It is no secret that relations between the government and large parts of the US Jewish community – especially its liberal, non-Orthodox sector and its leadership – have been strained for several years.
The government’s tight embrace of US President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican Party, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close personal relationship with the US president, who is anathema to liberal Jewish America, has created real divisions between these two sides.
And arguments over the lack of pluralism in religious services in Israel, a huge fight over the Western Wall and disparaging remarks by Orthodox Israeli ministers and MKs toward progressive Jews have all soured relations between the US Jewish leadership and the government, particularly with Netanyahu.
During the years of the Trump administration, much of this could be put aside, since Israel and Netanyahu’s government did not need the liberal Jews they had upset to maintain US support for Israel, largely due to Orthodox Jewish support and lobbying, as well as that of Evangelical Christians, which served as an incredibly effective substitute.
But liberal, Democratic Jews still comprise the large majority of the US Jewish community, with a poll conducted by the Associated Press showing that 68% of Jews voted for US President-elect Joe Biden, compared to just 30% for Trump.
And they have been historically influential with the Democratic Party, particularly in the US president Barack Obama’s administration, and Biden has close relationships with the progressive Jewish movements.
As the influence of the Orthodox and Evangelical Christians is to decline dramatically with the advent of the Biden presidency, how much does the current Israeli government – still led by Netanyahu – need to repair its relationship with the US Jewish liberals and the non-Orthodox?
One leading official in the American Jewish establishment said that it was indeed the case that the liberal US Jewish community has felt alienated from the Israeli government because of its tight embrace of the Trump administration.
And the official said that there had been very little outreach between the Israeli government and cabinet ministers and the Democratic Party during the last four years, although they attributed this reality, in part, to the Trump administration’s palpable demands for loyalty from anyone it dealt with.
Although the source did not absolve Netanyahu and the government from the partisanship that was generated over Israel in the US, they said that they could not be entirely blamed for the for it either.
Indeed, the official said that both the right and left wing of the US Jewish establishment were responsible for the gaps that opened up, saying that some one the right advanced the incorrect notion that the Democratic Party was irredeemably anti-Zionist and even antisemitic, while some of the liberal, progressive left were too reflexively anti-Trump.
Regardless of who was responsible for the course of events, the official said that the Israeli government had “a lot of work to do,” in repairing the relationship with large sectors of American Jewry.
“Liberal US Jews will be in positions to advance their view of what is good for the future of Israel, and the Israeli government will have to deal with the fact that many of them are going to be in positions of power and will sympathize more with the secular liberal side of Israeli politics. That will have an impact,” said the official.
“In the last four years, developments like moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights happened because US Jews in positions of influence were advocating for it, such as US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Trump adviser Avi Berkowitz and others.
“Now other Jews will be advocating for a different set of policies.”
The official noted that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has said that a Biden administration would restore aid to the Palestinians cut by Trump, and reopen the US consulate in east Jerusalem.
“These are positions supported by a large percentage of Jews in the US.”
IN ORDER for the Israeli government to begin to repair the relationship with liberal US Jews and organizations, the official said that Netanyahu and his ministers would need to treat liberal positions as legitimate, even if they disagree with them.
“If they allow senior officials to call such positions anti-Israel then they risk doing irreparable damage. The Israeli government has to be very careful not to characterize such policies as anti-Israel,” the official said, adding that anyone who does so should be fired on the spot.
They added that, despite the accusations of those on the Jewish and Israeli Right, Democrats are anti-Israel, the Democratic Party remained strongly supportive of the Jewish state, and insisted that the three well-known Democratic congresswomen who have been harshly critical of Israel, and even engaged in antisemitic rhetoric, were entirely unrepresentative of the party.
“There are many moderate, pro-Israel Democratic congressmen and the Israeli government could build relationships with them, lift them up and celebrate them, and reach out to the Democratic Party as a pro-Israel party,” said the official.
Another senior official in one of the major progressive Jewish movements in the US noted the scale of what they described as the “complete disconnect between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Democratic Party,” adding that the Israeli premier has been “completely identified” with every part of the Trump administration.
“Anyone not a Republican is immediately demonized as not being adequately pro-Israel, even including President-elect Biden,” said the official.
“Netanyahu has put all his chips on Trump and the Republican Party, and the government Netanyahu has led has devalued bipartisanship for years and years, but now we’re in a moment where that bipartisanship is needed,” the source said.
They said that the Israeli government would need to switch its thinking from what it had been under Trump and “disconnect from populism, from denigrating democracy and denigrating liberal Judaism.”
The official said, “You can’t denigrate the Democratic Party and say it’s a party of the far left, and then say all of a sudden ‘we want you and need you.’”
The source insisted, however, that liberal US Jewry remains deeply committed to Israel and despite the cold shoulder in the Trump years, “has not worked any less for a connection with the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”
But they did not offer any simple solutions for how Netanyahu and his government could repair the battered relationship with the large liberal Jewish demographic and its leadership.
“We’re ready for the Netanyahu government to rebuild trust and rebuild the relationship, but it’s naive to say that this will be simple to do.”
The official said such efforts could include meeting with non-Orthodox Jewish leaders and to speak in ways which demonstrate an understanding of “the predicament” of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the principles of progressive Jews in the US.
“There’s a need to reconnect with people who are not part of that small circle of the ‘pro-Israel’ Trump community,” said the source.
“The Israeli government needs to understand that we love and support Israel, it needs to acknowledge, appreciate and value that; these are critical ways to begin.”