November 27, 2004

Pinkas: US Jewish leaders act like 'Elders of Zion'


For a career diplomat, Alon Pinkas has some undiplomatic things to say about the American Jewish establishment and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

In Pinkas' view, American Jews treat Israel like a "goddamn synagogue," all Jewish communities outside of America and Israel are "insignificant suburbs," and the behavior of American Jewish organizational officials reads like a chapter out of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Three months since he left his job in New York at Israel's most visible consular post-and in the midst of rare break from a life spent in the thick of Israeli politics-Pinkas has been speaking his mind.

In a wide-ranging interview recently with The Jerusalem Post in New York, Pinkas held forth on how the American Jewish obsession with anti-Semitism is helping accelerate the disappearance of American Jewry, why Israel's public image in the United States is as good as it can get, and why American Jewish groups should stop traveling to the world's capitals and instead focus on the United States.

Though not a household name in Israel, Pinkas, 43, has been called Israel's most eloquent diplomat in the United States since Benjamin Netanyahu. A child both of Tel Aviv and New York, where he spent several years growing up, Pinkas came to the Big Apple a little more than three years ago after serving in senior positions in several Labor governments.

Now, with his stint at the consulate over and awaiting word on whether or not he'll be allowed to accept an offer to head up the American Jewish Congress, Pinkas says he's satisfied that Israel's image in the United States as good as it could ever be. In fact, Pinkas says, for all the hand-wringing in the American Jewish community about Israel's shortcomings in the United States when it comes to hasbara, or public relations, Israel is doing the best job possible given its position as a strong defender of its citizens' security.

"This obsession that people have with hasbara is more a state of mind than a substantive understanding," he said. "Jews always thought that if you just had someone who looked like an American, who talked like an American, who was telegenic, then the world would understand us. We had that in Bibi Netanyahu but it changed nobody's mind."

The world was favorable to Israel only when it was the underdog, Pinkas said, in the years before 1967, when its survival seemed uncertain. For the world to like Israel any better now, when it is a great power, he said, Israel would have to compromise on its power. But it is the projection of that power that has helped Israel maintain its position of strength, by deterring would-be aggressors.

The Jewish state cannot be both strong and an underdog at the same time, Pinkas said. Faced with the public-relations choice of projecting a sympathetic yet weak image to curry favor in the world, versus projecting power to secure its place in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of the Middle East, Israel has chosen power. And it is key that Israel continue to project that power to maintain its strategic edge.

"There's a price to pay for being strong," Pinkas said. "We have become very strong. That doesn't mean that we're not under siege. That does not mean that we're not under threats."

Furthermore, he says, the nature of today's 24-hour TV news coverage has not been beneficial to Israel, where truth often lies in nuance, not image. When footage of a Palestinian boy standing in front of an Israeli tank gets flashed repeatedly across the screen, it is a losing battle trying to explain that there are Palestinians with rocket-propelled grenades ducking behind the boy and that the tanks have been sent there because of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

"When that kid is the footage that controls the news cycle, you will see that picture again and again and there is nothing you can do about it," he said.

But where anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment is perhaps strongest in the United States, on college campuses, Pinkas says a lot more can be done. But it's not Israel's responsibility.

"Where the hell has American Jewry been?" Pinkas said with a flash of anger when asked why Israel hasn't made deeper inroads in generating sympathy for the Israeli cause at U.S. universities. "If a Jewish kid goes to UW or Cornell or USC and they are not knowledgeable about Israel," he said, referring to universities in Wisconsin, southern California and upstate New York, "why is this Israel's responsibility?"

"Where are American Jews?" Pinkas demanded. "Rather than play foreign minister and go to the world's capitals and deal exclusively with anti-Semitism," he said, referring to globetrotting American Jewish organizational officials who see their diplomatic efforts as critical to fighting anti-Semitism, "they should focus on educating American Jews."

"What-are you writing the next chapter in the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion?'" he asked rhetorically.

The future of American Jewry, Pinkas said, "would be much better served by American Jews going to Omaha, Neb., to Austin, Texas, to Tallahassee, Fla. and Columbus, Ohio than another photo-op with the Israeli chief of staff or another meeting with the Belgian foreign minister."

The problem is two-fold, according to Pinkas. First, American Jewish groups are misdirecting their efforts to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment by focusing on going to the world's capitals-including Jerusalem-rather than their own backyard. Second, they're focusing on anti-Semitism in their outreach to Jews rather than promoting a more positive agenda to encourage Jews to stay Jewish and defend the State of Israel-namely, Jewish education.

"Are they really doing the most important thing?" he asked of the Jewish organizations. A lot is at stake, he said. "For us, it's our standing in public opinion; for American Jews, it's the age-old issues of education and Jewish identity."

What makes it so striking to hear Pinkas rail against Jewish organizations is that he could be the head of one in a few weeks. This summer, after his term at the Consulate General in New York was terminated, the American Jewish Congress, widely considered to be a moribund organization, offered Pinkas a job as CEO, a post that previously had not existed in the organization.

The appointment immediately ran into trouble, however, as Israel's civil service commissioner said Pinkas had violated a two-year "cooling-off period" required of Israeli foreign envoys seeking to work in the countries of their postings. Pinkas says the appointment does not violate the conflict-of-interest clause in his diplomatic pledge, and he has submitted paperwork in Israel seeking permission to take the job. A final verdict has not yet been tendered, though both American Jewish Congress officials and Pinkas said the offer will not be on the table very much longer.

When the appointment first was announced some American Jews also cried foul, aghast at the notion of an Israeli heading an American Jewish organization. Pinkas dismisses such objections out of hand, saying they ignore what's best for the Jewish people. Israeli Jews should have the right to have a say in American Jewish affairs and-a rare admission for an Israeli-American Jews should have a say in Israeli affairs.

"On the continuum of Jewish history, we have a modern-day version of Jerusalem and Babylon: Jerusalem and New York," he said, applying the metaphor to Israel and America. "All other communities are insignificant suburbs."

"Everyone who thinks, as I do, that Israel is a project of the Jewish people-which has a board and CEO but also has stockholders, who are the Jews of the world-you must understand that those stockholders have a say. If that is the case," he added, "it is also OK for Israelis to say what they think to American Jews."

But there is another side to Pinkas that, like many Israelis, bristles at the notion of American Jews superseding Israel's diplomatic role in the global arena and sees U.S. Jewish groups as sometimes overstepping their bounds when it comes to Israel.

"I would love if they would stop treating Israel like another Jewish organization," he said. "This is a sovereign state. It cannot be run like a goddamn synagogue with every congregant having something to say."

Most U.S. Jews, however, care little about Israel-which is an even bigger problem, according to Pinkas. "Most American Jews don't identify with Israel. It's amazingly discouraging how little they care."

That bodes ill for the future of American Jewry and Israel's standing in America. The generation that identifies and is close with Israel is going to disappear, he said, and the commitment of American Jews to Israel already is disappearing. That's why programs like birthright israel, which offers free trips to Israel for diaspora youth ages 18-26 who never before have been on a peer trip to Israel, are so important, Pinkas said.

"If American Jews are integrated and assimilated into American society," Pinkas said, sounding a note similar to warnings by countless American Jewish and Israeli demographers and sociologists, and "if the cost you pay for this assimilation is abandonment and disassociation from Judaism-not only as a religion-then in 20 to 25 years there won't be an American Jewry."

Demographic projections are not so dire, but the general principle is correct that increasing numbers of American Jews are showing decreasing commitment to Judaism and Israel. And things are not so much better on the other side of the Atlantic, Pinkas warned.

"For us it's a values issue," he said, speaking of Israelis. Pinkas said he is "very scared" that if the United States and Canada lowered their immigration restrictions, hordes of Israelis would cross the Atlantic and resettle in North America. Then they, like American Jews, gradually would assimilate into the larger societies.

Pinkas doesn't claim to have all the solutions to these problems-though he clearly has strong ideas about many of them-but, he says, they're the things about which he is passionate. That passion is also the reason he accepted the job offer by the American Jewish Congress rather than taking a more lucrative position elsewhere. If the job at the congress does not work out, Pinkas says he'll go back to Israel and likely try to make his mark in the political arena.

"It's a calling. It's what I need to do," he said. "It's why I went into politics."