Abandoning "Israel Firster" to Fight a Battle to Win

Writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, JJ Goldberg reminded me of words I wrote 43 years ago in the Village Voice:

I shall always choose the Jewish cause. Not blindly, not arbitrarily, but with full knowledge of who I am and where I must be.

My views on Israel have not changed very much since then. Then, as now, I opposed Arab radicals who refused to accept Israel's right to sovereignty and security. Then, as now, I opposed Israeli radicals and their allies here who pretend that Palestinians don't exist or, if they do, don't have the rights granted to every other people.

One monumental thing has changed in 43 years. In 1969, neither any Arab country nor the Palestinians accepted Israel's right to exist. Since then, Israel, Jordan and Egypt have signed bilateral peace agreements, and remain committed to their terms. The PLO recognizes Israel's right to exist securely within the '67 lines. The entire Arab League (every single Arab state) is offering Israel peace, normalization and security in exchange for ending the occupation. As Shimon Peres says, Israel now has "partners for peace."

But then there is Iran. Watching the AIPAC conference, I was horrified to see an ostensibly pro-Israel organization promoting a war that presents an existential threat to Israel's survival. I vehemently oppose the very idea of war with Iran and am appalled by the right-wing Israeli government  but, even more, by its supporters here at home who are trying to push the president to either bomb or support the bombing of Iran.   

Not surprisingly, I have been under assault by various people on the right for my vigorous criticism of AIPAC and its role in promoting confrontation with Iran. My critics are particularly irked that I use the term "Israel Firster" to describe people who, in my opinion, put the interests of the Israeli right above everything else. This includes politicians such as Newt Gingrich, who as far as I know, is not Jewish. Watching the AIPAC conference convinced me that I must recommit myself to fighting those who are working to lead this country and/or Israel to war in Iran.

But I will do so without using the term "Israel Firster." The term was coined in 1960 by the late Abram Leon Sachar, founding President of Brandeis University, and a renowned Jewish historian (his son Howard Morley Sachar remains the greatest historian of contemporary Jewry) and was first used by the elder Sachar in a speech he delivered that year to a Zionist organization.

It has proven to be a distraction, allowing the pro-war lobby to focus on my choice of words rather than the substance of my arguments. I will not be using it again, for many reasons including the fact that some good people were genuinely offended by it. That was not my intention. My intention is to focus like the proverbial laser on the threat posed by war with Iran and the 45 year occupation.

Perhaps I feel that threat more than some. My wife was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. Many in the family didn't including my wife's uncle, for whom our oldest son is named, who was caught by the Nazis putting up posters in Warsaw urging resistance. He was gassed in Maidanek along with his young sister, just engaged to be married. They were both Zionists who dreamed of living in Israel. How amazed and happy they would be to know that a vibrant Israel exists. How horrified they would be to know that its existence is jeopardized by an unnecessary war, one that can be avoided by diplomacy.

Just yesterday on 60 Minutes Meir Dagan, the recently retired Mossad director, said that in his opinion, Iran is "rational" and not suicidal and that war would be an unending disaster for his country. He implies that following a retaliatory attack by Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of missiles on Israel's northern border, the Jewish state would not even survive as a functioning society. The blowback from an attack on Iran "will have a devastating impact on our ability to continue with our daily life."

Here is Jeff Goldberg, The Atlantic writer, on what the ramifications would be if Israel or the United States begin to bomb Iran, regardless of whether the attack succeeds or "fail[s] miserably to even make a dent in Iran's nuclear program:

[The Israelis] stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel's conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.

It gets worse, at a recent meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organization, New York Republican activist, Jeff Weisenfeld said he thought Israel could well be destroyed in a war. This piece by the brilliant Larry Derfner appears in the absolute best Israeli (and Jewish) internet publication +972.

He starts telling me that it's not enough for Israel, or America, or Israel and America to bomb Iran's nukes. "Israel can't go on living with 200,000 missiles pointing at it," he said -- they had to be destroyed, too. I saw no use in mentioning Israel's deterrent power, or questioning the morality of war as a means of arms control, so I asked Wiesenfeld how Israel could survive the wars that would follow its attacks on Iran, and Syria, and Lebanon, and Gaza, and the other countries that have missiles aimed our way.

"It's going to happen sooner or later," he replied.

And when the missiles are falling on Israel, would he come here with his family and sit it out?

"At that point," he said, "Jews will be targets all over the world. There won't be any difference being in Tel Aviv or Times Square."


My message is this.

Many of the same people who pushed us into Iraq are doing the same thing with Iran. They are pressuring Congress to prevent the president of the United States from negotiating with the Iranian government. They are banning diplomatic contacts. They are (as they have for a decade) hyping the Iranian threat, in part because they want a war and, in part, because they want to use President Obama's reluctance to jeopardize lives as a tool to defeat him in November. And they are demanding that should Iran develop a nuclear bomb, we must not contain the threat (as we did with the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Pakistan, etc) but should immediately go to war.

I have been fighting to help achieve a secure Israel, at peace with its neighbors, for more than 43 years.  I continue to do that by fighting against a war that could eradicate Israel and endanger Jewish security in the United States and throughout the world. This war has to be prevented. The issue must not be what label I use to describe the war agitators. It is what the Iran war agitators are doing. They must be stopped.

The first step is continuing to shine a light on their activities. That is what I do.


Lately, I have been thinking that the struggle against U.S. support for the occupation and for Israel's ambitions vis a vis Iran are similar to the struggle against slavery. Abolitionists were hated in the south. It was against U.S. law to mail abolitionist material to southern states. In the north, which mostly opposed slavery, abolitionists were considered over the top, extreme, radical and worse.

Congress consisted of southerners who defended slavery, northerners who went along purely out of expediency, and a few brave people who spoke out.

One man who did was William Lloyd Garrison, widely considered an extremist but a man who knew he was right and would be proven right. I do not compare myself to him or to any of the heroes of the abolitionist movement.

Nonetheless, Garrison's words sum up my philosophy and why I do not intend to be silenced by those who have been silencing opposition for 50 years or more. I think Garrison would understand why I use strong language when confronting neocons who are jeopardizing the survival of Israel and the well-being of the safest and most welcoming homeland Jews have ever had, the United States of America.

"I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! now! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."