The recently announced American Jewish Committee 2007 survey provided reassuring results about Jewish attitudes toward U.S. Middle East policy and troubling results about attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. Jews are profoundly opposed to everything to do with the Iraq war and feel the same about potential conflict with Iran. So far so good.
Glenn Greenwald picked up on these results when he wrote his ridiculously optimistic account for Salon, New Poll Reveals How Unrepresentative Jewish Neocon Groups Are. I use that phrase advisedly because I respect Glenn Greenwald a great deal. But he simply refused to review ALL the results and cherry-picked the ones that suited him. A more nuanced account would’ve acknowledged that American Jews are profoundly liberal when it comes to general issues of war and peace. But when it comes to Israel, some atavistic Jewish impulse kicks in which closes down any possibility of understanding the Arab perspective on the conflict or what are Israel’s true long-term interests.
James Petras picks up on that in his profoundly mean-spirited piece in Dissident Voice, American Jews on War and Peace. Although I find his essay distressing it also contains many provocative arguments which we on the Jewish left must consider as we face results as troubling as those in the AJC survey.
The only comforting answer regarding the IP conflict was to the question of creating a Palestinian state. 46% approve and 43% disapprove of such a policy. But if you consider that this has been the policy of several U.S. presidents AND Israeli prime ministers it is surprising, and disturbing, that the result is as close as it is. The remaining answers are flat out unnerving and make me realize how much work remains to be done if there is ever to be a realistic understanding of the IP conflict among American Jews. As a group we have swallowed hook, line and sinker some of the worst prejudices and ignorant attitudes toward Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole.
Here are the results:
Do you think there will or will not come a time when Israel and its Arab neighbors will be able to settle their differences and live in peace?
Will Not 55
Do you think that negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can or cannot lead to peace in the foreseeable future?
Do you think that Israel can or cannot achieve peace with a Hamas-led, Palestinian government?
In the current situation, do you favor or oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state?
In the framework of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction?
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.”
After reading these answers you realize how far off Eric Alterman is in his characterization of these results in this International Herald Tribute article:
Jews are also impressively sensible [!] when it comes to Israel/Palestine, all things considered. Though barely more than a third think peace is likely anytime soon, and more than 80 percent believe the goal of the Muslim states is to destroy Israel, a 46-to-43 percent plurality continues to support the creation of a Palestinian state.
Petras’ response to these results is to blame American Jewish “progressives.” He uses the term disparagingly and indiscriminately to tar and feather every American Jew or Jewish group to the left of Israel lobby constellation of organizations:
How is it that a majority of US Jews who, according to the AJC poll (and several others going back over two decades) differ with the principal American Jewish organizations, have not or do not challenge the position of the dominant Jewish organization, have virtually no impact on the US Congress, the Executive and the mass media in comparison to the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations?
Petras has a grasp of the organized Jewish community but no grasp at all of unaffiliated Jews, who constitute just under half of the population. The AJC survey includes ALL Jews whether affiliated or unaffiliated. Unaffiliated Jews are much more likely to have views to the left of the “dominant Jewish organizations.” The reason that unaffiliated Jews do not challenge the prevailing wisdom in the mainstream community is that doing so does not interest them. That’s why they’re unaffiliated. It’s a vicious circle really. So to blame those who have essentially opted out of the program for the perpetuation of noxious attitudes among those who are still with the program misses the point entirely.
Blaming Jewish peace groups for not moving the Jewish agenda toward the left is wrong-headed. These groups attempt to work with both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews to move the prevailing consensus in a leftward direction. There are many reasons why they have not had more success (lack of funds and powerful leaders, lack of strategic vision, strength of their opponents). And I think that most members and staff of these organizations realize they need to do more. But to denounce them for this lack of success and blame the troubling AJC results on them is mean-spirited and just flat out wrong.
Despite the disparaging tone of Petras’ analysis, he raises important points that should be grappled with by all Jewish progressives:
…It is clear that both the ‘progressive’, majority of Jews and the reactionary minority who head up all the major American Jewish organizations have a fundamental point of agreement and convergence: Support and identity with Israel and its anti-Arab prejudices, its expansion and the dispossession of Palestine. This overriding convergence allows the reactionary Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations in America to speak for the Jewish community with virtually no opposition from the progressive majority either within or without their organizations. By raising the Israeli flag, repeating clichés about the ‘existential threat’ to Israel at each and every convenient moment, the majority of Jews have bowed their heads and acquiesced or, worst, subordinated their other ‘progressive’ opinions to actively backing the leaders ‘identity’ with Israel.
I think Petras is on to something here and I mentioned this earlier in this post. When it come to Israel many American Jews simply leave their high-minded ideas at the door and betray a sort of political schizophrenia.
It is the mission of the Jewish peace groups to educate and persuade these Jews that you don’t have to abandon your principles to support Israel; that liberal principles supporting peace and justice can go hand in hand with supporting Israeli-Arab peace. This is an extremely difficult task. But I think our movement is having some success and will have more in the future especially as events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict move in a general direction toward an eventual peace settlement (though clearly in fits and starts).
Here again Petras betrays both churlishness and imprecision:
Progressive Jewish organizations are on the fringe of the organizational map, with virtually no influence in the Congress or Presidency and backers of a pro-war Democratic Party and Congress.
I would say that these progressive groups are in a nascent stage in terms of realizing their political potential. But being in a nascent stage doesn’t mean that they are “fringe” or have “virtually no influence in Congress. To say this means Petras has absented himself from the results of the last Congressional session in which a liberal coalition fought AIPAC to a standstill on two different proposals regarding U.S. Israel policy.
This passage is simply “out there” in terms of its connection with any Jewish reality as I know it:
The apparent paradox of progressive anti-war Jews contributing big bucks to pro-war Democrats is based on the latter’s unconditional support for Israel which trumps any ‘dissonance’ that might exist in the head of progressive Jewish political activists.
I’d like to know precisely which “progressive anti-war Jews” are contributing big bucks to Hillary Clinton based on her unconditional support for Israel. George Soros? I doubt it. Who else? Or does Petras lump Obama in with all the other “pro-war” Democrats? I find this type of statement to be terribly reductionist and unhelpful.
Perhaps part of the problem is Petras’ abuse of the term progressive as one of his commenters notes in the comment thread. A donor who gives big bucks to a Democratic candidate because he or she supports Israel unconditionally is NOT progressive. They may consider themselves progressive, but that doesn’t make it so.
Petras continues going off the rails here:
With the American Pro-Israel Power Configuration leading the way to savaging the National Intelligence Estimate study, released in December 2007, on the absence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, progressive Jewish opinion is silent or complicit.
I might agree with the first half of his statement, but where does he get off saying progressive Jews are silent in the face of the attack on the NIE? I’m certain that the vast majority of American Jews are overjoyed with the NIE because it means there will be no war against Iran. To claim that such Jews are “silent” on this subject is downright odd. AIPAC may want the U.S. to go to war against Iran, but that doesn’t mean that American Jews want this.
Here Petras creates a progressive Jewish chimera which inhibits criticism of Israel within the anti-war movement:
…Progressive liberal and radical Jewish peace activists have acted as gate-keepers in the anti-war movement — prohibiting any criticism of Israel and labeling individuals or citizen activists critical of the pro-war Zionist lobby as ‘anti-Semites’.
It’s hard to know precisely what the author is talking about here since he doesn’t provide either evidence or context to prove his point. But clearly Petras doesn’t accept that there may be some criticism of Israel on the left that crosses the line and that is where I would differ from him.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.