Israel and US Jewry - the proverbial couple

The Six Day War made identification with Israel intrinsic to Diaspora Jewish identity. Fifty years on, are differences over the West Bank changing the relationship?

Pro-Israel demonstrators chant slogans in New York City in 2015. One segment of American Jewry that has drawn closer to Israel these past 50 years is the 10% who are Orthodox (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Israel demonstrators chant slogans in New York City in 2015. One segment of American Jewry that has drawn closer to Israel these past 50 years is the 10% who are Orthodox
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ON MONDAY afternoon, June 5, the first day of the 1967 Six Day War, and continuing for the remainder of the school week, ultra-Orthodox boys at the Yeshiva Chasen Sofer elementary school on New York’s Lower East Side assembled to recite psalms for Israel’s survival. Egypt’s president Gamal Nasser had declared: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.” The yeshiva was aloof from secular Zionism, yet 6,000 miles away a war erupted that put nearly 2.5 million Jewish lives on the line.
That evening, CBS News with Walter Cronkite and NBC News with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley led their respective 7 p.m. broadcasts with the Middle East war story. Technological advances in news coverage propelled the conflict into American living rooms. In 21st century parlance, the Israel story had gone viral. When a ceasefire came into effect on June 11, it was clear that not only had Israel survived but it had won an outright victory.
Nasser lost the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip; Syria lost the strategic Golan Heights; and Jordan – which had been implored to stay out of the war but didn’t – lost the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the parts of Jerusalem it had taken in the 1948 War.
For many American Jews, the triumph was a catharsis. To the spiritually inclined, the victory looked like a miracle. Ethnic pride was in vogue and for many the triumph raised Jewish esteem. The community was anyway feeling more secure and assertive than it had in the 1950s. Not all American Jews were elated, however. The ultra-Orthodox Natorei Karta sect didn’t budge in its animosity, which stemmed from the principle that only the messiah could herald the Jewish return to Palestine. The secular anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism looked askance at what it saw as unseemly Jewish chauvinism. But for most US Jews across the political and religious spectrum, Israel was now wired into their consciousness.
American Zionist campaigners had been lobbying the White House since the leadup to the Balfour Declaration, which was issued in 1917. However, after the creation of the state in 1948, their efforts to cultivate US support for Israeli security positions proved an uphill battle. Harry S. Truman would have preferred Israel to pull back to the 1947 Partition Plan lines. And, in 1957, under withering pressure from Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, Israel was obliged to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula to the 1949 armistice lines – without, moreover, guarantees that attacks from Egyptian-controlled territory would stop or that Israeli shipping in the Suez Canal would be unimpeded.
As if to acknowledge the new reality, in December 1967, the Union of Orthodox Congregations and the Young Israel movement held a joint celebratory conclave in Jerusalem. Their earlier parve backing for Torah-based Zionism was suddenly infused with a sense of visceral connection to the Jewish state that until then had been espoused mainly by the religious-Zionist Mizrachi movement. Progressive religious streams also drew closer. Conservative Judaism was Zionist from its inception; Reform was well along in a process that had brought it from anti-Zionist to non-Zionist to pro-Zionist. Both streams now had fresh incentive to develop a stronger presence in Israel. One American-Jewish civil rights group convened a meeting of public intellectuals from both countries to explore what the upsurge in nationalism might mean for Israel-US Jewish relations.
The Johnson administration, which tried to be neutral at the outset of the fighting, immediately insisted that Israel withdraw from the just-captured territories as part of a land-for-peace scheme. Nine administrations and 50 years later, that – more or less – remains entrenched US policy. From the start, US policymakers felt they needed to convince pro-Israel Americans that the West Bank was not essential to Israeli security; that the Arabs were open to compromise; and that any threat to Israel’s existence had been permanently overcome. If American Jewish pro-Israelism was born in 1967, so was the need by successive administrations to shape its contours with reassurances that support for Israel and support for a West Bank withdrawal were compatible.
On August 29, 1967, the Arab League met in Khartoum and issued its notorious “Three No’s” declaration: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. By late 1967 and early 1968, Jewish settlements in the strategic Etzion bloc, just south of Jerusalem – they’d been abandoned during the War of Independence – were reconstituted. Given unremitting Arab bellicosity, the notion that Israel could reasonably be expected to withdraw to the Green Line – or 1949 armistice line – seemed far-fetched. Yet, that was more or less what the international community demanded in UN Security Council Resolution 242, dated November 22, 1967, which American diplomats had helped craft.
THE JOHNSON State Department issued its first condemnation of Jewish settlement activity in January 1968. Reacting to housing construction on Mount Scopus, where the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Hospital had reopened at their original pre-state sites, and in the adjacent neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, State Department spokesman Robert McCloskey said, “We have repeatedly made it clear that we do not recognize any unilateral actions affecting the status of Jerusalem.” In 1969, the US backed two Security Council Resolutions (267 and 271) to hammer home the point that Washington did not recognize Jewish claims to Jerusalem.
Israel had captured the American-Jewish imagination just when the US was churning with racial and cultural turmoil and the quagmire of Vietnam. In July and August 1967, race riots left parts of Washington ablaze. Middle-class Jews joined in the white flight from inner city to suburb (leaving behind their elderly and poor). In Temples from Chappaqua, New York, to Hidden Hills, California, rabbis were delivering sermons urging their flock not to turn away from the civil-rights movement. Back in the Middle East, a war of attrition against Israel by Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Organization was underway, and by August 1970 would cost the lives of 1,424 IDF soldiers.
The new Nixon administration embraced Johnson’s land-for-peace formula. On December 9, 1969, secretary of state William Rogers said, “We believe that while recognized political boundaries must be established and agreed upon by the parties, any changes in the pre-existing [1949 armistice] lines should not reflect the weight of conquest and should be confined to insubstantial alterations required for mutual security. We do not support expansionism.” In 1970, Israeli premier Golda Meir devoted many a fundraising speech before American-Jewish audiences to argue against Rogers Plan. The Milwaukee-raised Meir said Israel did not want territory for its own sake, it wanted secure defensible boundaries. Hadn’t the Arabs made their position clear at Khartoum?
Susie Gelman, chairwoman of the Israel Policy Forum, recalls her first visit to Israel in the summer of 1970. “I remember vividly how everything felt possible, not only in terms of freely visiting the West Bank, but also the feeling that Israel could determine its own future as a result of vastly expanding its territory and demonstrating to its hostile Arab neighbors that it was truly a force with which to be reckoned.”
Construction of strategically placed Jewish neighborhoods began on the formerly vacant hills ringing Jerusalem and its environs. Not all the building was motivated by mainly strategic concerns. In 1972, religious-nationalist followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his Gush Emunim movement founded the Judean settlement of Kiryat Arba outside Hebron.
If anything, the 1973 Yom Kippur War – a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria during the Jewish Day of Atonement – only intensified the American-Jewish community’s emotional attachment to Israel. Israel pushed back the offensive, but to punish America for rearming Israel – albeit belatedly – during the fighting, Saudi Arabia organized an Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries embargo that led to limited supplies and long lines at US gasoline pumps. US Jews feared an antisemitic backlash. Clearly, decisions taken in Jerusalem impacted on the Diaspora.
Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, declared in 1973 what amounted to a “no taxation without representation” argument. Dating back to their interactions with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Jewish machers resented Israeli leaders for being imperious toward the Diaspora, for not listening to them – nonetheless, most kept their sentiments away from the media spotlight.
Now, with encouragement from Goldmann, a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis and academics associated with the anti- Vietnam war movement created Breira (Hebrew for choice or alternative). The name was a retort to Israeli leaders who argued that they had no choice but to battle on. Breira advocated the unconditional inclusion of the PLO in any diplomatic process toward establishing a Palestinian-Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza. Foremost, Breira shattered the barrier against Jewish public criticism of Israeli policies. At the same time, though, its dovish message failed to gain traction in the wake of Palestinian terrorism throughout 1973, including attacks in London, Washington and Rome.
YITZHAK RABIN had taken over from Meir in 1974 (he would return for a second stint in 1992) and tensions with Washington were taut. Henry Kissinger was now secretary of state and Egypt’s new president Anwar Sadat had told him that he was willing to make a statement of non-belligerency if Israel handed over Sinai’s Abu Rudeis oil fields and the strategic Mitla and Gidi passes. Rabin didn’t see the point of giving up territory for a pledge that could be easily withdrawn. In 1975, with Gerald Ford having replaced Nixon, the US punished Rabin by declaring that Washington was reassessing its entire relationship with Israel. That same year, the settlement of Ofra was established in the northern West Bank by Gush Emunim. Infuriated that Rabin was not prepared to relinquish the West Bank to Jordan, Kissinger sent out feelers to Yasser Arafat’s PLO with whom the US had no diplomatic relations.
Earlier, in July 1974, the PLO’s legislative body the Palestine National Council, seeking international legitimacy, had declared that it was willing to establish a Palestinian national authority in any piece of Palestine from which Israel withdrew. The unified Arab policy of no peace, no recognition and no negotiations remained in effect. Still, some US Jewish leaders read the PNC statement as implying a willingness to coexist alongside Israel. Critics, though, saw it as a gambit for the destruction of Israel in phases. In any event, the move eased the way for Arafat to be welcomed at the UN General Assembly in New York on November 13, 1974. More than 100,000 people, most of them Jewish, demonstrated across from the United Nations against Arafat’s appearance.
In November 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated Ford. Carter had little patience for Rabin but would soon find himself confronted by a very different Israeli personality: in June 1977, Menachem Begin became Israel’s first non-Labor Party premier. More than his predecessors, Carter would emphasize the centrality of the Palestinian angle. Begin – while not downplaying the military value of strategic depth that Rabin championed – accentuated the Jews’ ancestral rights to Judea and Samaria.
In the American-Jewish mind, Israel’s ethos was associated with Labor politicians such as Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Meir and Rabin. Few of the community’s leaders knew Begin personally, though he had long headed the Knesset opposition. They’d supported the pre-state Hagana underground; Begin commanded the more militant Irgun. Even if his Jewish literacy was limited, Rabin epitomized the secular Israeli-born Sabra; Begin, though not Orthodox, not only invoked scripture but had disguised himself as a Hasidic rabbi to avoid capture by the British during the Mandate period.
Carter and Begin appeared headed for a confrontation; US Jewish leaders were uneasy. In 1977, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, came out against Begin and supported Israeli demonstrations opposed to the new settlement at Kaddum, outside Nablus. Major media outlets eviscerated Begin as a former terrorist, maybe a fascist, with Time magazine telling readers his name rhymed with Fagin (Charles Dickens’s quintessential Jewish villain). Carter seemed to go out of his way to taunt Begin even before he officially assumed office. “The right of the Palestinians to have a homeland, to be compensated for losses that they have suffered” was American policy, the president-elect declared. He did not call on the Arabs to recognize Israel, but summarized US policy as calling for “the withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories from the 1967 war,” an end to belligerency and a “reestablishment” of “permanent and secure borders.”
Going into his first White House meeting, Begin would have been aware that 66% of American Jews backed the president’s “overall performance” while, at best, he had only the perfunctory support of the organized Jewish leadership.
Carter was caught off guard when, on November 14, 1977, Sadat told Cronkite that he was indeed willing to accept Begin’s invitation to address Israel’s parliament. The history-making speech followed on November 20. The next month, Begin announced that Israel was prepared to yield Sinai to Egypt and grant complete civil autonomy to the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.
But Begin’s lawyerly efforts to nail down the details and his refusal to abandon Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the disputed area raised Carter’s ire.
In March 1978, a group of reserve army officers calling itself “Peace Now” demanded that Begin be more forthcoming. The following month, on April 1, some 30,000 Israelis attended a Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv urging that Begin agree to Sadat’s terms. Finance minister Simha Ehrlich said he smelled a “putsch.” On April 20, The New York Times reported in a page one story accompanied by a photo of author Saul Bellow that 37 prominent American Jews had messaged their support to Peace Now. Signatories included notables in the Reform movement, American Jewish Committee and academia, as well as Breira alumni. Dissent against Israel’s West Bank policies had been mainstreamed.
Breira’s successor organization, the New Jewish Agenda, emerged in 1980. The NJA had the good fortune of operating against Begin, as opposed to a leader from the Labor Party, and at a time when criticism of Israeli security policies raised fewer eyebrows.
When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, he embraced Carter’s legacy, which sought to separate support for Israel from support for its retention of the West Bank. Repeated run-ins between Reagan and Begin – over AWACS to Saudi Arabia, US guarantees for Arafat’s safe passage through Israeli army lines in Beirut during the First Lebanon War (which saw New Jewish Agenda activists protesting outside the Israeli Consulate in New York), and Israel’s bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facility near Baghdad – characterized a testy relationship.
UNBEKNOWNST TO Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, a coterie of American-Jewish notables led by attorney Rita Hauser, working with the support of the State Department, spearheaded an effort to finesse Arafat into stating publicly that he accepted the existence of Israel. On December 14 at a Geneva news conference, Arafat read aloud a statement in English affirming “the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security, and, as I have mentioned, including the state of Palestine and Israel and other neighbors.”
Later that day in Washington, secretary of state George Shultz announced that the United States was now ready to open face-to- face negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Scores of US Jews, with semi-official backing from Washington, had worked for years – sometimes operating solo and other times under the auspices of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East – to help engineer a redefinition of the nature of the conflict. Now, with the PLO purportedly no longer intent on Israel’s destruction, the security value of the West Bank diminished.
By the time George H.W. Bush moved into the White House – his administration did not hesitate to support Security Council resolutions censuring Israeli activities in the “occupied territories” – increasing numbers of American Jews appear to have accepted that the key to finding a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict was to be found in a West Bank withdrawal. That is partly why US Jews adored Bill Clinton for having shepherded the 1993 Oslo Accords signed by Rabin and Arafat, which created the Palestinian Authority. Amid the second intifada, they likewise backed George W. Bush’s 2003 road map for a Palestinian state. In 2009, American-Jewish leaders with an entrée to Barack Obama’s White House raised no objection to his demand for a settlement freeze as a prerequisite to peace talks.
Fifty years after the area was captured, no one can say with certainty that differences over West Bank settlements have undermined the US Jewish-Israeli relationship. The data is not straightforward; a multitude of factors are at play. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, we know that 69% of US Jews feel “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. For 43%, caring about Israel is essential to their identity. Just 17% think settlements bolster Israel’s security. Notably, 60% have never set foot in Israel. The roughly 40% that have visited include over 500,000 young people brought by Birthright since 2000. It’s a safe bet that most visitors don’t know that the hills they see from Ben-Gurion Airport are in the West Bank.
To the Right’s argument that those who invoke the two-state mantra have not given serious thought to the security implications, Gelman of the Israel Policy Forum points out that 270 retired IDF generals under the auspices of the Commanders for Israel’s Security espouse the two-state solution. “While it is not realistic to expect a return to the negotiating table in the near future given the politics and the current leadership on both sides, there are steps that can be taken immediately to improve conditions on the ground and preserve the possibility of achieving a final status agreement,” she says.
“The grinding occupation of the Palestinians is a source of increasing concern among Diaspora Jews who view this occupation as antithetical to Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic and secure state.” Gelman tells The Jerusalem Report that “many see the occupation and continued dominance over another people as antithetical to fundamental Jewish values. Many members of the next generation of American Jews – who were born long after 1967 ‒ see Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank as a reason to feel increasingly alienated from the Jewish state, to the extent that their Jewish identity is linked to Israel’s existence.”
To complicate matters, how Israelis themselves regard settlements and a Palestinian state depends on who is doing the asking and how the questions are posed. A 2016 Pew survey found that 42% of Israelis think settlements bolster security. A January 2017 poll commissioned by J Street, philosophical heir to Breira and the New Jewish Agenda, found that 68% of Israelis support a Palestinian state. In contrast, a March 2017 poll by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a center-right think tank, found that even assuming strategic settlement blocs are incorporated into Israel and any prospective Palestinian state pledges demilitarization, only 48% of Israelis would back the idea of a Palestinian state.
If US Jews are less infatuated with Israel than they were 50 years ago, the reasons may extend beyond differences over the West Bank.
It has become clear that Israelis are not Hebrew-speaking replicas of middle-class American Jews. They comprise every strata of society, from soccer hooligan to brain surgeon. The American-Jewish community sees itself as cosmopolitan and progressive and sees the Israelis as insular and intolerant. It does not help that Israel’s hyper-pluralist political system has empowered politicians who have gone out of their way to disrespect Reform and Conservative Judaism – the two dominant streams on the American scene.
The rhythm of life also differs. In Israel, Sunday is a work and school day. Americans enjoy 15 bank holidays, Israel just one – Independence Day. All other national holidays are Jewish festivals when religious restrictions keep observant Jews close to home and when public transportation is suspended. Most American Jews easily earn more than $50,000 annually compared to the Israeli average of roughly $33,000. Most Israelis lean to the political center or right while just 20% of American Jews describe themselves that way. While their American cousins are in college, Israeli young people are likely to be doing their compulsory IDF service. For the Americans, being Jewish is a lifestyle choice and universalism trumps particularism.
Yet, there is one segment of American Jewry that has drawn closer to Israel these past 50 years: the 10% who are Orthodox. Sixty-one percent of Orthodox Jews say they feel “very” attached to Israel (in contrast to 27% for non-Orthodox). Of course, “orthodox” is a catchall phrase encompassing the 62% who lead a more insular Haredi lifestyle and the 31% who are “modern” and thus open to the broader culture. Even those modern Orthodox who don’t think of themselves as Zionists nevertheless feel connected to Israel through daily prayer and Torah study.
“This intellectual and spiritual engagement has been amplified in recent decades by personal and family connections,” Nathan Diamont of the (non-Haredi) Orthodox Union in New York tells The Report.
SINCE THE early 1990s, many Orthodox young people have spent their gap years studying at yeshivot or seminaries in Israel. Not all these institutions inculcate Zionist values, though some do and others may be situated over the Green Line. “This has yielded a cohort of American Jews with deeper connections to the West Bank communities,” says Diamont. Some 70% of American-Jewish families who make aliya are Orthodox, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh spokeswoman Yael Katsman. On the other hand, 65% of single immigrants are non-Orthodox.
Avi Shafran of the Agudath Israel of America tells The Report, “As far as the Agudah’s [Haredi] constituency is concerned, political engagement, at least in terms of lobbying on Israel’s behalf, has always been strong. There is a growing concern, though, about the non-Orthodox movements’ assaults on the status quo at the Western Wall, as well as on [Israel’s official] rabbinate, which we view as potentially leading to, in the first case, strife and, in the second, a breakdown, heaven forbid, in the demographic unity of Israel’s Jews like the breakdown that is already part of the American scene where there are multiple ‘Jewish peoples.’”
How Donald Trump’s presidency will impact on American-Jewish relations with Israel is a big unknown. The White House liaison with the organized community is still embryonic. Most likely, no one watched Trump’s whirlwind May 22-23 visit to Israel more intently than those on the American-Jewish Right. GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who reluctantly embraced Trump on “anybody-but-Clinton” grounds, is reportedly losing patience with him for embracing the exact same land-for-peace policy first enunciated by the Johnson White House in 1967. On May 22, the tycoon’s Hebrew-language Israel Hayom tabloid ran a front-page story (in English) headlined “Welcome Mr. President,” stating: “The last thing we need is another failed peace process.”
It is not just that Trump’s emblematic pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem has been put on the back burner along with his promised “No. 1 priority” to “dismantle the disastrous [Obama nuclear] deal with Iran.”
Nor can any friend of Israel – no matter how many times the Iran threat is invoked – be sanguine about his $100 billion-plus arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Right expected Trump to be free of State Department Arabist influence. But ZOA President Mort Klein has been critical of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster for retaining Kris Bauman on the NSC staff because he accepts that Hamas needs to be part of any deal involving the Palestinians.
Trump appears to be raring to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. This might be partly because an old-style Jewish macher, World Jewish Congress president and fellow billionaire Ronald Lauder, has his ear. Lauder reportedly has fallen out with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has been urging Trump to pursue a West Bank deal with the PLO.
Intriguing questions abound: Will Trump enjoy the support of progressive Jews if he tries to arbitrate a deal between Israel and the PLO? Will Orthodox Jews who have found common ground with the president on domestic policy jeopardize their relationship to champion Israel’s hold on Judea and Samaria?
Perhaps, after 50 years, the once hot romance between American Jews and Israel has simply evolved, changed and matured. Like the proverbial long-married couple bickering over who takes out the garbage, they argue about the West Bank – and, yet, it is their own transformation and that of their partner that is the true source of their discomfort with one another. 
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist. Twitter #Jagerfile