Israel lobby is in new territory – mounting ‘apartheid’ allegations – and showing some cracks

House demolition in East Jerusalem (Saeed Qaq - APA Images)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  February 2, 2022

Amnesty International’s bombshell report on Israeli apartheid has unleashed angry attacks from Israel lobbyists who say that the report endangers Jews.

Amnesty International’s report accusing Israel of practicing apartheid came out yesterday and has staggered the Israel lobby, getting attention that Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem did not get when they reached the same conclusion last year. Because Amnesty is the godfather of all human rights groups, it has put the lobby in a position it has never been in before — facing mounting international criticism of Israel — and Israel’s advocates have swung into action, angrily attacking the report.

Those responses reflect real divisions inside the Israel lobby. Centrist and conservative Zionists are lashing out in an emotional way, accusing Amnesty of antisemitism. While liberal Zionists such as J Street, which rejects the report, say that such accusations are inappropriate; and Americans for Peace Now says that the mainstream organizations are manufacturing outrage without having read the report, which is based on Palestinian experiences.

Some centrist-liberal members of the lobby are reverting to arguments that don’t directly address the core findings of the report — the Jewish state’s policies and laws violating Palestinian human rights — by invoking the necessity of a Jewish state. Where were all the Jews to go? some advocates are saying, as if we are back to 1948 and the creation of Israel.

Here are some of the responses. The mainstream is reacting angrily. Nine Jewish congresspeople (Wasserman Schultz, Sherman, Schneider, Frankel, Manning, Luria, Phillips, Gottheimer, Auchincloss) say the report is “steeped in antisemitism and is part of Amnesty’s broad, decades-long campaign to criminalize and delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state.”

They congresspeople echo the ADL claim that the report will result in attacks on Jews.

With potential tragic consequence, Amnesty’s many baseless allegations are rooted in historic prejudices and false narratives. This report will only further fuel antisemitism and intolerance by those seeking to undermine the only Jewish nation in the world, and those working to undermine future prospects for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Democratic Majority for Israel says Amnesty’s real agenda is Jew hatred, and the report is feeding attacks on Jews around the world.

[B]aseless, delusional, and completely at odds with the facts…. [t]his report will further embolden antisemites who use criticism of Israel as a cover for their real agenda: Jew hatred. Unfortunately, the ugly, real-life consequences of that bigotry have become all too familiar in American life and around the world.

Rabbis are also reacting to the report. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform organization) warns that the report could be dangerous for Jews.

The report also comes at a moment when antisemitism worldwide is rising, and we are deeply concerned that this report will encourage those who seek to fan its flames.

That statement decries the occupation as a “moral travesty,” but has almost nothing to say about the Palestinian conditions that make up the report.

CCAR urged its rabbis to take to the pulpits and to the phones.

We are asking you to use your pulpits and positions to speak out in condemnation of the Amnesty report. It is important to speak out in the Jewish community, in the interfaith community, and to your local press and news outlets.”

The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly also says that the report is antisemitic and endangers Jewish lives:

It’s one thing to criticize Israel but it’s quite another to attempt to knowingly mislead the world with defamatory, antisemitic language, which implicitly calls Israel a racist state and puts lives at risk. Let us not conflate the two…

[AI’s] repeated demonization and delegitimization of Israel as the Jewish homeland echoes the tenets of modern antisemitism. This report will inevitably embolden antisemites around the world, who seek to undermine the only Jewish state in existence. We call for its full retraction and expect others to reject such dangerous characterizations now and in the future.

The Conservative rabbis allege that the report dismisses “the right to self-determination for Jews in their historic homeland.”

My incomplete reading of the report is that it repeatedly criticizes the ways in which “the establishment of a Jewish state” led to racist policies, including the expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians and denial of Palestinian rights, and laws that discriminate against Palestinians, notably the 2018 Nation State law that grants an exclusive right of self-determination to Jews. But AI also says it takes no position on the self-determination question and the report “limits its analysis to legal frameworks that explicitly address institutionalized racial discrimination.”

Nonetheless, AI’s repeated criticism of the ways in which the “Jewish state” has institutionalized discrimination has angered centrist Zionists. Michael Koplow at Israel Policy Forum tweeted:

It is a staggering achievement of sorts to spill years of research into 280 pages that is most significant for its questioning the legitimacy of having a Jewish-majority state without thinking about why or how the preceding two millennia created a pressing need to have one.

The report in fact alludes to historical Jewish “persecution” and the Holocaust, but Koplow is correct, it does not refer to 2000 years of Jewish history. It is concerned with the active persecution of Palestinians today.

Koplow’s tweet was echoed by the pro-Israel congressperson Ritchie Torres, and by Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg–who cited liberal Zionist icon Amos Oz.

“Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine,’ so we came back to Palestine, and now the world-at-large shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine.” — Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness

Moving left in the Israel lobby, the Americans for Peace Now statement is dignified and honest. It accuses other Israel lobby organizations of manufacturing outrage based on the title of the report without having read it. It says they are ignoring the human rights atrocities that motivated the report.

We take it very seriously and, unlike too many others, we’re not going to comment on the content until we’ve actually read it. We hope that the government of Israel and our fellow American Jewish organizations will also thoroughly scrutinize the report and the reality it underscores. Unfortunately, several Israeli political leaders and American Jewish organizations chose to dismiss the report even before it was published, focusing on its title, which includes the word apartheid.

APN’s President and CEO Hadar Susskind said: “If you’re spending your time and energy attacking the use of the word ‘apartheid’ while completely ignoring the content of the report, you’re doing it wrong. Do you think the Sallehiya family cares whether or not you call what is happening apartheid? I think they care about where they will live after Israeli authorities demolished their home. Do the victims of settler violence care what you call it, or are they more concerned with the safety of their families? Does delegitimizing those who dare to say ‘apartheid’ change the horrific circumstances that led Israeli soldiers to leave an elderly Palestinian-American man, handcuffed and gagged, to die on a cold West Bank night?

“It doesn’t. This manufactured outrage is a calculated effort to deflect from the real issue – fifty-four years of occupation.

The statement almost goes as far as APN’s chairman James Klutznick who said two years ago that it’s apartheid. In fact, APN says Israel brought this report on itself with the ruthless violation of Palestinian rights.

“The truth on the ground is that successive Israeli governments – including the current one – have perpetuated a military occupation of another people, turning it from a temporary evil during the few short years that followed 1967 into an endemic, oppressive regime, in which the collective national rights and the individual human rights of millions of Palestinians are ruthlessly violated. Israeli political leaders have all but ceased to work to bring this shameful reality to an end, and the Israeli public is largely complicit in perpetuating this disgrace. Instead of acting to end the occupation, Israeli governments have been accelerating a process of de-facto annexation, blurring the distinction between Israel and the occupied West Bank.

“In such circumstances, one should not be shocked when international human rights organizations and the international community treat all the territories under Israeli rule – on both sides of the Green Line – as a single political unit. The Amnesty International report should serve as yet another alarm bell and a call to action.”

J Street’s statement is much more careful than Americans for Peace Now’s statement. It rejects the findings: “J Street does not endorse the findings or the recommendations of the report, nor do we use the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation on the ground.” J Street focuses on the threat of the occupation to the future of the Jewish state. But it also blasts the antisemitism allegation:

Supporters of Israel who pour time, energy and resources into attacking anti-occupation activists and human rights organizations are failing to address the very real threat to Israel’s future posed by never-ending occupation. Those who level false charges of antisemitism against such activists and experts do a further disservice to the critical fight against the very real scourge of antisemitism.

J Street also appeals to the ur-Zionist claims of the Koplow/Gorenberg crowd:

J Street believes that the state of Israel as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people is historically just and necessary. The 55-year occupation of territory … is counter to Israel’s own interests and a violation of core Jewish and democratic values.

I haven’t included the anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews who are hailing the report– because they’re not part of the Israel lobby — principled, courageous groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. But the monolith of Jewish opinion on Israel is not a monolith any more. The centrist and rightwing — the Reform rabbis and Democratic Majority for Israel — are urgently rallying Jews to the battlements with angry and emotional claims that are gaining resonance across the Zionist spectrum. But there is dissension too.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006

h/t Scott Roth, Adam Horowitz, Dave Reed, Michael Arria, James North