Opinion

The Blatant Moral Bankruptcy of U.S. Jewish Groups Shilling for Israel's Annexation

Why are establishment U.S. Jewish organizations like the AJC doubling down on defending Israeli government actions that violate the values they're supposed to represent?

Russel Neiss
Russel Neiss
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AJC article describing how despite international opposition and the organization's own reservation, the AJC 'will make the strongest possible case' for annexation
AJC article describing how despite international opposition and the organization's own reservation, the AJC 'will make the strongest possible case' for annexation Credit: Twitter
Russel Neiss
Russel Neiss

"Our organization is not a Zionist organization and never has been. Our non-Zionist philosophy is something we have always spelled out clearly. We have differed with the Zionist ideology because of its implications concerning the nature of Jewish life in America."

Those words are not from a pithy tweet by a young Jewish activist from Jewish Voice for Peace protesting against the "American Jewish Establishment." Rather, they were spoken in 1951, three years after the creation of the Jewish state, by the president of perhaps the most established of establishment Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee.

This sort of language might surprise those who believe that American Jewish support for the policies of the Jewish state have always been universal, but it should not.

The truth is, for much of the 20th century, normative American Judaism was non-Zionist, and sometimes openly anti-Zionist, because American Jews were more concerned with fighting antisemitism, injustice, and racism at home than they were at supporting a newly rebirthed homeland in Eretz Yisrael. 

This week, that same organization, the American Jewish Committee, put out an op-ed authored by their Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer explaining how they intended to defend Israel's plan to move forward to annex segments of the West Bank, even though they themselves know it is bad for the Jews, and bad for Israel.

In explaining why, they ignore their own history of wrestling with Zionism and the effect of Israel's policies on U.S. Jews to simply suggest that it is because the "AJC will do what it has always done: explain Israel to the wider world."

This glorious moral bankruptcy is obviously ahistorical, but it also bespeaks a reality where dominant diaspora Jewish organizations refuse to publicly speak out against actions by the Israeli government even when they know that it is wrong. Why is that?

How is that an organization that was explicitly non-Zionist within the lifetime of its current leadership, and committed to international human rights, now feels compelled to ignore its mission and defend human rights violations even as they publicly admit it's a bad idea?

How is it that despite the warnings of three previous Israeli prime ministers, including two IDF Chiefs of Staff and a former justice and foreign minister, that these sorts of steps towards annexation would lead to "apartheid," that not a single leader of a dominant Jewish organization in America can bring themselves to use the same word publicly?

How is it that in just a generation, the muscular Jewish leadership that existed in the Diaspora has been replaced by an Israeli caricature of itself: weak galus yidn, unwilling to stand up for our own beliefs, whose only role is to support our strong brethren in the Holy Land?

To be sure, our people's historic connection to our biblical homeland and the obligations of Jews to support each other around the world should remain some of our community's highest priorities. But why must that always manifest itself as supporting the policies of a nation state engaged in policies with which we disagree, and which are often in opposition to our values?

Protesters, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gather in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to denounce Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, on June 23, 2020
Protesters, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gather in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to denounce Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, on June 23, 2020Credit: AFP

Why is it that one's credibility as a Zionist is measured solely by how loudly we can shill for a government that often does not live up to its own Zionist vision as articulated in its founding documents and Basic Laws? 

As an American Jewish Zionist, I stand against annexation because I believe it is against the values I hold dear as an American. It contradicts my sense of the democratic principles that have been ingrained in me by virtue of my birthright and the assimilation of a lifetime spent learning the ideals of the country in which I was born.

As an American Jewish Zionist, I stand against annexation because I believe it is antithetical to the values I hold dear as a Jew. It contradicts my understanding of halakhah and it offends my theological sensibilities, heavily influenced by Hasidic and neo-Hasidic thinkers like Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin, Rabbi Aaron Shmuel Tamares and others.  

As an American Jewish Zionist, I stand against annexation because I believe it is against the values I hold dear as a Zionist. It will hurt the Jewish nation, and it contradicts the words in Israel's Declaration of Independence to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

For all those reasons, as an American Jewish Zionist, I stand in support with Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni in saying that annexation is apartheid. I stand in support of my Israeli brethren from both the left and the right who have been protesting the annexation plans of the Netanyahu government. And I stand in support with the Palestinian people who are seeking their own self-determination and liberation just as we demanded them for ourselves last century.

In short, I stand in support of my values. It is a shame that the dominant Jewish establishment organizations in America are unwilling to do the same.

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, and activist based in St. Louis, MO. He is the creator of PocketTorah and the viral Stl_Manifest bot among many other Jewish educational technology initiatives. He is a winner of the 2020 Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education. Twitter: @russelneiss