Last week I participated in a conference on “Zionism 3.0”, organized by the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center of Palo Alto and the Reut Group. The gathering, dedicated to “Uniting a Divided People”, was sold out - an indication, presumably, of the concern felt by many Jews over the growing rift between Israel and American Jews. The degree of engagement was thus encouraging and depressing at the same time.
This was my second Z3 conference in Palo Alto. The first, cosponsored by Haaretz, was held three years ago, in a completely different era. Relations between Israel and American Jews were already troubled, but hardly at the top of the conference agenda; Iran, the peace process and BDS seemed to matter more. The Kotel deal with the Reform and Conservative had yet to be concluded and then dumped. And Israel’s government had yet to take such a decisive right-wing turn.
More importantly – critically in fact – even though Donald Trump had already declared his candidacy, no one in his right mind believed he would one day be elected president, with all that this milestone, still inconceivable for many, has entailed. Trump wasn’t on the official agenda last week either, but he was certainly on the lips of many participants who approached me on the sidelines. Specifically, as one participant phrased it, with undisguised hurt: “What is going on over there? Why do Israelis like Trump so much? Don’t they realize who we’re dealing with here?”
I did my best to answer. Israelis appreciate Trump’s pro-Israel policies, I suggested, and Benjamin Netanyahu describes him as the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. Israelis are naturally less exposed to, and less interested in, Trump’s domestic agenda or legal complications, I added. In any case, much of Trump’s politically un-correct agenda dovetails, unfortunately, with the views of Israeli public opinion, especially on the right, I opined.
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My interlocutors nodded, said they understood and walked away unconvinced. No matter what the explanation, notwithstanding their understanding for Israel’s need to foster good ties with any U.S. president and despite their declarations of continued support for the Jewish state, in the eyes of most American Jews, the mutual bear hug between Israel and the U.S. president is unconscionable and unforgiveable. It repels them. It injects raw and inconsolable emotion into a relationship that was already fraught with tensions. It renders repair a hundred times harder.
The issues that divide America’s largely liberal Jewish community and Israel’s increasingly conservative right-wing government are well known and well documented: Religious pluralism, Jewish settlements, the lack of a peace process, a basic divergence of worldviews etc. These divisions have plagued the relationship for years. The presidency of Barack Obama, who American Jews admired and Israeli Jews mostly disdained, made things worse. The presidency of Donald Trump, who American Jews mostly abhor and Israeli Jews applaud, may have turned the relationship totally toxic.
For most American Jews, Trump’s policies towards Israel, even if one views them as positive, cannot offset his glaring deficiencies. His America First agenda gives them the creeps. His agitation against immigration scares them. His perceived encouragement for white supremacists terrifies them. His conduct in office disgusts them. Trump, in many ways, is the epitome of everything they fear and loathe in America. Exaggerated or not, many have come to view the Trump presidency as a clear and present danger to the very wellbeing of the American Jewish community.
Many American Jews are naturally perplexed by Israel’s seeming indifference to their plight, and worse, by its disdainful dismissal of their concerns. Netanyahu’s government is seen as standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump, even if that means sacrificing the interests of the Jewish community itself. This was nowhere more evident than in the Israeli government’s shameful defense of Trump in the wake of the October massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. According to a poll conducted by J Street and GBA Strategies on Election Day, 72% of American Jews view Trump’s divisive rhetoric as “very” or “partially” responsible for the attack. The Israeli government told them this was poppycock.
The same is true of the clear majority of American Jews who feel that since Trump took office, right-wing extremism is on the rise (79%) along with racism (80%) and anti-Semitism (81%). In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, Israeli representatives challenged their perceptions, dismissed their concerns or tried to convince American Jews that it’s BDS and radical Islam they should worry about, even though both had nothing to do with the Pittsburgh atrocity.
By doing so, Israel joined the ranks of Trump enablers and apologists, who see no evil, hear no evil and certainly speak no evil of their revered president. Israel became the Kellyanne Conway of Trump’s race baiting, the Rudy Giuliani of his America First agenda, which most American Jews despise. In the hyper-partisan political atmosphere now prevailing in America, to which American Jews are certainly not immune, Israel’s isn’t simply guilty by association. It is often perceived as aiding and abetting a president who many American Jews view as their community’s worst enemy.
And the friend of my enemy is, by definition, an enemy as well. In the binary “with me or against me” division that is an inevitable by-product of hyper-partisanship, Israel is increasingly associated by American Jews with the latter rather than the former.
Moreover, Israel’s fawning apologia for Trump taints Israel with his stains, casting it as a purveyor in its own right of his unique brand of ethnocentric nationalism. Israel’s overenthusiastic alignment with Trump shines a negative light on its own policies in general and on its attitude towards American Jews in particular. Israel’s refusal to engage with the Palestinians, support for Jewish settlements, anti-democratic legislation or subservience to the Orthodox monopoly were all bones of contention even before Trump was elected, but now seem retrospectively like an extension of his obnoxious policies. Israel’s embrace of Trump isn’t simply a matter of realpolitik or diplomatic expediency but a wholehearted endorsement of the man and what he stands for.
Small wonder that the resentment felt by the clear majority of American Jews towards Trump is spilling over into their feelings towards Israel as well. Israel’s identification with Trump poisons the attitude of his Jewish critics, corrodes their tolerance and eats away at their willingness to compromise or seek a middle ground. Optimists obviously believe that the deterioration is reversible, but it’s a race against time. The question is whether the relationship will survive long enough, even on life support, or whether it succumbs to its Trump-induced malignancy before he leaves office and a remedy is found.