Influential liberal bloggers visit Israel
TEL AVIV (JTA) -- A group of influential liberal bloggers touched down for a glimpse at the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week, swooping in for a closer look at Gaza by helicopter and navigating the religious and political labyrinth of Jerusalem's Old City.
Israel can become heated in the left-wing Democratic blogosphere and organizers of the long-distance road trip hoped the journey would help the bloggers, all first-time visitors to the region, get a deeper understanding of the place and its problems.
The six-day trip, which ended Tuesday, was sponsored by the Solomon Project, a Washington-based organization that shares office space and staffers with the National Jewish Democratic Council. It included a tour of Israel's security barrier with an army colonel, visits to Sderot and Ramallah, and meetings with Israeli politicians and academics on the political left and right, Palestinian negotiators and fellow bloggers.
"We are trying to get more deep and complex understanding than thinking everyone is David and Goliath," said Ira Forman, the research director of the Solomon Project and executive director of the NJDC.
Reaching out to bloggers on the political left was a natural move, Forman added.
"New media versus old media is becoming increasingly important in American political life," he said. "This is a powerful new mechanism of reaching people."
As it has gained in readership and influence, the liberal blogosphere has also seen a steady stream of criticism of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Often the complaints have revolved around the support of some Jewish organizational leaders and Israeli officials for the Iraq war and other hawkish elements of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
"I think it's pretty clear that the liberal blogosphere has more critics of Israel than other media, and I would say certainly there is criticism of AIPAC in particular," said Tom Edsall, the political editor at The Huffington Post and a former Washington Post reporter who for years followed Republican efforts to woo the Jewish votes.
Part of the backlash against AIPAC within the progressive community, the bloggers said, is the perception that it had shifted hard to the right in recent years, aligning itself too closely with the Republicans and to a narrow view of what supporting Israel meant.
"Certainly it's not a unanimous view," Edsall said. "Overall the progressive liberal blogosphere is much more pro-Israel, but still there is much more ambivalence on this than on the other issues."
The bloggers said Israel was one of the few "wedge" issues in the American progressive community, even if support for the Jewish state on the whole remained strong.
The influence of anti-GOP sentiments was clear on the trip during discussions about Iran.
Nearly all of the Israelis with whom the bloggers met warned about the dangers posed by the Iranian regime. For the American bloggers, the concern expressed by Israelis across the political map stood in marked contrast to the discourse back at home.
In the United States, the bloggers said, the push to raise red flags about Iran has been tainted and even discredited in the eyes of those who see it as one of President Bush's pet issues.
Because Bush was so roundly discredited after leading the country into war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, confronting Iran is going to be a hard sell -- if not an impossible one -- to the American public, the bloggers insisted. They said that learning more about Iran's role in supporting Hamas was important, but were doubtful that it would translate into increased American action.
"A few of the more conservative, right-leaning Israelis we met expressed that George Bush is the best friend Israel ever had, and the news we had to deliver them was that your best friend has left you hanging out to dry with Iran," said David Waldman, a contributing editor at Daily Kos.
Ultimately, the bloggers said, they did not believe that Israel has a problem within the base of the Democratic Party. But, they added, in times of intense conflict -- the 2006 Lebanon War, for example -- raw emotions emerge, especially in the comments left by readers.
Chris Powers, who writes for Open Left, said he and some other prominent bloggers stopped writing about the war when the talkbacks became especially ugly, pitting pro and anti-Israel readers against one another.
For Jerome Armstrong, a Democratic Party strategist and political consultant who blogs at mydd.com and was a pioneer in the blogging world, even coining the now popular expression "netroots" -- referring to grassroots work done online -- the critiques of Israel found in the progressive blogosphere often have a constructive bent.
"I think a lot of it comes from a healthy skepticism or a healthy desire to see the conflict solved," he said.
Waldman resented what he said were attempts by Jewish Republicans to suggest that the Jews within the Democratic Party were somehow less supportive of Israel.
"That does not fly with anyone," he said. "It's insulting and stupid" to say that Jewish Democrats "would be less interested in the security of anyone, including Israel."
As for seeing Israel in person, Armstrong said he welcomed the chance. He had written about Israel only sporadically and usually during Knesset elections.
"I'm getting familiar with the situation and seeing different perspectives and talking to people firsthand," he said. "Certainly I am not going to go back with all answers," but upon returning to the United States, it will be easier "to relate to and stay in touch with" the topic more.