Their problematic relationship is a casualty of the culture wars sparked by the presidencies of Obama and Trump
By Chemi Shalev
This year’s General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has already created more of a ruckus than any GA in recent memory – before it even started. The phrase “We need to talk,” which adorns the invitation to the GA and its slogan, carries a loaded punch. In today’s popular culture, as Urban Dictionary says, “We need to talk” is “The preamble to the discussion that is generally followed by the ending of a relationship.”
This was certainly not the intention of the JFNA copywriter who came up with the motto. But even if one interprets “We need to talk” in the most positive way possible, it still denotes serious disagreements that can no longer be ignored.
To drive the point home, the GA organizers underscored the urgency of the situation by highlighting the stark differences of views between Israelis and American Jews. Given that in recent years the JFNA has gone out of its way to eradicate any hint of discord and has dedicated the agendas of successive GA’s to non-controversial – not to say boring – issues, such as fundraising and community organizing, this year’s GA is already a watershed event in the joint history of Israel and American Jews.
A widening rift
The writing has been on the wall for many years, but most American Jews preferred to look the other way, and Israelis, until recently at least, couldn’t care less. The two communities clung to the illusion that their joint support for Israel’s wellbeing was a virtual super-glue that would keep them bonded together, despite the built-in tensions in their mutual ties. The two communities have thrived, but under radically different circumstances, the most important of which is this: American Jews are a minority who cherish equality and individual rights as a matter of principle and self-preservation. Israeli Jews constitute a majority who, in their perception, is under constant threat. Increasingly, the values that top the American Jewish agenda are seen as a threat to the existence of the Jewish state.
The rift between the two communities has been widening for years. One can argue about where and when it started – the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, the 1982 Lebanon War, the 1987 first Palestinian intifada or the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – are all suitable candidates, but the trend itself is indisputable and unequivocal.
American Jews have increasingly entrenched themselves in their liberalism, while Israeli Jews have been moving in the opposite direction, turning to the right, gradually at first and now with full speed ahead.
Historically, their period of united bliss – which, in retrospect, lasted no longer than a decade – could one day be seen as a brief encounter between two ships passing in the night.
The outbreak of open hostilities, after years of hiding internal tensions, was precipitated by the past two U.S. presidents and their interactions with Benjamin Netanyahu. Most American Jews adored Obama. They were appalled by Netanyahu’s disdain for Obama and shocked by the Israeli prime minister’s willingness to challenge him openly, especially in his address to Congress on the Iran nuclear deal in March 2015.
Trump’s election reversed the situation, with similar consequences.
‘Israel’s guilt by association with Trump‘
Most American Jews abhor Trump and are repelled by Netanyahu’s overeager courtship of the president and of his evangelical supporters.
In and of themselves, the two communities’ divergent views of Obama and Trump reflect their different set of priorities. For American Jews, Obama’s liberal credentials outweighed his policies on Israel, which many viewed as sufficiently pro-Israel anyway. For most Israeli Jews, Trump’s perceived backing for Israeli policies overrides his reactionary domestic policies and controversial conduct, which far too many Israelis admire anyway. Both communities were dismayed and disappointed by what they perceived as the other’s misguided and even disloyal attitude.
The growing political polarization and the escalation of America’s culture wars, which has become more acute and pronounced since Trump’s election in 2016, pours even higher-octane fuel on the already smoldering fire.
Israeli Jews increasingly see American Jews as identifying with the leftist-liberal Weltanschauung, which Netanyahu and his cohorts depict as Israel’s mortal enemy. For American Jews, Israel’s overly enthusiastic embrace of Trump is an abomination. It places Israel in the same camp as their worst enemies. For Jewish millennials, who are more liberal than their elders and who were already distancing themselves from Israel anyway, the Trump-Netanyahu axis is a stain they might never erase.
During Obama’s tenure, Israel turned into a wedge that divides not only Israel from the American Jews but splits the community itself. Rabbis stopped sermonizing about Israel for fear of sparking conflict in their divided congregations. The topic was declared off-limits on many Friday night dinner tables, when hitherto friendly arguments turned bitter and acrimonious, poisoning close relationships and splitting families in the process. The Trump presidency may be changing this dynamic, but only for the worse: Israel’s guilt by association with Trump has brought criticism of Israel into the open, often with a vengeance.
A poll conducted by Mark Mellman for the Jewish Electorate Institute, published last week, offers statistical proof of the rift. Trump’s pro-Israel policies, depicted by Netanyahu as the most supportive in history, haven’t made much of an impression on American Jews: 76% of them plan to vote for Democratic candidates in the upcoming November 6 elections and 74% will opt for Trump’s Democratic challenger should he run again in 2020. The results are identical those measured the 2016 elections, when 75% of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton – before Trump abandoned the Iran deal, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and turned a cold shoulder to Palestinians. The eternal Republican projection of an impending sea change in American Jewish voting patters is set to be dashed once again.
The poll underscores the long established fact that most American Jews don’t prioritize Israel in the ballot box. It breaks newer ground, however, in exposing their growing reservations about Israeli policies: 95% of those polled describe themselves as pro-Israel, but only a third follow the long-held tradition of supporting the policies of whatever government is in power. 32% said they support Netanyahu’s policies, 35% said they support Israel but oppose “some” of its policies and another 24% said they are critical of “many” of them. In other words, two thirds of those who declare themselves “pro-Israel” are no longer willing to offer unqualified support.
In organizational terms, the poll demolishes the perception that AIPAC’s traditional Israel-right-or-wrong approach represents the overwhelming majority of American Jews, or, conversely, that J-Street’s mix of support in principle and harsh criticism in practice is only backed by a small minority. The results are not only a disturbing wake-up call for Netanyahu, whose envoy to the U.S. Ron Dermer and his embassy steadfastly boycott J-Street, but for organized American Jewry as well. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, after all, has refused to accept J-Street as its member, cementing the roof body’s image as out of step with the majority of American Jews.
Leaderless and rudderless
Unfortunately, the prognosis for the Israeli-American Jewish rupture is bleak. Things are likely to get worse before they get any better, if they ever do. It’s true that more Israelis are aware today of the crisis with American Jewry than ever before, sparking a flurry of non-governmental efforts to launch a dialogue before it’s too late. Netanyahu and his government, however, only pay lip service to bridging the gaps but show no sign of changing their ways.
On the contrary, Israel is steadily drifting toward the ethnocentric nationalism that Trump has inspired throughout the world, thus increasing American Jewish alienation. Netanyahu and his coalition increasingly equate criticism of the occupation with opposition to the very existence of Israel, distancing some Jews from dealing with the issue at all and pushing others into the arms of overt anti-Zionism. Given the binary with-us-or-against-us test, which Netanyahu espouses and the Israeli public seems to accept, it’s only a matter of time before the bulk of American Jews are viewed as outright enemies of the state that was once described as the only god of their new religion.
The American Jewish community, for its part, is leaderless and rudderless, and thus unequal to the task before it. Its disparate parts are incapable of forming a united front. The distinct pro-Trump and pro-Netanyahu minority, about a quarter of all American Jews, is overrepresented in communal structures and, more significantly, among the Jewish donors that fund their existence. Their singular devotion to Israel and disdain for their fellow Jews’ liberal values sets them apart from their own community. Instead of showing empathy for the plight of the majority and solidarity with their demands, the pro-Trump Jewish right wing offers itself as an alternative. Liberal Jews will assimilate and disappear, they assert. For Israel, we are the only future.
The option of replacing the traditional support of most American Jews with a coalition of right wing, mostly religious Jews, together with Evangelicals and the Republican Party as a whole, appeals to Netanyahu. The formula is increasingly being touted as a viable option. At best, American Jews are being lumped together with the Israeli left, whose own loyalty to Israel is under attack. The government’s pro forma pledge to try and mend fences with American Jews is undermined by its “my way or the highway” philosophy.
In this regard, the General Assembly’s “We need to talk” slogan isn’t a threat, but a plea. It is not an indication of a relationship doomed to fail but an appeal for immediate intervention, before it’s too late. Given the strains, tensions and seemingly irreconcilable differences between Israel and American Jews, it might even be seen as a sign of boundless optimism. American Jews, it seems, still believe that dialogue and reconciliation are possible, if only the two sides could relearn how to talk to each other, without the conversation leading to a final, tragic and irrevocable parting of ways. As Alexander Pope wrote in his poem “An Essay on Man,” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”