Opinion

This Year at AIPAC, Unquestioning Support for Trump and Netanyahu Can’t Be an Option

Are traditional pro-Israel voices really willing to voice the American Jewish community’s opposition to the attack on liberal, democratic values underway in both Israel and the U.S.?

President Donald Trump escorts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

This weekend, thousands of pro-Israel activists head to Washington for AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference just weeks after J Street’s national gathering.

These and other major American Jewish conventions this month come at a challenging moment for pro-Israel Americans reckoning with the meaning of political trends in Israel and the United States for relations between the two countries and their Jewish communities.

In the United States, an overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans oppose the new Trump administration and the threat it poses to values our community holds most dear like tolerance, equality and social justice.

When it comes to Israel, American Jews are growing increasingly concerned with Israeli government policies that undermine the chances of a two-state solution, threaten the underpinnings of Israeli democracy and challenge the very nature of the Judaism most of us practice.

In the face of these trends, traditional leaders of organized American Jewry face a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, faithful representation of their constituency’s views demands vocal opposition to much of the agenda of the governments in power. On the other, they have built substantial membership and power by maintaining unquestioning support of Israeli government policy and fostering friendly working relationships with those in power in Washington.

At the heart of the tension facing traditional Israel advocacy organizations is whether they accurately represent the American Jewish community when they mute criticism of the Trump administration’s agenda because it aligns politically with the sitting government of Israel. Even more challengingly, how do they maintain that silence if the new administration’s politics is enabling a rising wave of anti-Semitism?

A further challenge to the establishment comes on the question of what it means to be pro-Israel. For the first time in decades, the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution as the only means to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been put in doubt. President Trump has declared that he is open to either a “one-state or two-state” outcome.

This week, former Mossad director Tamir Pardo reminded us what Israel’s security establishment has long understood: that the true existential threat that Israel faces is a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through territorial separation into two states. 

Israel’s security experts regard “one state” as an existential threat to Israel. So why were traditional pro-Israel lobbyists silent as the Senate narrowly voted to confirm an American ambassador to Israel who not only opposes the two-state solution but has actively raised funds for the settlement enterprise that aims to prevent it? 

Over in the House of Representatives, a letter to the president has urged the administration to reiterate long-standing bipartisan support for the two-state solution. Authored by Representatives Price and Connolly, it has gathered nearly 200 signatures. But where was the support of the traditional pro-Israel lobbyists?

In Israel, recent laws passed by the Knesset – whether to ban opponents of the settlements from entering the country, to allow the illegal seizure of private Palestinian land for settlements or to make it harder for liberal groups to raise funds abroad – are all wildly out of step with the views and values of Jewish Americans.

These developments – here in the U.S. and in Israel – make this a moment of serious reckoning for pro-Israel Americans as they consider how they wish to be represented in the great political, policy and communal debates of our generation.

Shared liberal and democratic values that form the basis of the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel are under increasing threat in both countries. Are the traditional pro-Israel voices ready to speak out in their defense?

Is it appropriate to stand silently by and express unquestioning support for Israeli policy? Is it good for the Jewish community and the U.S.-Israel relationship when our leaders remain silent about threats to our own democracy, simply because the source of the threats claims to be pro-Israel?

The short answer is no.

This moment is too important, the threats too serious, the stakes too high – in Israel and the United States – for business as usual. 

We have entered a different and dangerous political era. At this moment of real challenge to our future, we need leaders who are looking out for our interests and goals, upholding our basic values, and willing to oppose and confront those leading us down dark paths.

Israel’s future and the long-term health of the U.S.-Israel relationship hang in the balance. No segment of the pro-Israel community can afford to remain silent.  

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the President of J Street.