A tipping point is where physical momentum, inclined in one direction, reverses its course, stabilizes, and then begins to move the opposite way. Those of us who have been arguing for a sane United States foreign policy in the Middle East have well understood that the odds on shifting the prevailing narrative have been heavily against us thanks to the overwhelming resources possessed by a powerful domestic lobby. Ten years ago in America, it was impossible to place even a letter in a mainstream newspaper or magazine that was in any way critical of Israel. Apart from Pat Buchanan, no one on television provided a critique of Israel and its policies. In the U.S. media, Israel was ever the beleaguered little democracy surrounded by savage Arabs.
But then, all of a sudden, the conspiracy of silence began to break down.
It began with the revisionist history of the antecedents of the Iraq War as that conflict continued to drag on. Many began attributing Washington’s initiation of the fighting, at least in part, to Israeli interests. Philip Zelikow, chief counsel for the 9/11 Commission Report, famously noted in March 2004 that the war was “to protect Israel,” surely an exaggeration but containing more than a kernel of truth. Many also began to observe that the agitation for a new war with Iran was following the same pattern, with supporters of Israel leading the charge.
In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. It provoked considerable outrage and highly publicized resignations from the board of the Carter Foundation together with charges that Carter was supporting Palestinian terrorism. But the big breakthrough came with the publication of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in the following year. It became a New York Times best-seller, and it suddenly became acceptable to talk about Israel without the usual bromides. For the first time, people in America were taking notice of the power of the Israel lobby and the inherent downside for U.S. national interests.
Driven by the prospect of unending warfare in an attempt to remake the Muslim world by force, letters and op-eds critical of Israel and its policies began to appear in the mainstream media. There weren’t a lot, mind you, and they were always “balanced” by more numerous contrary commentaries, but there were enough to demonstrate that a shift was taking place. Mainstream Jewish organizations, always vigilant in defense of what they have perceived as Israel’s interest, resorted increasingly to discrediting critics by calling them “anti-Semites.” Indeed, they succeeded in equating any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and even managed to pass legislation in Canada and several European nations that made any criticism of Israel ipso facto a hate crime.
Some American Jews have always been bothered by the dark side of Israel’s story, beginning with the Nakba expulsion of the Palestinians from their homes and including the more recent settlement policy, “security” wall, and the denial of civil and human rights to the Arabs living in Israel and the occupied territories. They were convinced, correctly, that Israel had no intention to permit the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Many began to protest, though their voices were at first confined to the alternative media and they had to work through many progressive groups that were advancing a much broader peace agenda in response to George W. Bush’s horrific “global war on terror.”
But now we Americans have finally reached our tipping point. Recently Peter Beinart, a Zionist and defender of Israel for many years, released The Crisis of Zionism, which explains how Israel has become an armed camp dedicated to repressing and even expelling its Palestinian helots. As a liberal Jew, he rejects the militant values that drive the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has even gone so far as to support an economic boycott of Israel, similar to the pressure that was put on South African apartheid. The book has predictably provoked a firestorm of criticism from the pro-Israel establishment, but Beinart is not alone. Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman of The New York Times, both Jewish and both longtime friends of Israel, have voiced the same concerns, namely that Israel no longer represents the liberal and humanistic values that they themselves cherish. It has been noted in passing that young American Jews increasingly do not view Israel in positive terms, a sign, if one was needed, that the older generation that believes Israel is always right, no matter what it does, is passing into history.
And it does not end there. Even the mainstream media is now, perhaps reluctantly, on board. On April 22, 60 Minutes, the most watched television news and commentary program in the United States, aired a segment on Israeli persecution of Christians. The program was a real shock for the many fundamentalist Christians who have viewed Israel through rose-tinted glasses. Many evangelicals have promoted the myth that Israel is actually a protector of Christians, which it most emphatically is not; it seeks instead to marginalize them and force them to emigrate, as the 60 Minutes program demonstrated. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who tried to kill the story and called it a “hatchet job,” was interviewed as part of it. His performance was alternately smug and angry, and it is widely regarded as a public relations disaster. He even said that mainstream Christian churches are “known for their anti-Semitism.”
Benjamin Netanyahu’s office supported Oren’s contention that the broadcast was a “threat to Israel.” It was Netanyahu’s second venture into public relations in a short time, having previously denounced German Nobel Prize–winning author Gunter Grass. Netanyahu banned Grass from traveling to Israel and said that his writings had “hurt Israel profoundly.” Netanyahu was responding to Grass’s rather mild declaration in a poem that the Jewish state’s nuclear program is a threat to an “already fragile world peace.”
Netanyahu knows that the tide is running against him and everything he represents, particularly as the criticism from former senior officials in his own country continues to mount, but he is too obdurate to do what must be done. One of Israel’s darkest secrets is the extent to which young, educated Jews are fleeing the country for greener pastures, most notably the United States. By some guesstimates, one third of university-educated second- and third-generation Israeli Jews have left the country. They are leaving behind the recent Russian immigrants, many of whom are not actually religiously or ethnically Jewish, and the Islamophobic racists who constitute the core of the hard right in Israel. Israel publishes no statistics on the brain drain, which has intensified the country’s demographic problem and lessened its competitiveness.
So we have reached the point where the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Everyone, with the possible exception of the U.S. Congress, has become aware that there is something terribly wrong with Israel. In Israel itself, where there is often ferocious debate over the country’s policies, it is time for a reckoning. Does Israel want to become a normal state with correct relationships with its neighbors, including an independent Palestine, or does it want to continue down the road that it is pursuing, which is folly and will lead to ruin? The choice is ultimately Israel’s, but, for the first time, Americans are actually beginning to talk and write freely and openly about the problem.