Early this year, I was a panelist in a program at a leading Episcopalian Church in Philadelphia. The topic was a discussion on the public policy postures of the various faith groups. When the subject got around to Israel and the Intifada, I noted that many within this upper class group seemed hostile to Israel. The acts of suicide bombers, some felt, were a response to the imperialistic designs of the Jewish State. “What alternatives do the Arabs have?” one member of the audience asked.
The incident underlined my feeling that there has been a marked shift on the part of the Left with regard to many issues of concern to Jews, especially Israel. In the period following World War II, Jews were aligned with liberal church groups and others on the Left in the fight to end poverty and gain greater equality for society’s disadvantaged, as well as by their mutual support for the State of Israel. In recent years, however, the Left no longer stands by the side of Jews in Middle East struggles; the Right, in fact, has emerged as a more reliable ally to Israeli interests. How did this shift come about? And what does it portend for the future?
The beginnings of the shift can be traced to the racial disorders of the l960s and the transformation of the civil rights movement into a race revolution. As racial upheavals in major American cities spread across the land, reaching a crescendo of violence following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Watts in l968, a new group of African-American leaders arose who challenged the integration strategies of King and other Black moderates. They argued the civil rights gains achieved by King did not reach down deeply enough into the smoldering ghettos of urban America, and that new approaches must be tried. The radicals, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael (who later called himself Kwame Toure) and Carl Foreman, head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), urged separation from hitherto white allies and demanded “Black Power.” They called also for African-Americans to identify with the struggle of colored peoples throughout the world against colonial imperialism. In this new paradigm, Israel came to be seen—and portrayed—as an outpost of Western imperialism in the Middle East. All this came to a head following Israel's stunning victory in the Six Day War in 1967.
The date for the split between the Left and Israeli interests can almost be set precisely. Concerned about the impending fragmentation within the Left, a number of “progressives,” including Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic, convened a “Conference for a New Politics” in Chicago over Labor Day weekend l967. The meetings quickly became a fiasco. Peretz, who had funneled hundreds of thousand of dollars into the civil rights and peace movements, was not allowed to speak, even though he was on the event’s steering committee. The conference keynoter, Martin Luther King, Jr, was jeered by black militants shouting, “Kill whitey!” Along with Peretz, he stormed out. The conference went on to adopt a number of resolutions, the most troublesome of which condemned the “imperialist Zionist war.” The Palmer House conference marked the last serious effort to forge a national, interracial, coalition of the Left.
Other collisions further highlighted the Left’s meltdown. In l968, under a plan developed by the WASP-led Ford Foundation, devastating school strikes took place in New York City, as Black militants seized control of the community-controlled Ocean Hill School District in Brooklyn and fired thirteen Jewish teachers. In the l970s a furor broke out over the use of racial preferences, or quotas, as critics called them, in university and professional school admissions. And in l979, Andrew Young, King's chief aid who had been appointed by President Carter to serve as American ambassador to the UN, was forced to resign following his meeting with a PLO official in New York City.
Before l967, most mainline Protestant religious groups—a term used for the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ among others—had backed Israel. The creation of a Jewish State was seen as atoning for the Holocaust and part of a progressive ideology. Israel's military success, however, transformed its image from an embattled and isolated state into an occupying power, a vehicle of Western colonialism. In July l967, the Executive Committee of the General Board of the National Council of Churches released a statement concentrating mainly on the plight of Palestinian refugees. Deplorable as the problem was, the statement ignored its context. The refugees had been urged to leave during the war by invading Arab nations who promised they could return as soon as the war was won. Mainline church groups seemed unaware that unlike Israel, which had taken in significant numbers of Jewish refugees from Arab countries following its creation, Arab countries have used the Palestinians as pawns in their efforts to destroy the Jewish state.
While these church bodies maintain that they continue to endorse Israel's right to exist and support the end of suicide bombings, they have been critical of the military measures taken by the Jewish State to protect its citizens and have urged an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. A statement by the United Methodist Council of Bishops in May 2002, for example, deplored the disproportionate use of force by the Israelis, assuming that the all-out war currently underway can somehow be fought without casualties to innocent people. The governing body of the Lutheran church in August 200l went so far as to call for the U.S. government to withhold military aid to Israel.
“There is an ambivalence [among] Lutheran churches as to just how productive it would be to have speakers not willing to see both side of an issue,” Del Leppke, a convener of the Middle East Working Group for the Chicago branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared recently. With mainline Protestant groups clearly in mind, Church historian Martin Marty has pointed out “Being anti-Israel has become part of the anti-Establishment gospel, the trademark of those who purport to identity with the masses, the downtrodden and the Third World.”
It is not just mainline Christian churches that have joined in highly charged criticism of the tactics employed by Israel in its war on terrorism and the Intifada. A number of Left-leaning Jews have identified with these criticisms as well. The main function of a new organization, Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, has been organizing rallies backing the PLO. “There are many American Jews who are flat-out embarrassed by the fact that the prime minister of Israel is guilty of war crimes,” the group’s executive director has said. Like the mainline churches, most of these pro-Palestinian Jewish groups maintain that they continue to remain supporters of the Jewish State. However, figures such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have denounced Israel harshly. In a December 200l speech in Beirut, Lebanon, Finkelstein compared Israeli behavior to “Nazi practices” during World War II.
A leading figure here has been Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and long-time supporter of the Israeli Left. Lerner likes to argue that he is pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian and seeks to avoid rhetoric demeaning to Israel, but his actions and associations show otherwise. In 2002, he announced the creation of the Tikkun community, a multi-issue national organization “of liberal and progressive Jews,” to help bring about, among other things, broader concessions by the Israelis (meaning giving up territory) to gain peace. Two months after its founding, however, Lerner along with militant Black activist and Princeton professor Cornel West (described as its co-chair) took out a full-page Tikkun community ad in the N.Y. Times attacking the Jewish State's “oppressive occupation of the territories” and congratulating Israeli reservists who said they would not serve there. The ad, which said nothing about Palestinian terrorism, featured a cartoon of a hook- nosed, disreputable-looking Jew. Israel was described as a “Pharaoh,” while Israeli troops were likened to Nazis blindly “following orders" in “a brutal occupation” that violated international law and human rights.
Complaints against anti-Israel bias on the part of the liberal media have increased since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2002. Terrorists are often described as “militants” in leading newspapers like the N.Y. Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. NPR, America's foremost, publicly-funded radio network, has been charged frequently with exhibiting a subtle, Left-wing bias. Unsupported and anecdotal Palestinian charges of Israeli misconduct are routinely aired without any balance or counterpoint. Thus, NPR’s Peter Kenyon devoted an entire “Morning Edition” segment on January 9 of this year to the grievances of Palestinians in Nablus following Israeli military action there. Among other things, Israel was accused of demolishing houses, killing “unarmed bystanders,” damaging ancient walls and streets," delaying Palestinian firefighters as they try to "save “burning buildings” and wrecking water and sewer pipes in the city. Kenyon did not provide a single Israeli speaker to convey the necessity for operations in Nablus to disrupt the city’s terrorist violence, which has produced a quarter of all Palestinian suicide bombers in the last three years.
It has been on college campuses, however, where the Left is most deeply entrenched and has contributed most heavily to anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments. For example, “Die Jew, die, die, die, die, die. Stop living, die, die, DIE! Do us all a favor and build yourself [an] oven,” was an expression found recently in a student newspaper at Rutgers. A tenured professor at Georgetown asks, “How have Judaism and Jews, and the international forces all permitted Zionism to become a wild, destructive beast capable of perpetrating atrocities?” In addition to such harsh rhetoric, radical professors at many upper-class universities have cooperated with Arab students to urge their institutions to divest from the “apartheid” state of Israel.
In contrast, much of the support Israel has received in recent years has come more from conservative groups and the Right. Even as mainline Protestant groups began to shift ground following the Six Day War, Israel's victory dramatically intensified its positive image among many evangelical leaders. The latter began to call increasingly for greater U.S. support for the Jewish State. For the variously estimated forty to sixty million evangelicals, Israel's success in l967 was seen as a sign of God's favor. Critics charge such support has more to do with their theology—that the second coming of Jesus will be linked to the return of Jews to the Holy Land. While this may influence some, a poll taken by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews released in 2002 indicated more than half supported Israel because it is a democracy and an important U.S. ally. Besides, as the late Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz asked, “Why should Jews care about the theology of a `fundamentalist preacher’ who speaks with no authority as to God's intentions? And what did such ‘theoretical abstraction’ matter when the preacher is vigorously pro-Israel?”
As a result, beginning in the l980s, a number of Jewish bodies, including the American Jewish Committee, began reaching out to evangelicals. In l983, Yechiel Eckstein, a young, Orthodox rabbi who once worked for the ADL, founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Chicago in an effort to cement ties with evangelicals. Claiming, “True Christians are the Jews' best friends,” Eckstein also inaugurated the Center for Judeo Christian Values in Washington, D.C. The group sought to find common religious ground and establish moral standards and a greater sense of personal accountability in society. Significantly, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) and Dan Coats (R., Ind.), widely seen as more centrist or conservative in their respective parties, were the organization’s original co-chairs. In 2002, Eckstein reported American evangelicals had quietly given over $l00 million over the previous seven years in humanitarian assistance for needy Jews world-wide, including resettlement costs, housing, food, and medical aid.
In what has been perhaps the most astonishing development, in the last two or three years, we have witnessed a significant shift by Jewish leaders in their response to the Christian Right. Just a few years earlier they had attacked it as anti-Semitic and criticized it for engaging in missionary activity among Jews. But in the summer of 2002, a regional branch of the Zionist Organization of America in Chicago honored Christian Coalition head Pat Robertson at its annual Salute to Israel Dinner. And on May 2, 2003, the Anti-Defamation League, which had sharply criticized Robertson and other Christian Right leaders in a widely commented upon l994 pamphlet, took out an ad in the Los Angeles Times and N.Y. Times featuring Ralph Reed, former spokesman for the Christian Coalition. Reed called Israel's continued survival “proof of God's sovereignty.”
Criticized for this, ADL head Abe Foxman remained unrepentant, saying: “I am proud to have Ralph Reed as a friend and as an advocate on Israel.” Foxman was only sorry, he added, that politically liberal Christians tended to be weaker in their support for Israel.
Meanwhile, the seeds of the Left’s criticism of Israel that came to light at the New Politics convention in l967 have continued to sprout. In 1991, following a period of relative calm after the rioting of local African Americans against Chasidim Jews living in Crown Heights in Brooklyn (due to a traffic accident that took the life of a black child and resulted in the murder of a Chasidic scholar), black-Jewish tensions heightened again. In the off-year congressional elections in 2000, two African-Americans in the House of Representatives in Washington widely seen as anti-Israel, Reps. Earl Hilliard (D.,Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (D., Ga.)—the latter given to conspiracy theories about Jews—lost their seats in the Democratic primaries following an intense campaign against them by pro-Israel elements. Conflicts between blacks and Jews were exacerbated also when a significant number of the members of the Black Caucus in the House voted against or listed themselves as present when a pro-Israel resolution came up for a vote.
Significantly, even as the Left has become less reliable, support for Israel has grown within the political Right in Congress and elsewhere. Early in July of last year, Tom DeLay, the House majority leader (and a leading evangelical) visited Israel and addressed the Knesset. He pledged continued backing for the Jewish State and opposition to President Bush's “roadmap” for peace if it meant coercing the Jewish state into making concessions that would harm its security.
The President himself, unlike his father, has given many signs of his strong backing for Israel. He has refused to meet or permit government officials to meet with Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Authority, who Bush feels has been unreliable as a peace partner. His strongest statement was delivered in a landmark address on the Middle East in the White House Rose Garden on June 24, 2003. In it, he declared that the Palestinians would only achieve their goal of statehood if they initiated “new leadership, new institutions, and new security arrangements.” He urged Palestinians to “elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror” and indirectly accused Arafat—he did not use his name—of leading an authority that was rife with “official corruption.” Last month, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the Bush Administration, overcoming some reluctance, was preparing a brief for a hearing before the International Court of Justice in the Hague on behalf of Israel's decision to erect a West Bank security barrier, a measure widely criticized by the Left.
What, finally, can be said about the shifts described here? While Jews can still be characterized as liberals and will continue to vote heavily for Democratic candidates, it is a chastened liberalism at best. The safety and security of Israel and the war against terrorism remain central keys to Jewish political behavior today. As former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a life-long Democrat who continues to disagree with much of the Republican domestic program, wrote in the Forward on January 9, 2004, “President Bush has earned my vote because he has shown the resolve and courage necessary to wage the war against terrorism.” Koch added: “… I am prepared, as an American and a Jew, to make the well being of Israel my primary concern,” Gary Rosenblatt, the highly respected editor of the New York Jewish Week recently said, “believing that a government that protects a democratic ally in danger shows the greatest understanding and compassion for human rights and values.” A poll released by the American Jewish Committee covering the period from November 25 to December 11 suggests that this view may be gaining ground in the Jewish community. It showed that while Jews are still predominantly Democrats, Bush would get 3l percent of the Jewish vote in a match up with most of the aspiring Democratic candidates with the exception of Senator Lieberman. This is a figure about three times greater than in the national election in 2000. As the Left continues to waffle or worse with regard to what Jews feel to be their most fundamental concerns, we may well see the beginnings of the long-predicted Jewish shift to the Right.
Murray Friedman is the director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University in Philadelphia. His upcoming book, tentatively titled “The Neo-Conservative Revolution,” will be published by Cambridge University Press early next year.