American Jews are periodically tested by virtue of their association with Israel. Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when the European press was filled with reports of 5,000 Palestinian civilians slaughtered, constituted one such test; Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent Goldstone Report another.
Today’s test comes from the decision of the Obama administration to sever the special relationship between the US and Israel. In an April 13 press conference, President Barack Obama stated that the Middle East conflict is “costing us significantly in terms of blood and treasure.” The New York Times, a reliable barometer of the president’s thinking, spelled out the significance of those words. According to the Times, the president drew “an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” The Times predicted, based on conversations with senior administration officials, that this “new thinking” would lead to “tougher policies toward Israel.”
’s Jonathan Tobin puts it, Obama has painted “any Israeli refusal to accede to [his] demands as a betrayal in which a selfish Israel is stabbing America in the back.” Obama seeks to make American Jews uncomfortable expressing support for Israel by unsheathing the “dual loyalty” charge. The administration has actively promoted J Street as an alternative for American Jewry. As a result, many American Jews have wearied of defending Israel.
WHAT WOULD constitute passing the test for American Jewry? Minimally, passing requires them to evince concern with the fate of six million Jews in Israel. While it would be unfair to expect them to cast their votes solely, or even primarily, on the basis of their perceptions of what is good for Israel, the greater and more imminent the threat, the more central one would expect Israel to become to their political calculations.
Such concern requires first of all empathy for our situation.
In March 2002, prior to the launching of Operation Defensive Shield, 130 Jews – the proportional equivalent of more than 50,000 Americans – were killed in terrorist attacks, culminating in the Seder night massacre in Netanya. Only after thousands of rockets were launched at the Negev over three years, did Israel launch Operation Cast Lead. When there exists a broad consensus among the Jews of Israel about how to best to protect their lives, that consensus should be treated with a degree of deference by American Jews.
Second, American Jews should exercise a healthy degree of skepticism when confronted with charges of Israeli atrocities or war crimes, especially as so many of those claims have been proven to be fabrications. And finally, American Jews’ obligation toward their brethren requires that they remain informed on matters affecting their physical safety.
An April 1 letter to The Jerusalem Post
from David Metzger, “an American Jew (Reform) and long-time supporter of Israel,” fails on the third count. He castigates the Netanyahu government for “insisting on continuing construction of settlements at a time when the US is trying to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and... the US is trying to unify the world against the Iranian threat – both for your benefit.”
Either Metzger is unaware that Israel has instituted a 10-month freeze on settlement building or he shares the Obama administration’s view that the Jewish neighborhoods built in Jerusalem since 1967 are settlements.
It does not occur to him that an imposed “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians that does not offer to guarantee Israel’s security is not to its benefit. Thus he wrongly assumes that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s positions reflect a “need to appease the hard-line base of his coalition,” not a broad consensus.
Metzger writes as if a nuclear Iran were solely an Israeli concern. True, Israel would be the first country on which Iran would train its nukes. But Sunni Arab regimes are terrified of the mischief an expansionist, nuclear Iran could provoke. They have repeatedly made clear to the United States that stopping Iran is far more important to them than the Palestinian-Israel conflict (thereby making a mockery of the administration’s linkage of the two).
Far from aiding Israel, Obama’s Iranian policy ensures that Iran obtains nuclear weapons. His policy of engagement has allowed Iran to move closer to its goal unhindered for 16 months.
By linking sanctions to Russian and Chinese agreement, Obama ensured that they would be toothless. And by insisting that any sanctions target only the Revolutionary Guards, but not harm the Iranian people, he effectively protected the mullahs from popular pressure and any threat of regime change. Along the way, Obama has resisted calls from Germany, France and Great Britain to join them in imposing strong sanctions, and ignored congressional legislation targeting Iran’s oil refining capacity. Perhaps worst of all, Secretary of Defense William Gates warned in a January internal memo that the administration has no policy in place when sanctions prove ineffectual.
HOW HAS American Jewry responded to the administration’s demonstrated animus toward Israel and the failure of its Iran policy? Important voices have been raised lately decrying the administration’s approach to Israel: Elie Wiesel, former New York mayor Ed Koch, Ronald Lauder, Morton Zuckerman and Abe Foxman. Even Alan Dershowitz, a long-time Obama stalwart, warned that he will be remembered by posterity together with Neville Chamberlain if Iran goes nuclear.
Among the rank-and-file of American Jewry, Obama’s harsh approach to Israel has not passed unnoticed. In a Quinnipiac University poll released April 22, American Jews disagreed with his handling of the Palestinian-Israel conflict by 67%-28%. (In the same poll, 50% of the Jews polled still described him as a strong supporter of Israel, far higher than the percentage of non-Jews who do so.) In a mid-March American Jewish Committee poll, the plurality of Jews, 47%, support Obama’s Iranian policy, though only 5% think there is good chance that sanctions can deter Iran. In the Quinnipiac poll, 50% of Jews, as opposed to 44% of the general public, approved the administration’s Iran policy.
Whether these attitudes will have an impact on the 2010 midterm elections or the 2012 presidential election remains unclear. The only poll to directly address the question, conducted by McLaughlin and Associates, found that 46% of American Jews would consider voting for a candidate other than Obama and 12% were undecided. It is far too early to say, but it is not inconceivable that Obama will receive a record low percentage of the Jewish vote for any Democratic candidate.
Even if American Jews disapprove of Obama’s treatment of Israel, the issue has still not generated any visceral outpouring of emotion. Koch pronounced himself “shocked by the lack of outrage,” and claimed that one prominent Jewish leader told him that a Washington protest march would draw 50 people at most.
ONE FINAL point must be emphasized: The test facing American Jewry has far more to do with the future of American Jewry than that of Israel. The major support for Israel in America today comes from tens of millions of Christians. Eighty percent of Republicans harbor positive feelings to Israel, as opposed to only 53% of Democrats, according to a recent Gallup Poll. No other country elicited such a wide disparity of opinion. An even sharper disparity appeared in a recent Zogby poll for the Arab-American Institute: 73% of Democrats versus 24% of Republicans favor America pursuing a “middle course” between the Palestinians and Israel.
The fear of providing another emotional rallying cry to Christian
supporters of Israel already outraged by Obamacare would have more to
do with any change of course than fear of a loss of Jewish support. It
is hard to think of any state, apart from Florida, where a decline to
60%-65% of the Jewish vote for Obama would be decisive in 2012.
But Israel remains vital for American Jewry. Only identification with
the plight of its six million Jews prevents the slogan “One People”
from becoming an anachronism for most American Jews. Concern with their
fate remains the primary means for developing a sense of belonging to a
people with mutual responsibilities and the best barometer of the
vitality of that consciousness.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a
regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the
author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.