November 16, 2018

Whither the Left?

Gallup reports from Israel and the West Bank on Israeli public opinion regarding the Middle East peace process

When, after seven years of violence, President George W. Bush brought the Israelis and Palestinians together last November to resume peace talks at Annapolis, right-wing groups in America and Israel mobilized their members in protest. The unified message: Jerusalem should not be divided.

Breaking ranks was out of order, and when the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky offered a Shabbat sermon to his Los Angeles congregation, reprinted in the Op-Ed pages of this newspaper, allowing for the fact that Israel might need to put Jerusalem on the negotiating table — though that was not his preference — he caused a huge outcry that was even reported in the Los Angeles Times. Now the rabbi declines to discuss the matter: “Getting slotted politically has not been good for my rabbinate, and that’s where my first obligation is,” Kanefsky said this week.

But what turned out to be most surprising about Annapolis was not the unified right, or that one Orthodox rabbi was censured just for keeping an open mind, but rather that the left remained mostly silent.

Think about it: For the first time in his two-term reign, Bush announced support for a peace treaty, with a two-state solution to be signed by the end of 2008: “We meet to lay the foundation for the establishment of a new nation, a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security,” he said.

His announcement might have been followed by mass public approval shown by rallies in Washington, outpourings of donations or letter-writing campaigns to Congress to show the American government that there is a vibrant, pro-Israel pro-peace movement in America.

But is there?

What exactly is the state of the pro-Israel peace movement in America? Does the Jewish institutional establishment represent the position of the American Jewish community? And if not, why are alternate voices not being heard?

Splinters of the Left Wing

In the lead up to Annapolis, one group did mobilize its base to show support for the peace process. Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (BTV), a grass-roots organization that educates and mobilizes American Jews in support of a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, put out a letter with more than 500 rabbis’ signatures in favor of Annapolis. But for the most part, Annapolis — and the entire idea of peace talks — seems to be on the back burner.

BTV is one of a number of pro-peace, pro-Israel organizations based in Washington, with chapters or offices in other states, that essentially share the same politics: a desire for peace negotiations to establish two secure, democratic states.

But one of the reasons the left has not managed to get this message across is that the many organizations that it comprises mostly work separately, and each takes on a different aspect of an issue. Although they sometimes work together, such as making the Palestinian anti-terrorism act of 2006 less punitive to the Palestinians. Divisions avoid redundancy, but the lack of unity also has kept the pro-Israel leftist movement in the United States from having a strong, uniform voice.

For example, there is the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), which was founded in 1993, after the Oslo accords, as an “independent, mainstream organization dedicated to mobilizing American Jews in support of sustained U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.” IPF tries to shape public discussion by producing news analysis and recommendations, and delivering policy messages to legislators in Washington.

Older than IPF is Americans for Peace Now (APN), created in 1981 to aid and support the Israeli Shalom Akhshav movement, which educates the American Jewish Community on the benefits of peace in the Middle East.

“We’re Washington based. We really try to influence the corridors of power on the Hill and with the think tanks and the media. We’re not chapter based,” APN spokesman Ori Nir said.

BTV is a chapter-based organization, with 39 chapters around the country and a mailing list of 38,000 people.

“Our niche is bringing the grass roots,” working with people rather than on policy, said Diane Balser, BTV interim executive director. “I think we’ve made it known that there’s a growing pro-Israel and pro-peace force in the United States.”

“I do think the American Jewish community is supportive of a two-state solution and is willing to make compromises to make peace,” said Larry Garber, CEO of the New Israel Fund (NIF), another left-wing organization in Los Angeles that advocates for social change in Israel, but does not directly deal with the peace process. “Our job is to provide them with information on how this is doable, and what are the various options that will lead to this result.”

That, Nir said, is the crux of the issue: “There are so many Jews who are pro-peace, but no one has yet effectively found the formula of how to bring them into play and mobilize them into actual activism. I think it can be done.”

Out of Step With the Jews?

Many on the left believe the American Jewish institutional leadership is out of touch with what American Jews really want.

According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2007 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, a majority of American Jews do not believe that negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will lead to peace in the foreseeable future (55 percent versus 36 percent), and an overwhelming majority do not believe that Israel can achieve peace with a Hamas-led government (74 percent versus 17 percent), yet a majority — 46 percent — still support the establishment of a Palestinian state (versus 43 percent who do not).

“We think that many American Jews are more mainstream than the organizations that purport to represent them,” said Naomi Pais, director of communications for NIF.