The highly unusual statement signed by 120 American Jewish leaders, calling for a boycott of Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, during his just-completed trip to the United States, along with the refusal of major organizations like the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League to meet with him, represents a new low point in relations between a sitting Israeli government and the US Jewish community.
A similar low has also been reached with the US administration. Smotrich, along with Itamar Ben-Gvir, embodies Israel’s far-right extreme and is an obvious target.
But their message is intended for the Israeli government and the man who heads it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Our support for Israel is significant and robust but there is a limit to what we can tolerate.
In the two months since the establishment of the current government of Israel, which will be remembered for its vigorous pursuit of a judicial revolution, it has become a source of deep embarrassment for a large segment of the American Jewish community.
A true grasp of the American community’s distress requires a broader context. The basic facts are that the majority of non-Orthodox American Jews are liberal supporters of the Democratic Party and its values.
Until a few years ago, the Jews were at the center of an American consensus that antisemitism emanated chiefly from the racist fringe of the political Right and occasionally from the left-wing progressives. But the MAGA-Trump reality, the political radicalization of both Right and Left, and American identity politics unrelated to Jews or to Israel have ensnared Jews in an almost impossible conundrum.
They have become associated with white wealth and white subjugation of African Americans, regardless of what they say or do. The success of the Palestinian assertion of intersectional common cause with Black America and in conflating Israel with white oppression (Black Lives Matter = Palestinian Lives Matter) is making identification with and support for Israel increasingly uncomfortable. Expressing solidarity with Israel puts one at risk of being tarred as complicit with persecutors.
Israel’s new government has in a number of ways made it even harder for American Jews to support Israel. In the eyes of most Americans, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich espouse a racist ideology that seeks to legitimize both the abrogation of the Arab minority’s civil rights and the aggressive advance of Israeli control over Judea and Samaria.
Sensitive to racism
American Jews, who are highly sensitive to racism and who have steadily opposed Israeli policy in the West Bank, view the inclusion of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in the present Israeli government as licensing everything they regard as negative and dangerous for Israel. To this, we may add the government’s race toward a judicial revolution. As American Jews understand the situation in Israel, if this reform is enacted in its current form, Israel will no longer be a liberal democracy.
IN THAT scenario, their desire and ability to identify with an Israel whose values fly in the face of their own core values will be severely limited, at best. Netanyahu’s immediate and unequivocal rejection of a compromise proposed by President Isaac Herzog last Wednesday, the People’s Framework, has only fanned the flames.
The unprecedented appeal by 120 mainstream Jewish leaders to boycott Smotrich in light of his recent offensive statements is the harshest rebuke American Jewish leaders have leveled at Israel’s new government so far. It was preceded by the extraordinary denunciation of the judicial revolution currently underway in Israel by major moderate Jewish leaders, such as Abe Foxman, the legendary national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, and Eric Goldstein, the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, the largest and strongest of the North American federations.
In private conversations, Jewish leaders are expressing their anguish. They love Israel, want it to flourish and wish to maintain ties with the country and its government but feel they are unable to carry on with business as usual.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Israel’s strategic and values-based relationship with the American Jewish community. The economic assistance of the American Jewish community may no longer be essential but its support of Israel through AIPAC and in many other ways is nothing less than an existentially vital strategic asset for the state.
In the wake of the recent wave of terror attacks and the ever-present possibility of another confrontation on the Palestinian front, the need for an American political umbrella is only increasing. In times of peace and in times of war, the American Jewish community has played a significant role in keeping that umbrella open.
True, Israel is not a US colony and it must manage its own interests and policies but the ability to implement policy, including in the fight against terrorism, requires looking at the big picture. In that panorama, the American Jewish community and the US administration play a crucial role on Israel’s behalf, which must be acknowledged, and their views should be taken into serious consideration moving forward.
The writer is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center. His new novel, We Didn’t Love Too Much, is published by Yedioth Books and his just-released non-fiction work, Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and Synagogue in Modern Israel, is published by Academic Studies Press.