One vignette demonstrates the lessons I learned at the AIPAC National Summit in Hollywood, Fla., last week.
Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, presented a session titled “U.S. Outreach to the Muslim World.” I had signed up for this talk, skeptical about the possible bias an American Zionist lobby might bring to this particular conversation.
Ginsberg began, “There are 54 Muslim countries in the world. Twenty-two of them are Arab. Those two words do not mean the same thing, and we need to understand the incredible diversity in the Muslim world, country to country, and within each country, before we use words like ‘Muslim’ or ‘Arab’ to describe a situation. They simply aren’t the same thing.”
This careful framing of the discussion surprised me. When I had informed colleagues and friends that I was to attend the AIPAC conference, they were surprised, given my typically liberal politics and the perceived hawkish tenor of AIPAC.
The myth that AIPAC has more in common with the tea party than my shul was shattered at the conference — as professionals, politicians and scholars, one after another, presented mostly balanced conversations about Israel, the U.S. and the world. I did disagree with many points, but I also learned that the stereotype I had accepted regarding AIPAC was wrong.
And then something else happened. As Ginsberg continued, he suggested that a healthy understanding of the Muslim world could begin with an analysis of Pakistan and Indonesia. No sooner had he said “Indonesia” than a participant in the front stood up, faced the room, and said, “Obama lived there, you know.”
That’s when I got it. The problem isn’t AIPAC. The problem is the Jewish community.
AIPAC’s mission is “to help make Israel more secure by ensuring that American support remains strong.” But whose mission is it to educate the American Jewish community about its own proclivity to a worldview founded upon understandable fear?
It occurred to me that this question must considered side by side with the lessons learned during our local battles over Israel — on the U.C. Berkeley campus, at Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, at Richmond City Hall and at San Francisco City Hall last fall.
Those who attacked Israel through a well-coordinated divestment campaign said Israel disregards the plight of the Palestinian people. Israel’s defenders largely focused on Israel’s right to defend itself. The battles became a
clash of “you’re hurting them” versus “they’re hurting us” — and the heated political climate ruined any chance of asking more important questions, such as: “Whom do each of us dream to be?”
Zionists (like me) who are prepared to publicly criticize specific Israeli policies are the ones with the problem. Whereas AIPAC publicly champions an unconditional Zionism as a strategic priority of the United States (which I support), many Israel-focused groups who lead campaigns critical of Israel’s current realities abandon the word “Zionism.”
That’s the lesson, and these are the challenges.
This is a call to the New Israel Fund and to J Street, two organizations that resonate in my heart but are missing a crucial word in their public vocabulary: “Zionist.”
When will the political left reclaim Zionism as an incomplete aspiration, acknowledging that its worthy work is part of the Zionist dream? The New Israel Fund is “the leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis.” That is the Zionism I believe in, the Zionism Theodor Herzl created with two goals: 1) securing international legitimacy for the right of the Jewish people to a state of our own, and 2) actually building the national home.
Both goals have yet to be met.
Herzl’s quote, “If you will it, it is not a dream,” demands the will to actualize such a reality — one that faces many challenges from without, as well as many from within.
Israel’s threats are not only outside its borders. The increasing threat of Jewish fundamentalism in the Israeli government threatens Israel’s soul, just as the threat of a nuclear Iran threatens Israel’s body. But these are not “Israeli” concerns. They are Jewish problems, there and here.
When the only prominent organization using the word “Zionist” is not designed to further the internal Israeli enterprise, to foster the ongoing maturing of a Jewish democracy, there is something wrong.
Zionism is a Jewish dream, not the dirty word it seems to be recently. Zionism isn’t monolithic and it isn’t easy. Jewish dreams rarely are.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and chair of Bay Area Masorti.