Six Degrees of Separation: 'Pro-Israel Realists' Versus 'Worried Jews"

by Aaron Ahuvia

[This article is reprinted from ISRAEL HORIZONS magazine, the quarterly periodical of Meretz USA. See the entire summer 2008 magazine. The article was also distributed by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom. See below the essay for more information on the author and on Brit Tzedek.]

How can advocates for a two-state solution win the debate within the American Jewish community? To a large extent, we already have. In February 2008, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella agency representing 14 national Jewish groups and 125 local Jewish community relations councils, voted that "the organized American Jewish community should affirm its support for two independent, democratic and economically viable states -- the Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine -- living side-by-side in peace and security."

Only one Orthodox affiliate objected and even that only abstained. We've come a long way from the time that advocating this view could get one branded as a self-hating Jew, but the debate isn't truly over yet.

American Jewish opinion falls into four broad categories. On the hawkish extreme, a small but well-funded group I call "Greater Israel maximalists" still opposes the creation of a Palestinian state as a matter of principle and supports settlement expansion. In the opposite corner, a small but vocal group of "Palestinian solidarity Jews" sees Israel as the villain in the ongoing conflict and often does not accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state at all.

According to a variety of polls, about 85 percent of US Jews fall between these two extremes and support a two-state solution, at least in principle. This large central group can itself be divided into two broad camps, which I call "pro-Israel realists" and "worried Jews." The 'pro-Israel realists,' such as Meretz USA and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom supporters, see a negotiated two-state solution as strongly in Israel's interests and see the status quo as highly dangerous; they want to move quickly towards a negotiated agreement. The 'worried Jews' on the other hand support a two-state solution in principle but see it as risky for Israel, whereas they see the status quo as relatively safer.

The key to advancing our political cause is organizing and mobilizing 'pro-Israel realists' who already agree with us, while wining over those 'worried Jews who are fairly sympathetic to our viewpoint already. Converting the 'Greater Israel maximalists' is unlikely. And while some 'Palestinian solidarity Jews' may be won over, they are a fairly small group and don't have much political influence. 'Worried Jews' on the other hand represent a large (by Jewish standards) and politically influential population.

To reach 'worried Jews,' we need to understand the six key underlying assumptions that separate them from 'pro-Israel realists.' These six assumptions are important, because they are the key to whether someone will support us politically. That is to say, these are the six underlying assumptions that most directly influence the actions we care about -- namely influencing the US government to work vigorously for a negotiated two-state solution. If we can win agreement on these underlying assumptions or preconceptions, the battle about specific policy questions will be much easier:

1. What being 'pro-Israel' means
To 'pro-Israel realists,' being pro-Israel means supporting policies that we believe will benefit Israel, and doing so because we care about Israel. Being pro-Israel does not mean we always agree with the Israeli government, since that would sometimes mean supporting policies that injure Israel. To 'worried Jews' however, being pro-Israel means saying nice things about Israel and being critical of Israel's foes. This sometimes means they will publically support policies that they know are damaging to Israel. In our conversations with 'worried Jews' we should not allow this definition of being "pro-Israel" to go unchallenged. Supporting policies that help Israel is pro-Israel, supporting policies that injure Israel is not.

2. Zero-sum vs. 'win-win' models
'Worried Jews' tend to see the conflict as a zero-sum game in which anything that is good for one side is bad for the other. In this mental model everyone falls someplace on a continuum between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. This assumption underlies much of the suspicion some 'worried Jews' feel toward organizations like Meretz USA or Brit Tzedek. They assume that if we show concern for the plight of the Palestinians, we are less than fully pro-Israel and therefore not to be trusted.

'Pro-Israel realists,' on the other hand, tend to have a "win-win" mental model. We know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a zero-sum game.

Interestingly, this win-win mental model, once disparaged as naive, is now being advanced by former 'Greater Israel maximalists' who have come to reconsider reality. See, for example, this statement by Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (a former Likudnik) as quoted in the Jerusalem Post, June 18, 2007:

"For too long, the Middle East has been governed by zero-sum logic. One side's loss was seen as the other's gain. This thinking has brought much suffering to our region. It has helped polarize each side's view of the other and hurt those seeking common ground. The truth is that the peoples of the Middle East share the same fate. We are destined to be neighbors. Our futures are inevitably linked together. And no peace will be lasting if it fails to take this fact into account."

3. Palestinians: A threat to Israel?

This is the issue that puts the "worried" into the label 'worried Jews,' because these Jews fear that if the Palestinians have an independent state, they will use it to create a serious military threat to Israel. Thus, 'worried Jews' are often pre-occupied with uncovering the Palestinians' hidden desires to destroy Israel that they fear are lurking behind their public statements of peace.

'Pro-Israel realists' recognize that Palestinian violence is a real threat to individual Jewish lives. But 'pro-Israel realists,' being realists, know that even if the Palestinians wanted to destroy the State of Israel, they would not be able to. Furthermore, the Palestinians recognize that they are militarily no match for Israel in a conventional war, and they will not be foolish enough to try. Therefore, most 'pro-Israel realists' recognize that most Palestinians do not like the fact of Israel's existence, but we do not see this as an insurmountable obstacle to a negotiated peace.

4. Will Palestinians accept a two-state solution?

'Worried Jews' often believe that there is no overlap between what Israelis and Palestinians are willing to accept and conclude that negotiations are futile. ‘Pro-Israel realists’ understand that there is support in both the Israeli and Palestinian populations for viable, mutually beneficial agreements. The problem is the disproportionate influence of the hardliners in each society. People of good will on both sides need to organize to counter that influence.

5. Can Israel influence Palestinian behavior?

'Worried Jews' sometimes believe that Israel can't "show weakness" (i.e., offer compromises or concessions), because doing so leads the Palestinians to feel stronger, which makes them more violent and less willing to compromise. With this reasoning, Israel needs to respond to every act of Palestinian violence with an act of retaliation; and other than that, it should passively wait for Palestinian opinion to become more moderate.

'Pro-Israel realists' counter that the actions of the Israelis and Palestinians have profound effects on the political opinions of people on the other side. Many 'worried Jews' recognize that when Palestinians send signals that they are willing to accept a viable two-state solution, both Israelis and American Jews tend to become more dovish. Therefore, these Jews often correctly argue that the best way to increase moderation among Israelis is for the Palestinians and Arabs to end violence and show a clear willingness to compromise.

'Pro-Israel realists' know that Israel can influence Palestinian opinion in much the same way. Instead of sitting around and waiting for Palestinians to become more moderate, Israel can strengthen Palestinian moderates by ending settlement expansion, removing the separation barrier from Palestinian land, publicly recognizing Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state, and taking other measures to clearly demonstrate its readiness for a peaceful compromise.

6. Is Israel doing enough for peace?

‘Worried Jews’ tend to believe that Israel has always done all it could to pursue peace, but that the Palestinians have “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” ‘Pro-Israel realists’ realize that Israeli politics is a complex system with many parties and many views. Some parties support peace through negotiations, but others have an ideological stance that Israel should not make any territorial compromises. Even today, the Likud party platform explicitly states that all of the West Bank will forever remain part of Israel and that the “government will oppose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”

Since some Israeli governments and powerful political parties explicitly oppose a negotiated two-state solution, ‘pro-Israel realists’ reject the claim that all Israeli government actions are taken in the pursuit of peace. Instead, they recognize the need to look at the merits of each individual policy, and support those that genuinely promote Israel’s long-term security through peace.


The debate for the principle of a two-state solution has largely been won. But we still need to strengthen the activism of 'pro-Israel realists' and convert more 'worried Jews' to share our thinking. To do this, focus conversations away from the hundreds of specific issues that swirl through this conflict, and onto one of the six core assumptions that determine people's likelihood of supporting a negotiated solution.

Aaron Ahuvia, Ph.D., is professor of marketing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and teaches “social marketing” at the Ross School of Business. He is on the board and executive committee of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

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