The much-touted shared values between the U.S. and Israel no longer seem to include liberal protections for free speech.

By Debra Shushan, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now

The U.S.-Israel relationship suffered a profound setback Thursday. Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri confirmed that Israel would bar two members of Congress, Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, from entering Israel because of their support for the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel.

Thursday’s decision to deny Tlaib and Omar entrance to Israel reversed the earlier position expressed by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who in July said that “Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”

With Netanyahu surpassing the country’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as Israel’s longest-serving leader, Israel’s democracy is in a state of perilous decline.

The policy Dermer articulated should be expected of a U.S. ally that is also the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid ($38 billion in security assistance over 10 years). Overturning that policy can only be interpreted as a sign of disrespect for the U.S. representatives democratically elected by American voters. Worse yet, with President Donald Trump pushing the change, it also demonstrates the disrespect for democratic institutions both country’s leaders are increasingly embracing — and their willingness to turn the U.S.-Israel relationship into a political football to advance their own interests.

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"Make peace," she said...

As part of a group of non-Israeli academics assembled by Tel Aviv University, I visited the Temple Mount in July 2017. On the next day, two Israeli border police officers were shot there in a terror attack. I had the opportunity to make a condolence visit to Hurfeish, the Druze village in the Galilee from which the two policemen (who were cousins) hailed. In the intimate setting of the room in which female relatives were mourning, I told an aunt of the slain men that I was coming to work for the American sister organization of Shalom Achshav and wanted to help in any way I could.

She looked at me, grief-stricken and weary, and said, "Make peace."

A month later, I joined Americans for Peace Now as Policy Director. My path to APN was not conventional. I am a political scientist and Middle East politics expert by training. I came to APN following ten years of teaching at America’s second-oldest university (the College of William and Mary), as a specialist in foreign policies of Arab states. I never aspired to work for a Jewish organization. But with a mother who was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, my Jewish identity is a core part of who I am and Israel has always been a central piece of that identity. Related to that is the abiding commitment I’ve made throughout my life to public service.

I left the Ivory Tower and came to work for APN in August 2017, when the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace weren’t exactly heating up. Am I a little nuts? Possibly. But no more so than the right-wing settlers who picked up their game when it looked like the Oslo process would defeat them. It’s precisely when the odds are against us that we must redouble our commitment—and put our energy and money where our ideals are, as our opponents do. We must do more than look for hope; we must generate it ourselves.

Like the Druze of Hurfeish and our brave comrades at Peace Now in Israel who can’t and won’t walk away, I am committed. I am hopeful. I feel privileged to represent you and our shared two-state, pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda – whether I’m working with Congressional staff, debating spokesmen for the settlers on Israeli TV, writing for Haaretz, authoring a report on annexation, or equipping passionate college students with the knowledge they need to be effective advocates.

If you haven’t yet made your end-of-year gift to APN please do so now, and give generously. We know you don’t have the bottomless resources of Sheldon Adelson. But if all of our supporters step up their game, my talented colleagues and I can do so much more to fight for an Israel unburdened by occupation: democratic, at peace, closer to our values, and a national home for the Jewish people.

Happy New Year to all!

With best wishes,

Debra Shushan, PhD
APN Director of Policy and Government Relations

A poll just released by the University of Maryland under the direction of Professor Shibley Telhami should capture the attention of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public. The following is a summary of the key findings of the poll:

  • IF A TWO-STATE SOLUTION TO THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT IS NOT AN OPTION: A large majority of Americans favors a democratic Israel with citizenship and full rights for all (64%) over a Jewish Israel in which Palestinians are disenfranchised (26%). This preference was particularly strong among Democrats (78% to 12%). Even a plurality of Republicans (48% to 42%) shares this view.
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A poll published today yet again confirms that – just like Americans for Peace Now – a majority of American Jews are critical of Israeli government policies, even as they support Israel. The poll, conducted this month by the Mellman Group, finds that a solid majority (59 percent) of Jewish voters are pro-Israel and critical of at least some of Israeli government policies. Only 32 percent indicated that they are “pro-Israel and supportive of policies.” Three percent reported that they are “generally not pro-Israel.”

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It has become axiomatic that a widening schism exists in relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Relations with American Jews (who constitute over 70% of Diaspora Jewry) are increasingly fraught. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems unperturbed. After all, who needs American Jews when (in his view) evangelical Christians are better friends to Israel? Against that backdrop, Israelis who are concerned about the rift, like former IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner, deserve kudos.
Unfortunately, the proposals Lerner advances in his recent piece (“4 Things Israel Can Do To Heal The Divide With The Diaspora”) are woefully inadequate. Lerner focuses on tools the Israeli government could use to pull Diaspora Jews closer to Israel. These include well-worn ideas like de-emphasizing Aliya and focusing instead on spreading awareness of Jewish culture and offering Hebrew classes in the Diaspora – this time through a new NGO dubbed the Jewish World Alliance. He envisions a new Jewish Global Assembly, convened annually to discuss challenges and opportunities; the creation of “global virtual meeting place” for Jews worldwide; and programs for young Jews in Israel and the Diaspora to cultivate relationships.

It is not tools — new organizations and programming — that are lacking. It is a willingness to listen to Diaspora Jews and change course from policies and attitudes which repel us.

As a whole, we hold a deep affinity for Israel. According to a 2018 American Jewish Committee survey, 70% of US Jews feel that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” Similarly, 79% believe a “thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people.” While we are loyal American citizens and (with few exceptions) have no intention of making Aliyah, many of us regard Israel as the state in which our national self-determination is realized. To a growing number, sadly, it feels like Israel is pushing us away.

If Israel cares to bridge the gap, what should it do?

Learn to Tolerate (and Appreciate) Critical Engagement

Through its 2017 Entry Law that denies entry to Israel by those who promote boycotts against Israel (defined to include boycotts against Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories), Israel conveyed clearly that it has a political litmus test for admission to Israel.

The uptick in Shin Bet interrogations at Ben-Gurion Airport of American Jews who support Palestinian rights — including avowed Zionists like Peter Beinart and Meyer Koplow — shows that Israel is moving in the wrong direction.

While many Diaspora Jews maintain a love for Israel, we are increasingly shedding an Israel-right-or-wrong attitude in favor of critical engagement.

Israel can harass or even ban us. But if Israelis care about the Diaspora, we must be able to engage each other.

Work for Palestinian Statehood and an End to the Occupation

Lerner emphasizes listening to young people, and rightly so. But Israel must be prepared to hear them.

What young Jews joining J Street U chapters on campuses and starting organizations like IfNotNow in the US and Na’amod: British Jews Against the Occupation are saying is that their Jewish values and love for Israel inspire them to work for Palestinian human rights and an end to the Occupation.

While Israel is not solely to blame for lack of peace with Palestinians, as long as the Netanyahu government pushes toward annexing the West Bank and maintains a punitive closure of Gaza, the drift from Israel by young Diaspora Jews will continue.

Respect Non-Orthodox Streams of Judaism

Only 11% of American Jews classify themselves as Haredi or Modern Orthodox, with the rest identifying with different denominations or as “other.” An overwhelming majority of American Jews believe Israel should respect religious pluralism. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cancelation of an agreement to create a mixed-gender prayer area adjacent to the Western Wall and the recent arrest of a Conservative rabbi in Haifa for performing a wedding exacerbate the Israel-Diaspora divide.

The decision by lawmakers to leave out of the new Nation-State Law language which would have acknowledged a role for world Jewry in Israel was yet another swipe at Diaspora Jews.

Taking steps toward recognition of religious pluralism would go a long way toward earning the good will of Diaspora Jews.

Affirm Social Justice and Democracy as Shared Values

Minority status is part and parcel of the Diaspora Jewish experience. Liberal democratic protections of minority rights and civil liberties are dear to American Jews and dovetail with the Judaism on which we were raised, which emphasizes social justice and tikkun olam.

The undeniable erosion of liberal democracy in Israel is raising alarm not only among political progressives but also by conservatives like Ron Lauder, a longtime Netanyahu supporter, who recently decried actions by members of Israel’s coalition government to “unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment.”

Disturbing efforts by the Israeli government to curtail freedom of speech regarding Israel on American college campuses in the name of combating Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions teach young Diaspora Jews that Israel’s growing illiberalism doesn’t stop at its border. And that does not bode well for future Diaspora-Jewish relations.

Stop Coddling Foreign Leaders Who Endanger Diaspora Jews

What message does it send to American Jews, the majority of whom disapprove of Donald Trump and feel our status is less secure since he became president, when Netanyahu lionizes Trump by comparing him to Cyrus the Great?

It is a similar message to the one received by Hungarian Jews when Netanyahu engages in an “illiberal bromance” with their Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who made anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros a feature of his re-election campaign.

While Israeli leaders should conduct foreign policy in Israel’s national interests, they should do so with an eye to the security and sensitivities of Diaspora Jewish communities.

Diaspora Jews care greatly about Israel and are distressed over the growing Israel-Diaspora rift. Some have come to the conclusion that Israel just doesn’t care about us. So it’s encouraging to find Israelis like Peter Lerner for whom ties to the Diaspora still matter a great deal.

The question is: Will Israel listen to our concerns and meet us halfway?

This article appeared first on the Forward on August 23, 2018

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APN's Debra Shushan in Ha'aretz: "The Day Donald Trump Was Crowned King in Jerusalem"

Along with many other U.S. Jews, I wanted to feel pride at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. But amid the carnage in Gaza, I felt nausea

Debra Shushan | May 16, 2018 | 

For Jews around the world, the opening of the U.S. embassy to Israel in Jerusalem should have been an occasion for jubilation and pride. And while for some it was, many of the rest of us watched the ceremony feeling a combination of nausea and cognitive dissonance.

There were at least three reasons to feel ill.

The first and most obvious is that the ceremony took place yesterday against the backdrop of carnage in Gaza.

While American and Israeli officials congratulated themselves in Jerusalem, denizens of the open-air prison which Israel continues to occupy (through its control of air, sea, and land routes out of Gaza and even of its population registry) were being shot to death by the dozens.

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The White House says it wants to help Gaza. So it punitively cuts aid to desperate Gazans, adopts one-sided policies in Israel's favor – then blames the Palestinians for 'politicizing' humanitarian assistance.

Two conferences held last week underlined the Trump Administration’s combination of bad faith and ineptitude in addressing Gaza’s severe humanitarian crisis.

The first one, convened by the White House, was dubbed a "brainstorming session" on Gaza by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt. At the outset, Greenblatt enjoined participants to "leave all politics at the door" in order to help Gaza.

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Trump has consistently privileged the Israeli narrative and claims over those of the Palestinians. In his Jerusalem decision he also helped the destructive, unnecessary transformation of the conflict from a political to a religious struggle.

Mae Elise Cannon, Yahya Hendi, and Debra Shushan

President Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and commence moving the US embassy was harmful enough.

And still, he has managed – repeatedly – to make it worse. In the latest development, the State Department announced last week that a provisional U.S. embassy in Jerusalem will open on May 14, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment.

The Trump Administration’s original decision was fatally flawed.

In the absence of a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Palestinian claims to Jerusalem are addressed, the decision was blatantly one-sided. American credibility as an honest broker plummeted, Trump’s avowed goal of reaching the "ultimate deal" was set back, and the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and His Holiness Pope Francis condemned the new policy.

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American Jews shouldn't take their cue from an Israeli left which is veering rightwards and indoctrinated by the false slogan of an 'eternal and undivided Jerusalem'. Trump's move sabotaged peace, and we U.S. Jews must push back against it

If President Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem had a silver lining, for me it is this: many progressive, pro-Israel American Jews saw Trump’s gambit as the narrowly self-serving, reckless move it was, and rejected it

For this reason, I read with great interest the recent Haaretz op-ed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism (U.S. Liberal Jews Read It Wrong. Trump’s Call on Jerusalem Was Good for the Peace Camp).

An ardent Trump critic, Yoffie’s "default position is to resist every word on foreign affairs that comes out of [Trump’s] mouth." So what brought Yoffie to conclude that President Trump’s new Jerusalem policy is “generally responsible”?

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Friedman's recent comments show the 'moderate' positions he adopted during his nomination were entirely fake. How can the U.S. ambassador to Israel smear opponents, act as a representative of Israel's settlers and misrepresent U.S. policy?

America has a problem in Tel Aviv.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has politicized his diplomatic office and misrepresented U.S. policy on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. In the process, he is causing real damage to our country’s interests in the region.

Ambassador Friedman has been, to say the least, a controversial figure since before he emerged as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to serve as US ambassador to Israel. By now, he has provided ample reasons to conclude that he should be fired.

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