Pro-Israel groups have taken notice of a shift in US politics

They are changing their strategies accordingly, but it's likely to be an uphill climb for them

Members of Neturei Karta, who describe themselves as a group of Orthodox Jews against zionism, protest outside the White House last August. AP Photo
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Given the noticeable shift in American attitudes toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, some pro-Israel groups in the US seem to be flailing about in wild desperation.

A number of them have pushed more than 30 states to criminalise support for efforts to boycott, divest, or sanction Israel. Paralleling this, they have launched campaigns to pass legislation on the national and state levels to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include many forms of legitimate criticism of the state of Israel. This expanded definition is not only to be used in the prosecution of some hate crimes, it is also making its way onto college campuses and local school boards and being used to stifle student protests against Israeli policies and to influence what can and can’t be taught and who can and can’t teach about the Middle East and its history.

Furthermore, concerned with the increased number of congressional candidates who are openly critical of Israeli policies, new political action committees – or PACs – have been created to support candidates who will not question Israeli behaviour or to oppose those who have taken issue with its treatment of Palestinians. In just the first quarter of this year, these PACs have already raised and spent millions largely to smear the reputations of those they seek to defeat.

Like the little Dutch boy, pro-Israel PACs are trying to put their fingers in the dyke to hold back the flood

Taken together, these efforts are both undemocratic and dangerous. They are designed to intimidate and/or punish those who dare to criticise Israeli policies and, therefore, to silence needed debate about US policy in the Middle East.

Much of what these groups are doing is merely an extension of tactics they have employed for decades.

Pro-Israel PACs have been bundling campaign contributions for decades and using them to reward candidates who endorsed unquestioning support for the country and punish those who showed even the slightest inclination to challenge that state’s policies. Major groups have also, for decades, used their good offices to smear critics with the charge of being anti-Semitic or terrorist sympathisers – a sure way to end debate and harm the reputation of those advocating for Palestinian human rights.

The political environment they created with these tactics was distorted. They may have won votes in the US Congress, but in many cases members cast their votes more out of fear of the political fallout rather than their own policy positions, including ones they knew would better serve US interests.

The impact of being smeared as an anti-Semite or a supporter of terror was even more damaging. Some Arab Americans and others who spoke out in support of Palestinians lost jobs and speaking engagements.

Arab-American groups were excluded from political coalitions. Some Arab Americans were denied the right to participate in the political process, limiting their ability to represent and defend their community.

But despite their best efforts, criticism of Israeli policies has only grown. Polls show that a majority of all Americans want to condition US aid to Israel based on its treatment of Palestinians. A plurality of Americans see support for sanctioning or boycotting Israel as legitimate. And support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel have dramatically increased among Democrats. Over the past two decades, for instance, the share of Democrats saying they sympathise with Israel more than Palestine has declined 11 points, from 38 per cent to 27 per cent, according to Pew Research Centre. In March last year, a Gallup poll showed that 53 per cent of the party's rank and file favoured putting pressure on Israel to make compromises to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict raging at the time. It represented a 10-point jump from 2018 and a 20-point rise from 2008, when conflict broke out between the two sides in those years.

In addition to empowered Arab Americans, African Americans and young voters have become more outspoken. Of great importance in this regard, young Jewish Americans have become organised and emboldened to challenge the pro-Israel bent of the establishment organisations that have for too long dominated the politics of their community. As a result, while in the past, one could count just one or two congressional campaigns where Palestinian rights were an issue, this year there are dozens.

All this combined has created panic in the hardline pro-Israel community. Like the little Dutch boy in the famous story, they are trying to put their fingers in the dyke to hold back the flood, but with so many leaks, they find themselves at a loss. Hence the desperate measures.

This concern was evident in a speech given last week by Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League. After citing an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, he sought to pin the blame on critics of Israel, singling out a pro-Palestinian student group, a movement of progressive young Jews, and a Muslim group. He also made an inaccurate assertion when he said: “To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can – anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

Mr Greenblatt also proposed accelerating the measures designed to silence debate about and punish legitimate criticism of Israel by, for example, appealing to the Democratic Party to police anti-Zionism within its ranks. He added: "We will demand that tech companies that are investing so heavily to fight copyright violations on their platforms commit the same level of innovation to reducing the reach of hate speech on their services. That isn’t a call for censorship; it’s an appeal for decency."

There are so many additional comments one could make about this effort at misdirection, but it suffices to say that it is dangerous. Pro-Israel groups may win a few races because they’ve smeared an honest candidate. They may damage a few careers and cause threats to a few courageous academics or advocates for justice. They may also pass a few unconstitutional laws banning free speech.

But, at the end of the day, they will not succeed in silencing the growing criticism of Israel's actions against Palestinians because what is spurring it on isn’t anti-Semitism, it’s the policies of that state. The net result of its heavy-handed tactics will continue to breed anger and resentment, and even more importantly, deeper partnerships and more organising in support of justice.

Published: May 13, 2022, 5:52 AM