What does it mean to be "pro-Israel"?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 7 2008 1:23 PM

What Does It Mean To Be "Pro-Israel"?

The election, and the creation of a new dovish Jewish lobby group, brings the question to the fore.

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"For too long, the only voices politicians and policy makers have heard on American policy toward Israel and the Middle East have been from the far right," complains the group's Web site. In recent years, said Alan Solomont—a leading supporter of the group and a Jewish supporter of Barack Obama's—"neocons, right-of-center Jewish leaders, and Christian evangelicals" were the people tasked with delineating the "pro-Israel" position. Obama himself expressed a similar sentiment a couple of weeks ago: "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel."

The situation was tilted in one direction—so the new group is trying to tip it the other way.

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Obama does not like the "pro-Likud" approach, but he wants the benefit of being seen as a pro-Israel candidate. All American politicians do (except, perhaps, Patrick Buchanan). "In political life in America today, everyone says they're a friend of Israel," wrote Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to the Clinton administration, in his new book The Much Too Promised Land. And it's true: If you lower the bar enough, everybody is a friend; everybody is "pro-Israel" as long as they don't actively agitate for Israel's demise.

Jimmy Carter, one of the most vocal critics of Israeli policies and of the "Israel lobby" in America, said two weeks ago that all he wants is "to bring peace to Israel. … The security of Israel is … paramount." Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer—authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a book highly critical of Israel—also say that Israel has a moral and legal right to exist. Are they "pro-Israel" because they do not say that they want it to be destroyed?

J Street—whose leaders are also very critical of Israel's policies—is more specific. It states that "U.S. support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is an historic and legitimate commitment" and that "maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge" is necessary. Is that the right policy for Israel? That's another debate. But the policy J Street advocates is clearly so different in nature from the traditional positions of "pro-Israel" advocacy groups that having it under the same roof becomes strange. It leaves the wondering citizen with a somewhat redundant definition of the "pro-Israel" camp

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Defining someone as "pro-Israel"—or, for that matter, pro-anything or anti-anything—is a way for people to simplify complicated questions when searching for a political party, a candidate, or an organization they would like to support. The problem is that along the way the term has been used so often—to describe so many conflicting positions—that it has become practically meaningless, more confusing than clarifying.

So maybe now, for Israel's 60th birthday, there's one last position that the "pro-Israel" camp can agree on: It is time to dump the term. Those Democrats might be right when they tell William Daroff: "We are all pro-Israel." But Republicans are also right when they insist: "We should still talk about the specifics." Without specifics, being "pro-Israel" is almost like being pro-great-weather or pro-tasty-food.

Shmuel Rosner is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times, and political editor for the Jewish Journal