How to advocate for Israel to progressives

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by Alan Elsner
Special to WJW

Pro-Israel advocates are coming to realize that we have a growing problem in reaching out to progressives and liberals in the United States.


Polling data has for some time revealed a growing gap between the support for Israel among Republicans and among Democrats. Although overall support for Israel among Americans remains high, some of the details hidden within the data are quite worrying.

“There is a large partisan divide in the U.S. over Israel,” said CNN polling director Keating Holland, commenting on the results of a poll he conducted in March. “Sixty-three percent of Republicans call Israel an ally of the U.S., compared to only 33 percent of Democrats.”

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That’s not so much a gap as a chasm, and it spells trouble for Israel over the longer term. The danger, of course, is that if grassroots sympathy for Israel among Democrats continues to wither, it will be increasingly difficult over time to maintain bipartisan support in Congress.

The pre-eminent pro-Israeli lobbying organization, AIPAC, realizes it has a problem with progressives. As reported by The Jewish Daily Forward, the issue was discussed at its recent conference in Washington. However, the proposals that were put forward to build support for Israel fell far short of what is needed.


According to The Forward, most speakers suggested using so-called “beyond the conflict” issues to reach out to progressives. This means highlighting anything positive about Israel that has nothing to do with the Palestinians or the occupation.

Such a public relations strategy could mean putting a spotlight on Israel’s social welfare safety net or its success in research and development and in IT start-ups. It would note that Israel has a national health care system of the kind that progressives here favored before the passage of “Obamacare.” We could also showcase Israel’s drip agriculture technology and aid to developing nations and its relatively relaxed attitude to gays and lesbians — to give but a few examples.

Progressives ought to be able to identify with those, right?

Unfortunately, wrong!

Some Israeli diplomats have been pushing this approach for years, promoting tours to Israel that include visits to electric car start-up “A Better Place” near Herzliya (which is now in dire financial straits); also tours of the desalination plants in Hadera or Ashkelon and visits to the Negev to see a solar energy park. Almost every day, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem sends out information on these topics as well as Tel Aviv nightlife, pop music, the booming gay scene — anything other than the conflict with the Palestinians.

All of these projects are interesting and worthy in their way and all should be more widely known — but none will change views of Israel among progressives. As Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder of The Israel Project, never tired of teaching us, we will never get “beyond the conflict” until we solve the conflict.

In the eyes of progressives, the argument will always come back to the way Israel treats the Palestinians and whether it truly desires peace and will do what it takes to achieve it. And as long as Israel continues to build settlements and maintains the occupation, progressives are not going to take any of its other claims seriously.

Some liberals actually see Israeli successes in high tech and its economic prowess as reasons to feel less positive about Israel because they highlight the nation’s strength when pitted against the relatively powerless Palestinians.

Additionally, polls have for years revealed that the number one reason Democrats and liberals support Israel is their understanding that the two nations share certain fundamental values — including democracy, respect for minorities, the rule of law, freedom of the press and gender equality.

Anything that challenges that perception of shared values, including segregating women on buses, denying women the right to pray at the Kotel and imposing loyalty oaths on Israeli Arab citizens, erodes that basic building block of support.

But the greatest threat to Israeli democracy remains its control over another people, namely the Palestinians. This is not a public relations problem, it’s a demographic reality. Sergio DellaPergola, a Hebrew University professor and an expert on Israeli population studies, laid out the stark picture in a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington in February.

If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and if current fertility rates among Jews and Arabs remain largely unchanged, Jews will constitute only 54 percent of the population living on that land (excluding Gaza) by 2030 and only 45 percent by 2048, the 100th anniversary of Israel’s rebirth as an independent nation.

We have a problem with progressives to be sure but we face a much bigger challenge to Israel’s basic identity as a democracy and a Jewish homeland. Make a serious effort to confront and solve that challenge and the issue of support from progressives will take care of itself.

Alan Elsner, a former Reuters reporter and author, is vice president of communications for J Street, a pro-Israel advocacy group that supports a two-state solution.

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