

Criticizing the ADL’s position on the Lower Manhattan Islamic center is fair game, but Ben-Ami’s broader claim is an outright falsehood. The ADL itself has issued frequent condemnations of anti-Islamic bigotry and participated in an effort to defend the general right of American Muslims to build mosques.

Judging from the book, J Street continues, in the name of open discourse, to defend engaging with harsh critics of Israel—including having a BDS supporter speak on a panel at its conference—even while arguing that Jewish groups and U.S. lawmakers should give the cold shoulder to right-wing Christian Zionists.

Ben-Ami also lumps centrists who favor a two-state solution together with those who oppose Israeli concessions and push for settlement expansion. And he suggests that politicians and Jewish organizational leaders who disagree with J Street or criticize the organization fall short on supporting peace and democracy—or they have bowed to intimidation from pro-Israel forces.

Of course, name a major Jewish advocacy organization—ADL, AIPAC, American Jewish Committee, Zionist Organization of America, etc.—and you might find some combination of political and policy miscues, potentially embarrassing funder information, misleading comments, examples of playing dirty or failing to live up to stated ideals. So J Street is hardly alone.

On the policy front, Ben-Ami’s book serves as a healthy reminder that while J Street has described itself as the Obama administration’s “blocking back,” the organization actually disagreed with the president’s early overarching focus on pressuring Israel to enact a settlement freeze. In the end, Obama has come around to J Street’s approach: having the United States publicly outline the favored parameters of a deal, starting with borders and security.

While this, too, is likely to fan anti-J Street flames in some centrist and right-wing circles, in the end the organization’s biggest challenge could well come from the left.

During the past year, one could make the argument that the upstart Jewish Voice for Peace has emerged as the main challenger for the hearts and minds of Jews on the left who feel alienated from Israel and the Jewish establishment. That’s bad news if you count yourself as a pro-Israel activist.

You don’t like J Street’s policies? Jewish Voice for Peace supports some boycotts and divestment measures targeting Israel and takes no position on whether it backs a two-state solution.

You don’t like J Street’s tactics? JVP activists heckled Israel’s prime minister at another Jewish organization’s conference.

By comparison, Ben-Ami’s talk about Zionism, support for U.S. aid to Israel and opposition to the BDS movement sound downright establishment. And if JVP’s influence and popularity grow, it might not be long before establishment folks start telling themselves that maybe J Street wasn’t so bad after all.

Netanyahu opposes inquiry into left-wing groups

Benjamin Netanyahu said he opposes a proposal for parliamentary investigations of Israeli groups critical of the country’s policies toward the Palestinians.

“We don’t need investigations in the Knesset,” the Israeli prime minister said Thursday night, speaking in Tel Aviv at a gathering honoring the work of a Chabad-affiliated federation of Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

However, Netanyahu said he would not require members of his Likud Party to vote with him on the issue.

Members of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which is behind the push for the establishment of Knesset investigative commissions and is a member of the governing coalition, responded with anger to Netanyahu’s remarks. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who hails from Yisrael Beiteinu, said his party expected the other parties in the governing coaltion to require their members to support the bill. Lieberman warned that if coaltion discipline is not enforced on this legislation, his party would not be obligated to vote with the coalition in the future.

“The struggle against the organizations that directly or indirectly support terror and harm IDF soldiers and Israel’s right to defend itself is necessary for Israel’s security and its very existence,” said the bill’s sponsor, Knesset member Faina Kirschenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu. “It’s a shame that the heads of Likud sacrifice essential security interests, their obligations to voters, and national values, in order to satisfy the media and leftist groups,” she added, according to Haaretz.

The fight over the parliamentary inquiries comes fast on the heels of the Knesset’s passage of a controversial anti-boycott law that sanctions those who boycott Israel or West Bank settlements. That law, which Netanyahu said he supports, has been decried as anti-democratic by opposition parties, left-wing NGOs and civil rights groups in Israel. It also has been criticized by Jewish groups in the United States.

At the Thursday event, Netanyahu also said he opposes a proposal to allow a Knesset committee to veto appointments to the Israeli Supreme Court.

“One of our most basic foundations is the courts and it cannot be harmed,” Netanyahu said, according to The Jerusalem Post. “I will defend the court.”

Left and right clash at Tel Aviv rally to support Palestinian state

Leading left-wing cultural leaders, including several Israel Prize laureates, were verbally accosted on Thursday during a rally in support of an independent Palestinian state.

The rally, taking place outside Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall, was reportedly disrupted by right-wing activists equipped with bullhorns, who called out: “leftist professors, it will all blow up in your face,” “Kahane was right,” and “traitors.”

Rally organizers and participants, who included 21Israel Prize laureates, said present police forces did not separate rally goers from objectors, as they usually do during right-wing events.


Knesset approves probe of left-wing groups

Israel’s Knesset voted to form a parliamentary committee to investigate left-wing Israeli organizations that criticize the Israeli military’s actions.

The initiative, proposed by the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, passed Wednesday by a vote of 47 to 16.

The committee will be charged with determining if the groups are funded by foreign countries or by other groups with links to terrorism.

Israeli human rights groups have criticized the initiative.

State Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ruled in the summer that organizations cannot be investigated for criticizing the Israel Defense Forces activities.

Some of the organizations singled out during the discussion included Yesh Din, Machsom Watch, B’tselem, Adallah and Breaking the Silence,

“Investigate us all, we have nothing to hide,” read an open letter signed by 16 Israeli human rights organizations that was excerpted in Haaretz. “You are invited to read our reports and our publications. We will be happy if for a change you relate in a germane way to our questions instead of trying to besmirch us. It did not work in the past and it will not work this time.”

Iran policy reveals split between U.S. Jewish and Israeli left

Israel’s highest-ranking female soldier, Brig. Gen. Yisraela Oron, was sounding all the right notes for her J Street hosts.

At the tail end of a U.S. tour for the left-wing pro-Israel lobby, Oron was lending her considerable security credentials to its platform: a two-state solution, territorial concessions by Israel and a robust U.S. peacemaking role.

The conversation with a group of reporters then turned to Iran and its nuclear potential, and Oron was unequivocal: yes to engagement, but on a timetable that would be tied to punishing sanctions.

“The thing that worries me and that worries other Israelis is that it is not limited in time,” Oron said as the faces of her J Street hosts turned anxious, adding that “I’m not sure I’m expressing the J Street opinion.”

She was not. J Street explicitly opposes a timetable and has reservations about proposed additional sanctions.

The awkward moment pointed to a potential split between left-wing pro-Israel groups and the Israeli constituents for whom they claim to speak. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian issue, little dissent exists among Israeli politicians over how to deal with Iran.

That puts left-wing U.S. Jewish groups at odds with Israeli left-wingers.

“There is a more hawkish perception among virtually all circles in Israel” than there is in the United States, said Yossi Alpher, a consultant who has worked with Americans for Peace Now. “It’s very natural. Iran doesn’t say the U.S. has no right to exist and doesn’t do the equivalent of denying the Holocaust. It doesn’t deploy proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah against the United States and on its borders.”

Right now, the differences are not pronounced—the administrations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama are virtually on the same page on the need to confront Iran, and soon. That could change, however, if Iran makes a serious counter offer to Obama’s proposal to engage.

Last week, the Iranians said they had made such an offer. Its details are not known, but it will be part of the “reassessment” Obama has pledged to complete by the end of September, when the major world powers meet at the U.N. General Assembly.

“If Iran engages and the Obama administration argues that a deal has been made, the Israeli government will be very wary,” Alpher said. “This could immediately create a whole world of suspicions.”

Under those circumstances, the vast majority of American Jewish voters who backed Obama last year would be faced with the first either-or U.S. vs. Israel issue in decades, and groups that describe themselves as pro-Israel and pro-peace will find themselves for the first time speaking for virtually no one in Israel on a critical issue.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will lobby in Washington on Sept. 10 and rally outside the General Assembly on Sept. 24 for sanctions that would end the export of refined petroleum to Iran, which imports 40 percent of its refined oil.

On Israel’s left, the Labor Party, currently part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, aggressively backs sanctions. Its leader and the current defense minister, Ehud Barak, makes Iran’s isolation the centerpiece of his exchanges with his counterparts in the West.

The smaller Meretz Party, to Labor’s left, also backs Iran’s isolation. It routinely frames its arguments for robust peacemaking in terms of the need to contain Iran’s ambitions.

Former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin tells audiences that Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister who launched the Oslo process in 1993, did so principally because of his fears of Iran. Beilin told a German audience last year that he “advocates increased sanctions towards Iran in order to stop centrifugal uranium programs.”

Avshalom Vilan, a Meretz Knesset member until March, was a forceful advocate of reaching out to the nations most able to wound Iran’s economy, including Germany and India.

Across the ocean, however, left-wing U.S. Jewish groups—not to mention non-Jewish left-wing groups—are against more sanctions.

Americans for Peace Now has the most pronounced opposition.

“We don’t think crippling sanctions are right if the meaning of that is that the sanctions will not be targeted against Iran’s governments and leaders but will target Iranian people,” spokesman Ori Nir said. “We think that’s not only morally wrong but is also strategically perilous.”

Other left-wing groups also hedge on the prospect of sanctions.

The Israel Policy Forum, in a July 15 paper, encouraged engagement and said threats of enhanced sanctions were “not necessary” because Iran’s leadership knew they were forthcoming.

The most recent statement from Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, dated July 2008, rejects “diplomatic isolation or veiled threats of military action” and advocates “utilizing diplomatic and economic incentives and sanctions together.”

In a policy statement, J Street says it does not oppose further sanctions “in principle,” but “under the current circumstances, it is our view that ever harsher sanctions at this time are unlikely to cause the Iranian regime to cease weapons development.” Engagement should “not be conducted with a stopwatch,” it said.

The Reform movement, which often aligns with the left-wing groups on Israel-Palestinian matters, is a bit closer to the Israeli position when it comes to Iran.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform’s Religious Action Center, disputes Americans for Peace Now’s contention that the proposed enhanced sanctions are immoral.

“These were chosen as a much more targeted way to put the maximum pressure on the power structure in Iran,” he said.

The other left-wing pro-Israel groups arrived at their Iran policies partly because of their alliance with an array of liberal Democrats wary of engaging Iran in the wake of the Iraq War and its resultant quagmire. Behind the scenes, these groups have sought sanctions that would not harm ordinary Iranians.

Supporters of tougher sanctions argue that sanctions targeting the regime have been in place for years and have had little effect.

Shai Franklin, a senior fellow for U.N. affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said that gravitating away from deference to Israeli constituencies may be healthy for some U.S. Jewish groups.

“It makes the conversation more interesting, and once that happens you’ll find more people getting involved, from the right and left,” he said.

Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum said differences might emerge next month over the pacing and intensity of sanctions.

“The Iran difference is part of a differentiation that has got to be addressed,” he said. “At some point there has to be a serious dialogue between American Jews and Israel and the Obama administration and Israel.”

One tactic might be to remind Israel that Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran appears to have rallied support in Europe in recent weeks for tougher sanctions.

“The doves,” Spiegel said, “accomplished what the hawks could not.”

War Marks Defining Moment for Jews

The current war with Iraq marks a defining moment in the
lives of American Jews and their lives in this country. For generations, Jews
have lived, for the most part, on the left-wing edge of the
American commonwealth.

They have been — in Hollywood, in the political world,
academia and the media — generally hostile to the idea of the projection of
American power and the idea of a new American empire.

This may soon be changing. Although initially somewhat less
supportive of the Iraq invasion than other Americans, Jews are far more behind
the projection of American power, arguably, than at any time since World War
II. Over half of Jews strongly supported the Bush policy before the outbreak of
hostility, according to the Pew Research Center; that percentage has likely
increased more recently, as has occurred in the rest of the population.

How should Jews deal with the fact that America, by invading
Iraq, has become in many ways an openly more assertive kind of empire?

This is no exaggeration. The utter failure of the European
“allies” and the U.N. to stop Iraq’s weapons programs has forced the United
States, with whatever allies it can muster, to operate largely without NATO,
E.U. or U.N. approval.

Yet is becoming an empire necessarily bad?

It depends, clearly, on the nature of the empire. Given the
current world chaos, not only in the Middle East but in North Asia as well,
some power needs to assert itself over the outlaw regimes that seek to gain
weapons of mass destruction.

The U.N. is useless for this; France too interested in
selling its products; Germany too shell-shocked by its past; Russia still
resentful of its decline. Only America can, or better, will, provide a
counterweight for order.

Jews, for many reasons, need to rally to this notion, not
only because of Iraq’s lethal anti-Semitic and anti-Israel stance, but because
Jews, as an exposed minority, need a legal, responsible ordered world system.
The alternative — a world controlled by the likes of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong
Il — is terrifying.

This support should not be simply couched in terms of
support for Israel. The latent anti-Semitic elements on the left and right —
from Arab activists to Democratic Rep. James Moran and Pat Buchanan — can
easily make the point that Jews pushed the Iraq war simply for Israel’s sake.
Would they, for example, back a possible strike at North Korea or somewhere
else that could be launched for the same principles?

In a sense, we need to transcend two now powerful notions of
Jewish identity. The first, now largely predominant, is one tied up with the
current State of Israel.

This loyalty is understandable but not sufficient for
American Jews’ political identity. As great an idea as the Jewish State may be,
it is only a comparatively small force or ideal compared to that projected by
the might of diverse American republic.

The other is what could be called the “perpetual shtetl”
notion of Judaism. In this, we are always victims and must associate with those
forces — minorities, Third World nations, oppressed genders and sexual groups —
no matter what the consequences to ourselves or the nation. This view
represents a kind of nostalgic identification with either czarist oppression of
the last century or with the experiences of the 1960s.

Neither of these views takes into account the new world
situation. Today it is only America — in Iraq today, in Bosnia before and
perhaps North Korea tomorrow — that stands between global disorder, including
the eventual destruction of Israel and any hope for progress in the 21st

This American empire represents something new and worth our
loyalty. It was designed, as Thomas Jefferson suggested, as “an empire for
liberty.” We do not seek to conquer Iraq like scores of invaders leading up to the
Turks or British, most recently.

After our victory in 1945, we did not occupy permanently
Germany or Japan. Indeed, we even endure strong dissent from these countries
and those we saved from conquest, like France and South Korea. We acknowledge
that dissent is a testament to our national virtues.

But is this new empire good for the Jews?

Throughout our history, Jews have flourished under strong,
and at least basically just, empire. This was true under Cyrus the Great of
Persia, under Alexander and the Ptolemies of Egypt, where Jews constructed
their greatest centers of learning, first in Babylon and then Alexandria. By
the time of the birth of Christ, and before the collapse of the Judaic State,
two-thirds of all Jews already lived outside Palestine, mostly in areas under
some form of strong imperial control.

Even under Rome, which extinguished Jewish independence,
many of our scholars, teachers, craftsmen and traders found a comfortable
existence. Many became citizens, perhaps most famously, Saul of Tarsus, later
to be known as St. Paul. Indeed, after the Second Revolt and the expulsion from
Jerusalem, Jews largely benefited from Pax Romana.

This was particularly true under the enlightened Antonine
emperors. Jewish cultural and community life flourished from the Galilee —
Tiberius alone boasted 13 synagogues — to Mesopotamia, in Alexandria, Spain,
France and Rome, itself.

It was under Roman rule, for example, that the Mishnah was
written. Synagogues were even established and named after emperors like Severus.
Under Rome, we became, for the first time, a truly Diaspora people with global

This was no accident. At its best, Rome, like America, posed
an ideal of breathtaking scope and cosmopolitan vision. It sought to be a
transnational empire open to diverse races and, in exchange for loyalty,
allowing a wide breadth of religious practice and philosophical practice.

“Rome,” wrote Areistedes, a Greek writer in the second
century, “is a citadel which has all the peoples of the earth as its villagers.”

This universalist notion was perhaps best expressed by
Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and philosopher, who assumed the principate in 161
C.E. at the death of highly regarded Antoninus Pius. Aurelius claimed that he
arose each morning to “do the work of man.”

“For me, Antoninus,” Aurelius wrote, “my city and fatherland
is Rome, but as a man, the world. “

When the order of this empire came about, it was a disaster
for the Jews. As cities declined, commerce waned and superstition, including
within both Christianity and Judaism, waxed, our civilization declined. It was
only with new and healthier imperial structures — notably the Persian
Sassanians and, ironically, the early Islamic empire — that Jewish culture
began to revive again, most notably in Muslim-controlled Spain.

Today’s American empire, not surprisingly, now serves as the
primary center of Jewish culture, creativity and commerce. Israel is important,
but it is essentially a dependency of the American empire.

The connections of Israel to Europe, so beloved by many
liberal Israelis, are likely to weaken further as anti-Semitism and
pro-Islamicist force grow, particularly in France. Israelis, likely in the
hundreds of thousands, gravitate here.

The question is what do Jews owe as citizens of this empire?

I think we have much to offer. To survive, America must keep
its moral compass. It is right for us to question unjust acts and also require
virtue, particularly in areas such as overconsumption of fossil fuels. Our
intellectual and commercial sharpness, and history-shaped experience, represent
an important asset to America.

Will this mean a new American Jewish identity?

Yes, to some extent. Clearly the war in Iraq will accelerate
the gradual shift of Jews toward the center and, to a lesser extent, even to
the right.

Both the old shtetl mentality and that of the 1960s will
also fade, particularly among the young and more recent newcomers to the
country. Recent Russian or Persian immigrants are not likely to be as
enraptured by an old Stalinist like Castro or willing to cut a break to an
anti-Semitic monster like Saddam, as those Jews still romantically attached to
the spent utopianism of the left.

At the same time, the left, the traditional home for many
Jews, seems destined to become increasingly inhospitable to Jews. We have
already seen the marginalization of pro-Israel leftists.

The antiwar movement, with its powerful links in both Europe
and America, with those sympathetic or even supportive of terrorists, places
the opposition uncomfortably in bed with those who want to kill Jews, simply
because they are Jews, in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Tunisia and New York — or LAX
and Sherman Oaks.

Does this mean all Jews will become conservatives after the

No, although most will become further to the right on
foreign policy, as the fact that few Jews in Congress, including liberals, have
been prominent in the opposition to the war. But they will not, I believe,
become a bunch of Rush Limbaugh or even Dennis Praeger “dittoheads.” There are
simply too many issues — abortion, school prayer and economic justice — that
separate most Jews from the Republican mainstream.

But, Jews, like other Americans, will emerge from this war a
changed people. We will come, I believe, with an enhanced notion of connection
to the American empire and to our critical place within it.