Jewish world: Shifts and rifts in Israel-US ties

As progressive US Jews and Israelis drift apart, where are relations headed?

March 29, 2015 01:41

J STREET U students protest against Hillel International on the sidelines of the annual J Street conference in Washington DC earlier this week.. (photo credit: MOSHE ZUSMAN)


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Not since Peter Beinart published his 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism, has there been this much talk of the growing rift between Israelis and progressive American Jews.

In recent weeks, a yawning divide has opened between liberal US Jews and the right-wing Jewish Israeli majority that reelected Benjamin Netanyahu.

And this rift is being exacerbated by an ideological chasm between Democrats and Republicans that has widened to unprecedented proportions during US President Barack Obama’s six years in office – not just on domestic issues such as healthcare and immigration, but on matters of foreign policy directly affecting Israel like Iran and positions on the feasibility of a two-state solution.

Clashes between the two US parties over Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress on Iran was the first recent sign that Israel was increasingly becoming a partisan issue in the US.

Then came responses in the US to controversial remarks made by Netanyahu in the rundown to last Tuesday’s elections, particularly comments he made on Election Day about Arab voters. More than any of the prime minister’s other statements – which included skepticism about the feasibility of the two-state solution and complaints about foreign influence on Israeli politics – Netanyahu’s fear-mongering against Arabs touched a deep nerve among US liberals who voted for Obama.

And US Jews – along with Hispanics and African- Americans – figure prominently among Obama’s supporters. Traditionally, except when 39 percent voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, 70%-80% of US Jews vote Democrat.

And dislike of Netanyahu among Democrats is growing. Netanyahu’s approval rating of just 17% in a Gallup poll conducted after his speech to Congress has probably dropped even lower since the prime minister issued his statements about Arab voters.

(His approval rating among Republicans after the Iran speech was 62%.) In this polarized political climate, liberal US Jews are particularly receptive to attacks – like the one launched in Haaretz this week by Beinart and J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, calling to “punish” Israel and boycott areas beyond the pre-1967 armistice line.

Being forced to choose between their support for Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership and their loyalty to Obama, the Democratic Party and their perception of liberal values, many US Jews are opting for the latter. And Obama understands this. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that by refusing to accept Netanyahu’s clarifications on the two-state solution, by threatening to “reassess” America’s Mideast policy vis-àvis Israel and by making it clear that America is considering dropping its opposition to UN Security Council resolutions which seek to impose a two-state solution on Israel, Obama is actively encouraging voices like those of Beinart and Ben-Ami – and is driving a wedge between some liberal US Jews and Israel.

Of course, Israeli Jews see the situation much differently.

While liberal US Jews draw parallels between their moral obligation to denounce Netanyahu’s comments about Arab voters and Jewish involvement in 1960s Freedom Rides in the US to fight for the civil rights of African-Americans (on March 8, the US marked the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama), Israelis are rightly concerned about the political radicalism of Arab lawmakers – who use the political rights granted them by Israel to openly support the dissolution of the world’s only Jewish state, and equate Hamas terrorists with IDF soldiers.

And while liberal US Jews strongly support national self-determination for the Palestinian people and want to see a smaller, more democratic Israel, Jewish Israelis face the existential threat of witnessing firsthand how purportedly “moderate” Palestinian leaders reject yet another Israeli offer for peace and launch a wave of violent terrorism. They resent the Palestinian demand that 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.

Liberal US Jews and Israeli Jews reach nearly diametrically opposed conclusions based on the same Jewish self-perception of being a minority. Liberal US Jews living as a minority in the US imagine how they would feel if, during elections, an American politician motivated his Gentile constituency by warning that Jews were coming out to vote “in droves”; they immediately identify and empathize with Arab and Palestinian minorities.

Jewish Israelis, though a majority in Israel, rightly see themselves as an endangered minority living in a very violent Middle East.

The future of relations between progressive US Jews and their Israeli counterparts is likely to be rocky – at least during the 21 months that remain of Obama’s presidency.

Of course there is always the chance that there will be a Democratic pushback, with strongly pro-Israel Democratic congressmen like Rep. Eliot Engel or Sen. Chuck Schumer (both of New York) influencing Obama to back down.

But the US president has little to lose and much to gain by initiating a deterioration of relations between the two countries. He endears himself to Arabs and Muslims, and proves he is an “honest broker.”

Nor does he pay a price; Obama does not need to be reelected. And he will not necessarily hurt the next Democratic candidate’s chances, either. US Jews will probably still continue to vote Democrat, either because they agree with Obama’s strong-arm tactics against Israel or because Israel is not a factor in their vote.

And US Jewry has other beefs against Israel, such as its treatment of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism – which is not likely to improve as Shas and United Torah Judaism prepare to return to the government coalition and zealously enforce the religious status quo.

Obama’s foreign policy “reassessment” also has an impact on internal Israel decision- making, but not in the way he would like it to. Historically, when Israelis have felt that the US “has its back,” they have been more willing to take risks and make more far-reaching compromises; this was true during the terms of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In contrast, when Israelis feel threatened, they tend to be more riskaverse.

Obama is accentuating differences that already existed between progressive US Jews and the right-wing Jewish Israeli majority. First, he has emboldened more critical voices like Beinart and Ben-Ami; second, he has pushed Israeli Jews further to the Right.

Under the circumstances, there is not much room for optimism about rapprochement any time soon.

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