Rethinking Jewish American Deterrence

Over the last decades a growing chasm has developed between Israel and American Jewry, requiring the latter to reconsider its stance on Middle Eastern politics.

Just as the war in Lebanon has shaken Israel's sense of deterrence and led to a reevaluation of the state's strategic outlook and military capabilities, American Jewry needs to evaluate the implications of the latest Middle East crisis for the ongoing use of Israel to deter our own communal concerns and the tactics we have employed to support the Jewish state.

Ever since the waiting period that preceded the June 1967 Arab-Israel War, Israel has remained at the center of American Jewry's philanthropic and political agenda. The height of Israel's appeal was reached in the decade following the Six-Day War, during what sociologist Steven M. Cohen has termed "the golden age of American Jewry's mobilized model," when a sometimes paradoxical concern over the state's very existence mixed with a new-found Jewish pride over its military prowess and machismo character.

Recognizing Israel's extraordinary appeal, American Jewry's communal institutions created slogans such as "We Are One" that used Israel to attract supporters and maintain solidarity, as well as to deter discussions about discomfiting and less popular concerns, including Jewish illiteracy and identity.

In the following decades, however, a now well-documented and growing chasm has developed between Israel and American Jewry. As the Holocaust and Israel's establishment have grown more distant, divisive episodes such as Israel's first invasion of Lebanon, the two intifadas and the "Who is a Jew" controversy further frayed ties. Despite these developments, most of American Jewry's communal institutions, which are largely led by individuals for whom the Six-Day War was a transformative experience, seem mired in the mobilizations of old. With each new Mideast crisis, emergency campaigns are launched that inevitably evoke past glories, characterized by heroic Israeli victories and record-breaking fundraising efforts, and, however delusional, envision the possibility of similar outcomes today.

Even before a shaky cease-fire was reached, the controversial nature of Israel's response to Hezbollah's aggression suggests that despite any high profile shows of solidarity, this conflict will likely contribute to a growing disconnect between Israel-Diaspora sentiment, particularly among younger Jews. Notwithstanding any of birthright israel's successes, the war in Lebanon provides further evidence that while Israel should no doubt be an integral component of Jewish life, it should no longer be seen as an easy deterrent to deeper questions about Jewish faith and identity, or the primary tool for rallying American Jews. Moreover, the war and the responses to it highlight the need to explore new and more creative ways for establishing connections to Israel.

Much as Israel's decreasing centrality to American Jewish life requires that our institutions adjust to this new reality, American Jewry's public affairs organizations should also take the United States' diminished international stature into consideration as they set strategic goals and policy agendas. Once again, the decade following the 1967 war serves as a turning point. In this case, it marks the beginning of Israel's growing reliance on its strategic and military relationship with the U.S., a development fueled not only by Cold War considerations but also an increasingly aggressive and conservative pro-Israel lobby.

Considering the power and influence that America has wielded over much of this period, Israel has certainly benefited from this alignment and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That said, a more isolationist, unilateral-acting United States has consistently alienated allies and inflamed enemies, nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where everything from its Iraq policy to the handling of the latest crisis in Lebanon has left America more a liability than an asset in the region.

The American Jewish community would first and foremost be well advised to help reestablish our country's position in the international community and, secondarily, begin working more directly with its institutions. Instead of continuing to reflexively vilify and petition against the UN or the leaders of the G-8, American Jewry needs to look beyond the U.S. Congress to consider how it can help Israel develop better relationships with other countries and international institutions. While Israel has already begun a raucous debate on the implications of this last war in Lebanon for the country's future, American Jewry has yet to move beyond the standing-in-solidarity stage. It's time we began asking deeper questions about the philanthropic and political ramifications of this war and our relationship with Israel, before the next crisis erupts.

Jason Gitlin, a graduate of NYU's Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Muehlstein Institute for Jewish Professional Leadership, is a writer based in New York