On March 4, thousands of Israel lovers will fill another AIPAC Policy Conference. America’s biggest pro-Israel hootenanny will feature the usual mix of learning, lobbying, networking and merry- making, particularly energized by celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary. But – and I write as a friend and invited guest – this Policy Conference will fail unless it engages every participant in an intense, thoughtful attempt to tackle the biggest challenge threatening the pro-Israel community: how to reconcile most American Jews’ intense hatred of US President Donald Trump with most Israelis’ gratitude for his support.
We have already seen how TDS – Trump Derangement Syndrome – trumps many American Jews’ historic love for Jerusalem. How do we stop Trump’s toxic embrace of Israel from turning off (more) liberals and liberal Jews?
Israel must not become just another wedge issue. While most polls estimate two-thirds of Americans remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel, one Pew survey estimates that 79% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, but only 27% of Democrats agree – with 25% of Democrats preferring the Palestinians. Similarly, 52% of Republicans like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, only 18% of Democrats.
AIPAC should ask every attendee to arrive with specific suggestions regarding how to rebuild Israel’s bipartisan base. Such a challenge can galvanize a conference – elevating this fun, ritualized back-slapping exercise into a path-breaking – and eye-opening – mass brainstorming.
The first instinct will be to point fingers. Democrats will rail against Trump and Netanyahu. They will blame the Western Wall crisis and the occupation. Republicans will rail against Jewish Democrats’ political correctness, post-modernism and disloyalty to their people.
Mutual recriminations won’t help. They represent attempts to wish away the differences – or bully them away – rather than work through them. Other sessions can air these ideological clashes. The pressing problem is a political one. We don’t need unanimity – only a commitment to communal cooperation. We don’t need to agree on every Israeli policy, only on Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Our love for Israel and the Jewish people must transcend Trump – or any president.
Bipartisanship mutes differences to serve a greater good – which has long been the AIPAC way, the pro-Israel way – in America. Bipartisanship doesn’t negate debate, it invites cooperation on certain issues, in ways that often build credibility for other fights.
While the pro-Israel community includes Jews and non-Jews, the American Jewish community in particular must not lose its Zionist way. In 1948 when Zionists established the state, in 1967 when Israel reunified Jerusalem, in 1973 when Israel survived the Yom Kippur surprise attack and in 1976 when German pro-Palestinian terrorists took Jews hostage at Entebbe, Jews united Left to Right, religious and secular. Just as our enemies didn’t distinguish when targeting us, aiming at left-wing Ben-Gurionists and right-wing Beginites, we overlooked differences to defend the state. Our enemies imposed some clarity, while Zionist consensus fostered unity.
Israel today is robust – embodying Zionism’s miraculous success – yet the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. To restore bipartisanship, go back to basics. Zionism declares that 1) the Jews are a people, not just a religion. As a people, we therefore 2) have collective ties and rights to our homeland. And 3), like the 191 other peoples represented in the United Nations, we express our peoplehood through statehood.
Sadly, those propositions are still under attack – recently repudiated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, then echoed by his UN lapdogs and campus lackeys. True, “Zionism” doesn’t poll well because lying, delegitimizing propagandists have soured even many pro-Israel people on the term. But we cannot retreat because our enemies smear us. “Zionism” is a better label than “pro-Israel” because Zionism drills down to basics, counters the delegitimizers and frees us from the implication in our hyper-partisan time that pro-Israel means “total agreement with my position or the Israeli government’s (ever-shifting) positions.” Zionism, the Jewish national movement which established Israel, is now the movement to defend and perfect it.
Non-Jews can be Zionist too – by endorsing Jewish peoplehood and statehood.
For Jews, Zionism shifts the conversation to an existential identity level. When we take Israel personally, recognizing it as our birthright, then those who smear Israel anger us – rather than somehow seducing us.
We need to ask: how can you be a Democrat and not believe in Israel, the Israel of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, of Betty Friedan and both Clintons, an Israel of social justice and egalitarian ideals, of social experimentation and open debate, of solid friendship for America and hatred of terrorists and dictators worldwide?
“Friendship for Israel is not a partisan matter,” JFK said in 1960. “It is a national commitment.”
“Yet within this tradition of friendship,” he continued, “there is a special obligation on the Democratic Party. It was president Woodrow Wilson who forecast with prophetic wisdom the creation of a Jewish homeland. It was president Franklin Roosevelt who kept alive the hopes of Jewish redemption during the Nazi terror. It was president Harry Truman who first recognized the new State of Israel and gave it status in world affairs.”
How can any American not champion Israel – preferring this imperfect democracy to perfectly awful autocratic terrorist regimes running and ruining Gaza and the West Bank?
This conversation requires more than 900-word columns, 280-character tweets or 60-second sound-bites. Consider this the (proudly Zionist) first serve to what should be a vigorous intellectual, political and ideological volley at AIPAC – and throughout the pro-Israel world, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.