Opinion |

How America Can Ensure Its Tax Dollars Don’t Fund Israel’s Occupation

America allocates nearly $4 billion in military aid to Israel every year. Congress and the Biden administration must establish it’s not exploited to undermine U.S. interests and Palestinian rights by entrenching the occupation

Jeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami
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Israeli police officers detain a Palestinian demonstrator during a protest against evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem this month
Israeli police officers detain a Palestinian demonstrator during a protest against evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem this month.Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP
Jeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami

I appreciated Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s recent opinion piece in Haaretz (Hate the Occupation? Back U.S. Military Aid for Israel) recognizing J Street’s growth over the past decade, the breadth of support we have in Washington and the success of our annual conference.

I appreciated as well his acknowledgement that the most challenging issues critical to Israel’s future never receive the meaningful discussion they need at prominent Jewish organizations such as AIPAC.

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Rabbi Yoffie and J Street agree that Israel’s descent toward a permanent one-state reality is disastrous, posing a challenge to the Jewish people worldwide and to the ethics and values in which we root our identity.

He and I further agree that Israel can only be both democratic and the national home of the Jewish people if there is a state of Palestine. We understand that Israel’s right-wing is committed to defeating that vision and instead cementing a non-democratic one-state reality.

Where we disagree is over the challenge facing the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement in the U.S. in 2021. The challenge isn’t any longer as Rabbi Yoffie articulates it: to rally support for two states, or even to muster opposition to explicit efforts by Israel to permanently annex the territory it occupied in 1967.

Israeli troops fire tear gas on Palestinian demonstrators during a protest in the West Bank town of Beit Dajan against Israeli settlements.Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

J Street and the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement have won those battles — for certain in the broader American Jewish community and in the Democratic Party.

In December 2019, House Resolution 326 supporting two states and opposing annexation passed the House of Representatives with the support of nearly every Democratic Member of Congress. And in the summer of 2020, nearly every Democrat in the House and Senate expressed public opposition to the idea of de jure annexation.

The real challenge for Rabbi Yoffie, as a passionate two-state supporter, is to articulate exactly what American policy or action, beyond verbal support for two states, he is willing to support to bring an end to occupation.

It is disappointing that, instead of using his voice to propose the tools he would use to end occupation, Rabbi Yoffie instead chooses to attack a recently-introduced piece of legislation, the "Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act," with inaccurate arguments and misstatements of fact.

Introduced by Representative Betty McCollum, the bill in question seeks to ensure that every dollar of the nearly $4 billion of U.S. security assistance provided to Israel annually goes towards Israel’s legitimate security needs, and that none is used to support activities that undermine Israel’s security, Palestinian rights and American interests.

Such harmful acts, as enumerated the bill, include the eviction of Palestinian communities and demolition of their homes. They include the detention and interrogation of Palestinian children in violation of relevant international standards.

This legislation calls for restrictions on the use of equipment bought with U.S. assistance, designed to ensure that, while Israel receives the entirety of the aid committed to it under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by President Obama, Congress also has transparency into, and can provide clearer guidance over how and why, American-funded weapons and materiel are used.

A Palestinian woman shows her identity card to IDF officers at the Qalandia checkpoint, which controls Palestinians’ access from the West Bank to Jerusalem.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

The bill in no way authorizes or calls for cutting aid. For the record, J Street supports the Obama-era MOU and the full level of aid to which it committed, and I have personally testified in Congress in support of providing assistance at the agreed levels.

Rabbi Yoffie’s argument that "the bill’s real purpose is to prepare the way for reducing U.S. military aid to Israel" is pure speculation about future legislation. It is not a compelling argument regarding the actual piece of legislation Congress is now considering.

He is also incorrect when he states that the bill "presents Israel as an unrelenting torturer of Palestinian children." In fact, nowhere in the bill is Israel accused of such a thing. The bill does prohibit U.S. aid from being used in connection with "torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" of children — a requirement of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel itself has ratified and one with which I hope Rabbi Yoffie would not disagree.

Rabbi Yoffie also incorrectly states that Rep. McCollum is a “veteran BDS supporter.” In fact, she does not support the Global BDS Movement, and as a matter of policy J Street does not endorse members of Congress who do.

Finally, Rabbi Yoffie is mistaken in his characterization of the House of Representatives’ recent Deutch-McCaul letter on U.S. security assistance to Israel, which he says AIPAC organized "in response to" the McCollum bill. In fact, the letter was circulating for signatures and publicly discussed by AIPAC nearly a month before Congresswoman McCollum’s bill was finalized or introduced.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington last month.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

The letter does not oppose the concept of aid use restrictions or anything contained in the McCollum bill. It does not contain the word “restrictions.” Given that the letter was consistent with J Street policy, we did not oppose it, explaining in some measure its relative success.

Rabbi Yoffie has every right to question J Street’s support for Representative McCollum’s bill. But I hope he and other critics will in turn answer our question to them: Why should those who despise the occupation — and understand its disastrous implications for Israel’s present and future — oppose a bill designed to make absolutely sure that no U.S. tax dollars are used to fund it?

Simply restating support for two states over and over won’t bring about a two-state solution or end occupation. Without policies that cause the Israeli government to sit up and take notice, good intentions aren’t enough.

I challenge Rabbi Yoffie, and others with reservations about aid use restrictions, to put forward alternative, meaningful actions that Congress and the Biden administration can take to stop de facto annexation of the West Bank and to pave the way for peace.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street. Twitter: @JeremyBenAmi

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