William Daroff is vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office at United Jewish Communities, an organization representing America's Jewish federations. In other words, he's a lobbyist. Daroff is also one of the country's better-connected Jewish operatives. In recent months, he has been called upon to moderate dozens of panels aimed at Jewish activists and professionals, dealing with the hot topic of the day: the 2008 election and the Jewish community.
This election has reignited an old debate: Which party is better for Israel—the Republicans or the Democrats? Assuming that Jewish voters care about this question, the parties have to make their case if they want Jewish voters to support them.
Jewish representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties are invited to most of the panels Daroff moderates. After a long string of forums, Daroff has noticed that the two parties' line of argument is markedly different.
The Democratic representative will often say: Both parties are good for Israel; it's a bipartisan issue; let's move on to discuss health care or the mortgage crisis.
The Republican will respond: Not so fast. Democrats are trying to avoid the issue because they recognize their weakness and know that Republican support for the Jewish state is much stronger than theirs.
It's a cyclical debate with no end and little meaning until you define what it means to be pro-Israel. Historically, Israel has relied on support from both sides of the aisle, and it would clearly be better off if that situation continues. But at the root of the Republican claim is a niggling kernel of truth: Democratic voters do not side with Israel at the same rate and with the same enthusiasm as Republican voters do. At least if you accept the definitions most pollsters use to define a pro-Israel position.
Take, for example, a recent Gallup poll about Americans' most- and least-favored nations. Israel, fairly popular with Americans, is "viewed more favorably by Republicans than by Democrats," the survey reports. Eighty-four percent of Republicans rank it favorably, compared with only 64 percent of Democrats. This is hardly a new phenomenon: Back in 2006, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that Republicans favored alignment with Israel over neutrality in the Israeli-Arab conflict 64 percent to 29 percent. By contrast, only 39 percent of Democrats supported alignment with Israel, while 54 percent favored neutrality.
But is favoring "neutrality" less pro-Israel than favoring alignment with Israel? Does sympathizing with the terrible fate of the Palestinians make someone less supportive of Israel?
This question isn't of concern to only the political parties. A new organization, J Street, presents a similar challenge to those trying to define the meaning of being a pro-Israel American. J Street is a dovish new Jewish-American lobby group—self-tagged "pro-Israel"—that will push the United States to become more involved in its declared "No. 1 priority," achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Many of the people active in this group don't just believe that the U.S. government should be more active, but also that "active" means pressuring the Israeli government toward compromises. "Like a scout forcefully helping an old lady across the street?" I asked one of its leaders. "Perhaps," he replied. "Before she's hit by a truck." In the eyes of J Street members, this desire to save Israel from itself is what makes the project "pro-Israel." If pressuring the Israeli government was not traditionally considered a "pro-Israel" position, they argue, it is mainly because those traditional definitions were skewed.
"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.
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.