16 Mar, 2024


How Israel Quietly Crushed Early American Jewish Dissent on Palestine


 “Our Palestine Question,” an explosive new book by Geoffrey Levin, delves into American Jewish McCarthyism from the 1950s through late 1970s.

THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT covertly meddled into American Jewish politics from the 1950s to 1970s, and they did so to quash Jewish criticisms of the 1948 Nakba — the mass dispossession and expulsions of Palestinians during Israel’s founding — and Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Israeli diplomats who oversaw the furtive campaign were at one point assisted by Wolf Blitzer — today the host of CNN’s primetime show “The Situation Room.”

These are some of the findings of “Our Palestine Question,” an explosive new book by Emory University scholar Geoffrey Levin that offers historical perspective on today’s crisis in Gaza, especially as it plays out today among American Jews.

Since the murderous October 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel, and Israel’s overwhelming retaliatory attacks against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, American Jews have organized dramatic protests. They have demanded everything from a ceasefire and to an end to U.S. military funding for Israel.

This diverse group of American Jews opposed to Israeli policy, and, at times, Israel itself, is drawing on a history of activism in the U.S. that has long since faded into obscurity — and they are bringing it from history into the present day.

Many of these activists explicitly cite earlier political movements as their inspiration. One was the socialist, anti-Zionist General Jewish Labor Bund, founded over a century ago in Eastern Europe, but which had been defunct for generations. The others are a post-1980 agglomeration of U.S. groups including the now-defunct New Jewish Agenda and liberal J Street, which is still around and lobbying politicians, albeit with fewer resources than the Zionist right. These smaller groups were formed after avowed Zionists and anti-Zionists stopped talking to each other, except to scream.

What few activists remark upon, however, is a time within living memory, in the 1950s, when the biggest Jewish organization in the U.S. — the American Jewish Committee, or AJC — was publicly critiquing the Nakba and pushing Israel to afford full civil and human rights to Palestinians. Less noted and lesser known is how this remarkable status quo was erased: From the 1950s to the late 1970s, Israel orchestrated the back-channel attacks on influential individuals and groups, including the AJC, who were pushing for Palestinian rights.

American Jewish McCarthyism

Levin picked up the scent of this hidden history a few years ago. He was a Hebrew and Judaic Studies doctoral student then, sifting through Jewish history special collections in Manhattan as well as the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, when he dug up evidence of the sub rosa American Jewish McCarthyism. He was the first researcher to discover how the Israeli government, through its diplomats and a spy in the United States, pressured American Jewish institutions to ghost a prominent journalist, fire a brilliant researcher, and discredit an organization of Jews who were critiquing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and trying to open channels for discussion with Arabs.

Take the case of journalist William Zukerman. A respected Yiddish- and English-language writer in the 1930s and 1940s, with clips in Harpers and the New York Times, Zukerman started his own biweekly, the Jewish Newsletter, in 1948. It was highly critical of Jewish nationalism and its destructive effects in the new state of Israel and beyond.

By the early 1950s, the Jewish Newsletter had a few thousand subscribers, and its work was republished in many other outlets, Jewish and non-Jewish, with much larger circulations — Time magazine, for instance. Not all of Zukerman’s readers, however, opposed Zionism. Each of the hundreds of chapters of the Jewish student organization Hillel had a subscription to the Jewish Newsletter.

According to declassified Israeli Foreign Ministry files found by Levin, the Israeli government was alarmed by Zukerman’s influence on American Jews. It started a campaign to keep him from “confusing” Zionists about Israel and Palestinian rights. Israel aimed a letter-writing campaign at the New York Herald Post to discourage the paper from running more of Zukerman’s work, and hatched a scheme to distribute boilerplate text for Zionists to mail to other editors, asking them not to publish Zukerman anymore. The head of Israel’s Office of Information in New York worked to have the prestigious London-based Jewish Chronicle get rid of Zukerman’s column, and he lost the position. By 1953, his work no longer appeared in the Jewish press. 

And there was Don Peretz, an American Jew with generations long ancestral roots in the Middle East and Palestine. As a young man in the early 1950s, he’d written the first doctoral dissertation about the post-Nakba Palestinian refugee crisis. The study was considered so authoritative that it was published as a book that, for years, was used as a college text. Peretz’s work earned him attention from the AJC. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, the organization had spent decades advocating first for civil and human rights for American Jews and, later, for oppressed groups worldwide. Concerned about the plight of Palestinians and worried that their mistreatment by Israel would increase American antisemitism, the AJC in 1956 hired Peretz as a researcher.

Peretz had extensive, friendly contacts with Palestinians. He began writing informational pamphlets and reports. In one, which an AJC leader personally gave to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Peretz suggested that Israel might repatriate Palestinians expelled during the Nakba. After Israeli officials read the pamphlet, they asked a worker at AJC to send them on-the-sly intelligence about the author, with the aim of getting him fired. Then Israel asked the AJC to submit all Peretz’s Middle East-related work to the Israeli Embassy in Washington or the Consul General in New York, for pre-publication review. The AJC complied. When Peretz wrote a new book about Israel and Palestine, the Israelis strongly disapproved of it, communicating their displeasure to the AJC. The group demoted Peretz to half-time work. He quit. 

It’s probably no coincidence that Peretz’s departure occurred in 1958, the year the novel “Exodus” debuted. It quickly became a blockbuster and, later, a movie starring blonde, blue-eyed Paul Newman as a steely, pre-independence Israeli paramilitary warrior. It seemed by then that Americans, Jewish or not, were loving Israeli Zionism more and caring about Palestinians less.

Meanwhile, diaspora Jews were triumphantly assimilating into mainstream America. Their acceptance came with problems. With weakening ties to traditional religious practice, increasing intermarriage, and mass suburbanization, they grappled with an identity crisis and sought new touchstones. One was communal enactment of Holocaust remembrance. Another was the celebration of Israel — no matter what.

Against Two States

Even as the ubiquity of American Jewish support for Israel grew, Israel and its advocates began to push back not just on anti-Zionism, but even what would become widely known in the U.S. as liberal Zionism. It was in this capacity that Blitzer, the CNN host, became involved in the sorts of efforts Levin covers in “Our Palestine Question.”

Levin discusses an incident from late 1976 where Blitzer, still a young reporter, and Israeli government sources worked together to kneecap an American Jewish peace group called Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations. Breira means “alternative” in Hebrew. The group had first organized in 1973 to protest the hard-line Jewish organizational positions that emerged after the recent 1973 Arab–Israeli War.

Pro-Israel advocates in the U.S. were taking on more right-wing visions of Zionism and reacted to the war by embracing the ideas that Zionist settlements in the occupied territories and ostracization of the Palestine Liberation Organization were essential to Israel’s survival. Instead, Breira wanted to provide the “alternative” and called for Israel to recognize Palestinians’ desire for nationhood; it was the first American Jewish group to advocate for a two-state solution. The New York Times editorialized in early 1976 that Breira was overcoming “the misapprehension of many Jewish Americans that criticism of Israeli policies would be seen as a rejection of Israel.”

Then Israel pushed back

In November 1976, a handful of people who worked at several American Jewish organizations met secretly and as private individuals with moderate representatives of the PLO. Attendees were affiliated with the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Breira. They would later insist that they had no wish to engage in diplomacy with the PLO, only informal dialogue to discuss peacemaking. One meeting took place in New York City; the other was in Washington. Afterward, some attendees wrote reports and sent copies for informational purposes to Israeli diplomats they knew personally. They trusted that the diplomats would not publicize the meetings.

At the time when the meetings occurred, Blitzer worked as Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. His beat was reporting on how Middle East affairs played out in America, especially regarding Israel. The Jerusalem Post, however, was not his only employer. Blitzer also worked for two publications that, in effect, were the house organs of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Days after the Washington meeting, Blitzer wrote a hit job about the Washington meeting for the Jerusalem Post and named the American Jewish attendees. Based on details in his coverage and press that followed, attendees said it was clear that Blitzer had received a confidential report leaked by Israel. His piece quoted unnamed “Israeli officials” and an unnamed diplomat expressing “concern” about the meeting as part of novel “PLO propaganda tactics” with the aim of “the destruction of Israel

Breira’s national convention in 1977 was disrupted and vandalized by intruders who left leaflets supporting the vigilante far-right Jewish Defense League. The group lost membership, and internal conflict led its major donor to withdraw funding. By 1978, Breira had sputtered out. Thanks to an AIPAC-linked journalist and Israeli officials, another vein of American Jewish dissent about Israeli policies had been stripped.

Though Levin’s book was already in press months before the October 7 attacks, the mothballed history it airs has become since especially apt. If the Jewish community decades ago had known about Israel’s meddling, “you could have had a broader conversation,” he speculates, “which maybe would have led to less discomfort discussing difficult issues now.”

Levin added that “a lot of really bright people were pushed out of the mainstream American Jewish establishment” for discussing issues that have today been furiously rekindled. Would Jewish America’s Palestine question have stronger answers now if not for Israel’s underhanded attempts, years ago, to silence its U.S. diaspora critics? “You have to wonder,” Levin said, “what the American Jewish community would have looked like if it had welcomed some of these voices.”

How Israel Crushed Early American Jewish Dissent on Palestine (theinter cept.com)

PAJU Note: This important and timely article from The Intercept dealing with exactly how the tentacles of the Israeli propaganda machine from the 1950s to the present period – aided by right-wing Zionist organizations in the United States – have undermined and effaced the efforts of non-Zionis tand anti-Zionist Jewish groups and individuals is more than ever pertinent during this period of Israel’s genocide campaign against Gaza and the targeted killing of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The connivance and complicity of well-known American journalist, Wolf Blitzr is also brought to the forefront.

Given the length of The Intercept article, PAJU has published the article in part. To read the entire article, click on the link to The Intercept article above.

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