Pulling a Breira

Review: Dov Waxman, 'Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel'

May 22, 2016

Dov Waxman, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, says he has written Trouble in the Tribe to investigate the "internecine battle" waged over Israel in the American Jewish community. What emerges instead is an apologia for radical anti-Israel Jewish organizations and a distorted image of organized American Jewry as intolerant, elitist, and intent on silencing those who dare criticize Israel.

The author’s failure to level with the reader is clear by the second chapter. It’s here that Waxman introduces us to his first example of how a dissenting group was "denounced" and "shunned" by organized American Jewry. That group was Breira, an organization established in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War. Breira means "alternative" in Hebrew, and the alternative it offered was a PLO-run state in the West Bank and Gaza. In Waxman’s telling, the group came from "the heart of the Jewish community" but was smeared by right-wing organizations after it came to light that two of Breira’s members had met with Palestinians with close ties to the PLO (in Israel meeting with the PLO was then illegal).

The trouble with Waxman’s narrative is that neither Breira’s position nor its members’ PLO meet-and-greet was the issue. What did Breira in was not dissent, but flying under a false flag. What was exposed, through a monograph put out by Americans for a Safe Israel—Waxman incorrectly names it American Friends for a Safe Israel—was who was in Breira’s leadership. The group’s first two paid staff members came from CONAME, as did 19 other members of Breira, many of whom held positions on its executive and advisory committees. CONAME originated as a front group for the Socialist Workers Party, and was described by Time as one of the Arab or pro-Arab organizations working in the United States. The group specialized in bringing anti-Israel speakers like Israel Shahak (who called the whole idea of a Jewish state "unjust and absurd") to American campuses. During the 1973 war, it had joined with Arab and pro-Arab organizations in sending telegrams to Congress urging "no arms to Israel." When this was exposed, the group claimed lamely that its name had been used without its consent.

Breira had roped in a number of high-profile Jews who took at face value Breira’s claim to be pro-Israel. When they realized they had been duped, some—including Harvard sociology professor Nathan Glazer, scholar of Judaism Jacob Neusner, and Rabbi Robert Gordis, editor of Judaism—jumped ship. Internal dissent doomed the organization. None of this you would learn from Waxman.

The groups that followed Breira fared better, Waxman says, undercutting his own argument that such groups are ostracized. He mentions the New Jewish Agenda (like Breira, long deceased) and the New Israel Fund, which Waxman describes as a "human rights organization." He mentions in passing that it funds Adalah, but doesn’t say what Adalah is—an Arab-run legal center that rejects the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In other words, the New Israel Fund is pulling a Breira: It pays lip service to Zionism, saying it wants Jews to achieve "self-determination in their homeland," but it supports groups that do not. Which is not Zionism. It is talking out of both sides of your mouth.

The most visible group to successfully pull a Breira is J Street, a George Soros-funded group that urges the creation of a Palestinian state and blames Israel for the absence of one. J Street also describes itself as pro-Israel and Zionist. But as Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, told a J Street delegation in Israel: "It’s one thing to put ‘pro-Israel’ in your tagline, and another to be ‘pro-Israel.’" J Street is only interested in the tagline and the political cover it provides. Jews have fairly good antennae when it comes to identifying anti-Semites. Those antennae tend to go haywire when faced with their co-religionists. It is for that reason that these groups stress their pro-Israel bona fides. Their virtue signaling attracts members and opens venues, thus giving a hearing to policy prescriptions Jews would reject if proffered by anti-Israel Arab groups.

Waxman describes J Street as it wishes to be seen: as an organization of pro-Israel Zionists who have been, in Waxman’s words, unfairly denounced and "vilified." He goes a step further, bizarrely arguing that their criticism is actually proof of their love. "Publicly criticizing Israeli governments … has now become for many American Jews a way of supporting Israel," he writes. Waxman makes much of J Street’s official position against BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. But a closer looks suggests J Street’s opposition to BDS is merely a positioning tactic. The group invited a leading BDS activist to speak at its conference. J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said he was very proud of the invitation. Waxman nevertheless bemoans the difficulties J Street has had in winning acceptance with the Jewish community, although rarely has an organization enjoyed such spectacular advantages, including wall-to-wall media coverage.

What behavior or beliefs make a Jew anti-Israel? In Waxman’s estimation it would appear that the answer is "none." Those he labels victims of demonization are an astonishing lot: Norman Finkelstein, for example, who is beloved by neo-Nazis everywhere for The Holocaust Industry, a book that claims Jews use the Holocaust to guilt trip European countries into giving them cash, and who has described Hezbollah as "another wonderful chapter in the long and painful struggle for human emancipation." Another Waxman victim is Judith Butler, who signs anti-Israel, pro-BDS petitions and believes Hezbollah and Hamas represent "social movements that are progressive." There is also the late Tony Judt, who wrote that a Jewish state "has no place" in the modern world and called for a binational state to replace it—meaning an end to Israel.

As Waxman sees it, no Jewish groups, no matter how extreme, should be excluded from the communal tent. Jewish Voice for Peace, by its own description "the Jewish wing of the Palestinian solidarity movement" is, for Waxman, a victim of "intolerance," the hostility to it by the organized Jewish community resembling "its treatment of Breira more than three decades ago." Waxman even laments how the San Francisco Jewish Federation issued guidelines restricting the ability of Jewish groups to "engage with" Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations that support BDS or the Palestinian "right of return," which would result in Israel’s destruction. One wonders if he will complain next that Hamas hasn’t been invited to speak at the local Jewish Community Center.

Conspicuous by their absence in this book are the Arabs. You’d never learn from Waxman that, to quote Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum, "At the core of the conflict, standing out like a skyscraper in the desert to anyone who cared to notice, is the Palestinian refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East." No, for Waxman, it’s all up to Israel. In the last chapter, he tells Netanyahu that he had better hurry up and "recommit Israel to the goal of establishing a Palestinian state as soon as possible."

A subtle threat runs through Waxman’s book. He repeatedly warns that if mainstream Jewish groups don’t embrace these dissident groups, which attract a disproportionate number of young people, American Jewry risks alienating its young. But the problem is not, as he claims, "a pervasive atmosphere of trepidation, even intimidation, within the organized American Jewish community today when it comes to Israel." As Edward Alexander has pointed out in Jews Against Themselves, "the complaint about ‘silencing all criticism of Israel’ is a standard feature of nearly every single piece of bombast out of the mouths of modern Jewish apostates."

The Jewish community makes good faith efforts to engage its young with such programs as Birthright Israel, which brings young Jews to Israel on a ten-day trip free of charge. The program has been highly successful in increasing identification with Israel. But as for those who join groups that hate Israel, whatever their taglines, their departure is an outcome devoutly to be wished. When gangrene sets into a limb, the solution is to cut if off, not allow it to spread.

Published under: Book reviews , Israel