Washington watch: US Jews, Israel drifting apart

The gap between Israel and American Jewry widened dramatically in the wake of the Israeli elections, which laid bare tensions that have been building steadily.

March 25, 2015 21:36
Israel and US flags

Israel and US flags. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)


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The gap between Israel and American Jewry widened dramatically in the wake of the Israeli elections, which laid bare tensions that have been building steadily. They were exacerbated by the displays of animus and distrust between the leaders of the two countries and by Benjamin Netanyahu’s deepest yet plunge into partisan American politics.

The prime minister’s race baiting and his ambassador’s insistence that President Barack Obama and the rest of the world misunderstood Netanyahu’s flip-flopflips on Palestinian statehood left what US Ambassador Dan Shapiro called “a confusing situation that leads to doubts about what Israel’s true policy is.”

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Little seems to have changed since the time president Bill Clinton, outraged by the “insufferable” Netanyahu, complained, “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.”

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That attitude was on full display in Netanyahu’s congressional speech and in complaints by his followers that Obama wasn’t quick enough to phone his election victory congratulations (someone forgot to tell them that Netanyahu had waited two days to call Obama after the defeat of the prime minister’s candidate, Mitt Romney).

President Obama told Netanyahu there will be no change in the strategic relationship but he plans to reassess his political and diplomatic approach. The last time a president announced a policy reassessment, 40 years ago, 76 senators quickly wrote him a letter in opposition.

There will be no such rush this time.

Today many more American Jews share the president’s concern about where Netanyahu is leading Israel.

They don’t believe he is moving the country to peace and they are uncomfortable with his undermining the traditional bipartisan support for Israel by embracing a conservative Republican opposition that opposes so many of the issues they embrace and a president to whom they gave 70 percent of their votes. And they are worried Netanyahu’s Iran policy is, at its core, an effort to push the United States into a war we cannot possibly afford.

I’m not talking about AIPAC, which, acting like Likud’s Washington branch, quickly chastised the administration for having “rebuffed” Netanyahu’s “efforts to improve the understandings” between the two countries and called on the administration to put relations back on track, or the alphabet soup of other major Jewish organizations.

Those well-heeled groups may represent the activist core, but not the majority of all Jews. They are propping up an Israeli government that most Jews find less and less they can relate to. It will be a while before the word filters up to the Congress, which is responsive to those who contribute, but it is already visible at the grass roots.

Contributing greatly to the problem is resentment over Netanyahu’s claim to represent all Jews and an expectation that the Diaspora must follow unquestioningly.

Netanyahu said he wants a ruling coalition that will be more right-wing than his previous ones, and for that he will rely on the ultra-Orthodox and the hardline nationalists and settlers.

That will send his government even farther in the opposite direction of most American Jews, who support the two-state approach, disapprove of the settlement enterprise, think the occupation should end, disapprove of the intrusive influence of the ultra-religious and fear the erosion of Israeli democracy.

As a result it will become harder and harder for them, especially the younger Millennials and Gen X Jews, to identify with Israel.

With nearly a quarter of the seats in Netanyahu’s new coalition held by the ultra-religious, forget about any moves to approve civil marriage or to enfranchise the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, which are followed by 80% of American Jews. They will continue to be denied equal rights. In other words, most American Jews aren’t Jewish enough for those making and enforcing the laws in Israel.

Netanyahu’s major coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, is an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood and wants to annex most of the West Bank. He is expected to reappoint as foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, a thuggish racist whose latest contribution to peace and understanding is a call for beheading Israeli Arabs who are “against us.”

And people wonder why there is a growing drift among American Jews away from Israel.

That has been apparent throughout my own travels to speak with federations, congregations and Jewish groups around the country for several years. Professionals, community leaders and rabbis tell me younger Jews are not participating in their programs and show less attachment to Israel than earlier generations. Many Jews on the Center and Left, where the majority of Jews are, find it increasingly difficult to relate to today’s Israel.

It’s not that they’re becoming hostile, but rather indifferent. They can’t relate to an Israel that appears to them to be dominated by religious extremists and ultra-nationalists.

They did not grow up knowing the vulnerable Israel of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations and with fresh memories of the Holocaust, but instead see the muscular and swaggering Israel of a Netanyahu who would rather build settlements than peace. They do not see a heroic and embattled David on the brink of destruction but a swaggering Goliath that likes to throw its weight around.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has had many run-ins of his own with Netanyahu, spoke of the “stormy and passionate” campaign and the need for “mending and healing in Israeli society.” Netanyahu also a lot of mending and healing to do in America as well, not just with the leader of his country’s most important – and often only – ally but with a grassroots Jewish community that feels he is leading Israel away from them, away from democracy and away from peace with its neighbors.

His scare tactics worked in boosting his reelection last week, but they won’t work in healing the rift with American Jews. On the contrary: only the minority of committed activists will buy his shopworn refrain “it’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” It sounds too much like an excuse to ignore the country’s economic problems and to avoid the peace table.

The greatest threat facing Israel today is not Iran or a Palestinian state but the growing disillusion and disengagement of a generation of American Jews, a gap certain to undercut political support for strong, close US-Israel relations in the future.

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