Twenty-five years ago I stared into the eyes of Michael Berman, chief operative for his congressman-brother, Howard Berman. I was a neophyte running for the California Assembly in a district that the Bermans claimed belonged to them.
"I represent the Israeli defense forces," Michael said. I thought he was joking. He wasn't. Michael seemed to imagine himself the gatekeeper protecting Los Angeles' Westside for Israel's political interests, and those of the famous Berman-Waxman machine. Since Jews represented one-third of the Democratic district's primary voters, Berman held a balance of power.
All that year I tried to navigate the district's Jewish politics. The solid historical liberalism of the Westside was a favorable factor, as was the strong support of many Jewish community leaders. But the community was moving in a more conservative direction. Some were infuriated at my sponsorship of Santa Monica's tough rent control ordinance. Many in the organized community were suspicious of the New Left for becoming Palestinian sympathizers after the Six Day War; they would become today's neoconservatives.
I had traveled to Israel in a generally supportive capacity, meeting officials from all parties, studying energy projects, befriending peace advocates like the writer Amos Oz. I also met with Palestinians and commented favorably on the works of Edward Said. As a result, a Berman ally prepared an anti-Hayden dossier in an attempt to discredit my candidacy with the Democratic leadership in the California state capital.
This led to the deli lunch with Michael Berman. He and his brother were privately leaning toward an upcoming young prosecutor named Adam Schiff, who later became the congressman from Pasadena. But they calculated that Schiff couldn't win without name recognition, so they were considering "renting" me the Assembly seat, Berman said. But there was one condition: that I always be a "good friend of Israel."
This wasn't a particular problem at the time. Since the 1970s I had favored some sort of two-state solution. I felt close to the local Jewish activists who descended from the labor movement and participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. I wanted to take up the cause of the aging Holocaust survivors against the global insurance companies that had plundered their assets.
While I believed the Palestinians had a right to self-determination, I didn't share the animus of some on the American left who questioned Israel's very legitimacy. I was more inclined toward the politics of Israel's Peace Now and those Palestinian nationalists and human rights activists who accepted Israel's pre-1967 borders as a reality to accommodate. I disliked the apocalyptic visions of the Israeli settlers I had met, and thought that even hard-line Palestinians would grudgingly accept a genuine peace initiative.
I can offer my real-life experience to the present discussion about the existence and power of an "Israel lobby." It is not as monolithic as some argue, but it is far more than just another interest group in a pluralist political world. In recognizing its diversity, distinctions must be drawn between voters and elites, between Reform and Orthodox tendencies, between the less observant and the more observant. During my ultimate 18 years in office, I received most of my Jewish support from the ranks of the liberal and less observant voters. But I also received support from conservative Jews who saw themselves as excluded by a Jewish (and Democratic) establishment.
However, all these rank-and-file constituencies were attuned to the question of Israel, even in local and state elections, and would never vote for a candidate perceived as anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. I had to be certified "kosher," not once but over and over again.
The certifiers were the elites, beginning with rabbis and heads of the multiple mainstream Jewish organizations, especially each city's Jewish Federation. An important vetting role was held as well by the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), a group closely associated with official parties in Israel. When necessary, Israeli ambassadors, counsels general and other officials would intervene with statements declaring someone a "friend of Israel."
In my case, a key to the "friendship issue" was the Los Angeles-based counsel general Benjamin Navon. Though politics drew us together, our personal friendship was genuine enough. I think that Benny, as he was called, wanted to pull me and my then-wife, Jane Fonda, into a pro-Israel stance, but he himself was an old-school labor/social democrat who personally believed in a negotiated political settlement. We enjoyed personal and intellectual time together, and I still keep on my bookshelf a wooden sculpture by his wife, of an anguished victim of violence.
The de facto Israeli endorsement would be communicated indirectly, in compliance with laws that prohibit foreign interference in an American election. We would be seen and photographed together in public. Benny would make positive public statements that could be quoted in campaign mailings. As a result, I was being declared "kosher" by the ultimate source, the region's representative of the state of Israel.
Nevertheless, throughout the spring 1982 campaign I was accused of being a left-wing madman allied to terrorism and communism. The national Democratic leader Walter Mondale commented jokingly during a local visit that I was being described as worse than Lenin. It was a wild ride.
I won the hard-fought primary by 51% to 45%. The Bermans stayed neutral. Willie Brown, Richard Alatorre and the rest of the California Democratic establishment were quietly supportive. I easily won the general election in November.
But that summer I made the mistake of my political career. The Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon, and Benny Navon wanted Jane and me to be supportive. It happened that I had visited the contested border in the past, witnessed the shelling of civilian Israeli homes, and interviewed Israeli and Lebanese zealots--crazies, I thought, who were preaching preventive war. I opposed cross-border rocket attacks and naively favored a demilitarized zone.
Ever curious, and aware of my district's politics, I decided we should go to the Middle East--but only as long as the Israeli "incursion," as it was delicately called, was limited to the 10-kilometer space near the Lebanese border, as a cushion against rocket fire. Benny Navon assured me that the "incursion" was limited, and would be followed by negotiations and a solution. I also made clear our opposition to the use of any fragmentation bombs in the area, and my ultimate political identification with what Israeli Peace Now would say.
There followed a descent into moral ambiguity and realpolitick that still haunts me today. When we arrived at the Israeli-Lebanon border, the game plan promised by Benny Navon had changed utterly. Instead of a localized border conflict, Israel was invading and occupying all of Lebanon--with us in tow. Its purpose was to destroy militarily the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) haven in Lebanon. This had been Gen. Ariel Sharon's secret plan all along, and I never will know with certainty whether Benny Navon had been deceived along with everyone else.
For the next few weeks, I found myself defending Israel's "right" to self-defense on its border, only to realize privately how foolish I was becoming. In the meantime, Israel's invasion was continuing, with ardent Jewish support in America.
Finally, a close friend and political advisor of mine, Ralph Brave, took me for a walk, looked into my eyes and said: "Tom, you can't do this. You have to stop." He was right, and I did. In the California Legislature, I went to work on Holocaust survivor issues while withdrawing from the bind of Israeli-Palestinian politics. When the first Palestinian intifada began, I sensed from experience that the balance of forces had changed, and that the Israeli occupation was finished. Frictions developed between me and some of my Israeli and Jewish friends when I suggested that Israel must make a peace deal immediately or accept a worse deal later.
It is still painful and embarrassing to describe these events of nearly 25 years ago, but with Israel today again bombing Lebanon and Israeli officials bragging about "rolling back the clock by twenty years" and reconfiguring the Middle East, I feel obliged to speak out against history repeating.
How do I read today's news through the lens of the past?
What I fear is that the "Israeli lobby" is working overtime to influence American public opinion on behalf of Israel's military effort to "roll back the clock" and "change the map" of the region, going far beyond issues like prisoner exchange.
What I fear is that the progress of the American peace movement against the Iraq war will be diverted and undermined, at least for now, by the entry of Israel from the sidelines into the center of the equation.
What I fear is the rehabilitation of the discredited U.S. neoconservative agenda to ignite a larger war against Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. The neoconservatives' 1996 "Clean Break" memo advocated that Israel "roll back" Lebanon and destabilize Syria in addition to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. An intellectual dean of the neoconservatives, Bernard Lewis, has long advocated the "Lebanonization" of the Middle East, meaning the disintegration of nation states into "a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties."
This divide-and-conquer strategy, a brainchild of the region's British colonizers, is already taking effect in Iraq, where America overthrew a secular state, installed a Shiite majority and its militias in power and now portrays itself as the only protection for Sunnis against those same Shiites. The resulting quagmire has become a justification for American troops to remain.
What I fear is trepidation and confusion among rank-and-file voters and activists, and the paralysis of politicians, especially Democrats, who last week were moving gradually toward setting a deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The politics of the present crisis favor the Republicans and the White House in the short run. How many politicians will favor withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq under present conditions? Isn't this Karl Rove's game plan for the November elections?
What I know is that I will not make the same mistake again. I hope that my story deepens the resolve of all those whose feelings are torn, conflicted or confused in the present. It is not being a "friend of Israel" to turn a blind eye to its never-ending occupation.
One might argue, and many Americans today might agree, that Hezbollah and Hamas started this round of war with their provocative kidnappings of Israeli soldiers. Lost in the headlines, however, is the fact that the Israelis have 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, and have negotiated prisoner swaps before. Others will blame the Islamists for incessant rocket attacks on Israel. But the roots of this virulent spiral of vengeance lie in the permanent occupation of Palestinian territories by the overconfident Israelis. As it did in 1982, Israel now admits that the war is not about prisoner exchanges or cease-fires; it is about eradicating Hezbollah and Hamas altogether, if necessary by an escalation against Syria or even Iran. It should be clear by now that the present Israeli government will never accept an independent Palestinian state, but rather harbors a colonial ambition to decide which Palestinian leaders are acceptable.
In 1982, Israel said the same thing about eliminating PLO sanctuaries in Lebanon. It was after that 1982 Israeli invasion that Hezbollah was born. I remember Israeli national security experts even taking credit for fostering Hamas and Islamic fundamentalism as safe, reclusive alternatives to Palestinian secular nationalism. I remember watching Israeli soldiers blow up Palestinian houses and carry out collective punishment because, they told me matter-of-factly, punishment is the only language that Arabs understand. Israelis are inflicting collective punishment on Lebanese civilians for the same reason today.
It is clear that apocalyptic forces, openly green-lighted by President Bush, are gambling on the impossible. They are trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq through escalation in Lebanon and beyond. This is yet another faith-based initiative.
If the American people do not see through the headlines; if the Democrats turn hawkish; if the international community fails to intervene immediately, the peace movement may be sidelined to a prophetic and marginal role for the moment. But we can say the following for now:
Militarism and occupation cannot extinguish the force of Islamic nationalism. Billions in American tax dollars are funding the Israeli troops and bombs.
There needs to be an exit strategy. The absence of any such exit plan is the weakest element of the U.S.-Israeli campaign. Just as the White House says it plans to deploy 50,000 troops on permanent bases in an occupied Iraq, so the Israelis speak of permanently eliminating their enemies, from Gaza to Tehran. The result will be further occupation, resistance and deeper quagmire.
The immediate conflict should not become a pretext for continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. American soldiers should not be stuck waist-deep in a sectarian quagmire. Congressional insistence on denying funds for permanent military bases is a vital first step. Otherwise we will witness a tacit alliance between Israel and the U.S. to dominate the Middle East militarily.
Most important, Americans must not be timid in speaking up, as I was 25 years ago. Silence is consent to occupation.
crossposted at truthdig