August 22, 2019

At AIPAC, It's Israelis Against Jews

“In the spring of 1996, after the Labor Party leader Shimon Peres lost the Israeli Prime Ministership, by a fraction of a per cent, to a youthful Benjamin Netanyahu, of the Likud, he summed things up for the journalist Daniel Ben-Simon. “We lost,” Peres said. “Who is ‘we’?” Ben-Simon asked. “We, the Israelis.” “And who won?” Ben-Simon pressed. “Call them ‘the Jews,’ ” Peres said. He had no doubt been thinking through the distinction—anyway, he didn’t simply pluck it out of thin air. Netanyahu’s American political consultant, the late Arthur Finkelstein, had discretely made much of it during the campaign; the polling analyst and researcher Dahlia Scheindlin, who, years later, worked briefly with Finkelstein, recalled that “he placed great weight on the poll question, ‘Do you consider yourself more Jewish or more Israeli?’ ” He seemed to think, she said, that the distinction “explained everything in Israeli politics.”

It certainly explains much about the upcoming Israeli election, on April 9th, which seems to be a statistical toss-up between two blocs: call them the Jews, led—or incited—by Netanyahu, and the Israelis, led by Benny Gantz, the former Army chief who is the candidate of the Blue and White Party, which he recently formed with Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and the founder of the centrist Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) Party. The election poses for Israelis as stark and as consequential a decision about democratic norms as the 2020 election does for Americans. Finkelstein’s distinction matters in the United States, too, since American Jews seem fated to play an outsized role in next year’s election—especially in the Democratic primaries, where debate about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s influence over U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine—prompted, but hardly fabricated, by tweets and pronouncements from the freshman Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar—seems likely to remain a matter of contention. Indeed, the issue of Israelis vs. Jews poses a special conundrum for the delegates at the annual aipac policy conference, beginning this weekend, in Washington, D.C. The distinction may seem crucial, but delegates generally tend to ignore it, assuming that being “pro-Israel” amounts to accepting the virtues of a “Jewish state.”

In recent years, the conference has drawn nearly twenty thousand mostly Jewish delegates—community leaders, professionals, and rabbis, as well as four thousand students—with dozens of seminars and speakers who promote aipac’s lobbying to secure American financial and moral support for the Israeli government. Netanyahu and Gantz are both scheduled to address the conference, as are various Trump Administration officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence, as well as the Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. If past is prologue, the delegates will applaud both sides from both countries—proving, as the aipac Web site puts it, “bipartisan” support for a “sister” democracy—but the tensions at this year’s conference are unprecedented. Netanyahu has crossed what, for most American Jews, more than seventy-five per cent of whom voted Democratic in 2018, should be lines of principle, and often in ways that mirror Donald Trump. The Democratic 2020 candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris have announced that they will not attend.”

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