The blind leading the blind

Much of the American Jewish community today is merely echoing Netanyahu’s talking points.

By
March 18, 2011 15:45
Netanyahu

Netanyahu 311 reuters. (photo credit: Reuters)

It is difficult to be an American Jewish organization advocating support for Israel today. On the one hand, there is the staunch belief that Israel must be defended at all costs, and that any division will expose a weakness in the united Jewish front. On the other, American Jews traditionally advocate progressive policies in domestic and global affairs, which seemingly contradict their hard-line stances in support of a government that is apt to reject such liberalism.

At a time when Israel is led by a government that is steering it toward unending conflict, and whose actions are threatening its Jewish and democratic nature, much of the American Jewish community today is merely echoing Binyamin Netanyahu’s talking points.

While unity has kept the Jewish world strong, if it is perpetuated through blind support of misguided policies, it could severely undermine Israel’s security.

The instinct to unify is one that is ingrained in Jews. This heritage goes back not only generations, but millennia.

Divisions among the early Israelites are cited as key factors leading to the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

The expulsion of the Hebrews from the Holy Land, and their dispersal throughout the Middle East and Europe, provided the impetus for the elevated importance of Jewish community for centuries.

Whether by choice or by force, Jewish communities banded together to survive the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, of course, the Holocaust and the eventual creation of the Yishuv in what would become the State of Israel. Holidays like Hanukka and Purim celebrate the success of the Jewish people escaping the threat of destruction, others like Tisha Be’av and Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorate those periods when Jews failed to do so.

THE PSYCHE of a people with a history under almost constant siege has served as the key unifying agent between Israel and the American Jewish community.

The narrative of the Jewish people surrounded by hostile enemies, and needing the constant support and vigilance of its brethren to survive, is indeed a powerful one. Today, when faced with the threat of a nuclear Iran, Israeli and American Jewish leaders are often quick to compare the current period to 1939 in an effort to demonstrate the urgent need to safeguard a Jewish people under the threat of annihilation.

Of course, Israel was supposed to change all this. The Zionist ideology was about Jews not cowering in fear, but rather about binding together in strength to create a great nation that would protect and defend the Jewish people. And build a great nation they did. Nearly 63 years after its creation, Israel enjoys one of the world’s greatest militaries, a strong economy, advanced technology and an unprecedented partnership with the US. The Jewish people may be more secure, and better off, than ever before.

BUT THE sense of vulnerability among Jews worldwide has become so deeply ingrained that it is hard to recover. Even dissent against Israeli policies which threaten to upend its remarkable accomplishments is intolerable. Those who do so have often been sidelined and all but discredited within their communities.

Rather than face such “excommunication,” many choose to be silent, but their silence is in turn interpreted as acquiescence and even support.

This cycle has, at times, become so outof- hand that Jewish advocates of Israel have surpassed even Israeli hard-liners in their defense of the Jewish state. Over the past decade, American Jews have contributed more than $200 million to West Bank settlements.

Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin is known to have questioned whether he would obtain support from American Jewish leaders in launching the Oslo peace process in 1993. In the midst of pursuing a peace process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, prime minister Ehud Olmert was met with a proposition by the World Jewish Congress demanding that any negotiations on Jerusalem be approved by the Diaspora Jewish community.

This strategy is backfiring against Israel and the US. Take the recent US veto of the UN Security Council Resolution condemning settlement activity. Israel and the Jewish community considered the veto a major victory, but in truth, it is a defeat. Had Netanyahu been truly committed to a two-state solution, he could have used the resolution as cover to press forward a new peace agenda. Or American Jews could have urged the US to support the resolution but ensure that it would oversee its implementation as step toward jump-starting the peace process.

Instead, Israel is even more isolated than it was before, and the mediation and influence of the US is being questioned as never before. Even more, the notions of Jewish power and conspiracy have again reached a fever pitch, providing fuel to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.

IN TRUTH, the US decided to veto the resolution for its own reasons. The Obama administration recognizes that an Israel on the defensive is one that is unlikely to take courageous steps toward peace. It is also true that the US vetoed the resolution with an eye toward domestic politics. However, those who point to a supposedly all-powerful Jewish lobby are mistaken. In a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans indicated they sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians, the highest ratings of support since 1991.

Support for Israel is an American interest, certainly not strictly a Jewish one.

Even so, American Jews have an important voice, and they are failing to use it effectively. While a united Jewish people is critical for the continued survival of global Jewry and its relationship with Israel, this relationship should be based on a shared vision of the future, not on the vulnerability and fears that have characterized the past. American Jews should use their voice to communicate a different path for the future of Israel’s relations with the US and the Diaspora.

With the Arabs of the Middle East rising up against their corrupt dictators and demanding freedom and opportunity, the Arab world will be increasingly more confident. Israel’s neighbors clearly will continue to lag behind it for the foreseeable future, but as they regain their footing, they will eventually look again to the continued conflict.

That is why Israel, and its brethren in the Diaspora, should not be caught obsessively preparing for the challenges of the past when they could be grasping the opportunity being presented today.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.


Related Content