Jews, Israel, and the United States:
Talking Points for Jewish Antiwar Activism

Rachael Kamel

Talking to American Jews about cutting or suspending U.S. military aid to Israel is a daunting prospect. Within the Jewish community, this topic cannot even really be termed controversial — it would be better described as taboo. Attempts to open the discussion are most often met with the knee-jerk reaction that U.S. support is vital to guaranteeing Israel’s safety, and with it the safety of the Jewish people worldwide. Anyone who argues otherwise is dismissed as either a traitor or a fool.

Today, Israel’s invasion and reoccupation of population centers in the Palestinian West Bank has prompted increasing numbers of Jewish (and non-Jewish) activists to begin publicly challenging U.S. support for Israel. More and more voices are calling for a suspension of U.S. military aid to Israel, as long as Israel’s 35-year-old illegal occupation of Palestinian territory continues.

Does the emergence of this issue represent a sea change in Jewish peace politics, or a transitory reaction to the current crisis? A small but growing number of Jewish antiwar activists (this writer among them) have been working for some time to lay the groundwork for a Middle East antiwar movement focusing on the suspension of U.S. military aid to Israel, as one expression of a larger critique of the impact of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East. This approach has emerged as a strategic response to the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the subsequent outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada 18 months ago. As yet, this nascent movement has no clear organizational form or common strategy, but consists of a loose network of disparate campaigns, some framed as Jewish initiatives and some as multiconstituency coalitions. The depth of the current crisis in the occupied territories was not the starting point for this development, but underscores its urgency nonetheless.

This article explores approaches to raising the military aid issue in a Jewish context. It does not review basic information about the U.S. role in the Middle East or the scale and impact of U.S. military aid to Israel — partly because this information is available elsewhere and partly because it is more properly understood as a matter of concern to all U.S. peace activists (and taxpayers), regardless of their ethnic or religious identity. These talking points are intended as a contribution to a single facet of the larger discussion about the U.S. role in the Middle East: namely, how can Jewish antiwar activists understand and raise this issue as Jews?

There is, of course, no lack of Jewish participation in efforts to challenge U.S. intervention in the Middle East (and around the world). The most prominent critic of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East, Noam Chomsky, is a Jew. Nevertheless, while such voices exemplify the tradition of progressive and democratic politics in Jewish life, they are not framed as Jewish voices addressing an American Jewish constituency.

Given the contradictions of Jewish peace politics over the past twentyodd years, many Jewish activists have concluded that the political task under discussion here is impossible. Some have chosen to pursue their activism in a non-Jewish context. Others remain involved in Jewish life or even Jewish peace politics but have decided that the issue of the U.S. role in the Middle East is too charged and too costly to raise. Still others (probably the majority) have simply drifted away — from the Jewish community, from activism, or both.

Those of us who believe we must take on this uphill battle base our efforts on two premises. First, U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic support for Israel plays a central role in perpetuating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and preventing its resolution. From this standpoint, building a movement to challenge the U.S. role is an indispensable strategy for achieving the goal of a just and lasting peace. Second, explicitly Jewish voices are crucial to the development of a broad-based Middle East antiwar movement that can successfully challenge the cynicism of U.S. policy toward Israel/ Palestine, with its catastrophic human costs.

Jewish Safety and U.S. Power

Because Jews have flourished in the United States — economically, socially, and culturally — we have tended to look on the United States as a friend and protector to our community. In the post-World War II era in particular, Jews have enjoyed enormous social and economic mobility and have successfully challenged most barriers to Jewish participation in U.S. society. Within the tacit system of racial stratification of U.S. society, we have “counted” as white people in the postwar era, benefiting from the material and cultural advantages of white skin privilege. In the wording of dissident Jewish theologian Marc Ellis, we have been “assimilated to power” and “assimilated to the West.”

It is this equation — of the United States as a friend and protector of the Jewish community — that Jews with a critical perspective on U.S. interventionism need to challenge. A militarized, antidemocratic Israeli state decreases, rather than increasing, Jewish safety. This is immediately obvious in the case of suicide bombings, and has been raised in such terms even by the more liberal Jewish peace camp in the U.S. and Israel, which has pointed out that unrelenting Israeli attacks only increase the hopeless rage of Palestinian youth and leave them more prone to such gestures of desperation, while closing off avenues for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The flow of U.S. armaments to Israel is another crucial case in point. Most Jews, like most other Americans, are unaware of the extent of U.S. military aid to Israel, which represents nearly a third of all U.S. foreign aid. The lion’s share of this “aid” flows directly back to U.S.-based military contractors like Lockheed, General Dynamics, Northrup-Grumman, and the like. More armaments mean more warfare and more bloodshed, not less. In the Middle East, just as in other conflicts around the world, the U.S. militaryindustrial complex, working through its allies among policy elites, plays on our fears to flood the world with more and more weapons, thereby increasing the likelihood of armed conflict. The only path to peace, for Jews just as for any other community, is the path of demilitarization.

The issue of Jewish safety is based in deep-seated cultural and historical realities. Many members of our community have direct personal or family ties to the Nazi Holocaust, as survivors or as relatives of Holocaust victims or survivors. Even though the majority of the American Jewish community immigrated earlier and thus lived through the Nazi era in relative safety in the United States, many of us carry family memories of pogroms and other violent expressions of European anti-Semitism. All of us bear these experiences as part of our collective memory and our cultural and psychological foundation.

As a result, the massive manipulation of Jewish insecurity to rationalize Israeli militarism cannot simply be dismissed or sidestepped in the interests of consolidating a secular “American” understanding of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Even when Jewish insecurity is not explicitly voiced, it will always be present in the room, shaping and conditioning the discussion. A failure on our part to acknowledge and address the issue of Jewish safety will only undermine the credibility of our movement, not only among Jews but also among many other segments of U.S. society.

Not in My Name—And Not in My Interests

From a longer-term perspective, Jews would do well to consider the risks of allying ourselves to empire. In the contemporary global panorama, U.S. interventionism and unilateralism are increasingly repudiated by world opinion. Do we really believe that the United States will retain its current status as the world’s sole superpower forever? Or that we can best guarantee our long-term survival as a community by staking everything on U.S. patronage — as opposed, for instance, to working for a more democratic and demilitarized Middle East, or greater economic and political integration of Israel into the region? This is hardly the first time in Jewish history that communal leaders have relied on the sponsorship of local elites as a strategy for ensuring community survival — a strategy that in the past has repeatedly led us to disaster.

In the Cold War era, U.S. aid to Israel was rationalized as a counterbalance to Soviet aid to the Arab world. While the threat of Soviet military expenditures was always vastly overstated, today this threat can no longer be said to exist in any form. Now the rationale has shifted to the stereotypical figure of a “hostile sea” of Arabs, “armed to the teeth” and implacably hostile toward Israel. This caricature sidesteps the reality that most Arab countries are also heavily dependent on the United States, economically, politically, and militarily. Those Arab states outside the U.S. orbit, such as Syria or Iraq, do not possess the military strength to represent a significant threat to regional stability.

The U.S. military-industrial complex is the only winner in the Middle East — and the only party whose interests are served by maintaining the region in a perpetual state of warfare. “Divide and rule” is the classic strategy for maintaining imperial power. From this standpoint, the current polarization of the Middle East is simply a contemporary example of how Jews and Arabs have been successfully played off against one another in the Middle East since the era of the British Mandate.

The World We Live In

Just as most of us would insist that we are both Jewish and American, we need to understand Israel and the larger Middle East in terms of global history and politics as well as our own particular historical and cultural experience. Our failure to do so has rendered us vulnerable to mythologized versions of our history — in ways that serve the prerogatives of empire, not the longterm sustainability and vitality of Jewish existence, both as a transnational ethnic and religious community and, in the case of Israel, as a national community. Discussions of the Middle East in a Jewish context generally proceed as if Israel existed in an entirely different plane than the rest of the world’s peoples. Jewish antiwar activists need to bring the discussion of Israel out of the mythic realm of Jewish destiny and into the here and now.

One central consequence of this mythologized narrative is the nearuniversal adherence among American Jews to the ideal of the “Jewish state.” In a world where national borders have less and less meaning, and demographic mingling is an unstoppable worldwide phenomenon, we have imbued the maintenance of Jewish demographic superiority in Israel with mythic significance as our safe haven in a hostile world. It is very common for Jewish discussions of Israel to affirm passionately that “we cannot rely on anyone but ourselves.” Once we demythologize the discussion, however, it is patently obvious that we are not relying on ourselves to guarantee Israel’s safety, but on U.S. imperial power. Do we really want to stake our collective survival on the kind ministrations of the Pentagon and the State Department — or the armaments industry?

As part of this perspective, we need to develop our understanding of how deeply Israel, like every other country in the world, is affected by the forces of global economic integration, the legacies of colonialism, deepening global environmental degradation, and the unchecked spread of militarism (and with it the armaments industry) in today’s unipolar world. Concrete examples include the negative impact of militarization on the Israeli economy, the dismantling of Israeli social protections in the era of globalization, structural barriers to social and economic equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel (currently 20% of the Israeli population), and the crucial role of the politics (and economics) of scarce water resources in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Jews and all of the world’s peoples will share a common future. We need to base our understanding of that future on answers that work for all people, rather than imagining that there is a special answer for Jews (or, for that matter, for Americans).

Jews in the United States are connected by innumerable bonds of sympathy, kinship, and history with Jews in Israel (and around the world). Jewish American antiwar activists need to sustain and deepen our connections with likeminded sectors of Israeli opinion. At the same time, we need to recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not only exist in the Middle East, but is bought and paid for in the United States. We need to develop our own understandings and our own political strategies, both as American Jews and as U.S. taxpayers. Alliances with democratic, anti-militarist forces in both Israeli and Palestinian society are crucial, but represent only one dimension of the many alliances we need to build.

Israel and its future are quite rightly an issue of concern to all Jews worldwide — but the Middle East is not an issue that “belongs” to us as Jews any more than it “belongs” to Arabs or Muslims. A peaceful and democratic future for everyone in the Middle East is not an ethnic but a human issue. It is, in fact, one of the central issues of our times, with a potentially decisive impact on the prospects for a peaceful future for our entire planet. Jews will not be able to “go it alone” in a world wracked by endless warfare, unfettered corporate power, the deepening economic gulf among the world’s peoples, the growing threat of environmental catastrophe, and the ever-present possibility of nuclear holocaust. We need to work out a Jewish future, not in the world of myth and archetype but in this world, because that is where it will take place.

Beyond Either-Or Politics

Living in two cultures, as Jews and Americans, means that we need to develop a politics of both-and, not either-or. We need to honor our specific cultural and historical experience and to interrogate that experience in the light of global historical forces. We need to develop our own voice as Jews and to work in coalition with allies. We need to challenge anti-Semitism and to understand the weight and impact of other manifestations of racism and colonialism — most particularly (and most urgently) the Palestinian naqba and the desperate contemporary situation of occupied Palestine.

Above all, we need to preserve the memory of our own collective historical experience of oppression and victimization — and rise to the new historical challenge of acknowledging and responding to our current status as oppressors and victimizers (and their apologists). The Jewish role as oppressors entails the active participation of the few and the complicit silence of the many — just as occurs in every community, in every era. We can only counter the militarization of our community, our society, and our consciousness by raising our voices in opposition — as Jews, as U.S. taxpayers, and as citizens of the world.

Anti-Semitism, in the conventional sense of anti-Jewish racism, is a real political and cultural danger. It is manifested not only in the rantings of the white supremacist Right, or the current outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence in Western Europe, but also in the uncritical acceptance by many liberal mainstream Christians of the idea that the Jewish community is the chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Real alliance-building — as opposed to the tactical expediency of short-term coalition politics — means that we need to ask our Christian (and secular) allies to recognize and own their own part: in anti-Semitism, in silence and complicity, and in the arrogance of empire. Today’s devastating humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories falls most heavily, of course, on Palestinians, but responding to it is the responsibility of all people of conscience — most particularly every U.S. taxpayer, because we are the ones who are paying for it.

Just as we must challenge anti-Semitism and expect our allies to do the same, we ourselves need to become allies in challenging the relentless demonization of Arabs and Muslims in U.S. media and political discourse (as well as inside the Jewish community). Anti-Arab racism has not only stifled debate about U.S. policy in the Middle East, it has also provided political cover for the enactment of legislation that gravely erodes the framework of constitutional protections in our country. Most Americans are only peripherally aware of federal laws permitting detention without trial or charges, the use of secret evidence, warrantless searches, and a host of other antidemocratic measures. Some of these measures target non-citizens, while others apply to citizens and non-citizens alike. Although much of this legislation was enacted after September 11, some of it dates back to 1996 or even before. Currently, Arab and Muslim communities in the United States are facing a major crisis of human rights — a crisis that has barely been reported, much less challenged, outside of very limited circles. Real alliance building means that Middle East peace activists also need to be allies to Arab immigrant, Arab American, and Muslim communities as they face this ongoing crisis of detention, deportation, and hate violence.

Our particular stake as Jews in anti-Arab racism is reflected in our tendency to conflate Christian anti-Semitism with anti-Jewish bias in the Arab world, as if they were equivalently ahistorical, eternal forces. Of course, no community and no religion is free of bias and chauvinism, and anti-Jewish prejudice and behavior, including violence, have certainly existed in the Arab world, both historically and at the present day. It is mistaken, however, to treat such bias as identical to the repeating cycles of Jewish persecution and victimization in Christian Europe, where the status of Jews as an archetypal “other” has played a key role in the unfolding history of European society and the emergence of capitalism.

Significantly, it was at the close of World War II — the moment when inter-European rivalries were eclipsed by the historical movement toward decolonization and national liberation in the Third World — that Jews were assimilated overnight to the Christian “West” as part of a newly invented “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Since then, other groups (such as Arabs) have assumed center stage as the eternal “other” in the international arena, just as African Americans (and, by extension, all people of color) are positioned as the “other” with regard to domestic U.S. concerns. Even without embarking on an indepth discussion of the social function of the racialized “other,” we would do well to question whether is it really in our longterm interests as a community to buy into these images, given how much, and for how long, Jews have suffered from the politics of demonization.

Which Came First: The Tail or the Dog?

Many — perhaps most — people in the Jewish community also uncritically accept the myth that Jewish sensibilities and a Jewish-determined political agenda are decisive factors in U.S. Middle East policy: that we are the tail that wags the dog. In reality, if the supposed “Jewish agenda” diverged from the geopolitical interests of the U.S. security establishment, we would undoubtedly learn overnight much of a facade our apparent power is. The Israel lobby is a real political force, but its power derives in large part from the fig leaf it provides to the U.S. military-industrial complex and the oil industry.

In the Jewish community, as in every ethnic community or political constituency, this type of “access” to decision makers does not really offer a route to collective empowerment. It does, however, function as an effective mechanism for disciplining community opinion and restricting democratic debate. For every community, grassroots mobilization and broad democratic participation, not institutional power-brokering, are the only way to bring about progressive policy change.

The current situation in the Jewish community is a case in point: any opinion, let alone any organized political initiative, that diverges from certain narrowly defined parameters is silenced, marginalized, and censured. In particular, to question the role or the agenda of U.S. militarism in the Middle East is to break one of the most deeply seated taboos in the American Jewish community. When it comes to the Middle East, antiinterventionism — which Jewish progressives supported without hesitation in Vietnam or Central America — is held to be an unthinkable political stance.

Most American Jews have been raised to unquestioningly assume our right to core democratic freedoms — certainly freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. In institutionalized Jewish life, however, democratic participation and debate are more often crushed by a stifling climate of political orthodoxy that begins with silencing and does not hesitate to move onto blacklisting, the withdrawal of funding, and worse.

Even many of the Jewish peace activists that thrust their way onto the political scene in the late 1980s — often at great personal cost — have accommodated themselves to this institutional arrangement and now function largely to police the boundaries of acceptable Jewish discourse at the margins of our community. This is one reason that the more liberal Jewish peace movement has yet to acknowledge that the Oslo peace process never represented a viable path toward peace, but rather functioned (and quite effectively so) as a strategy for containing the growing opposition to the Occupation in the wake of the first intifada.

Moving Forward

Jewish antiwar activists need to develop a style of organizing that is based on constituency building, rather than on courting the favor of institutional power brokers. We need to find ways to speak directly to the constituency base of our synagogues, Jewish peace groups, student groups, and the like. We also need to find creative ways to reach out to unaffiliated Jews. While this approach is far more laborintensive than conventional coalition politics, it is the only way to counter the policing function of our community’s gatekeepers and to gather the growing dissent within our community into an effective political force.

We need to project a strong, clear Jewish voice at the same time as we work in coalition with allies — including other ethnic communities, faith communities, and peace groups. Whether we work through Jewish or mixed organizations, we need to develop a practice of indepth alliance building that goes beyond shortterm coalition politics that revolve around community “leaders” without the authentic participation of their constituencies.

In order to raise a critical antiwar perspective, we also need to fight for the right to a diversity of opinion and freedom of conscience within the Jewish community. Zionism, or the idea that Jewish safety demands a “Jewish state,” emerged as an ideology and political project only in the 19th century. For most of its history it has been one political philosophy among others — promoted by some, disputed by others. It is only since the 1967 war and the beginning of the Occupation that the idea of an ethnically exclusionary Jewish state has assumed the character of a political orthodoxy in the Jewish community that it is forbidden to question or discuss. Those of us who identify as nonZionists or “post-Zionists” need to insist that our voices be recognized as legitimate voices of commitment, engagement, and love for the Jewish people.

We need to articulate a political vision for Middle East peace that works for everyone, regardless of their ethnic or religious identity. In the contemporary world, tribalism or chauvinism of any description is not a viable political stance. Demilitarization, social and economic equity, and democratic participation offer the only basis for a principled peace politics.

Jewish antiwar activists, like every constituency that is committed to an authentic Middle East peace, need to understand that our struggle is a long-term one. We need to combine long-term relationship building with public education, legislative advocacy, agitation, and creative direct action. Our vision and our practice need to be strategic, independent, and based on clear principles, not power-brokering.

We need to reclaim and embrace the diversity of Jewish political thought and action over the past century, as well as the neglected dissident Jewish voices of today. Mainstream discussion about Israel is framed within a discourse of inevitability, in which the Nazi Holocaust incontrovertibly “proves” the necessity of the Israeli national security state. We need to understand the many roads not taken in recent Jewish history — not as an abstract intellectual exercise but as a vital part of our struggle to articulate a new vision for the Jewish future.

Rachael Kamel is a founding member of the Jewish Mobilization for a Just Peace (JMJP) and an activist with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. For more information, contact