Pro-Israel groups trying, but can’t stop change

US attitudes are changing

Washington Watch

Because there has been a noticeable shift in US attitudes toward the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, pro-Israel groups in the USA are flailing about in wild desperation. Examples abound:

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Working in concert with the government of Israel, they have pushed more than 30 states to criminalize support for efforts to boycott, divest, or sanction Israel.

Paralleling this is their campaign to pass legislation on the national and state levels that will expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include many forms of legitimate criticism of Israel. This expanded definition is not only to be used in the prosecution of some hate crimes, it is also making its way onto college campuses and local school boards and being used to stifle student protests against Israeli policies and to influence what can and can’t be taught and who can and can’t teach about the Middle East and its history.

And concerned with the increased number of congressional candidates who are openly critical of Israeli policies, new pro-Israel political action committees have been created to support candidates who will not question Israeli behavior or to oppose those who have taken issue with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In just the first quarter of this year, these PACs have already raised and spent millions largely to smear the reputations of those they seek to defeat.

Combined, these efforts are both undemocratic and dangerous. They are designed to intimidate and/or punish those who dare to criticize Israeli policies and, therefore, to silence needed debate about US policy in the Middle East.

At the end of the day, they will not succeed in silencing the growing criticism of Israel because what is spurring it on isn’t anti-Semitism, it’s the brutal and aggressive hardline apartheid policies of that state.

Much of what these pro-Israel groups are doing is merely an extension of tactics they have employed for decades. Pro-Israel PACs have been bundling campaign contributions for decades and using them to reward candidates who endorsed unquestioning support for Israel and punish those who showed even the slightest inclination to challenge that state’s policies. And major pro-Israel groups have also, for decades, used their good offices to smear critics of Israel with the charge of being anti-Semitic or terrorist sympathizers—a sure way to end debate and harm the reputation of those advocating for Palestinian human rights.

The political environment they created with these tactics was both distorted and dangerous. They may have won votes in Congress, but in many cases members of Congress cast their votes more out of fear of the political fallout rather than their own policy positions, including ones they knew would better serve US interests. I used to keep a list of Congresspeople who had told to me: “I’m really with you, but you know how AIPAC is. I have to be careful not to anger them.”

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The impact of being smeared as an anti-Semite or a supporter of terror was even more damaging. Some Arab Americans and others who spoke out in support of Palestinians lost jobs and speaking engagements. Arab American groups were excluded from political coalitions. Some Arab Americans were denied the right to participate in the political process, limiting our ability to represent and defend our community. More ominously, others endured death threats and even acts of hate violence.

But despite their best efforts to pummel opponents into silence and submission, criticism of Israeli policies has only grown. Polls show that a majority of all Americans want to condition US aid to Israel based on their violations of Palestinian human rights. A plurality of Americans see support for sanctioning or boycotting Israel as legitimate. And support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel have dramatically increased among Democrats.

In addition to empowered Arab Americans, Black Americans and young voters have become more outspoken. Of great importance in this regard, young American Jews have become organized and emboldened to challenge the pro-Israel bent of the establishment organizations that have for too long dominated the politics of their community. As a result, while in the past, one could count just one or two congressional campaigns where Palestinian rights were an issue, this year there are dozens.

All this combined has created panic in the hardline pro-Israel community. Like the little Dutch boy in the famous story, they are trying to put their fingers in the dike to hold back the flood, but with so many leaks, they find themselves at a loss. Hence the desperate measures.

This panic was evident in a bizarre speech given last week by the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). After citing an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, he sought to pin the blame on critics of Israel, singling out a pro-Palestinian student group, a movement of progressive young Jews, and a Muslim group. He came to the bizarre conclusion that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. He then proposed accelerating the measures designed to silence debate about and punish legitimate criticism of Israel.

There are so many additional comments one could make about this hysterical effort at misdirection, but it suffices to say that it is dangerous. Pro-Israel groups may win a few races because they’ve smeared an honest candidate. They may damage a few careers and cause threats to a few courageous academics or advocates for justice. They may also pass a few unconstitutional laws banning free speech. But, at the end of the day, they will not succeed in silencing the growing criticism of Israel because what is spurring it on isn’t anti-Semitism, it’s the brutal and aggressive hardline apartheid policies of that state. The net result of their heavy-handed tactics will only breed anger and resentment, and even more importantly, deeper partnerships and more organizing in support of justice.

Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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