By David Bernstein
New York (JP) — The discourse between Jewish groups that engage in traditional Israel advocacy and those that
attempt to alter the Israeli government’s stance on peace and human rights leaves much to be desired.
The toxic discord is sad because it pits Jew against Jew. It’s sad because it makes it hard for Jews with different viewpoints to celebrate together the miracle of modern Israel. It’s sad because it pushes away many young Jews, who don’t know why their elders can’t talk in a civil manner. It’s sad because it crowds out nuanced thinking and exploration.
Above all, it’s sad because it neglects an opportunity to both strengthen Israel’s standing in the world and enhance the country’s commitment to democracy and peace.
Indeed, both camps could benefit Israel if they stopped trying to discredit the other and joined forces whenever possible.
Let’s start with the human rights/peace camp, which often pays short shrift to advocating for Israel. It frequently argues that the only thing that would make any difference whatsoever in improving Israel’s international standing and combating delegitimization is reaching a peace agreement. Peter Beinart recently argued, for example, that “the only way to do that [stop delegitimization] is to prove that Israel is making a serious effort at ending the occupation.”
In writing off advocacy, human rights/peace supporters ignore the possibility that Palestinian leaders might not be willing to cut a peace deal and that a deal might not end the conflict. They place the entire burden of achieving peace on Israel and ignore abundant evidence of Palestinian intransigence. They also discount thoughtful pro-Israel advocacy, which time and again has, in fact, stopped boycotts and strengthened America’s connections to Israel.
For its part, the advocacy camp often downplays Israel’s very real internal threats. Fanatical right-wing Israelis, especially, want to turn the country into a modern monarchy in the entirety of the historic land of Israel. And, whether or not the traditional advocates admit it, absent a peace deal, there is both a long-term demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority and a political threat to its legitimacy.
Both camps fear the imagined consequences of acknowledging that the other camp might have a point. The human rights/peace groups worry that lending credence to advocacy gives the Israeli government a free pass on peace and human rights. The traditional advocates worry that calling attention to Israel’s internal problems gives ammunition to its adversaries. Both concerns have merit. And both are overblown.
Both camps underestimate the other. The traditional advocates often regard the human rights advocates as sellouts, and the human rights supporters often regard the traditional advocates as intellectual lightweights.
I can assure the traditional advocates that the human rights/peace supporters are much more committed to Israel — often desperately so — than you realize. They worry that the country is putting itself at risk by not taking steps for peace.
And I can assure the human rights/peace supporters that the traditional advocates are often much more well informed than you give them credit for. They’ve heard all your brilliant arguments, which they may not agree with.
If both camps could set aside for a moment their self-righteousness and suspicions, they could do Israel a world of good. The human rights/peace supporters are more effective in countering BDS than anyone in the traditional advocacy camp. They have much more credibility with players on the American left that are contemplating joining the BDS movement.
The traditional advocates could be much more effective in urging the Israeli government to protect its democratic institutions and advance the two-state vision. They could be more effective in highlighting the risks of government action or inaction to Israel’s standing in the world than anyone in the human rights/peace camp.
The human rights/peace groups have more influence with the American left, and the traditional advocates have more influence with the Israeli right. While the human rights/peace groups have occasionally engaged in traditional advocacy, and the traditional advocates have occasionally joined efforts to alter the stance of the Israeli government, there’s much more each could do to leverage the other.
Here’s a humble suggestion for how both camps can stop fighting, find synergy and help Israel:
Recognize that you may be wrong about what will bring Israel peace and security. Be 90 percent rather than 100 percent certain. On a good day, I feel 80-20 percent right. It’s a lot easier to work with someone whom you feel has a 10 or 20 percent chance of being right than someone whom you regard as positively and irredeemably mistaken.
If more of us can do that, then maybe, just maybe, we can find opportunities to work together to fortify both Israel’s body and soul.
David Bernstein is a president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.