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Friday, December 21, 2007

Eric Alterman - another liberal who doesn't get it

In the most recent issue of The Nation, as well as the International Herald Tribune, Eric Alterman laments the fact that while Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, American Zionist organizations tend toward the right:
Today's topic is the paradox - or one of them, anyway - of American Jewish political behavior. No, it's not that hoary old cliché that they "earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans." Rather, it's that they think like enlightened liberals yet allow belligerent right-wingers and neocons who frequently demonize, distort and denounce their values to speak for them in the U.S. political arena.

Don't take my word for it. According to the American Jewish Committee's 2007 survey of American Jewry, released Dec. 11, a majority of Jews in the United States oppose virtually every aspect of the Bush administration/neocon agenda. Not only do they disapprove of the administration's handling of its "campaign against terrorism" (59-31 percent), they believe by a 67-to-27 margin that we should never have invaded Iraq. They are unimpressed by the "surge" - 68 percent say it has either made no difference or made things worse, and by a 57-to-35 percent majority they oppose an attack on Iran, even if it was undertaken "to prevent [Iran] from developing nuclear weapons."

So the survey proves what all of us know - most Jews are liberal. But Alterman gets fuzzy with his next paragraph:
Jews are also impressively sensible when it comes to Israel/Palestine, all things considered. Though barely more than a third think peace is likely anytime soon, and more than 80 percent believe the goal of the Muslim states is to destroy Israel, a 46-to-43 percent plurality continues to support the creation of a Palestinian state.
This is his entire evidence of American Jewish support for a liberal agenda vis a vis Israel. He brushes aside the 80% who think that the Arab states want to destroy Israel to focus on the bare plurality - not majority - who support a PalArab state nevertheless.

In fact, if you look at the survey questions about Israel, you will see that every question save for the one about a Palestinian Arab state fits far better in with the conservative view of the conflict than with the liberal one. Here they are:
9. Do you think there will or will not come a time when Israel and its Arab neighbors will be able to settle their differences and live in peace?
Will 37
Will Not 55
Not Sure 8


10. Do you think that negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can or cannot lead to peace in the foreseeable future?
Can 36
Cannot 55
Not Sure 9


11. Do you think that Israel can or cannot achieve peace with a Hamas-led, Palestinian government?
Can 17
Cannot 74
Not Sure 9


12. In the current situation, do you favor or oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state?
Favor 46
Oppose 43
Not sure 12


13. In the framework of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction?
Yes 36
No 58
Not Sure 7


14. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel."
Agree 82
Disagree 12
Not Sure 6


15. In your opinion, does the United Nations treat Israel fairly or unfairly in its deliberations?
Fairly 27
Unfairly 61
Not Sure 12
These are hardly the numbers that you would expect to see from, say, a poll of all writers for The Nation. Yet Alterman uses this as a pretext on his attack on the mainstream American Zionist organizations:
These views, however, have been obscured in our political discourse by an unholy alliance between conservative-dominated professional Jewish organizations and neoconservative Jewish pundits, aided by pliant and frequently clueless mainstream media that empower these right-wingers to speak for a people with values diametrically opposed to theirs.

Take a look at the agendas of some of the most influential Jewish organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and the American Jewish Committee itself: Each has historically associated itself with the hawkish side of the debate - and some have done so even when Israel took the more dovish side (the Jewish equivalent of being holier than the Pope). Forget for a moment the argument over whether what some call "the Lobby" is good or bad for America. My point is that it's bad for the Jews.
Alterman is (seemingly purposefully) conflating the liberalism of American Jews on non-Israel topics with the relative conservatism of these same Jews when it comes to Israel. The poll results above are far more in sync with the organizations listed above than with the majority of liberal leaders.

In large part the trouble lies with the antidemocratic structures of these organizations and the apathy of most Jews with regard to organized Jewish life. Major Jewish groups respond to the demands of their top funders and best-organized constituencies. Most American Jews, however, have little or nothing to do with these groups. According to the AJC survey, while 90 percent of Jews say being Jewish is either "very important" (61 percent) or "fairly important" (29 percent) in their lives, exactly half say they belong to a synagogue or temple. A fraction of this number belong to Jewish political organizations, and the number of major funders is but a tiny percentage of that. As with so much of American life, the far-right minority is better funded and better disciplined than the liberal majority.
This may be true, but Alterman overlooks another salient fact: the more committed that Jews are to Judaism and Israel, the more conservative their views tend to be on that topic. The more committed Jews are the ones who are more likely to become politically active or to give money to organizations they agree with. The "silent majority" are the ones for whom Judaism and Zionism are less important today, the ones who feel that abortion or global warming are more critical issues than Islamic terror or Israel's existence. This may be a fine liberal attitude but it is hardly a "Jewish" one.
These pundits have every right to put forth their views, of course. It's long past time, however, for the mainstream media to recognize just how out of touch they are with the values of the American Jewish mainstream. If not now, when?
It is nice that Alterman knows enough about Judaism to quote Pirke Avot, but what he needs to realize is that the people who can do that and support a liberal agenda towards Israel is a very small minority of American Jews, not the vast majority that he seems to believe.