How the American Jewish Establishment Silences U.S. Politicians About Settlements

When U.S. Jewish leaders falsely accused Rep. Hank Johnson of 'anti-Semitism' they proved to American politicians that expressing moral outrage about the occupation can imperil their careers.

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Palestinian protester Mustafa Tamimi falls on the ground after being badly injured by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a demonstration in Nabi Saleh, West Bank, December 9, 2011.
Palestinian protester injured when IDF troops fire tear gas at protesters in the West Bank's Nebi Saleh, in December 2011.Credit: Haim Schwarczenberg, AP

Want to know how the American Jewish establishment keeps American politicians from questioning Israeli policy in the West Bank? This is how.

Last week, on the fringes of the Democratic National Convention, Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson spoke on a panel sponsored by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

In his remarks, Johnson argued that settlement growth was imperiling the possibility of a Palestinian state. Because that context is crucial to understanding the controversy that followed, I’ll quote him at length:

“Territory that was given to the Palestinians or was recognized as Palestinian land has been seized, sometimes as a result of war, and as a result of the seizure, came occupation. But that was not the only cause of the growing occupation.

"It has been the, in addition to war and seizure of land, there has been a steady--almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself– there has been settlement activity that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever increasing rate to the point where it has become alarming.

"And it has become to the point that occupation, with highways that cut through Palestinian land, with walls that go up, with the inability or the restriction, with the illegality of Palestinians being able to travel on those roads and those roads cutting off Palestinian neighborhoods from each other. And then with the building of walls and the building of checkpoints that restrict movement of Palestinians.

"We’ve gotten to the point where the thought of a Palestinian homeland gets further and further removed from reality.” 

Johnson’s core argument was utterly familiar. Three days after his remarks, the State Department itself said the Israeli government’s “steady acceleration of settlement activity” was “systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.”

But while the State Department merely called settlements “corrosive to the cause of peace,” Johnson extended the metaphor, comparing settlements to “termites” that “eat” away at the prospects for a “Palestinian homeland.”

As a result, all hell broke loose. The right-wing Washington Free Beacon, which specializes in accusing critics of Israeli policy of anti-Semitism, published an article headlined “Congressman: Jewish Settlers Are Like Termites,

The headline was false. Johnson had not compared settlers to termites. He had said nothing about what settlers are like as people.

He had compared settlements to termites because settlements eat away at structure of a Palestinian state. That would have been clearer had the Free Beacon article linked to a video of Johnson’s remarks. But it did not.

Nevertheless, the Anti-Defamation League, retweeting an article based on the Free Beacon report, quickly demanded that Johnson “apologize and retract this offensive, unhelpful characterization.”  

An hour later, Johnson did just that, declaring, “Poor choice of words – apologies for offense. Point is settlement activity continues slowly undermine 2-state solution.” 

It wasn’t enough. The following day, prominent Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe penned an article in Time calling Johnson’s apology “equivocal and insufficient.” (Rabbi Wolpe told me that he had written in response to the Free Beacon article and had not seen a video or transcript of Johnson’s remarks).  

The ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt piled on, too, tweeting that, “no ‘point’ justifies referring to human beings in such an abhorrent, inappropriate manner.

So Johnson apologized again, and abandoned his effort to make any point about settlements at all: “You’re right @JGreenblattADL,” he tweeted, “I sincerely apologize for the offensive analogy. Period.” 

The whole episode is as instructive as it is depressing. I know and like both Rabbi Wolpe and Jonathan Greenblatt. Both occupy the center, not the right, of the American Jewish spectrum. Neither is a champion of settlements.

But their response to Johnson’s comments is exactly why so many American politicians fear saying what should be obvious: that holding millions of West Bank Palestinians for almost a half century as non-citizens under military law, without free movement or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, is morally wrong.

In their condemnations, both Greenblatt and Wolpe accused Johnson of reviving a longstanding anti-Semitic trope. Greenblatt said Johnson had “played into traditional anti-Semitic canards.”

Wolpe said that, “to call Jews ‘termites’ is base and vile” because “We are a half century away from millions of human beings who were designated as ‘vermin’ and killed.” 

The problem with this line of argument is that it renders the truth of Johnson’s statement irrelevant. Obviously, Jews are not like insects. But settlements are like termites in that they undermine the territorial foundation of a viable Palestinian state.

If a politician cannot say that because it echoes anti-Semitic propaganda, then how can we discuss Bernie Madoff, whose swindling operation sounds like something out of a Goebbels fantasy?

In fact, Yitzhak Rabin himself discussed settlements in terms that Greenblatt and Wolpe would deem anti-Semitic. In 1976, he analogized the “settlement movement” to “a cancer in the social and democratic tissue of the state of Israel.”

After the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre, he compared violent settlers to “a foreign implantan errant weed.” l Jews as disease. Jews as alien intruders. I could write the ADL press release myself.

But, of course, when Israeli leaders, or prominent American Jews, employ incendiary language to criticize Israeli policy, they generally get a pass.

In 2014, when John Kerry told the Trilateral Commission that without a “two state solution,” Israel could become “an apartheid state,” the ADL called his comments “offensive”  Yet over the last decade or so, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak , the Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the late Canadian Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman Sr. have made the exact same point. , all without criticism from the ADL.

When I mentioned this discrepancy to Wolpe—who, to his credit, responded graciously and thoughtfully to my inquiries—he responded that, “In-group and out-group standards inevitably differ.”

Perhaps, but American Jews should struggle against that double standard, not perpetuate it. As Maimonides famously wrote, in explaining why he was citing non-Jewish philosophers in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Jews should “accept the truth no matter what its source.”

Johnson’s core contention--that it’s hard to create a viable Palestinian state of the kind articulated in the Clinton parameters if settlements and the infrastructure that undergirds them eat away at more and more of the West Bank’s land (and water)—is true.

And Johnson knows it’s true because he’s seen it for himself. In late May, he and four other members of congress spent close to a week in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on the first congressional trip ever organized by a local Palestinian NGO.

Someone on the trip told me that the members were shocked and deeply moved by what they saw. Upon listening to Palestinians describe life under Israeli military rule, several broke into tears.

It’s that experience that led Johnson to speak the way he did in Philadelphia last week. But it’s an experience that Rabbi Wolpe, like most American Jewish leaders, doesn’t really understand he’s never spent any significant time witnessing Palestinian life in the West Bank. (Jonathan Greenblatt told me he has spent time with West Bank Palestinians but didn’t respond when I asked him to elaborate).

What’s more, by flogging Johnson for his comments, Wolpe and Greenblatt are inhibiting other American politicians from seeing what Johnson saw.

If politicians fear that going to the West Bank, and expressing moral outrage on their return, will imperil their careers, most simply won’t go. It’s easier not to know.

What’s at stake in the Johnson controversy is the moral cocoon that American Jews have built for ourselves. It is a cocoon that enables American Jewish leaders to be more outraged by a politician who compares settlements to “termites” than by Israel’s denial of basic human rights to millions of people for 49 years.

It is a cocoon that American Jewish leaders work hard to build around members of congress. And it is a cocoon that Johnson broke out of, at his peril.

Wait a second, did I just analogize American Jewish organizational life to a cocoon, a silk casing spun by caterpillars, which are, after all, insects? No wonder I’m defending Congressman Johnson. I’m an anti-Semite too.