Is an Israel Policy Debate Possible in the U.S.?

The cancellation of a planned lecture in New York by historian Tony Judt has renewed a debate over whether free and open discussions about Israel are possible in the U.S. The New York University professor has long been a critic of Israel, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. That's the title of a lecture that was to be given earlier this month at the Polish Consulate in New York City. Tony Judt, a professor at New York University, was the speaker. But on the day of the lecture it was cancelled.

BRAND: Before that happened, there were phone calls between the consul general and some Jewish organizations. Charges and countercharges flew, renewing the debate over whether it's possible to have an open discussion about America and Israel.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Almost everyone you talk to says Tony Judt is not the real issue. Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League say they question the subject matter, the Israel lobby, more than the speaker.

And critics of Israel say this is really a symptom of the kinds of pressures often used by pro-Israeli Jewish groups to stifle debate over the Israeli-Palestinian issue and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, dismisses the Judt incident. He says he called the Polish consul general as a friend to let him know that this event was taking place and that Tony Judt had been critical of Israel and at times had called into question its future existence.

Mr. DAVID HARRIS (Executive Director, American Jewish Committee): This was only about the question of whether Poland wanted such an event to be held on what is in fact Polish soil, which could have sent the wrong message to Israel and, in a way, undermine what is now a foundation of principle of Polish foreign policy, which is its close tie with Israel.

ADLER: The Polish consul general was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, the phone calls were elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure.

Ten days later, the consulate had released a statement saying that under no circumstance was it forced to do anything. What exactly happened is still in some dispute. And what was it that brought Judt, a Jewish historian who specializes in Europe, to be so scrutinized by some Jewish organizations?

Well three years ago, Judt wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books arguing that most Western Democratic states have become multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. And in that context, he used a word to describe the idea of a Jewish state.

Professor TONY JUDT (New York University): I described it as an anachronism. And I think that one word with its implications that Israel is not the future of the Jews, but somehow past of the Jews and that it's future lies in something other than an ethnic Jewish state, that seems to drive people crazy.

Mr. ABRAHAM FOXMAN (National Director, Anti-Defamation League): Palestine is not a mistake. Germany is not a mistake. China is not a mistake. Israel is a mistake, a Jewish state?

Abraham Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. FOXMAN: I think that needs discussion. That needs debate. Again, nothing wrong with him saying it; he's entitled to say it. But I'm entitled to make sure that it's countered.

ADLER: Roiling beneath this small controversy are two much larger questions. Are powerful Jewish organizations just countering criticism of Israel or are they stifling debate on the Middle East? And where is the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism?

Last spring, a research paper in the London Review of Books titled, The Israel Lobby, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, provoked outrage among some Jews as going beyond legitimate criticism.

The article argued that the United States' strong support of Israel has been against U.S. interests and has imperiled its security. Other articles in the New York Review of Books have argued that it's almost impossible to publicly criticize Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives has often been a harsh critic of current Israeli policy. He says critics like him are often slandered as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews.

Rabbi MICHAEL LERNER (Editor, Tikkun Magazine; Leader): And that is extremely repressive and extremely hurtful both for the Jewish world and for American politics. It constricts American politics so that there's no real debate in this country about whether it really is in America's interest to be supporting the current government's policies in Israel.

ADLER: There is at least one issue where Michael Lerner and Abraham Foxman agree: the definition of the test for how to tell the line between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel. Applying a double standard, criticizing Israel for human rights violations, for example, but never criticizing China or Saudi Arabia. As Foxman would put it…

Mr. FOXMAN: If Israel would be included in a list of 20 other countries, I would argue that Israel doesn't belong, but okay, that's their judgment. But if the only country in the world that to them is violating human rights is Israel, that's anti-Semitism.

ADLER: That might seem clear, but it gets murky when some people argue, including some Israelis, that Israel is a Western democracy and should be held to a higher standard.

Almost everyone you talk to who believes that there is pressure not to criticize Israel or U.S. policy toward Israel says you can debate these issues much more freely in Israel than in the United States. Lerner says some 400 members of Congress supported a pro-Israel resolution regarding the war with Hezbollah, but privately…

Rabbi LERNER: Over and over again I've been told by the Congress people that I've gone to that, look, we agree with you, but if we stand in any of this publicly, we would be out of a job.

ADLER: Harris and Foxman dispute this analysis and say differences are aired freely in both countries. When I said to Foxman, people running for office in New York City are careful to stay away from criticizing Israel, Foxman replied…

Mr. FOXMAN: It would difficult for somebody opposed to farm support to run in Nebraska. That's part of our system. That's not intimidation.

ADLER: So I asked Michael Massing, a journalist, who wrote a long article of the New York Review of Books last June called The Storm Over the Israel Lobby, what's the difference between these powerful Jewish organizations influencing politics and a powerful lobby like the National Riffle Association? His answer, the gun lobby has a powerful opposition.

Mr. MICHAEL MASSING (Journalist, New York Review of Books): You have the Brady campaign. There are very few groups on the other side of this. And you don't have pro-Palestinian groups out there who have the same contacts in the media or give the same type of money to candidates, or are as comfortable in the American political process as is pro-Israel groups are.

ADLER: But it may also be that groups that support Israel are better organized and are more effective in making their case. Rabbi Lerner says Jewish progressive groups like his often have a dozen priorities from Iraq to homelessness. Pro-Israel groups have a single focus.

Rabbi LERNER: And they put all of their energy into it, so they get a very large impact.

ADLER: Whatever the case, Massing says it's difficult for journalists to raise the issue of U.S.-Middle East policy because people are often afraid to talk about it.

Mr. MASSING: It's a minefield.

ADLER: But Tony Judt says the lack of debate in the U.S. over these issues has less to do with pressure groups than with America's culture of conformity, something noted by the de Tocqueville in the 1830s.

Prof. JUDT: And of course it's a great big paradox. But as we also have a much freer range in which we could speak because of the First Amendment, and we have a kind of culture of sort of talk shows and shouting at each other and so on, but only in a sort of symbolic way real differences don't get ahead.

ADLER: But this week the New York Review of Books published a letter signed by more than a hundred publishers, writers and academics saying it was dismayed that the Anti-Defamation League did not choose to play a more constructive role in promoting liberty in the Judt incident.

So whatever the level of debate, this controversy is continuing.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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