Tom Hayden: Things Come Around in the Mideast
Posted on Oct 28, 2016
By Tom Hayden
In this essay, veteran social activist Tom Hayden, drawing upon his own rude political awakening to the realities of Israeli and Middle East politics during the 1980s, warns that the Israel lobby in the U.S. aims to roll back the clock and change the map of the region and that its neoconservative supporters will probably try to use the current Middle East crisis to ignite a larger war against Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Twenty-five years ago I stared into the eyes of Michael Berman, chief operative for his congressman-brother, Howard Berman. I was a neophyte running for the California Assembly in a district that the Bermans claimed belonged to them.
“I represent the Israeli defense forces,” Michael said. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Michael seemed to imagine himself the gatekeeper protecting Los Angeles’ Westside for Israel’s political interests, and those of the famous Berman-Waxman machine. Since Jews represented one-third of the Democratic district’s primary voters, Berman held a balance of power.
All that year I tried to navigate the district’s Jewish politics. The solid historical liberalism of the Westside was a favorable factor, as was the strong support of many Jewish community leaders. But the community was moving in a more conservative direction. Some were infuriated at my sponsorship of Santa Monica’s tough rent control ordinance. Many in the organized community were suspicious of the New Left for becoming Palestinian sympathizers after the Six Day War; they would become today’s neoconservatives.
I had traveled to Israel in a generally supportive capacity, meeting officials from all parties, studying energy projects, befriending peace advocates like the writer Amos Oz. I also met with Palestinians and commented favorably on the works of Edward Said. As a result, a Berman ally prepared an anti-Hayden dossier in an attempt to discredit my candidacy with the Democratic leadership in the California state capital.
This led to the deli lunch with Michael Berman. He and his brother were privately leaning toward an upcoming young prosecutor named Adam Schiff, who later became the congressman from Pasadena. But they calculated that Schiff couldn’t win without name recognition, so they were considering “renting” me the Assembly seat, Berman said. But there was one condition: that I always be a “good friend of Israel.”
This wasn’t a particular problem at the time. Since the 1970s I had favored some sort of two-state solution. I felt close to the local Jewish activists who descended from the labor movement and participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. I wanted to take up the cause of the aging Holocaust survivors against the global insurance companies that had plundered their assets.
While I believed the Palestinians had a right to self-determination, I didn’t share the animus of some on the American left who questioned Israel’s very legitimacy. I was more inclined toward the politics of Israel’s Peace Now and those Palestinian nationalists and human rights activists who accepted Israel?s pre-1967 borders as a reality to accommodate. I disliked the apocalyptic visions of the Israeli settlers I had met, and thought that even hard-line Palestinians would grudgingly accept a genuine peace initiative.
I can offer my real-life experience to the present discussion about the existence and power of an “Israel lobby.” It is not as monolithic as some argue, but it is far more than just another interest group in a pluralist political world. In recognizing its diversity, distinctions must be drawn between voters and elites, between Reform and Orthodox tendencies, between the less observant and the more observant. During my ultimate 18 years in office, I received most of my Jewish support from the ranks of the liberal and less observant voters. But I also received support from conservative Jews who saw themselves as excluded by a Jewish (and Democratic) establishment.
However, all these rank-and-file constituencies were attuned to the question of Israel, even in local and state elections, and would never vote for a candidate perceived as anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. I had to be certified “kosher,” not once but over and over again.
The certifiers were the elites, beginning with rabbis and heads of the multiple mainstream Jewish organizations, especially each city’s Jewish Federation. An important vetting role was held as well by the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), a group closely associated with official parties in Israel. When necessary, Israeli ambassadors, counsels general and other officials would intervene with statements declaring someone a “friend of Israel.”
In my case, a key to the “friendship issue” was the Los Angeles-based counsel general Benjamin Navon. Though politics drew us together, our personal friendship was genuine enough. I think that Benny, as he was called, wanted to pull me and my then-wife, Jane Fonda, into a pro-Israel stance, but he himself was an old-school labor/social democrat who personally believed in a negotiated political settlement. We enjoyed personal and intellectual time together, and I still keep on my bookshelf a wooden sculpture by his wife, of an anguished victim of violence.
The de facto Israeli endorsement would be communicated indirectly, in compliance with laws that prohibit foreign interference in an American election. We would be seen and photographed together in public. Benny would make positive public statements that could be quoted in campaign mailings. As a result, I was being declared “kosher” by the ultimate source, the region’s representative of the state of Israel.
Nevertheless, throughout the spring 1982 campaign I was accused of being a left-wing madman allied to terrorism and communism. The national Democratic leader Walter Mondale commented jokingly during a local visit that I was being described as worse than Lenin. It was a wild ride.
I won the hard-fought primary by 51% to 45%. The Bermans stayed neutral. Willie Brown, Richard Alatorre and the rest of the California Democratic establishment were quietly supportive. I easily won the general election in November.
But that summer I made the mistake of my political career. The Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon, and Benny Navon wanted Jane and me to be supportive. It happened that I had visited the contested border in the past, witnessed the shelling of civilian Israeli homes, and interviewed Israeli and Lebanese zealots—crazies, I thought, who were preaching preventive war. I opposed cross-border rocket attacks and naively favored a demilitarized zone.
Ever curious, and aware of my district’s politics, I decided we should go to the Middle East—but only as long as the Israeli “incursion,” as it was delicately called, was limited to the 10-kilometer space near the Lebanese border, as a cushion against rocket fire. Benny Navon assured me that the “incursion” was limited, and would be followed by negotiations and a solution. I also made clear our opposition to the use of any fragmentation bombs in the area, and my ultimate political identification with what Israeli Peace Now would say.
There followed a descent into moral ambiguity and realpolitick that still haunts me today. When we arrived at the Israeli-Lebanon border, the game plan promised by Benny Navon had changed utterly. Instead of a localized border conflict, Israel was invading and occupying all of Lebanon—with us in tow. Its purpose was to destroy militarily the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) haven in Lebanon. This had been Gen. Ariel Sharon’s secret plan all along, and I never will know with certainty whether Benny Navon had been deceived along with everyone else.
For the next few weeks, I found myself defending Israel’s “right” to self-defense on its border, only to realize privately how foolish I was becoming. In the meantime, Israel’s invasion was continuing, with ardent Jewish support in America.