In the Diaspora: American Jewry's Green Line

The rigid US stance against 'natural growth' seems a deliberate way to force a choice upon American Jews.

sam freedman 88 (photo credit: )
sam freedman 88
(photo credit: )
In Israel, as I hardly need to tell readers of this newspaper, the Green Line demarks more than the borders until the Six Day War. It etches a political and psychic demarcation as well, separating the "settlers" from the sovereign nation and increasingly dividing allegiance to Eretz Yisrael from allegiance to Medinat Yisrael. Now the Green Line looks destined to cut through American Jewry as well. With President Barack Obama's forceful, repeated calls for a total freeze on settlements, he is surely betting that he can assail a consistent policy of Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, without alienating his substantial support among American Jewish voters. No president has ever taken quite this risk. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, who in different ways pressured Israel and reached out to Arab allies, fared poorly with Jewish voters. They managed to win once apiece with below-par Jewish support and then lost re-election in part because of a greater Jewish rejection. Bill Clinton relied on support from the American Jewish mainstream for the Oslo process and Camp David negotiations. But in so doing, he was only depending on American Jews to endorse the initiatives of Israel's own leaders - Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and, however reluctantly, Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama, though, is seeking American Jewish cover for his very public dispute with the Israeli government. The one way in which he can get it is if American Jews, like their Israeli brethren, decide to make the settlement enterprise their defining issue. Counting on that internal argument is a big gamble for a number of reasons. Until now, the settlement issue has been far from a pivotal part of the American Jewish calculus. Zionism in contemporary America has been an elastic enough concept to contain ardent supporters of the settlement movement and queasy critics of it; in the end they were separated less by settlements than they were united on Israel's behalf in the wars against Hamas and Hizbullah, the construction of the security barrier and the prosecution of Operation Defensive Shield during the second intifada. American Zionists were also mollified by the contradictory actions of Israel itself - the continuing expansion of settlements appealing to the Right, and the official willingness to trade territory for peace placating the Left. Everybody could say he or she was at one with Israel. With Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Obama in Washington, however, these internal fault lines are being stressed. For Obama to retain massive Jewish support while criticizing the Israeli government, he has to provoke American Jewry into an entirely different kind of discussion and alignment. THIS DEBATE WOULDN'T pit Zionism against anti-Zionism - the easy and conventional argument - but Zionism against Zionism in a way familiar to Israelis but barely comprehended by American Jews. The central question would be whether the settlements are the fulfillment of Zionism's pioneering spirit or the betrayal of Zionism's commitment to a democratic state with a Jewish majority. To some extent, the fissures already exist and run along religious lines, notes Steve Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee's Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. Orthodox Jews here support the settlements, both on theological grounds and personal ones; they have friends and relatives living over the Green Line. The non-Orthodox, Bayme says, "think some settlements will have to go at some point down the road if there ever is a final-status agreement." The absence of an imminent agreement let these disagreements remain muzzled, muffled or just plain irrelevant. So did the common understanding, back to the Camp David and Taba talks, that in any peace accord Israel would keep settlement blocs like Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion. As Bayme puts it, there were settlements and there were settlements, and commuter suburbs of Jerusalem weren't supposed to be lumped together with the hilltop youth in their caravans. The growth in Efrat or Pisgat Ze'ev, though, wasn't unique; it was part of a larger picture of growth in the occupied territories. And so the rigid stance against even "natural growth" by Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, seems a deliberate way to polarize the issue, to wipe out the middle ground and force a choice upon American Jews. You can feel the ground shifting. Yes, it's predictable that J Street, the well-funded left-wing lobby, would back Obama on the settlement issue. What strikes me as far more revealing is that Ed Koch and Jeffrey Goldberg, a politician and journalist respectively who are centrist or even center-right on the American Jewish spectrum, have become so publicly critical of the settlement movement as an obstacle to peace. Obama had better hope for hundreds of thousands like them. Jewish support was crucial to his victory in Florida last fall, and more than helpful in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Had he not been running during an economic meltdown, which was easily and accurately pinned on the outgoing Republican administration, his victory would have been a squeaker. His re-election certainly could be. "The rule of Jewish voting patterns has always been that Jews vote for more liberal candidates who are not believed to be hostile to Israel," Bayme says. "As long as Obama is perceived to be committed to Israel, he won't be in trouble. But if this plays out as a real confrontation, then the previous pattern of Jewish voters recoiling is likely to come into play."