While much of the national and Israeli media has centered on the reception that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or representatives of the Trump administration will get at the annual AIPAC conference, the organization itself had other priorities. They’re worried by polls that show Republican support for Israel far outstrips that of Democrats. Arguments over the peace process, Iran and criticisms of the Jewish state’s stands on religious pluralism have dominated the discussion about Israel among political liberals. Faced with this threat to what they have always sought to ensure is a bipartisan coalition, AIPAC is doing what it can to remind Americans that support for Israel is as natural for liberals as it has become for conservatives.
Given that Israel is a bastion of liberal democratic values and diversity, AIPAC leaders have a powerful and unanswerable argument to make. But while reminding liberals why backing Israel is a great idea, such efforts should not run afoul of the same mistakes that doomed previous attempts to “rebrand” the Jewish state. As much as the left should embrace Israel for its enlightened stance on gay rights, its willingness to absorb Jews of all color and denomination, and its advanced health-care system, it’s foolish to think any public-relations campaign can ignore the conflict with the Palestinians. Try as they might, Israel’s advocates must never think they can avoid making the case that Israel’s case is just. Liberals who love these aspects of Israeli society and culture must also understand that standing up to those who seek to delegitimize the Jewish state—even when they are allies on other issues—is obligatory, no matter what you think of Netanyahu or the Orthodox rabbinate.
Because so much commentary about Israel in recent years has tended to revolve around the left-right divide, many liberals—and yes, conservatives, too—seem to have forgotten that it is the only liberal and pluralistic democracy in the Middle East.
Part of the problem is due to shifts in Israeli society that have taken it out of its Labor Zionist/socialist model as it became a more diverse democracy and a First World economy. Even more important, Israel’s successes in wars of survival and the smart public-relations work of the Palestinians allowed the latter to play David to the Israeli Goliath. Many liberal Jews were repulsed by Likud-led coalition governments that asserted Jewish rights by building settlements in the West Bank, and leaders like Netanyahu, who spoke frankly of the threats to Israel’s security and paid less lip service to platitudes about peace, which have been rendered meaningless by Palestinian intransigence.
The decline, in a sense, of Jewish peoplehood among non-Orthodox American Jews and the paralleled increase in a modern sensibility that seems to label all forms of nationalism and parochial identity as inherently racist (as long as it’s not expressed by a Third World people or non-Jewish minority) also took its toll on liberal support for Israel. Intersectionality—the new leftist faith that seeks to link all left-wing and minority causes—also seemed to damn Zionism as irretrievably wrong even if it was the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
But while Israel-haters who trade in anti-Semitic stereotypes and invective may dismiss the freedom gays enjoy in Israel as “pinkwashing,” no one who truly cares about the LGBT community can ignore the facts. Though it is (like any other nation) far from perfect, Israel is still an oasis of respect for the rights of women and minorities in a region dominated by Islamic states where the opposite is true.
But, as with an earlier attempt by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to rebrand the country by talking only about its brilliant scientists, beautiful beaches and gorgeous women, there really is no getting away from what remains an existential conflict with Arabs who are still fighting a century-old war against Zionism. If you have been deluded by specious arguments into believing that Israel is an apartheid state rather than a bastion of liberalism, then you really don’t care how smart its scientists are, or how stunning the beaches or the people cavorting on them might be.
It’s those lies about the treatment of Palestinians, its right to self-defense and the stakes involved in the conflict that lie at the heart of the decline in support for Israel in some sectors of American opinion. So while it is both necessary for the pro-Israel community to remind people of the truth about Israel’s liberal values, it’s also true that you don’t have to be for settlements or love the Netanyahus to know that the struggle in which the country is engaged is about whether or not Jews will be allowed to retain their one state on the planet—and not where its borders would be drawn in a theoretical scenario when the Palestinians make peace. Nor does its legitimacy rest on its people or its government doing everything Americans would have them do.
Israel can and should be embraced by liberals and conservatives on its own merits. But those who care about the country must understand that it is their obligation to stand up for the rights of the Jewish people against those who would deny them those rights. If that cause isn’t trendy on the left anymore, then liberals must find the courage to buck both fashion and intersectional “allies.” Their success or failure will depend not so much on rebranding as it will on a commitment to the basic justice of Israel’s cause.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS – The Jewish News Service. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.