Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be "Pro-Israel" or "Jewish"

Since I first visted Israel 24 years ago, I have had a special and deeply personal relationship with the country and the land. I have made 19 return visits--some with Jewish organizations and others with family and on my own--and have always had a great time. It is a place that everyone in the world should visit at least once.

I have been a national officer of Israel Bonds, the United Jewish Appeal and am currently the Chairman of CLAL, an amazing organization dedicated to bringing Jewish wisdom to the public square. I have been a Federation campaign chairman and chaired the boards of Jewish day schools in two communities. My Judaism and love for and connection to Israel have been the major shaping force in my life over the last quarter century.

Having said all that, I would never publicly describe myself today as "Pro-Israel" because, like the term "religious" it has been co-opted by a group a people--including many of my good friends--to connote something that I can neither relate to nor embrace. There is not a doubt in my mind that many of my Jewish friends who claim to love Israel and/or the Jewish community above all else might be doing a great deal of harm to the future of our people and homeland in the name of being supportive.

The whole issue of what it means to be "Pro-Israel" (and what it means for an organization to describe itself as such) has been brought to the forefront in recent weeks by a number of developments in political races and the news media.

The first was Jeffrey Goldberg's brilliant op-ed piece in the New York Times


in which he accuarately pointed out that the most ardent American "supporters" of Israel have views that are more strident and far to the Right of the views of the vast majority of Israelis and their government leaders.

Just a few days later, John McCain flip-flopped and rejected the endorsement of Reverend John Hagee, the popular Christian TV evangelist whose endorsement McCain had actively sought and received just a few weeks earlier. Reverend Hagee has been on record for a long time as saying that the Catholic church is "a whore," that Hurricane Katrina was God's revenge on the city of New Orleans for planning to host a Gay Pride parade, and that Hitler's rise to power and the Holocaust were all part of God's plan to bring about the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

The McCain people knew about these statements--all were made in recent years and were well publicized. But most Americans weren't aware of them. When they became more publicly known McCain felt pressured into throwing the good Reverend under the bus, rejecting his endorsement, and walking away.

What hasn't received nearly as much publicity is the fact that Reverend Hagee was a featured headline speaker at last year's American Israel Policy Action Committe (AIPAC) National Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. (which I attended). Hagee was the founder of a "Pro-Israel" organization called Christians United For Israel.

Although his statements about Hitler and Holocaust being the will of God were well known to the AIPAC leaders, Hagee's strong and unwavering "Pro-Israel" stance not only made him welcome at the conference--he was offered a featured speaking spot in prime-time--the kind of slot normally reserved for the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Israel.

Here was his speech


The AIPAC crowd ate it up, as you can tell from the reaction. Notice the woman with the New York (Jewish) accent who keeps screaming "I love you" to Hagee.

There were reporters and commentators who were more ambivalent.



I came away feeling more than a little uncomfortable. I believe that AIPAC fills a unique and very important role in the American political process but I'm used to dealing with organizations that are more nuanced. Can any organization be "single issue" anymore? In this information age, don't we have to be more complex and look at the totality of a person and not just their stated opinion on a single issue?

I have been a board member of The Desert Caucus here in Tucson for a little over a year and a member for much longer. It is a large (160 members) bipartisan "Pro-Israel" PAC which invites members of Congress to address us about ten times a year. It is one of the oldest and best known groups of its kind in the country. I have been repeatedly told by other members that support of Israel is the one and only factor that the Desert Caucus cares about. {I have recently wondered if its possible to find a member of Congress who is not "Pro-Israel" anymore but I digress}.

Although I am on the board, I did not know until very recently that The Desert Caucus has an understood but not stated ban on accepting non-Jewish members. I find this to be quite ironic in that no group fought harder or more effectively than the Jews over the last 50 years to eliminate exclusionary religious prejudice in the United States. It is sad that some Jewish organizations and clubs--most of which were established years ago precisely because there was bias AGAINST Jews--are effectively the only organizations left in the country that discriminate by religion.

The Jewish country club I joined when I lived for 30 years in Milwaukee--Brynwood--was established 60 or 70 years ago because Jews were not welcome at any other clubs in town. Now it is struggling to survive. Why?

In part it is because 20 years ago other clubs started admitting Jews and 10 years ago they started aggressively recruiting Jews. Only Brynwood remained religiously restricted. When it finally opened membership to non-Jews a few years ago, it was too late. Most of the young Jews in town had joined the other clubs which were closer to their homes or where their friends were members. Now Brynwood--which has a great golf course, amazing food, and spectacular facilities--is on the critical list.

I find it bizarre and disturbing how much self-destructive behavior is found in Jewish organizations claiming that their goal is to support Israel, fight assimilation, or make sure that we don't forget how hated we are by the rest of the world.

At a time--not too long ago--when Jews were the victim of widespread discrimination in the areas of work, housing, education, and club membership, these institutions were needed and played an important role. Times have changed, thank God, and we need to change as well. We need to become pluralistic as well as particularistic. We need to reach out to others as they have reached out to us and search for the partial truth in the feelings of people with whom we disagree instead of being rigid ideologues with one-issue blinders on. If we don't, then the last Pro-Israel, religious, anti-semitism-fighting Jew can turn out the lights.

If we don't, more and more existing Jewish organizations with long and glorious legacies will continue to have trouble attracting young people--or old people who are more than a little repulsed by the provincialism and bigotry they read into these policies and behaviors.

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