Israel-US relations, which are vital for Israel’s future, are based on strategic partnership, shared values, and the strength of the American Jewish community.
Cleavages that have developed in the complex relations between Israel and large segments part of the American Jewish community, however, threaten the strength of the relationship. Decisive action must be taken by the highest levels of government to preserve the unity of the Jewish people, and to prevent threats from developing to Israel’s very national security.
A recently published survey by the American Jewish Committee reveals wide attitudinal divides, even on the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. This reflects not only erosion in fundamental positions, generational differences and decreased Jewish identification, but also a growing feeling among many American Jews that Israeli leaders disregard their positions and issues important to them; that Israeli society does not grasp what hangs in the balance.
The most prominent disagreements center on the question of “who is a Jew,” the conversion law, and the Western Wall prayer plan. The discontent of American Jews regarding Israel’s policy toward African asylum seekers can be added to this list. This is not to say that on every issue in dispute Israel can – or should – shape its policy in the spirit of the liberal positions of the majority of American Jews; certainly not on matters that have to do with the Palestinian issue or the Obama administration’s policy on the Iranian nuclear question. There is also tension between the need to responsibly manage relations with Diaspora Jewry and the domestic need to better integrate Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population in the Zionist endeavor.
Nonetheless, some issues should be handled differently, with greater caution and an attentive ear to the attitudes of the American Jewish community. Deeper knowledge and understanding is needed among all Jews regarding the importance of their shared Jewish destiny – particularly among politicians in Israel, some of whom display insensitivity toward American Jewry.
Israel must avoid alienating the Reform and Conservative denominations in American Judaism. Zionism, and even aliyah to the land of Israel, have become accepted principles in these movements. Israelis should be cognizant of these facts. On certain issues, such as saving what is left of the Western Wall prayer plan, recent Israeli steps indeed reflect more awareness of the significance of this matter.
However, another issue with far-reaching ramifications for the future of relations between Israel and the US as well as between American Jews and Israel is the genuine and profound difficulty that many if not most American Jews have in understanding the popularity in Israel of US President Donald Trump.
Gratitude is an accepted expression of human sentiment and a legitimate government interest. Indeed, Israel is deeply appreciative of Trump administration decisions regarding Jerusalem and the Iranian issue. Nor can Israel ignore the overwhelmingly pro-Israel sentiments expressed by Trump administration leaders, evidenced by the magnificent address delivered in Knesset by Vice President Mike Pence.
At the same time, over-the-top expressions of admiration for Trump are unwise; they threaten to undermine the cornerstones of Israel’s traditional and prudent pursuit of bipartisan support in the US.
Undoubtedly, part of this is an overreaction owing to residues of the considerable tension experienced between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations, but still...
What makes this dangerous for long-term Israeli interests is the anger and dismay it arouses among many Americans, Jews (in large numbers), and among non-Jews, Democrats and Republicans, for whom the President’s policies and personal conduct represent a loss of a moral compass.
This has became more evident on the backdrop of Trump’s treatment of immigrants, and the outrageous policy of separating children from their parents and holding them in detention facilities. Although public pressure forced the President to change his policies, the episode left a moral stain on his administration.
Jews are especially concerned, not necessarily because of reprehensible comparisons that were made with Nazis policies, but because of the Jewish traumas stemming from the time that American immigration gates were closed to European Jewry – when were needed most.
It is not easy to navigate the polarized political reality in the US. The penetration of extreme elements into the heart of the Republican establishment is paralleled by the growing power of the self-declared socialist Sanders camp on the Democratic side (with its hostility towards Israel). The surprising and impressive recent New York primary victory of a young radical woman from the left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated one of the pillars of the Democratic party in Congress (and who expressed hostility toward Israel in relation to conflict on the Gaza border) – demonstrates the radical trends.
There are those who argue that under these circumstances it would be preferable for Israel to abandon its many years of reliance on American Jews, the majority of which will continue to vote Democratic, and that instead Israel should put its trust in more friendly Republican circles and in the rock-solid Christian Evangelical sector.
This would a major mistake. First, entrenching a rift with a large part of American Jews in order to court the current administration is too high a price to pay for gain that may turn out to be short-lived (in light of the president’s erratic character and his tendency to change direction and positions).
Second, a reliance on Evangelical support is unwise, as well. Several polls indicate that younger Evangelicals are less committed to Israel than their elders have been. (The elder Evangelicals experienced the Six Day War as a realization of biblical prophecy).
The third and most important reason for not going in this direction is the simple fact that one or both of the houses of Congress is likely to yet return to Democratic control, and a president from the Democratic left could yet sit in the White House. Israel must be positioned to work with such a Congress and a President, and not be estranged from them.
What is needed is not a sharp shift in Israel’s approach, and definitely not a distancing from the Trump administration, but rather a conscious effort to change Israel’s one-party partisan image by engaging with the Democrats and the social groups that support them.
In his position as foreign minister, and with the tools at his disposal in the Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must devote significant attention to this matter, both diplomatic and cognitive, for changing the partisan image ascribed to Israel in the eyes of many around the world.Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (jiss.org.il) and teaches at Shalem College.
Prof. Efraim Inbar is president of JISS and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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