The American Jewish Cocoon

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Moshe Milner/Israeli Government Press Office
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Steny Hoyer and other Democrats from the US House of Representatives, Jerusalem, August 6, 2013

Speak to American Jews long enough about Israel and you begin to notice something. The conversation may begin with Israel, but it rarely ends there. It usually ends with “them.”

Express concern about Israeli subsidies for West Bank settlements and you’ll be told that the settlements don’t matter because “they” won’t accept Israel within any borders. Cite the recent warning by former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin that “over the past 10–15 years Israel has become more and more racist” and you’ll be told that whatever Israel’s imperfections, it is “they” who teach their children to hate and kill. Mention that former prime minister Ehud Olmert has called Mahmoud Abbas a partner for peace and you’ll be told that what “they” say in Arabic is different from what they say in English.

This spring I watched the documentary The Gatekeepers—in which six former heads of Shin Bet sharply criticize Israeli policy in the West Bank—with a mostly Jewish audience in New York. Afterward a man acknowledged that it was an interesting film. Then he asked why “they” don’t criticize their side like Israelis do.

I used to try, clumsily, to answer the assertions about Palestinians that so often consume the American Jewish conversation about Israel. But increasingly I give a terser reply: “Ask them.” That usually ends the conversation because in mainstream American Jewish circles, asking Palestinians to respond to the endless assertions that American Jews make about them is extremely rare. For the most part, Palestinians do not speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press. The organization Birthright, which since 1999 has taken almost 350,000 young Diaspora Jews—mostly Americans—to visit Israel, does not venture to Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank. Of the more than two hundred advertised speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference, two were Palestinians. By American Jewish standards, that’s high. The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum earlier this year, which advertised sixty-four speakers, did not include a single Palestinian.

Ask American Jewish organizations why they so rarely invite Palestinian speakers and you’ll likely be told that they have nothing against Palestinians per se. They just can’t give a platform to Israel’s enemies. In 2010, Hillel, the organization that oversees Jewish life on America’s college campuses, issued guidelines urging local chapters not to host speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

Those standards make it almost impossible for Jewish campus organizations to invite a Palestinian speaker. First, “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard”…


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