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The end of 'pro-Israel' in American political discourse

There is no consensus on what pro-Israel means; even opposing political groups – like AIPAC and J Street – parade the term as a badge of honor. Pro-Israel has come to mean different things for different people, necessitating the introduction of a new vocabulary.

By Roi Bachmutsky

Israeli and American flags (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

With abortion set to take national center stage in next year’s U.S. midterm election debates, it seems as though the clash between pro-life and pro-choice will steal the limelight. The very vocabulary we use forebodes the vitriolic tit-for-tat looming in the distance, each side debasing the other for grave injustices – either subverting women’s basic rights or mercilessly slaughtering our newborns.

But we all know these slogans, which were birthed of propagandist public relations, have a loose relationship with the truth. Pro-life and pro-choice attack straw men and women. Most Democrats do not rejoice in abortion, nor do most Republicans seek to degrade the status of women. In fact, national polls generally show that a healthy majority of Americans believe in safe and legal abortions during the first trimester, relegating the heart of the controversy to what the reasonable limits for aborting pregnancies should be.

Our country’s Israel debate has a parallel vocabulary problem. When the average American encounters Israeli politics in the mainstream media, chances are that discourse centers around two potent battle cries: pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. The crippling predicament, however, is that in each case there is no single, coherent definition of the term. Year after year, we are talking past each other.

The 2012 presidential race between incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney serves as a recognizable example. Throughout the campaign, both candidates ceaselessly regurgitated different configurations of the pro-Israel line: “we stand with Israel,” “we have Israel’s back,” “our commitment to Israel is unshakable,” “our bond with Israel is unbreakable.”

But what did Obama and Romney mean? Were they “committed” to Israel as a state regardless of the ruling coalition or were they committed to the policies of the regime currently in power? Did they “stand with” Israel Proper behind the Green Line or a Greater Israel and its settlements as well? Did they “have Israel’s back” solely if Iran attacked or also in their intermittent retaliatory shelling of Gaza which has always left civilian bodies in its wake?

In fact, the pro-Israel line is sufficiently ambiguous that its proponents cannot be held accountable to any of these particular policy ambitions. The questions have no end. Does being pro-Palestinian necessarily mean being anti-Israel? What about vice versa? Is someone who identifies as pro-Israel by definition a Zionist? Are pro/anti-Israel and pro/anti-Palestinian each dichotomies or spectra? There are no definitive answers.

This is because there is no consensus on what pro-Israel means when even opponent political groups – such as the Israel lobbies of both AIPAC and J Street – parade the term as a badge of honor. In today’s postmodern world, pro-Israel has come to mean different things for different people. We are all undoubtedly speaking different languages while feigning comprehension – but why?

The function of these soundbites, much alike pro-choice and pro-life, is not to delineate clear policy prescriptions or political ideologies but rather to vilify our rivals. We all remember when Mitt Romney, in accepting the Republican presidential nomination, declared that “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus,” or when he suggested that Obama’s goal was to “put daylight between the United States and Israel.” While remaining silent on the tough questions and espousing a nearly identical foreign policy, Romney used the anti-Israel bludgeon to spin the media into a frenzy about Obama’s “Jewish problem.”

The frenzy ended up for naught, since Obama beat Romney for the Jewish vote by more than two to one. The consequence of assaults like these, however, is that more time is spent reassuring the public of one’s pro-Israel credibility than discussing issues of substance to move the deliberation forward.

The recent turbulence over the confirmation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is exemplary. Like Obama, Hagel had also been accused of having a “Jewish problem.” Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz claimed during Hagel’s confirmation hearing that “[his] record as a United States Senator… demonstrates greater antagonism for the nation of Israel than any other member of this body.” According to Cruz and his partners, Hagel is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel for suggesting that the Palestinians had “legitimate grievances” against Israel – the audacity!

For making statements far more tempered than in much of the Israeli media – MK Tzipi Livni, for example, recently joined the club of Israeli politicians warning of future Israeli apartheid – Hagel was put on the defensive. When asked if he concurred that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involved an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders (an integral component of the parameters engrained in the peace process by our ever-malevolent former President Bill Clinton), Hagel bleakly replied that he affirmed Israel’s right to exist, encouraged peace, and believed the issue would be resolved in negotiations. In the blink of an eye, any inkling of profundity on the United States’ role as a broker of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation evaporated.

Of course, the inadequacy of the pro-Israel/pro-Palestinian bumper sticker war does not solely apply to the national arena. Our vocabulary stymies substantive Israel-related conversations in the workplace, in congregations and even among friends and family. We need a change.

Inspired by progressive vanguard Planned Parenthood’s recent campaign to curb these labels in favor of expanding “authentic” discourse on abortion, I propose we eliminate these terms altogether. We should begin resuscitating public discourse by introducing – then debating – alternatives.

Secretary of State John Kerry has recently suggested that the “window for a two-state solution is shutting.” If his attempts at reviving negotiations end up in vain, can we sleep at night knowing that our incessant adversarial smearing is partially to blame for the intractability of a resolution to this conflict?

Let us begin by replacing our nation’s vocabulary. Let us find new words that embrace vibrant political debate rather than shut it down. Let us start anew.

Roi Bachmutsky is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter (@roibachmutsky).

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  • COMMENTS

    1. XYZ

      It has become fashionable for people who support BDS, condemnation of Israel at the UN or support things like the Palestinian demand for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, and the such to say that they are “pro-Israel”, in other words, they call themselves that if they allow for the continued existence of Israel in some form or other. But as journalist Shmuel Rosner stated some time ago, to say one is “pro-Israel” has policy implications. It may sound sound to say that “I am pro-Israel AND pro-Palestinian”, but that ignores the fact that Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in a long-term conflict that won’t end even in the event of a “peace agreement” and that many of the Palestinian demands are incompatible with Israels basic vital interests, such as the RoR. Thus, we see that the term “pro-Israel” has undergone the same laundering as terms like “the peace process” which have come to mean things far from what the basic meaning of the words are.

      Reply to Comment
      • un2here

        Without RoR, Zionism is just Fascism rebranded

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Keep telling the Palestnians that….that will ensure that they won’t get anything at all.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >Without RoR, Zionism is just Fascism rebranded

          Here comes the ultimate Left: Meaningless but brisk slogans. Exactly as Orwell had written.

          Who cares that Germany never was fascist, or that fascism provides equality for all, or that with RoR there would be no Zionism at all, but yet another failed Arab state after few years of genocide?

          You really should apply for a job at the Ministry of Truth.

          Reply to Comment
          • JG

            Go spit your racist nonsense elswhere.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Haifawi

      So we can define pro-Israel as “ENSURING a Jewish majority in the State of Israel?”

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        nsttnocontentcomment

        Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Yes, correct, just all the surrouning states make Islam the state religion in order to ensure that Islam will continue to be dominant in those countries, including a post-Mursi Egypt.

        Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I should add that it is also just like Pakistan which was set up to be a Muslim state.

        Reply to Comment
        • Haifawi

          And emulating Pakistan is totally a desirable goal :\

          Reply to Comment
          • Mike panzone

            How delusional that those touting israel as “the only democracy in the middle east” cant see that a jewish state fits in the same category as an islamic republic. Western secular democracies fit together in another.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Obviously, Israel is not “Western secular democracy” simply because it is not located anywhere on the West. So difficult to grasp that, huh?

            >Jewish state fits in the same category as an Islamic republic

            Basically, you are stating that there can not be an “Islamic democracy”.

            How very racist of you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Mike panzone

            Trespasser, How can advocating for a secular democracy be racist? I would say those proposing jewish states and islamic republics are most likely the ones who are racists.

            I check in here a few times a month. I enjoy the intellectual, open dialogue of the people on this website. practically every one of your posts, however, seem to include bitter sarcasm that borders on being insulting. I pray that in real life you are not as unhappy as you appear to be here.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Trespasser is pointing out that Mike and Haifawi are implying there is something wrong with Islamic Republics or Islamic states, which according to the rules of “progressive”-speak is an “Islamophobic” statement meaning that it is implying there is something wrong with Islam. As Mary Hughes-Thompson has pointed out, it is FORIBIDDEN for Westerners to make any value judgments osf other cultures..to do is is colonialist-racist and “white-mans-burden”ish.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Trespasser, How can advocating for a secular democracy be racist?

            Advocating for a secular democracy is not quite the same as claiming that Islamic or Jewish entities can’t be democratic.

            >I would say those proposing jewish states and islamic republics are most likely the ones who are racists.

            Yeah, that is the problem with so-called “basic human rights” – multiple contradictions.

            For instance, the “right of self-determination” is extremely racist.

            “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action. . . . ”

            Another right – “freedom of religion” – basically grants a right to kill if a religion demands that.

            “Freedom of religion or Freedom of belief is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” is in direct contradiction with “The freedom to leave or discontinue membership in a religion or religious group —in religious terms called “apostasy” — is also a fundamental part of religious freedom”
            For instance, in Islam it is compulsory to kill whoever converts to any other religion, so one of “basic human rights” would be violated either way.

            >I check in here a few times a month. I enjoy the intellectual, open dialogue of the people on this website. practically every one of your posts, however, seem to include bitter sarcasm that borders on being insulting.

            Thank you so much for your appreciation, indeed, I am designing my posts very carefully.

            >I pray that in real life you are not as unhappy as you appear to be here.

            Thankfully, in real life I’m still to meet people who would claim that Jewish presence in Ottoman Palestine was “statistically insignificant” or that one of Hamas’ leaders had sent a peace proposal mere few hours before being slaughtered by evil Jooz.

            Reply to Comment
          • Mike panzone

            “indeed, I am designing my posts very carefully.”
            …Im sure you are! holed up in some corner of a room, obsessing over 972mag.com.
            See you next month, trespasser ;-)

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            And what exactly is wrong with emulating Pakistan?

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            And what exactly is wrong with emulating Pakistan?

            You think that you are better than an average Pakistani?

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            “And emulating Pakistan is totally a desirable goal :\”

            Only one? Pakistan? How about all the other Islamic republics? How often have progressives criticised ALL the Islamic republics JUST for being Islamic republics? Why is ALL the venom reserved for the SOLE Jewish state in the world?

            Oh, and wait … How about Britain. It’s official state religion is Anglicanism. How about quite a few other countries, here read this:

            http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_religion

            Why arn’t all those a problem for anyone?

            Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        “So we can define pro-Israel as “ENSURING a Jewish majority in the State of Israel?”

        And you cannot think of a single reason why many Jews desire one place on this earth where Jews are a majority?

        Let me give you a clue:

        For 2000 years we Jews tried to live our lives as minorities amongst others.

        QUESTION: What would you say? How did the experience work out for us on the whole? Be honest now!

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Shmuel-
          You have to learn “progressive”-think.
          Prof Judith Butler has stated that radical Palestinian nationalism or
          radical Islamic movments like the Muslim Brotherhood or HIZBULLAH are “progressive, universalist” movements, whereas Zionism-Jewish nationalism is “regressive, primitive and ethnocentric. That’s clear enough, isn’t it? That’s the rule here..

          Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Yes XYZ you are right. I should read 1984 again. Thanks for reminding me. I need to be re-educated. Maybe I will book into a gulag. I am sures some “progressives” have plans for us primitive Zionists along those lines.

            Really, I mean it. The hatred and the venom that some exhibit towards us in sites like these is palpable. And some of the bloggers are the worst. I am sure you know who I mean.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            Shmuel-You have put your finger on the problem. What I have seen with a log of “progressives” is no real concern with human rights or humanity in general, but just a general unhappiness and a feeling of revulsion with humanity. I saw an article on the Washington Post about low birth rates in Europe and you would not believe how many said “good, get rid of people, there are too many, all people do is pollute the world”. I saw an article years ago in the New York Times about an anti-smoking activist. He was asked if his goal was to improve the health of mankind. The writer was surprised to hear him say “no, his goal was to put the tobacco executives against the wall and shoot them”. Really.
            Regarding the situation here with the Arab-Israeli conflict. No doubt there are many people who are concerned with the human rights of the Palestinians. But others simply use them as a vehicle to attack Israel, which is what they really hate. Amnon Lord, who is Editor of the Makor Rishon, originally came from the Left and he said many of his old acquaintances are filled with hate against Israel, plain and simple.
            Read some columnists at Ha’aretz like Yossi Sarid or others. I have never seen him say a good word about ANYBODY. To him, everybody is bad, stupid, corrupt,etc. I am not saying all “progressives” are like this, but those who are not are making a serious mistake by allying themselves with misanthropes like this because many people tend to lump them together.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Let me try and sum up the difference in the philosophy between progressives and conservatives. I will deliberately exaggerate in order to make a point:

            - Progressives-think: The other is always right. We are always wrong. Conservative-think the exact opposite.

            - progressive-think: The other is always the victim, we are always the exploiter.
            Conservative-think: the opposite.

            - Progressive-think: The other is always more reasonable we are criminals.
            Conservative-think: the opposite.

            Etc. I’ll say it again, the above is a cartoonish exaggeration. Reality is somewhere in between.

            Now, as you know, I am a conservative. I am somewhere in that spectrum on the centre right in political terms. And this is what I have to say: even if we are wrong at times, at least we are honest. We admit our need to protect our own first and foremost. That is the natural order of things. My problem with the progressives is that they exhortv US to be unselfish to the point of becoming candidates for the Darwin awards, I am sure you know what that means, XYZ. But when push comes to shove, I am convinced that if ever a progressive gets mugged by reality, he would fight for his/her own survival and his family’s, tooth and nail every bit as hard and ruthlessly as us conservatives.

            So to sum up. The difference between us conservatives and them, the progressives, is that we are more honest. We don’t claim total moral superiority. We claim our human right to look after ourselves when there is a conflict of interest between the “others” survival and our survival.

            The progressives on the other hand are either liars or they are candidates for the Darwin awards. Neither is a good thing.

            :)

            Reply to Comment
          • Mike panzone

            @ xyz if you are so disgusted by progressives and this site, then Why do u keep coming back? Like i said before, i visit here a few times a month. when i do, i am guaranteed to see yours and trespassers posts. You both post here CONSTANTLY. if what you have to say falls on the deaf ears of progressives, then leave here and concentrate your efforts on more reasonable people. It is insanity to stick around, knowing that no one respects what you have to say. Most seem to be ignoring your comments anyway.

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            I am not posting comments here in order to change the views of “progressives”, I am attempting to proviide correct information or to correct errors in other people’s postings because I am sure there are numerous people who come to this site because they want learn and still have open minds, which is the vast majority of humankind. I don’t know how many people come here each month, but I do know that there is great interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict out there. What I don’t understand is why it bothers you so much to see contrarian opinions expressed here. You see my pen-name, all you have to do is skip over my comments if they disturb you so much. I also come here because I have learned a lot, outside of the propaganda posted here….I prefer reading views opposed to mine to reading things that simply reinforce my beliefs.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            A good response to Mike’s post, XYZ. In fact, an excellent response.

            Reply to Comment
          • mike panzone

            when you make a comment like “a lot of progressives have no real concern with human rights or humanity in general, but just a general unhappiness and a feeling of revulsion with humanity”…and when you agree with shmuel who says conservatives are honest but progressives are liars…then your intent doesn’t seem to be to enlighten and educate with fact based information, but instead your intent seems to be airing your own propoganda.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >but instead your intent seems to be airing your own propaganda.

            See? For a “progressive”, whatever information contradicts his views is “propaganda” and should be dismissed.

            Reply to Comment
          • Mareli

            That reminds me of something else I read about some antisemitic British leftists who said that it was a relief to be able to dislike Jews again (because of the Palestinian issue) as he had felt constrained to admit this since the Holocaust. Another referred to Israel as a “shitty little country.” European antisemitism was not restricted to Germany; in fact, some other Europeans were worse in that regard. The Jews do need to be a majority somewhere, and culturally and historically Israel is the logical locality. The problem is that the land did have some other people in it, just as it did when the Jews originally came there aeons ago. The Israelis are finding, however, that they cannot use biblical methods to dispose of their competitors for living space without others seeing and watching on the internet, CNN, RT, and Al Jazeera. If the British in India or the Yankees in the western US in the 1870s had had the same media coverage of their activities as the Israelis do today, there might have been the same level of uproar.

            Reply to Comment
    3. mike panzone

      when you make a comment like “a lot of progressives have no real concern with human rights or humanity in general, but just a general unhappiness and a feeling of revulsion with humanity”…and when you agree with shmuel who says conservatives are honest but progressives are liars…then your intent doesn’t seem to be to enlighten and educate with fact based information, but instead your intent seems to be airing your own propoganda.

      Reply to Comment
      • Shmuel

        Correction Mike, please don’t distort what I said.

        I said this:

        “The progressives on the other hand are either liars or they are candidates for the Darwin awards. Neither is a good thing”

        Now go back to my original post for context. You will find that I called those progressives who claim moral superiority, liars. While the remainder are people who are not likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes to the gene pool unless they shelter under the umbrella of protection offered by more realistic street wise people. Because if their “progressive” ideas would be implemented, they would not survive.

        Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      Mike-
      I NEVER said nor agreed with the assertion that “progressives” are liars. I have never called anybody names here. What Shmuel and I are trying to understand is why such a high proportion of commments directed at Isrrael, the US, “globalist capitalism” or political opponents are so often filled with rage, ad hominem attacks and just simple lashing out instead of dealing with the facts. I find political and religious extremists of ANY stripe to be obnoxious, even if they supposedly agree with me. I brought several examples. Another good one is to read Solzhenitsym’s “Lenin in Zurich” to see how spite and contempt this “lover of the proletariat” had for everyone, including the proletariat itself. You see what kind of regime he set up.
      I personally am repelled when I see “right-wingers” gloating over the mass killings of civilians in the surrounding Arab countries. That is why I was constantly harping on the “progressives” here about why they were not militantly demanding a halt to the slaughter in Syria without taking sides. A final example..a “progressive” commentor here once said “you right-wingers only care about yourselves, I love all of humanity including the Palestinians”. I then asked what he was doing to stop the killing in Syria. His reply was “there are too many problems in the world, I don’t have time to deal with that”. So much for love of suffering humanity…hundreds dying every day.

      Reply to Comment
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