A More Serious Conversation About Israel

As with any similarly-placed diasporic identity community, debates over policy and priorities within the pro-Israel American Jewish community are important for the community's vitality. Yet in contrast to the increasing centralization of the Canadian trajectory, the American community appears to be moving too much in the other direction: increasing schisms, including over how Zionist individuals and groups are.

These trends distract the community from discussing fundamental philosophies, values, and policy ideas, which in turn undergird its organization, its activities, and its relationship to Israel. The ease with which individuals and groups are distracted by non-critical issues, to the point that the focus becomes not the issue but the other individual or group, is highly problematic.

One way to address this might be to establish a set of working principles or ground rules, which members would agree on. This would allow them to then move to the more necessary discussions.

First, there should be a determination of what, exactly, it means to be "pro-Israel." There is lots of talk about how big the pro-Israel tent should be, but it should be obvious that the answer is tied directly to the Zionist enterprise itself. The culmination of this enterprise is the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The Declaration makes reference to "the right of the Jewish people" to rebuilding itself in its ancient homeland. It also makes reference to "freedom" for all its citizens, "complete equality of social and political rights," "freedom of religion," and "full and equal citizenship." So, to be pro-Israel on the basis of Israel's founding document itself means to support an Israel that is grounded in Jewish values as well as liberal democratic values and structures.

Second, any group that is pro-Israel must eschew violence by non-state groups. Isolated vigilantism aside, which every country has, no state can survive intact without it holding a monopoly on the use of violence. Indeed, the Failed State Index includes as one of its indicators just such a lack of control over the means of violence. (Of concern in this context is the fact that the Index ranks Israel, including the West Bank, 53 out of 177 countries; the closer to 1 a country is the more failed it is.)

Third, American Jews must be committed to liberal democracy in Israel. In part this is because that is what the Declaration sets out, and Israeli leaders from Ben Gurion on promoted it. But it is also because most American Jews, and indeed most Diaspora Jews around the world, place a premium on it. It is part of this community's value structure because we see it as a very good thing. And the community cannot -- should not -- support structures and policies that conflict with the very values they demand of their own government and society.

Fourth, Israel must be geographically defined as contained within the 1967 borders. This is not an argument on final borders, which will be determined through negotiations with the Palestinians. Rather, there must first be an acceptance of a specifically defined entity before we can move on to discussing the final form of that entity. Because Israel accepted the 1949 armistice lines as its border, and because Israel itself never formally and legally annexed the West Bank (despite the administrative and military control it exercises over much of it), the Diaspora community cannot argue that it is part of Israel. Once this is accepted as the baseline, the conversation can then turn to what kind of support for what kind of borders. But the basic acknowledgment must come first.

Fifth, there must agreement that Israel must be secure from attack, both from regular armies and irregular forces. And the contours of this security must be defined according to Israeli needs and perceptions, and not according to the balance sheets of outside strategists and military planners. In The Jewish State, Alan Dowty has noted that "Israelis ... tend to interpret security more broadly as freedom from threat to their personal safety and the ability to live without fear of politically motivated violence." Given that Israelis, not Diaspora Jews, face these types of threat, it must be the measuring stick by which Israel's ability to defend itself is supported.

This also means that the community will have to expect, under conditions of war, potential levels of violence they might otherwise be uncomfortable with. This doesn't mean that all kinds of Israeli violence should be accepted; Israel has signed on to global norms and laws of war and it must be held to that standard. But neither should we expect that the fight against guerillas and terrorists is the same as the fight against state armies on clearly-delineated battlefields.

Such discussions will not be easy, and many people won't want to meet these guidelines. But the conversation itself is necessary, because of the intimate connections between the American Jewish community and Israel -- emotionally, institutionally, and religiously. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Law of Return establish a legal and normative right. While the precise nature of Diaspora Jewish responsibility toward Israel remains an open topic, the fact that Israel asks for, even expects, political and financial support enhances this link.

None of this is to say that other issues aren't relevant. But if we are to have genuinely productive and serious discussions about our future and the future of Israel, we need to start from some common ground. Identifying a set of minimally-acceptable guidelines can go a long way toward this end.