Pro-Israel extremists decide our next Secretary of Defense?

Israeli Army dog set upon a Palestinian woman

Political movements that depend on broad popular support but are driven by extremists can eventually become self-destructive — a lesson the Republican Party learned at great cost in November, and which the gun-rights lobby may be about to learn in the wake of the latest school shooting.

There is also a lesson here for American Jewish leaders, who increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy.

Such extremism is once again on display as the pro-Israel right, including groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel, mounts a furious campaign against the potential nomination of the former Republican senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Hagel — whose sins include advocating dialogue to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and suggesting that many on Capitol Hill are afraid of the “Jewish lobby” — would have been deemed someone Israel’s supporters in Washington could work with.

Today mainstream Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, are either silent about the mounting controversy or offering cautious support for those who want to kill Mr. Hagel’s nomination. They have been driven into silence and submission by a radical fringe that in no way represents the American Jewish mainstream.

Intimidated by pro-settler zealots, right-wing donors and those who liken the slightest criticism of Israeli policy to Israel-bashing (or even anti-Semitism), pro-Israel leaders are increasingly allowing the fringes of their movement to set the pro-Israel agenda in Washington.

With wealthy, far-right contributors calling the shots, Jewish groups are constantly lowering the bar for what is considered “Israel-bashing,” risking turning supporters of the Jewish state into adversaries simply because they do not support the ideology of the current Israeli government…

It was precisely this sort of fringe-driven politics that accounted for the Republican Party’s dramatic electoral losses. Wild conspiracy theories about President Obama, extreme positions on popular entitlement programs and offensive remarks by candidates who spoke of things like “legitimate rape” turned voters off in droves. More moderate party leaders, fearing the wrath of the radicals in their ranks, were timid in repudiating those positions and comments, and fed the impression that they were in agreement.

Judging from the National Rifle Association’s clumsy news conference last week, the gun-rights lobby may be nearing a similar public relations cliff. By playing to zealots who reject any government restrictions on firearms, they are not lobbying for the right of hunters to keep their deer rifles, or homeowners to keep their revolvers; they are arguing for the right of anybody, including the most demented people, to own the most lethal firearms, and making the absurd claim that the more Americans who are armed, the safer we will be. As a result, the N.R.A. may soon see its support evaporate among those in the persuadable (and reasonable) middle.

Playing to the extremist fringe could produce short-term gains for pro-Israel groups by rallying the faithful and encouraging big contributions. But — as this year’s election and rising anti-gun sentiment demonstrates — it brings with it the risk of a popular backlash.

Support for the Jewish state remains strong among both parties on Capitol Hill and across the American electorate, and it won’t disappear anytime soon. But that support will wither if Aipac and other mainstream Jewish leaders don’t forcefully reject the zealots in their midst.

Say, Amen.

Over the decades this has been a constant conflict within the American Left. America’s rightwing nutballs have a different problem – resolving congenital anti-Semitism conflicts with fundamentalist breast-beating about Armageddon. But, Middle America mostly has stayed away from the crazies on the Right and never has had any inclination to understand the national liberation rights of Palestinians.

No matter. Extremism on behalf of ethnic self-image are a present offered in all its supposed religious glory by Zionists who have overwhelmed traditional views of democracy in the politics connecting the United States with Israel.

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