Jewish Americans Increasingly Angry, Radical, Split on Middle East

The Jewish community in the U.S. only makes up about 1.8% of the population, but when it comes to the Middle East, it has an understandably keen interest and influential voice in U.S. foreign policy. Not only is there an historical alliance and religious connection between the U.S. and Israel, but also many American Jews like me have relatives who live there.

Since the optimistic days of the Clinton Administration and the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israelis and Jewish Americans have become deeply cynical and angry. They tired of the Intifadahs, dozens of missile attacks and suicide bombings, starts and stops in the peace process, and offers which they thought Palestinians should have accepted, the latest from former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert.

Yet, they learned the wrong lesson from their pain and disappointment. Rather than be more determined to work for peace, their anger has only fed the inaction on the peace process -- the main stick in the mud for the past lost year has been the reluctance of Israeli PM Netanyahu to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank, which he did only recently. From one step forward to two steps backward, the Israeli government then slapped visiting Vice President Biden in the face with the announcement of about 1,600 more apartments in eastern Jerusalem -- PM Netanyahu may have disapproved of the "timing" of the news, but his coalition partners clearly planned this. I preferred that Kadima Party candidate Tzipi Livni become the Israeli Prime Minister after the election last year. She actually won the most votes but couldn't build a governing coalition because of the anger in Israel over Hamas attacks and a sense that Netanyahu would be "stronger" against the Palestinians.

Anger is a volatile ingredient in foreign policy with global ramifications. In the Jewish community in Denver, all things Palestinian, Arab, or Iranian evoke an emotional reaction that removes any thoughtful analysis. I attended an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) "briefing" recently, and when I asked a question about what AIPAC was doing to partner with the pro-Israel pro-peace group, J Street, the speaker couldn't even say "J Street" in his response. J Street is a new pro-Israel organization that promotes a more balanced approach to push Israel and the Palestinians towards peace. A woman who came up to me angrily alleged that J Street supposedly took the word "Jewish" out of its name. On another occasion, after a meeting with various Jewish leaders in which I mentioned J Street, I was surprised by the visceral anger I faced when one man told me that "I will do everything in my power to crush J Street". I am a "supporter" of both AIPAC and J Street on Facebook, and I observed how diametrically opposite the posts are by supporters of each, with the AIPAC ones noticeably angry and unreasonable.

It is hard to tell if this anger and radicalization are evident in the wider Jewish community, but it seems to be the case among our "leadership" and activists. These are the folks who attend lectures, luncheons, conferences, and fundraising dinners and who actively lobby our Senators and Congressmen. "Moderate" opinions like mine are out of the ordinary. Big-name speakers like Dennis Prager, Elliott Abrams and Danny Ayalon who visit Denver's Jewish community never present significantly groundbreaking perspectives, and they feed the angry and radical view of the Middle East with red meat diatribes that offer little nourishment for our intellects. One of the last speakers to engage my brain was Trita Parsi, who had no kind words for the Iranian regime, but he was criticized in the forum and in the Jewish media as being a stooge for the Iranian regime because he is from Iran and had met with leaders there while doing research for his book about the historic U.S.-Israel-Iran relationship.

When Dr. Tawfik Hamid spoke to about 500 people at an American Jewish Committee event, he got a roar of applause when he said Israel should bomb Iran. It is seen as naive to back the Obama Administration's efforts to work with allies, the IAEA, China and Russia to negotiate to stop the Iranian nuclear program from defying IAEA attempts to regulate it and ensure Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. This effort is bearing fruit, with all but China gearing up for UN sanctions, and even China is coy about its intentions. It falls on deaf ears in the Jewish community that this route has the greatest chance for success.

President Obama knew that engaging Iran was an uphill proposition. Yet, he had to show the world his sincerity engaging Iranian leaders in what Dennis Ross calls "statecraft". Using diplomacy to attempt to bring about U.S. foreign policy goals was in woefully short supply under President George W. Bush, and Israel and the Jewish community have gotten used to "shoot first, negotiate later." That feels good for now but results in massive migraines, like the Iraq War. Those migraines, the ramifications of an American or Israeli attack on Iran are totally dismissed by most Jews I speak with. Israel of course has the right to defend itself, but U.S. policy should be (and I understand now is) to demand that Israel not undertake military action preemptively against Iran. There is precedence for this -- President Reagan chastised the Israelis for bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. I am not objecting to a possible future military strike on Iranian nuclear and military targets by the United States and coalition members if the President deems it absolutely necessary, but allowing Israel to do it would open up even a far greater can of worms. Secretary of State Clinton reported that the Iranian military is usurping power, and I believe it increases its power from the specter of military action and would probably benefit from a bombing strike, especially by Israel, which would sideline the Iranian opposition and possibly result in the arrest of opposition leaders -- so much for former President Reagan's efforts to support "moderates" in Iran.

According to Jews I speak with, peace with the Palestinians is impossible -- "all Arabs can't be trusted, Hamas is going to keep launching missiles, and the Palestinians in the West Bank aren't much better than Hamas," they say. To claim that a secure, just, and lasting peace is possible calls into question my bona fides as a Jew and Israel-supporter, especially when I suggest that not just the Palestinians need to be pushed towards peace, but the Israelis as well. Israelis know full well and will tell you privately that they need to be pushed into negotiations. In a time of Israeli anger, gridlock, and political schizophrenia, it is almost impossible for the Israeli government to make the important decisions towards peace on its own--it needs strong U.S. carrots and sticks. Regardless of the separate issue of Palestinian intransigence and civil war contributing to the lack of progress to restart peace talks, clearly Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S. have to step up to the plate and be sincere partners for peace.

American Jewish leaders never criticize Israel's government when it is wrong, even when Israeli leaders give in to anger and arrogantly bite the open hand of their best friend the United States. Besides the Biden embarrassment, when the head of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, just visited Israel with a delegation of members of Congress, Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, refused to meet with them. Ayalon seems to be building on his reputation of insulting Israel's few friends and allies. Recently, to protest an anti-Semitic TV show in Turkey, Ayalon called in the Turkish Ambassador and made him sit on a low chair and would not shake his hand. Does this angry and purposefully insulting behavior benefit Israel strategically? No.

I believe that part of Jewish anger and radicalization is also due to a narrowing of sources of information. I read a variety of online sources like BBC, China Daily News, Haaretz, and Jerusalem Post and then make up my own mind about events and trends. When I told a Jewish person that I read Aljazeera he absurdly thought all there was to the website was Osama bin Laden. There seems little effort to challenge perspectives, broaden horizons, and see a bigger picture.

Many in the Jewish Community in Denver should put their emotional reactions aside and look beyond their narrow backing of what they believe is in Israel's national interest and instead focus on the bigger picture in the Middle East and support U.S. interests in the region and worldwide. Israeli leaders need to trust the U.S. has its best interests at heart. At the same time, continued non-resolution of the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a serious impediment to global peace and to curbing global terrorism. If President Obama pushes both the Israelis and Palestinians towards peace, this will not result in the automatic destruction of Israel or of Jewish communities around the world, as many Jewish critics claim. Rather it will bring about a secure, just and lasting peace between the Israelis, the Palestinians and her Arab neighbors, remove the volatile subject of Israel from the equation of any action on Iran, and eliminate the false argument of Israeli domination of the Palestinians as a recruiting tool for terrorists worldwide.