US politics and American Jewry: It never was the way it was

For the vast majority of American Jews, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the first contenders for the major party nomination who expressed strikingly anti-Israel and anti-AIPAC attitudes.

‘WHAT ARE the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of American Jewry?’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘WHAT ARE the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of American Jewry?’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Is Trump attending? Is Biden skipping? Is Sanders boycotting? Is Bloomberg addressing? Those were the questions that preoccupied the Jewish world in the weeks leading up to the AIPAC Policy Conference that took place in Washington, DC, in early March. The prevailing concern of the AIPAC leadership, Jewish lay leaders and the rank and file of American Jews was the perceived loss of the bipartisan support of Israel.
The entire generation of American Jewry has grown accustomed to both the Democratic and the Republican parties being unabashedly pro-Israel, even if their ideas of what is good for Israel did not match those expressed by the government of the Jewish state. For the vast majority of American Jews, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the first contenders for the major party nomination who expressed strikingly anti-Israel and anti-AIPAC attitudes.
Moreover, this current generation has never seen almost the entire roster of Democratic Party contenders being overly cautious in their attitudes toward Israel. To exacerbate the shock, most American Jews are “hereditary Democrats” who view the American political landscape as a one-party system. But has this much cherished unanimity in pro-Israel views always been part of both parties? Have not American Jews become spoiled by a very short and yet addictive period of bipartisan love for Israel? When in doubt, study history.
The United States was the first country to extend any form of recognition to the newly created State of Israel. American Jewish leaders like to mention that historical event as the beginning of the unwavering bipartisan American support of the Jewish state. In reality, that courageous decision was a solo act by one man only, then-president Harry Truman, and was opposed by the vast majority of American political class, including many prominent Jewish organizations of the day.
American presidents, including Truman himself, kept their distance from Israel and continued coming up with unworkable proposals to the detriment of the Jewish state. Under Truman, that was ceding back the gains in Sinai during the War of Independence. Eisenhower forced Israel to unconditionally withdraw from Sinai again after the Suez War and came up with the absurdly dangerous idea of “The Kissing Triangle." And Israel's nuclear ambitions generated tremendous friction with a few consecutive administrations, including that of John F. Kennedy.
In those early years, France, not the US, became the main supplier of arms to Israel. The US was playing both sides of the conflict, which was fast becoming one of the main theaters of Cold War confrontation.
Everything changed with the Six Day War. The victory presented Israel in a new light: the strong, victorious and independent partner America was looking for in the Middle East. Both parties and the presidents who followed became interested in cultivating Israel as the ally. Jewish organizations followed (not the other way around, as many in the Jewish community want to believe). That vested interest played an important part in president Richard Nixon's decision to help the Jewish state during the Yom Kippur War.
THE PEACE Agreement with Egypt finally cemented the friendship, making the US the major player in the Middle East and Israel its main ally and financial benefactor in the region. However, the warmth of the relationships so familiar to the contemporary observers was still missing. The interests of the two countries were still not completely aligned.
President Ronald Reagan’s attempts at solving the Arab-Israeli conflict created continuous tensions. That process culminated with the open clash between the Bush Sr. administration and the Yitzkhak Shamir government over the Madrid Peace Conference and loan guarantees.
The infamous “F**k the Jews, they don’t even vote for us” comment by Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker felt like the death knell of bipartisan support of Israel. Then came “The Peace Process.”
As never before, the interests of Israel and the United States became aligned. The ‘90s created a situation in which the foreign policy of the Jewish state and of the only remaining superpower became indistinguishable. For both parties it left absolutely nothing not to like about Israel. The troubles of the peace process generated some misgivings across party lines, but the tragedy of 9/11 added another adrenaline shot into the relationship. Both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had not deviated an inch from that alignment of interests.
However, under the surface, the resentment grew. The first shot came from the Right with the phrase “The Israel Lobby,” used by two academics who claimed that AIPAC controlled American foreign policy. However, the main and persistent onslaught occurred from the Left. The radical-left elements of the Democratic Party had deep roots in American academia and they planted themselves with the Obama Administration.
The relationship took a series of blows, starting with the Obama “Cairo” speech, then The Iran Deal, and culminating with the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities. The run-up to the 2020 elections has been a major blow to the short period of bipartisan support for, Israel. Out of a dozen or so Democratic Party candidates only a few had something positive to say about Israel without uttering too many ifs. Two of them, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were outright hostile. A number of surrogates for Sanders made him look, given his proclivity for the Communist dictatorships, like a chairman of the infamous Soviet Jewish Anti-Zionist Committee.
But Sanders and Warren are just symptoms of the worrisome trend gaining momentum among Democrats. The “Progressive Left,” though it does not control the party, controls its message. And its message regarding Israel is somewhere between negative and resoundingly hostile.
The Republican Party is currently enthusiastically pro-Israel. Isolationist tendencies in some of its quarters, however, are a potential threat to Israel and its supporters.
So what does AIPAC do in this new situation where bipartisan support of Israel is shrinking and at times is a political liability? Can AIPAC change its lobbying approach from nurturing friendships to aggressively agitating for one?
The answer may lie with the event that took place in the ‘80s. The notorious Ed Koch was running yet again to become the mayor of NYC. As part of his campaign, he was visiting a Jewish retirement home in Brooklyn. After a short speech and on his way out, an old lady approached Ed.
“Promise to make New York the way it was," she said.
The old fox looked at her with a smile and responded, “Dear, it never was the way it was, but I will try."
The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.