A Dose of Nuance: What the American Jewish Left has against Israel

It may sound surprising to say “American Jewish opposition to Israel,” and not to “Israel’s policies,” but it is sadly accurate.

US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks at the UN headquarters in New York on July 20 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks at the UN headquarters in New York on July 20
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On December 13, Haaretz and the New Israel Fund sponsored a conference in New York City – a “new Israeli American discussion” – on Israel and the challenges that it faces. President Obama spoke by video; President Rivlin attended in person. A list of entirely unsurprising speakers all denounced, among other sins, Israel’s role in the current stalemate in peace discussions.
Then, Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, stood to speak. Power, not known for particularly warm attitudes to Israel, was a natural speaker for the event.
What she said, though, was apparently not what conference organizers had in mind.
As J.J. Goldberg noted in the Forward, Power spoke about the growing threat of global anti-Semitism, the ways in which the UN has turned Israel into a punching bag, and Israel’s helpful contributions to international crises such as Ebola and the Haiti earthquake. She also made clear the US’s continuing opposition to Israeli settlements.
The stony response she received, as reported by Goldberg and others, has left many pundits wondering what, precisely, has happened to the American Jewish Left. Why the opposition to what Power said? What, after all, was objectionable? Why, as Goldberg pointed out, was there a representative of Breaking the Silence, but no one from the security establishment who advocates a two-state solution – not because the Palestinians “deserve” it, but it would be good for Israel’s security? The Haaretz conference and the reactions it elicited present an appropriate moment for us to recognize both that American Jewish opposition to Israel is not new, and that it now takes a very different form of opposition from what it once was.
It may sound surprising to say “American Jewish opposition to Israel,” and not to “Israel’s policies,” but it is sadly accurate.
During the American Jewish debate about whether to support the 1947 UN partition plan, many American Jews were expressly opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. These were not religious reactionaries who felt that the Zionists were usurping the role of God. These were everyday American Jewish leaders, many of them involved in the American Council for Judaism.
Though they asserted – and still do – (see http://www.acjna.org/acjna/about_principles.aspx) that their opposition to Israel stemmed from their belief that Judaism was a religious and not a national tradition, the truth is that they were worried that a Jewish state would expose American Jews to accusations of dual loyalty.
The leadership of the American Jewish Committee (which is today a very different organization) was more explicit and honest. Writing in 1952, Jacob Blaustein, then head of the AJC, said that the AJC “reaffirmed our support of the new state… in the conviction that it was the only practicable solution for some hundreds of thousands of the surviving Jews of Europe.” It was not the flourishing of the Jewish people that sovereignty would make possible, nor the fulfillment of a two-millennia-old dream, that moved the leadership of American Jewish life. There was a problem in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had nowhere to go, and the best solution to the problem was a Jewish state.
Thus, Blaustein warned, Israelis should not misread American Jewish support for the state. “Israel also has a responsibility in this situation,” Blaustein continued, “of not affecting adversely the sensibilities of the Jewish citizens of other states by what it says or does.” For, as Blaustein made clear, “We repudiate vigorously the suggestion that American Jews are in exile. The future of American Jewry, of our children and of our children’s children, is entirely linked with the future of America.”
American Jews, Blaustein insisted, would not be caught in the trap of the dual- loyalty accusation. America was their home; Israel, in turn, was a solution to a problem.
Over the years, that attitude shifted as American Jews became more secure in the United States, and thus less worried by the accusation of dual loyalty. After the 1967 war, American Jews could celebrate the Jewish State’s victory with no worries of any accusations of disloyalty (thus essentially ending the era in which the American Council for Judaism was a significant player in American Jewish life).
The participants at the recent Haaretz/ New Israel Fund conference are as secure as Americans as any American can be. What, then, fuels the animosity that leads them to object to Samantha Power pointing to the undeniable fact that the UN has become, as David Ben-Gurion put it, the “theater of the absurd,” or that anti-Semitism is now a global problem? What could possibly lead these people to be disappointed by a speech in which Power pointed to Israel’s positive contributions to addressing Ebola, or its humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake? The issue is no longer dual loyalty. No one has put it better than Peter Beinart himself, who was, of course, present at the conference. As Beinart wrote in the New York Review of Books a few years ago, “Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists… people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals… people deeply devoted to human rights for all people… But the two groups are increasingly distinct.”
Beinart is right. Jewish statehood is always going to be a challenge for the sort of liberalism in vogue among American Jews.
As long as Israel is a Jewish state, making Israel both democratic and Jewish will be a challenge. Not impossible, but challenging.
For American Jews for whom that tension is discomfiting, it is Israel’s Jewishness – and not its democracy – which will remain unsettling. For American Jews who do not understand (or cannot accept) that Israel is an ethnic democracy, not a liberal democracy along US lines, a state which puts Jews first (think Law of Return) will always be troubling, if not anathema.
Why does this shift in American Jewish sentiments matter? It matters because as long as the issue was a worry about dual loyalties, the problem could be addressed by how Jews (both American and Israeli) spoke about Israel, and by American Jews gradually feeling more secure in the United States. The new hostility to Israel, based on a commitment to a form of liberalism that often yields fundamental opposition to the idea of a Jewish state, cannot be so easily addressed.
Which explains why, when Samantha Power said nothing objectionable, but did not join the pile-on against Israel, she was greeted with a steely cold silence.
We would do well to take note. Because that reaction is just a glimpse of where we are all heading.
The author is Senior Vice President, Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.