Israel's new gov't is courting a disastrous rift with US Jews - opinion

Israel's government is allowing tension to rise between Jewish sects.

 FORMER PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu with former US president Donald Trump in Jerusalem during Trump’s visit to Israel in 2017. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
FORMER PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu with former US president Donald Trump in Jerusalem during Trump’s visit to Israel in 2017.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Amid the roiling agitation over Israel’s authoritarian turn, Diaspora affairs have not taken center stage. Fears of a new intifada, economic sanctions or troubles at the International Criminal Court seem somehow more urgent.

Spare a moment, though, for the crisis the new government is sparking in Israel’s relationship with American Jews. This influential, impressive and prosperous community constitutes almost half of the Jewish people and is critical to the vast umbrella of support bestowed on Israel by the US.

US support is manifold, with the billions of dollars in annual aid (mostly loans) being the smaller part. More important is the strategic and military alliance, which begets a vital global understanding that America has Israel’s back. Considering the degree of enmity Israel has faced from far larger neighbors over the years, this understanding has been critical to survival.

Why did US Jews push so mightily for this support? Why have they felt so strongly about Israel? After all, Italian-Americans don’t go out of their way to organize political backing for the government in Rome.

To an extent, it is because American Jews have often felt they could easily have been Israeli themselves, if but for a turn of fate. I was born to parents who escaped Romania a few years before my birth and have had the pleasure of both experiences.

 Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

As a young boy in Ramat Gan, I felt the terror and then elation around the Six Day War; a few years later, I experienced the angst for Israel felt by Jews in Philadelphia in 1973. It was the sense of commonality so soon after the Holocaust that pushed any other differences aside and make them moot.

They’re now very far from moot. Israel, after five elections in three years, is embarking upon a very particular path – a path familiar in recent years in Poland, Hungary and Turkey, and in quarters unmentionable from further in the past. There are consequences to this path, which has at least one in two Israelis fearing for the future of their country.

Some are familiar but gathering steam. For one thing, Israel is doubling down on the project of making itself inseparable from the Palestinians in the West Bank by the Jewish settlement of that territory. The result will be a binational state that is not democratic because the Palestinians cannot vote.

Second, it is detaching itself from the modern world via the fantastical haredi birthrate combined with that community’s insistence on not educating its youth in marketable knowledge and adhering itself to the most rigid interpretation of Judaism. The government funding haredi schools without a core curriculum, offering unlimited child allowances and providing lifelong salaries (about to be doubled) for seminary students will deepen the disincentive to normalcy.

THE NEW part is the third: Israel is quickly drifting away from the values of liberal democracy, which are the values of the US and indeed the modern incarnation of Jewish values, too. The government’s legal reforms, which would enable a dictatorship of the majority, eliminate human rights guarantees and turn Israel into an authoritarian fake democracy, are antithetical to these values.

Let’s examine how all this might sit with US Jews. According to a 2021 Pew study, the overwhelming majority of US Jews, 90%, are not Orthodox. More than a third are Reform. The flagrant disrespect of Israel’s religious and political figures toward Reform and even Conservative Judaism is anathema to them. The refusal to allow women to pray at the Western Wall or to recognize non-Orthodox conversions and the flagrant disrespect of Israeli religious figures is a veritable insult to them.

The overwhelming majority of US Jews, 84%, are not politically conservative. Half say they are liberal and about a third call themselves moderate. Israel’s lurch toward populist illiberalism and racist hyper-nationalism will deeply dismay them.

The overwhelming majority of American Jews, 71%, support the US Democratic Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at war with the Democrats, having campaigned against president Barack Obama (on the Iran deal) in a 2015 speech in Congress and openly endorsed Republican Donald Trump in two elections. The Israeli electorate’s decision to return him to power is an unfathomable mistake to most US Jews.

An early sign came in reports this week that a delegation of visiting Jewish lawmakers is refusing to meet with ministers from the Israel far Right (which would include Finance and National Security, of course).

One might ask – if one is rather clueless – how exactly offending and rejecting US Jews could matter to Israel. Here are a few reasons.

US Jews contribute disproportionately to US political parties. Studies show US Jews, at 2% of the US population, account for half of all donations to the Democratic Party and incredibly, about a quarter of donations to the Republicans. They help guarantee these parties line up behind Israel but with the Democrats, this idea is now on life support.

Supporting Israel's financial woes

US JEWS have stood behind Israel financially, which beyond money delivers a message. According to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, charitable gifts to Israeli organizations from sources outside of Israel – which means mostly US Jews – reached $2.91 billion (NIS 9.8 b.) in 2015.

US Jews are extremely influential in the culture. From Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Seth Rogan and Ben Stiller to the execs at studios and news operations and... ok, the reader gets the point.

Interestingly, the demographic composition of the two groups as regards religious affiliation is not as different as one might think, putting aside that the US is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. That’s because even in Israel, as of a few years ago, only 22% of the population were Orthodox, of which less than half were haredi. Just under 30% were traditional – which is akin in a way to Conservative Jews – and about half were secular, meaning they declared no religious feelings. And yet the Orthodox carry disproportionate weight because they are critical to the Right in Israel and because of their constant growth.

That growth – at six children per family in Israel, a uniquely high figure even compared to haredim elsewhere – is key. If they become the majority in Israel without changing their dependence on welfare, Israel’s economy will be trashed and outside help will wither. It is a delusion to expect US Jews to feel a kinship with a country that features segregation of the genders, religious law prevailing and religion dominating life.

Would the US support such an Israel just as well after US Jews no longer care? One could speculate that America’s support for Israel is also based on something else. The two candidates for an answer are interests and shared values.

Interests are fickle and America has many contradictory ones. It is not in America’s security interests, for example, for Israel to be riling up the Arabs. Israel used to call itself America’s aircraft carrier but the fact is that America has other regional candidates for hosting military bases, such as countries that actually do.

And as for values? Well, one can be cynical about values in a country that elected Donald Trump. But America still believes in democracy and the rule of law. These, alongside the NFL and NASDAQ, are its values. There is quite a lot of daylight between that and the rogues’ gallery that has seized control of Israel. It could become most unpleasant very soon.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press and is a managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.