Another year, another AIPAC Policy Conference – and, alas another round of protests. Once again, small, shrill groups of Jewish demonstrators commanded far more attention than 18,000 pro-Israel attendees. Even within the conference, people spend more time criticizing dozens of angry “IfNotNow” students rather than praising the 3,500 pro-Israel students there, Jewish and non-Jewish.
These days, the Internet’s and media’s all-negativity-all-the-time strategy exacerbates the all-too-human tendency to remember the bad, and the all-too-Jewish tendency to obsess about our critics – especially alienated young Jews. As a result, we fixate on the dozens protesting, not the thousands attending AIPAC; unintentionally, we boost the marginal critics and the obsessive media carping.
Instead, we should shut them down by shouting “God Bless America”; an estimated 70% of Americans support Israel.
Nevertheless, we must respond to our critics, to keep them marginal. And while everyone worries that Israel’s support for US President Donald Trump threatens American Jewish support for Israel, I want to exploit that gap.
Since 2016, for all the Trump-bashing, I haven’t heard of any American liberal or American Jewish exodus – not even to Canada. The reason is simple: American liberals deem Trump to be the problem, not their country. American Jews feel so at home in America, they can’t imagine jumping ship. They know how to protest as patriots. Therein we see the double failure of Zionist education in America.
Too many American Jews don’t feel as fundamentally, irrevocably Jewish or Zionist as they do American. And too many American Jews have absorbed the world’s message that there is only one country whose very existence – let alone popularity – is contingent on good behavior: Israel.
The contrast is striking. Many Israeli liberals hate Israel’s Palestinian policies far more passionately than their liberal allies abroad do. Citizens of the Republic of Haaretz wake up daily to hysterics about Israel’s latest alleged crime. Yet, while some Israelis may leave Israel, they can’t regret its existence. It’s their home, their family’s home. So, like real citizens, constructive patriots, they fight for reform.
Too many American Jews walk away because they can. They don’t need Israel or Judaism or Zionism. During the 2014 Gaza crisis, 85% of Israelis wanted the IDF to continue fighting until it stopped Hamas from firing rockets. Yael Patir, J Street’s Israel director, wrote a moving open letter about being an Israeli patriot and a peace activist: “My husband was drafted and is taking part in this operation,” she wrote. “I am proud of him for volunteering to protect our country.”
“The Gaza war was a real eye-opener for us,” two married, left-leaning postdoctoral students from Haifa researching in Seattle reported then. Hearing “not all, but too many” local rabbis speak about “victims on all sides” upset them. “I know it’s not very American,” they explained, “but we want to hear you say ‘I care more about my people than my people’s enemies.’” Watching a video of J Street’s co-founder Daniel Levy saying maybe “Israel really ain’t a good idea” outraged them. The husband wondered: “Have they learned nothing from the Holocaust and pogroms?”
These American Jewish brats don’t realize the Arab delegitimization campaign manipulated them into feeling what the liberal Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned about 40 years ago. Relentless propaganda calling Israel racist, colonialist, imperialist, would make the question of whether or not “Israel was responsible” for any troubles irrelevant: “Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.”
And these Jewish Voices undermining Peace miss the essential biblical lesson: balance the loyalty, the identity, so essential to kings like David – and to functioning states – with our zeal for the ideals, the aspirations, so characteristic of prophets like Isaiah. Bash-Israel-Firsters have become so besotted with Isaiah’s teaching they forget their Davidian commitments – and the Jewish message about balance. Our loyalty, our identity, has kept us alive; our ideals have given those lives meaning.
On Saturday night I traveled from a lovely shabbat at Temple Emanu-el of Closter, New Jersey, to Washington, DC. The cab was a half-hour late – but my train was even later. Arriving at Newark’s Penn Station, I encountered dozens of broken people milling about: the homeless man using a plastic bag on his head as a rain hat, the unkempt woman mumbling to herself, the angry guy who yelled and yelled that his coffee wasn’t sweet enough, long after the coffee guy offered six sugar packets for compensation.
Once aboard, the trip felt endless – because Amtrak’s Internet connection was as reliable as the rest of its service. Finally, arriving at Union Station in Washington 90 minutes late, I spied some Washington Masters of the Universe, strutting around at a black-tie benefit.
If I was to look at America through the unforgiving prism those loud, marginal If-Not-Nowers use for viewing Israel, I would call my American friends and yell: “What kind of a country do you live in? Is that all there is? The underclass and the overclass? How did America get so broken and break for so many people? Maybe ‘America really ain’t a good idea.’”
Instead, I still believe in America, like I still believe in Israel. I believe both have serious problems, but also believe that both have serious resources, including tremendous creativity and goodwill, to solve them. And I’d rather be a Jewish and American Voice for Balance than a screechy crank whose extremism today guarantees irrelevance and just more anger tomorrow.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His book The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, has just been published by The Jewish Publication Society. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.