Young Jews rally in support of Israel in New York, July 20..
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
US Jewry and Israeli Jews have never seen eye to eye. But it seems that in recent weeks, particularly following statements made by Benjamin Netanyahu on the eve of his victory in last Tuesday’s elections, the rift between to the two largest Jewish centers in the world has grown.
The Reform and Conservative movements, the two largest religious steams in American Judaism, both issued statements last week condemning Netanyahu’s Election Day appeal to head for the polls to counterbalance the “droves” of Arab-Israeli voters.
And when Netanyahu appeared on US news media and backtracked on statements made in the days leading up to the election that were seen as a rejection of a two-state solution, he was applauded by the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Paradoxically, the same publicly articulated skepticism regarding a two-state solution and fear-mongering toward the Arab vote that offended the leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations in America appeared to boost his popularity in Israel – at least among right-wing voters, who make up the majority among Jewish Israelis. Nothing else besides the success of Netanyahu’s media blitz, which emphasized Netanyahu’s right-wing credentials and which was launched in the last three days before the election, explains the huge discrepancy between opinion polls – that according to law ceased to be published four days before the election and forecast a Netanyahu defeat – and the election results.
Precisely the opinions expressed by Netanyahu that make him so popular among large swathes of Israelis are what turn off many US Jews. How did this happen? Part of the answer has to with the fact that the circumstances and motivations that brought Jews to Israel are vastly different from those which brought Jews to the US. Jews who came to Israel – and ended up staying – tended to be more concerned with their Jewish identity. In the tradeoff between liberalism and Jewish continuity, many would choose the former.
But more importantly, the realities faced on a day to day basis by Jews in Israel are radically different from those of American Jewry. The formative childhood experiences of Israeli Jewish teenagers and young adults living in Israel today were the waves of suicide bombings that swept Israel during the second intifada.
Though J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami attempted, in opening remarks at his organization’s fifth annual conference in Washington, to draw parallels between Jews’ participation in Freedom Rides in the US in the 1960s to fight for the right of African-Americans to vote, and the need to denounce Netanyahu’s comments about Arab voters, many Israelis see things differently.
They are rightly concerned about the political radicalism of Arab lawmakers who openly support the dissolution of the world’s only Jewish state – even one that strives to provide non-Jewish minorities with equal rights – and compare Hamas terrorists with IDF soldiers.
Unlike US Jewry that is geographically and existentially distanced from the Arab-Israeli or Arab-Palestinian conflict, Israelis live it on a daily basis. They serve in the IDF, send their children to serve, and are directly affected by policy decisions taken by Israeli governments. Many Jewish Israelis continue to hold left-wing or left-of-center views. But a majority does not. And this democratically elected majority should be respected.
Israelis have witnessed firsthand how purportedly “moderate” Palestinian leaders have rejected Israeli offers for peace. As a result, they are rightly skeptical about the prospects of a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. They resent the Palestinian demand that tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of Jews living in Judea and Samaria be expelled from their homes in order to create another Arab state that will most likely be autocratic and corrupt and will run the risk of being taken over by Hamas or some other Islamist group intent on the destruction of Israel. Nevertheless, a majority of Israelis would probably support the creation of a Palestinian state if they believed Palestinians were truly sincere about ending the conflict.
A political rift does exist between US and Israeli Jewries. But it is not because Israelis are racists or do not want peace. It is, rather, a product of vastly different existential realities lived by the two largest Jewish centers in the world.