The unexpected election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977 shocked American Jewry. Begin, the Revisionist and “terrorist,” with his Eastern European mannerisms and his Middle Eastern supporters, was the ideological rival of Zionist icons such as Ben Gurion and Golda and looked nothing like mythological heroes Moshe Dayan or Paul Newman’s Ari Ben Canaan. Outside of a small coterie of jubilant American supporters from his pre-State Irgun days, Begin’s election sent most of the Jewish establishment into panic mode.
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But it didn’t last long. Seeking to quell the fears, the late Reform leader Alexander Schindler, then Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, came to Jerusalem for an urgent conference with Begin. Schindler, a liberal on both religious and peace-related matters, went into the meeting worried but came out wholly enchanted. “He was the first Israeli leader I’d met for whom it was more important to be a Jew than an Israeli,” he would say later. “For Yitzhak Rabin we were mere pawns, but Begin really cared.”
This was the start of the beautiful friendship between American Jewry and the Israeli right that has lasted since then until not too long ago. Begin’s successor Yitzhak Shamir lacked his predecessor’s pathos, charisma or appreciation for Diaspora life, but he was a master tactician who oversaw the right-wing’s gradual takeover of both the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC. The two organizations became the principal political spokespersons for the Jewish community, adhering to a straightforward Israel right-or-wrong policy, which usually translated into bending over backwards for Likud governments while going through the motions when Labor was in power.
Shimon Peres, now a venerated elder statesman who is slated to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor next month, spoke in those days in European, not American, and could not enlist American Jews to his side at times when it mattered most: They helped Shamir undercut Peres’s 1986 London Agreement with King Hussein as well as delay and diffuse diplomatic moves by George Schultz and James Baker, while expressing only tepid support for the Oslo Accords and Labor’s reconciliation with Yasser Arafat.
American Jews felt comfortable with the Likud’s free market capitalism and were swept away by the right wing’s emphasis on symbols and emotion: Shamir and his successors knew they could whip up American Jewish enmity towards Labor or the American administration by routinely invoking “eternal Jerusalem” and sinister plans to carve it up. Likud leaders were closely aligned with the sense of victimhood felt by many contemporary Jewish leaders who were either Holocaust survivors, children of Holocaust survivors or Americans who felt guilty about their parents not having done enough to rescue Holocaust survivors.
This was a generation whose views had been formed by heroic historical milestones, from the establishment of Israel through the Six Day War to the fight for Soviet Jewry. And when the effects of these events began to wane, militant Islam reared its head in a wave of horrific suicide bombings in Israel and the Twin Towers catastrophe in New York. The Jewish community enlisted wholeheartedly in the war on terror and the battle against the Axis of Evil and repressed the ongoing occupation and Israel’s gradual lurch to the right.
But now there is a gradual changing of the guard, one generation going and the next arriving, with some Jews losing interest in Israel and others their faith in its leaders. The more moderate and liberal parts of the Jewish community are at a juncture, perhaps even in a moment of crisis, to which many factors contribute, of which I will shortly mention four: the political polarization in America which pushes the Jewish right rightwards and expels the left altogether; the strengthening of liberal views and the growing tendency to see Israel’s rightward move through them; the animosity of many American Jews towards reactionary conservatives and, by association, their embrace of Israel; and the perception that Israel and AIPAC are openly intervening in U.S. politics, fighting the Obama Administration, for which they voted, and trying to push America toward an unpopular war with Iran.
Most Israeli and Jewish leaders are no longer denying the sounds of icebergs breaking and temperatures heating up. The Reform and Conservative campaign against Orthodox dominance in Israel is growing ever more militant while organizations such as J Street challenge the Israeli government’s traditional hold on American Jewry’s positions and statements. In synagogues, campuses and JCC’s, fierce and emotional battles are fought between right and left that not only challenge the status quo but also create a sense of unease and foreboding.
The impressive new report published this week by Shmuel Rosner and Avi Gil of the Jewish People Policy Institute on Diaspora Jewry’s attitudes towards the concept of Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” asserts that “the vision of Diaspora Jews for Israel is often similar to that of Israelis themselves.” But even this report, based as it is on a dialogue with figures who are mostly part and parcel of the Jewish establishment, makes it abundantly clear that Israelis and American Jews are on two separate ships sailing in opposite directions. The more that Israel champions its Jewish identity and diminishes its democratic obligations – as a majority of members of the current ruling coalition are wont to do – the more the moment of a serious breach with American Jews draws nearer.
The government is also feeling the tectonic shifts, but instead of taking a close, hard look in the mirror, it is pinning all the blame on assimilation, intermarriage and lack of proper Jewish education. Against this backdrop the “Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and the Jewish People” was established and it is being greeted with a mix of appreciation for the new attitude, skepticism about the prospects for raising the necessary funds - and suspicion that what troubles the government most is not that Jews are drifting away from Judaism but that they are distancing themselves from the increasingly nationalistic tendencies of Israel under their helm. “If they plan to waste hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade American Jews that ‘settlements are good,’ they best keep their money at home,” one seasoned Jewish leader told me.
Slowly but surely, the knots are coming full circle: 37 years after they discovered each other, a sizeable chunk of American Jews who care about Israel are no longer willing to defer to the right, whether they are in Jerusalem, Washington or New York. Two of my colleagues at Haaretz have played a significant role in this process: Peter Beinart, whose “Crisis of Zionism” took the Jewish left by storm, and Ari Shavit, whose “My Promised Land” invigorated Jewish centrist moderates who reject the Palestinian narrative, but nonetheless believe that current Israeli polices and continued occupation will end in tragedy.
What seems to be missing, from a political perspective, is an Israeli partner. J Street’s rejection by the Conference of Presidents, for example, was barely noticed or protested in the Israeli media or in its political circles. To find new avenues and to create new partnerships with disgruntled American Jews, the Israeli left must change its perspective and reorder its priorities, invest time and effort and attention and most importantly - locate a charismatic interlocutor who can talk to American Jews in a language they understand.
Begin had that, as does Netanyahu. But while the prime minister continues to talk with the same eloquence and same American accent as before, the dynamics of extended relationships are affecting many American Jews: they no longer bother to listen.