The decision by some Israeli political figures to endorse specific slates competing in the current American elections to the World Zionist Congress is a troubling development. And with turnabout being fair play, some American Jewish leaders began endorsing candidates in the Israeli elections. Both actions undermine the longstanding principle that Israelis and American Jews should refrain from directly interfering in each other’s political affairs.
A little history is in order.
Immediately after Israel’s establishment, leaders of U.S. Jewish organizations began expressing concern about Israelis interfering in American Jewish life. The most famous attempt to curb such interference was the mission to Israel by American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein, in 1950.
The controversy began when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion suggested that it would be a great benefit to Israel if significant numbers of young American Jews made aliya. In response, Blaustein flew to Israel and, after prolonged negotiations, secured a public statement by Ben-Gurion, pledging, “We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad.”
Discomfort over interference could cut both ways. The Israeli government was outraged when the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Benjamin Browdy, publicly proposed in 1952 that “the United Nations and the American government” should insert themselves into the Arab-Israeli negotiating process.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, the inimitable Abba Eban, chastised the ZOA president for his “intervention into Israel’s diplomatic affairs.” Eban warned that Browdy’s action could “result in heavy pressure on Israel for concessions of territory and for the admission of Arab refugees.” The Israeli government took the rare step of publicly disavowing the ZOA leader’s remarks.
For many years to follow, most Israelis and American Jews adhered to the principle of mutual non-interference. Of course, individual Israelis occasionally expressed an opinion on American Jewish matters, and individual American Jews opined on Israeli issues. That was to be expected; free speech is cherished in both cultures.
But both sides were generally careful to avoid extreme or provocative acts of interference, such as mobilizing foreign powers to oppose particular government policies, endorsing candidates in political races, or other direct intervention.
Admittedly, more than a few cracks in this consensus have appeared in recent years.
And when they did, friends of Israel were justified to denounce the extremists who violated the non-interference tradition. They criticized Jewish leftwing activists who persuaded members of Congress to pressure Israel. They protested angrily when the Jewish left brought American political advisers to Israel to try to influence the outcome of Israeli elections.
I can recall some well-meaning but over-the-top leaders of American Zionist organizations using unprintable language to describe those who brought veteran Democratic Party consultants to Israel in 2015 to help leftwing opposition leader Isaac Herzog in that year’s campaign.
Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. You can’t criticize the Jewish left for interfering in Israeli politics and then solicit Israeli politicians to interfere in the American Zionist elections by endorsing particular candidates.
I recognize that we can’t return to the 1950s or 1960s. The idea of Israelis and American Jews completely staying out of each other’s business is unrealistic in this day and age. We are robust communities filled with people who have strong opinions and who are anxious to express them, often as loudly as possible. That is their right.
I understand the temptation to drag in some outsider with name recognition, in the hope of impressing a few voters, although frankly it smacks of desperation. If you have a unique and worthwhile platform, you shouldn’t need words of praise from politicians across the ocean.
But American Jewish leaders should not allow their jockeying for advantage in the Zionist Congress elections to overwhelm the more important principle of non-interference. Just as American Jewish organizations should not publicly endorse specific Israeli political candidates, Israeli officials should not endorse candidates in the American Zionist elections.
Stephen M. Flatow is a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, an attorney in New Jersey and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. His book, “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” is now available on Kindle. He is a candidate for the World Zionist Congress elections on the Orthodox Israel Coalition slate.