Opinion

American Jews Are Funding the Far-right Dream of Greater Israel. We Have to End This - Now

We now know far more about how far American Jewish dollars embitter Palestinian lives, target Israel's critics and entrench the occupation. It's time to say: Enough

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America 2009 General Assembly in Washington, DC.
AFP

This week, the Jewish Federations of North America is hosting its annual General Assembly in Israel, and this year’s theme is "We need to talk."

The conference program is packed with high-profile speakers, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to incoming Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog, to business, NGO, and communal leaders. The "need to talk" is a recurring theme across the Jewish community today; if we could just have more civil discourse with one another, all of our problems would go away.

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However, the Federations' professed commitment to civility belies a sad reality: it’s committed to civil discourse as long as any mention of Palestinians and the system of discrimination that they live under - and particularly any talk of changing that reality - is excluded.

So yes, we do need to talk. We need to talk about the extent of the American Jewish Establishment’s support for the occupation and the damage done by those claiming to represent us. And the events of the last two weeks have been a sore reminder that we need to move beyond talk into action.

During the two weeks that 22-year-old Palestinian-American student Lara Alqasem sat in an Israeli detention center, challenging an order to revoke her visa to study at Hebrew University and deport her from the country, we learned that Israeli authorities were getting their "evidence" from the McCarthyist blacklist site Canary Mission, which anonymously publishes dossiers on thousands of pro-Palestinian activists in order to ruin their careers.

At the same time, we learned that the shadowy Canary Mission received hundreds of thousands of dollars from multiple major Jewish communal funds, including the Los Angeles Jewish Communal Fund. That Fund approved $250,000 to Canary Mission the same year that they blocked a $5,000 donation to IfNotNow, a grassroots, youth-led anti-occupation movement (which I co-founded).

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In San Francisco, Canary Mission was in good company with a host of shameful, extremist, Islamophobic hate groups which also received donations from their local Federations. And who received these shadowy donations on behalf of Canary Mission? A Haaretz report revealed that it was far-right Kahanist activists living in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, funding Canary Mission to silence dissent against Israeli policies is just the tip of the iceberg. A new report released by IfNotNow - "Beyond Talk: The 5 Ways the American Jewish Establishment Supports the Occupation" - shows us how, in word and deed, the entire Jewish communal apparatus defends and deepens injustice in Israel/Palestine. We should not be shocked, but we should be angry.

Jewish establishment organizations fund the dispossession of Palestinians, lobby politicians to empower Israel’s march toward full-blown apartheid, and celebrate the Israeli politicians leading that march. Many Jewish educational institutions erase and deny Palestinian narratives to keep kids ignorant of reality - and punish critical voices.

Israeli policemen use tasers to disperse activists in the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar that Israel plans to demolish. West Bank, October 17, 2018
\ MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS

In so doing, the Jewish communal apparatus plays a significant role in enabling Israel’s occupation and the Israeli government’s attempts to silence dissent. When Israel threatened to deport Alqasem for her alleged involvement in a campaign to boycott Sabra hummus, it is not just the Israeli government but the Jewish communal establishment, which funded the blacklist that landed her in detention, and participates in the witch hunt against BDS activists, that must be held accountable.

The American Jewish community’s active participation in injustice goes far further. Unquestioning support for, and defense of, the Netanyahu government has emboldened the Israeli far-right’s war to gradually dominate all of "Greater Israel." The Israeli right knows it can do whatever it wants on either side of the Green Line without so much as a word from American Jews – or, of course, from the Trump White House.

This is a war of attrition that stretches from the village of Nabi Saleh in the occupied West Bank, where Ahed Tamimi was jailed for eight months for slapping an Israeli soldier, to Nazareth in Israel’s north, where poet Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, spent over two years under house arrest, and then three months in jail, for a poem she posted on Facebook.

Both Dareen and Ahed are Palestinian women who refused to quietly accept Israel’s oppression of their people, and they have been punished severely for it. Sadly, too many in our community don’t even know Dareen or Ahed’s names, much less the names of the millions of Palestinians whose lives are embittered by our communal dollars.

An artist paints a giant mural of prominent Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. July 25, 2018
Nasser Nasser,AP

Israel’s drift to the far-right is part of a global move towards illiberalism. But American Jewish establishment organizations have been the Israeli government’s crucial partners, funders, enablers and defenders.

Our exemption of Israel from our commitment to universal civil and political freedoms has helped make space for the deeply anti-democratic, racist alliance between Trump and Netanyahu to thrive. We must not forget the standing ovations that candidate Trump was greeted with at the largest gathering of American Jews (and their Christian evangelical friends) in the country, AIPAC’s annual policy conference. 

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This is what should be discussed at the GA this week- but we already know it’s absent from the program. The JFNA’s public calls for civility are just a cynical diversion tactic.

To be sure, there were calls to defend Lara Alqasem from liberal corners of the community. However, taking one principled stand in an extreme moment hardly dents the fortified walls around Israel, both literal and intellectual, that the Jewish communal establishment has helped build, through years of financial and political support for successive Israeli governments.

Talk is cheap, but teshuva takes work. We should demand nothing less than full repentance from our institutions. Not simply public apologies, but active condemnation and promises to shift communal priorities and dollars to projects that advance freedom and equality.

Members of IfNotNow and rabbinical school students blocking traffic while protesting Trump's U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, withdrawal from Iran Deal and Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza .Washington, D.C. May 14, 2018
Gili Getz

Federations and other communal organizations that don’t should be condemned and protested. We must stop working with groups that silence dissent and facilitate human rights abuses, in violation of the principles of our people. We must work to remedy the harm we have caused.

Until then, activists from IfNotNow will continue to protest on the doorsteps of Jewish establishment organizations - because the crisis of American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation is too great to ignore, and because closed-door meetings and civil dialogue have not and will not drive the change that our community needs.

Some find our tactics disruptive and off-putting. We say we are committed to waking our community up - and to do that, we will do whatever it takes.

Simone Zimmerman is an organizer and activist from Los Angeles and a founding leader of IfNotNow, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation. Twitter: @simonerzim