Genocide, apartheid: Problems in extreme Left American Jews - opinion

The incoming head of the Jewish Agency, whoever it turns out to be, has some very serious work to do.

‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Remember the incident in late September when US Vice President Kamala Harris was confronted by a George Mason University student who accused Israel of carrying out “ethnic genocide”? That student described herself as being of Yemini and Iranian heritage, but she could almost as easily have been Jewish. For if once it was our enemies who claimed Israel was racist and committing mass murder, today, according to a recent poll, such allegations are being echoed more and more from inside the American Jewish community.

A survey by the Jewish Electoral Institute released over the summer showed that 25% of American Jewish voters believe that Israel is an apartheid state, 22% believe Israel is committing genocide, and 9% agree with the statement that “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.” Among Jewish voters aged under 40, the results were even more extreme: 38% believe Israel is an apartheid state, 33% believe Israel is committing genocide and 20% agree that Israel does not have the right to exist.

Let us assume that the poll is weighted, its methodology flawed and the questions biased. Presume that it exaggerates the findings by 100%. Even if only 19% of young American Jews view Israel as an apartheid state, just 16.5% believe that Israel commits genocide and a mere 10% don’t believe Israel has a right to exist, there is still a huge problem.

This alienation from Israel is commonly explained by politics. It is said that American Jews are in the main liberal and progressive, and they find it difficult to identify with an increasingly right-wing Israel. We are often told that Israel’s alleged ugly behavior is the antithesis of the concept of tikkun olam – repairing the world – that the Jewish state is failing to live up to the universalist Jewish principles that American Jewry so staunchly upholds. Yet history suggests that this simplistic explanation misses something far deeper.

A bloodied Israeli flag hangs on the main building at the University of Cape Town on Monday at the start of Israel-Apartheid Week. (credit: SAUJS/FACEBOOK)A bloodied Israeli flag hangs on the main building at the University of Cape Town on Monday at the start of Israel-Apartheid Week. (credit: SAUJS/FACEBOOK)

During the great liberal wave of the 1960s, the same American Jews who protested against the Vietnam War and for civil rights also championed Israel’s cause. They adored Israel’s female prime minister Golda Meir and it did not appear to bother them that she rejected US peace initiatives, stated publicly that there was no Palestinian people and was the best friend of the hated Richard Nixon.

American Jews who overwhelmingly supported Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential bid also idealized Moshe Dayan. Credited with the 1967 victory and directly responsible for the military administration of the West Bank, the former defense minister Dayan was not seen as a terrible militarist but rather as the Sabra superman. Portraits of his smiling eye-patched face adorned the houses of many a Jewish family and even ashtrays with his picture were successfully sold across Jewish America (nearly everyone smoked in the 1960s).

THIS WAS not about showing solidarity with the underdog. It was following the territorial conquests of the Six Day War that tens of thousands of liberal American Jews flocked to Israel, enthralled with the Jewish state and immensely proud of its military victory. Many volunteered on a kibbutz, some worked on an archaeological dig, and others immigrated here permanently, including the parents of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Israel was far from perfect back then, but American Jews loved us all the same. And if Israel has changed since the late 1960s, it has largely changed for the better. Today Israel is more pluralistic, more liberal, more democratic, more inclusive, more tolerant and more prosperous than it was during Meir and Dayan’s time. Women’s rights have been strengthened, minority communities empowered and the rule of law enhanced, social and ethnic gaps narrowed and LGBT Israelis have come to the fore.

I was born and grew up in the Diaspora (admittedly not in the United States) and like many of my generation my politics was of the Left – though mine especially so as I was a proud member of the Labor Zionist youth organization Habonim. At the time of Israel’s 1981 election, I eagerly volunteered to a public debate with a Likud supporter at a Melbourne University campus event. I spoke in favor of Shimon Peres’s attempt to unseat Menachem Begin, my loyalty to the Labor cause preventing me from being impressed with Begin who had signed Israel’s first-ever peace treaty with an Arab country and had just destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor.

I immigrated to Israel in 1982 with the goal of personally voting Begin’s Likud out of office. I chose to live on a kibbutz to realize my then socialist ideals, and after acquiring Israeli citizenship, I immediately joined the Labor Party. The Sabras on the kibbutz even voted this then idealistic young Australian immigrant to be their representative at the Labor Party congress (where from the perspective of defeating the Likud, I mistakenly supported Peres over Rabin).

Why is any of this important? Because I know from personal experience that disagreeing with the politics of a given Israeli government, should in no way alienate one from Israel as a country or from the Zionist vision of an independent Jewish homeland. American Jews who hated Trump didn’t stop being loyal Americans, and detesting Netanyahu is no valid reason to disengage from Israel.

That liberal American Jews would identify with the politics of their liberal Israeli cousins is understood. But there can be no excuses for those ultras who deny Israel’s right to exist and ape the lines of Israel’s sworn enemies. Such erroneous positions can only stem from alienation, ignorance and a psychological desire to fit in with a certain milieu (reminding me of my grandparents’ generation of German Jews who constantly felt the need to prove to their gentile neighbors that they were loyal Germans).

I know that there are many American Jews who are deeply troubled by the anti-Zionism and antisemitism prevalent in contemporary progressive circles. I also know that those who uncritically parrot the rejectionist Palestinian mantra are a marginal phenomenon. But while being an aberration, these young Jews repeating “Israel is committing genocide” are symptomatic of a larger failure. The incoming head of the Jewish Agency, whoever it turns out to be, has some very serious work to do.

The writer was a senior adviser to the prime minister and is a visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.