Progressives changing US-Israel-Palestinian paradigm
A new organization bringing together Israeli, Palestinian and American progressives takes a new approach to an old problem.
Remember Jesse Helms?
Helms was an ultraconservative US senator from North Carolina who served for three decades until 2003, including a six-year stint during the Clinton years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
For the first 12 years of his Senate career, Helms was a staunch critic of Israel, considered one of the most hostile voices in the Senate toward the Jewish state. In 1985, following a visit to Israel, he fundamentally changed his position and became a strong supporter.
Jonathan Kessler, a man who has spent his entire professional life immersed in Mideast issues — either as head of a Washington-based political consulting firm dealing with Middle East public diplomacy, a media commentator, board member of organizations such as Seeds of Peace, or, most recently, a senior staffer at AIPAC — said he knows what happened to Helms and why he changed his tune.
“There are many explanations, after the fact, for that transition. But it all comes down to one thing. Somebody was smart enough to introduce Jesse Helms not to the kibbutz, Histadrut or kupat holim, but to the right-wing dynamics of Israel, and he fell in love.”
If it could happen to Helms, then why couldn’t the most vociferous critics of Israel in the Democratic Party, “who are younger and people of color with different reference points,” also not fall in love with “that half of Israel that just wants to do way, way better for their society, in the same way that the ‘Squad’ wants to do way, way better for American society?” Kessler said during a telephone conversation from Washington, referring to the four left-wing congresswomen, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are leading a progressive charge inside the Democratic Party.
In Kessler’s telling, progressives around the world want to fundamentally improve their societies, and this is true of progressives in Israel, the US and among the Palestinians.
That being the case, why not get them to work together, talk to each other and learn from each other on how they can improve their respective societies?
Doing just that — creating what Kessler said is a space “beyond fault and blame,” where progressives from the three societies can meet, talk, learn from each other and share “best practices and cautionary tales” — is the animating philosophy behind an organization he launched in the spring called Heart of a Nation.
According to the organization’s website (heartofanation.io), its goal is “to bring together progressives of all faiths and backgrounds to form an intentional Community of Purpose that is committed to the ambitious task of making Israel and America better countries.”
What that means is to get leading progressives from all three societies to begin a conversation about common problems, and help each other deal with them, such as “what do you do when your progressive aspirations and initiative run into reactionary forces and constituencies and ideals?” The group will discuss the “occupation,” but not deal exclusively with it.
“I want the Heart of a Nation to bring together progressives in all three societies, who will work together to make all three societies far better, far more just, far more equitable,” Kessler said.
He said that just as the US and Israel work together to build Iron Dome and artificial intelligence, so, too, can progressives in those two societies — together with Palestinians — work together on issues of inequality, gender, race, justice and a fairer society.
“We made a decision not to be progressive [on everything] except for Palestine, but we also made a decision not to be progressive exclusively on Palestine,” he said.
This new organization, Kessler made clear, is not a new AIPAC-backed Israel advocacy organization trying to make inroads into the progressive community, as a recent article in Jewish Currents, a hard-left Jewish quarterly, insinuated.
“This is not, you know, ‘Brand Israel.’ This is not, in any way shape or form, hasbara [public diplomacy]. This is bringing together progressives who want a better world, who have been siloed by geography, by a vast ocean, and by conflict — and to bring them together.”
Heart of a Nation boasts advisory, editorial and engagement committees of 36 people that include progressive activists from all their societies — from former Labor MK Stav Shaffir in Israel to African-American Democratic Party activist A’shanti Gholar, to Rawan Odeh, a Palestinian-American who heads an organization aimed at equipping young Palestinians and Israelis with leadership tools. Kessler’s idea is to create a new paradigm of cooperation between progressives.
“I believe there’s a place for this radically paradigm-shifting approach, where instead of demonizing the other, or only unifying around one issue, there’s an inkling of an understanding that if Israel and America can work together on Iron Dome and satellites, Israel, America and Palestinians progressive can work together on issues of race.”
Kessler recalled how once, when he was still working at AIPAC, he brought Afro Palestinians of Jerusalem’s Old City — descendants of Nubian slaves who once were guards at al-Aqsa — together with members of the African Hebrew Israelite Community of Dimona, Ethiopian-Israelis, black Bedouin, and Sudanese asylum-seekers together for a conversation.
“We couldn’t even break the ice, because they didn’t have a common language or reference place,” he recalled. “It was a failure of dialogue, until I asked, ‘By the way, how do you feel about [president Barack] Obama?’ And, oh my God, the smiles and the animation and the pride. So I have anti-Zionist Afro Palestinians thinking the same thing together with African Hebrew Israelites.”
From there, he said, the conversation drifted to other issues of racism and aspirations for their children. “That moment convinced me that there is a place for something like the Heart of a Nation.”
FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid, who has set as one of his top foreign policy goals rebuilding relations with the Democratic Party and progressives, would do well to watch how this organization works and develops.
Asked whether he thought Lapid was being realistic in trying to make inroads with the progressives, Kessler replied, “Oh God, yes.”
He likened the relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party — which, he said, “are having a difficult time right now” — with a marriage.
“Once you are stuck, once you are disregarded, once you are invalidated, that plays off itself — it becomes a vicious cycle. Once Israel disses the Democrats, and then the Democrats dis Israel, and Israel ups the ante and disses the Democrats, and then the Democrats do the same to Israel, then you’re in a lousy place.
“Think of marriage, think of a great marriage, let alone a precarious one. You cannot invalidate the other, disrespect the other, and then think that, somehow, for nostalgic reasons, the relationship will hold.”
Kessler characterized the state of the current relationship not as one of enmity but, rather, of entropy, “the notion that every relationship frays and comes undone where there isn’t enough positive energy going into it to sustain it.
“When was the last time an Israeli prime minister or an Israeli ambassador was putting positive energy into the relationship with the Democratic Party? And when was the last time that the Democratic Party, as a party, was known for being a champion of the US-Israel relationship?”
While acknowledging that there are strong pro-Israel voices in the Democratic leadership, such as Steny Hoyer, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Kessler asked: “What kind of relationship exists between the younger Democratic members of Congress and the State of Israel?”
He said it would be “very, very narrow-minded to think that the only way we can engage younger members of Congress is by showing them Iran Dome and Yad Vashem. What about introducing them to Israelis who are more dissatisfied with things wrong in their society than they are dissatisfied with things wrong with America? Let them fall in love with each other.”
Gholar, a grassroots organizer who is president of an organization recruiting and training Democratic women to run for office, is on board, stressing how important it is for progressives from the three communities to have the conversation “together, not in silos,” meaning not in a separate space where information and stories are not shared.
Like Kessler, she, too, believes that Lapid’s goal of improving relations with progressives is not a pipe dream.
“We concentrate too much on leaders,” she said. “You do have divisive leaders — we see this on all sides. We are coming out of four years of [president Donald] Trump. I don’t want America to be judged based on Trump, and the same is true of other countries. You can’t have the leaders defining the entire country.”
But even if progressives may come to understand that Benjamin Netanyahu is not Israel, what difference will that make to those who believe that as a “colonial, imperialist” enterprise, Israel has no real right to exist? she is asked.
“We are not monolithic,” she said of the progressive movement. “Some people think like that, and others don’t. It is important not to let the loud and dominant voices drown out all the others.”
Being given a voice is also why Odeh, a Palestinian-American who grew up in Brooklyn but lived for several years in Nablus, is involved.
“I know that for American-Palestinians, or even Palestinians in the region, it’s often hard to be a part of specific programming initiatives. But this one particularly intrigued me because it was a chance to get us to the table in an initiative that has so many diverse participants,” she said.
“I was given a platform to speak the hard truth that needs to be spoken. And I always think that if there is not a Palestinian voice in these types of spaces, then something is missing. So I try to be there, even when sometimes it’s uncomfortable.”
Part of the discomfort here came from involvement in an organization headed by a former senior AIPAC official, something that she said led to “pushback.”
She said that when she and another Palestinian, Aziz Abu Sarah, were asked to join, they received “a lot of flak from the progressive community” and those opposed to any normalization with Israel.
“A lot of people were asking, ‘Why are you a part of this? It sounds like a hasbara thing, or maybe an AIPAC thing,” she said. “I don’t think it is; I think Jonathan genuinely wants to create something new.”