Who needs the Jews?

US support for Israel always rested on what non-Jews think about Zionism.

By MATTHEW ACKERMAN
April 23, 2010 16:50
Who needs the Jews?

US Israel 88. (photo credit: )

The disenchantment of American Jews with the Jewish state, we are told, haunts Israel’s security. Polls have been taken, books have been written, and it is clear: American Jews don’t like Israel as much as they once did. As Daniel Gordis, the senior vice president of the Shalem Center, wrote recently in The Jerusalem Post, “The dangers to Israel’s security as a result of this change are obvious.”

But are they?

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Gordis’s claim is based on the belief that Israel’s security is dependent on American support, and that American support is ultimately dependent on America’s Jews. But as pressures against Israel are tightened by an American president who has enjoyed nearly the full backing of American Jewry, a reconsideration of that premise is in order.

Assumptions and prejudices to the contrary, Diaspora Jewish support has never been a decisive factor in Zionist success. As has been chronicled most effectively by Michael Oren in his 2007 book Power, Faith, and Fantasy, gentile support for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel far predates political Zionism’s coalescence as a viable movement.

To cite only two meaningful examples, John Adams, the second American president, wrote in 1819, “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation” and imagined an army of “a hundred thousand Israelites.” Daniel Deronda, the deeply Zionist novel by George Eliot, was published in 1876, 20 years before the appearance of Herzl’s The Jewish State.

Both were expressions of deep-seated pro-Zionist feeling among many American and European gentiles. And it was this feeling – more than anything else – that gave the pre-state Yishuv its two most important victories: the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (endorsed unanimously by both houses of Congress in the United States) and Harry Truman’s quick recognition of David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood in 1948.

AMERICA’S JEWS did not come to a full-throated support for Israel until 1967, after the crucial battles for the state’s existence had already been fought. In the 1920s and 1930s – some of the years of the Yishuv’s greatest fragility – they were far more concerned with failed attempts to increase American support for Jewish rights in Eastern Europe or to allow greater Jewish immigration to America. Most of their leading organizations, like the American Jewish Committee, were explicitly anti- or non-Zionist, as was Cyrus Adler, perhaps the most influential American Jew of the age. (He helped found the AJC and later served as its president at the same time that he was president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, among other major leadership roles.)

American Jews like Adler opposed Zionism because, like most Westernized Jews of the time, they followed the classic Reform view of Jews as a strictly religious group, not a people or nation. This, they thought, was the path to full acceptance in the American (or French, or German) mainstream. They also saw the Yishuv’s aspirations as an unrealizable distraction to the tasks of ensuring the security of the Jews of Eastern Europe and managing the vicious outbreak of anti-Semitism that followed World War I. (Orthodox Jews – the most reliably pro-Israel Jewish group in America today – also largely opposed Zionism as a religiously forbidden attempt to jumpstart the messianic age.)

Zionism gradually became attractive to American Jewry because it was a position that easily found support in the US, enthusiastic as American gentiles had long been for reestablishing Jewish sovereignty in Palestine. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations puts it this way: “American Jews didn’t drag reluctant American gentiles into the Middle East; it’s much more accurate to say that American gentiles pushed reluctant American Jews into the Zionist movement. If American Jews had the power to shape American policy towards the Jews through the 20th century, most likely there would be no State of Israel today.”

The efforts of notable exceptions like Louis Brandeis and Abba Hillel Silver notwithstanding, American Jewish support for Zionism only began to crystallize during World War II and exploded following Israel’s dramatic military victory in the Six Day War of 1967. Publicizing their support for Israel became a powerful way for major groups like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League to generate funds. Those funds in turn further increased the profile of Jewish organizations and their leaders. By the 1990s pro-Israel Jewish groups in America were seen as a juggernaut and crucial to the strength of the US-Israel relationship.

BUT AMERICAN politicians have not been (for the most part) foolish enough to believe that the votes of a religious minority that today is only 1.7% of the US population influence elections much. Pro-Israel campaign money, however impressive it may seem to an outsider, is a drop in the vast sea of American lobbying dollars. Whether in Congress or the Oval Office, most American politicians have supported Israel because it is what they think the majority of their constituents want them to do. When they have felt that their electoral fortunes or their country’s strategic interests lie elsewhere, they have supported policies deeply opposed by pro-Israel American Jews, however vociferous the opposition. This was the case for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when he decided to sell advanced military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and it is the case now with Barack Obama’s repeated opposition to Israeli building in Jerusalem.

Already in the 1990s there were signs of a growing weakness in the attachment of American Jews to Israel. More recently, as the Jewish state’s political problems become more acute – and international opinion turns more strenuously against it – more and more American Jews have drifted away. Groups like J Street will come and grow, and their leaders are most likely correct when they assert that they speak for a wider swath of American Jewish opinion than pro-Israel groups.

But American support for Israel will continue to rest, as it always has, on what non-Jews think about Zionism. That is something – let it be said – that American Jews have little control over. If American gentile Zionism remains strong, the most robustly Zionist American Jews will retain their outsized influence, precisely because they stand outside the Jewish mainstream.

As Gordis and others have written, the turn away from Israel by American Jews is troubling for spiritual and cultural reasons. It should not be taken lightly. But it is far from a decisive factor affecting Israel’s security.

The writer is worked as research analyst in the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. He lives in New York.


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