war of words

Israel ‘shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state,’ Amnesty USA director tells Democratic group

Paul O’Brien’s comments follow an Amnesty International report accusing the Jewish state of committing apartheid

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Paul O'Brien

Following Amnesty International’s recent report that accused Israel of “apartheid” in its treatment of Palestinians, the group’s USA director appeared to go a step further on Wednesday, suggesting to a Woman’s National Democratic Club audience that the bulk of American Jews do not want Israel to be a Jewish state, but rather “a safe Jewish space” based on “core Jewish values.”

Paul O’Brien said one of Amnesty’s goals in publishing the report, which was roundly criticized by Israeli and American officials, is to “collectively change the conversation” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It needs to start first and foremost with the Jewish community,” O’Brien, who is not Jewish, said. 

The Amnesty official rejected a 2020 survey conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation that found that eight in 10 Jewish Americans identify as “pro-Israel,” and two-thirds feel emotionally “attached” or “very attached” to the Jewish state. 

“I actually don’t believe that to be true,” O’Brien said regarding those figures. “I believe my gut tells me that what Jewish people in this country want is to know that there’s a sanctuary that is a safe and sustainable place that the Jews, the Jewish people can call home.” 

Rather than a Jewish state, American Jews want “a safe Jewish space,” O’Brien continued. “I think they can be convinced over time that the key to sustainability is to adhere to what I see as core Jewish values, which are to be principled and fair and just in creating that space.” (The pro-Israel community rejects this “one-state solution” argument as a cover for the dissolution of a Jewish state.)

On the question of Israel’s right to exist, O’Brien seemed to be splitting hairs. 

Israel “shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state,” O’Brien told some 20 in-person and 30 virtual attendees at the Wednesday lunch event, before adding “Amnesty takes no political views on any question, including the right of the State of Israel to survive.”

In Amnesty’s report, the international human rights organization — while deeply critical of the Jewish state — acknowledges that Israel exists. “The organization engages with the reality of the existence of the State of Israel,” said the report. But O’Brien’s comments undercut that assertion and appear to indicate that Amnesty believes the Jewish state does not have a right to exist. 

“The right of the people to self-determination and to be protected is without a doubt something that we believe in, and I personally believe that,” said O’Brien. But “we are opposed to the idea — and this, I think, is an existential part of the debate — that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people.”

Amanda Berman, executive director of the pro-Israel group Zioness, told Jewish Insider after the event that she found it “shocking” that Amnesty’s strategy in changing the American conversation around Israel “is to tokenize Jews to be the face of the campaign.”

“It is disturbing that Amnesty, which ostensibly exists to advance global human rights, could so casually deny the inalienable human rights of safety and sovereignty to a nation as persecuted as the Jewish people,” Berman added. 

The Amnesty International report has faced criticism from the Biden administration and senior congressional Democrats, as well as the Israeli government and major American Jewish organizations.

“We reject the view that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in February. “We think that it is important as the world’s only Jewish state that the Jewish people must not be denied their right to self-determination, and we must ensure there isn’t a double standard being applied.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) called the report “a gross mischaracterization of Israel, its history, and its values.”

O’Brien sought to assign blame for Democrats’ criticism of the report. Had Amnesty begun meeting with members of Congress sooner, “we might not have ended up in almost every single congressional office that we went to having a meeting with that congressional office after they had met with AIPAC,” noted O’Brien. “The vast majority [of members of Congress with whom he met] were clear that whatever they were going to talk about with us privately, they were not interested in publicly supporting our report.”

The event is the first in a series hosted by the Democratic group that will explore “Palestine past, present and future.” An employee of the Woman’s National Democratic Club noted that a staff member from the Israeli embassy will likely address the club next month to respond to Amnesty’s report. 

The Woman’s National Democratic Club is a membership organization that hosts events, advocacy campaigns and get-out-the-vote drives for Democratic women in the Washington area. The organization, which meets in a large brownstone clubhouse near Dupont Circle, often hosts authors on topics such as women’s history, Black culture in Washington and foreign affairs. This week’s event was not the first on Israel; last month, author Andrew Lawler spoke about his book “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City.” 

“Today’s a perfect example of allowing us to hear diverse opinions about many different issues,”  said Karyl Cafiero, the club’s director of programming.