2010-2019

The Decade That Devoured the Ties Between Israel and U.S. Jews

Netanyahu’s brawls with Obama and his bromance with Trump accelerated a split rendered inevitable – by the occupation

A man wears a 'Make America Great Again' kippa as Trump addresses The Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas
Erik Kabik Photography / Media P

If Israel and American Jews are facing a schism, history will regard the past decade as its catalyzer. The roots of the rupture may have been planted long ago but over the past ten years they have broken through to the surface, with a bounty of bitter and ultimately poisonous fruit. Even if conditions improve and a rapprochement is achieved, the Golden Age of Israel’s bond with the greatest Jewish Diaspora is over.

The immediate flashpoints are familiar. Over the past decade, the ties between Israel and U.S. Jews fell prey to politics, both personal and ideological. The decade started with an Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, locked in bitter battle with a U.S. president, Barack Obama, that most U.S. Jews adored. It ended with the same Netanyahu entwined in romantic rapture with a U.S. president, Donald Trump, that most U.S. Jews despise.

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Although the elaborate machinery of the special relationship continued to purr as before, its public manifestation was distilled into the personal brawls and bromance, respectively, between Netanyahu and the two U.S. presidents he dealt with. Both sets of relationships were – and are – unprecedented in their intensity. Their impact spread far, deep and wide.

The mutual transatlantic venom that spewed forth between Washington and Jerusalem during the Obama years agonized those who wanted to support both. Netanyahu’s alliance with Obama’s worst enemies, some tinged by racism, distanced the liberal American Jewish majority and emboldened the conservative minority. Israelis, especially on the right, grew suspicious of their erstwhile Jewish allies.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights as he is applauded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, March 25, 2019.
CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS

The love affair between Netanyahu and Trump accelerated the process, bringing it to a critical mass. Many American Jews found it increasingly difficult to reconcile their sympathy for Israel with their revulsion for the president. In a hate-filled and polarized political atmosphere, the best friend of my enemy is, by definition, also my enemy. Netanyahu’s all-out embrace of Trump went far above and beyond the dictates of realpolitik: It was seen as an outright endorsement of the president’s reviled values.

Nothing could be more indicative of the tectonic tremors underfoot than Netanyahu’s strategic decision, orchestrated by his U.S. envoy Ron Dermer, to replace the Jewish establishment as Israel’s mainstay of support in Washington with Christian evangelicals. Israel’s abrupt shift sickened Jewish leaders and enfeebled AIPAC, hitherto the consensual arena for Israel supporters.

Given their fear of so-called Christian Zionists and their political aims, small wonder that many Jews perceive the Netanyahu-evangelical axis as a direct repudiation of their American Jewish values. A Jewish community dedicated to religious pluralism, civil liberties, minority rights and social justice confronted an Israel that not only admired a president perceived as an authoritarian, race-baiting populist with more than a tinge of suspected anti-Semitism - it was actually emulating his ways.

Then came a spate of violent anti-Semitic attacks, especially the October 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, in which 11 Jews were murdered. Israel condemned the attack, but contrary to its usual practice after similar incidents in other countries, chose to coddle and protect the U.S. president rather than chastise him. Not only did Israeli representatives dismiss the widespread Jewish view that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was at least indirectly responsible for the surge in white supremacist hate and violence, they condescendingly lectured American Jews that it is radical Islam they need to fear.

 In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

The final straw, for many American Jews, was Trump’s twice-repeated assertion that Jews who continued to vote for Democrats – as the overwhelming majority did, does and will continue to do – were being disloyal to Israel. Here was a U.S. president embracing the anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty”, which U.S. Jews have long feared and fought, along with an Israeli government indicating that it actually concurs. Netanyahu himself uttered similar sentiments after U.S. Jews failed to give him the kind of support he apparently expected in his bitter showdown with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump’s odious equation is unlikely to deter many Jews from voting Democratic – but it may evolve into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If voting for Democrats is a sign of disloyalty towards Israel, many American Jews might conclude, then so be it. If supporting a party that is increasingly critical of current Israeli policies – for many of the same reasons that alienated American Jews – is tantamount to spurning Israel, it is a price that many if not most American Jews may be willing to pay.

Once their pride and joy, Israel is slowly evolving in American Jewish minds into a prominent member of the kind of Trump-supporting country – e.g. Brazil, Hungary and Poland – that they normally disdain. Under such circumstances, continued Jewish liberal support for the Jewish state is unsustainable. The liberal majority will slip away, the right-wing minority will be entrenched but the center is unlikely to hold. Thus, the last decade will be remembered as a turning point – and possibly a point of no return - in relations between Israel and the bulk of U.S. Jews.

It’s the occupation

The rift of course, wasn’t created overnight. Its sources are deeply rooted in the disparate realities in which the two communities have existed – and thrived – since the advent of Zionism. Many of them stem from the simple fact that Israel and American Jews reside in distinctly separate and disparate universes: The American Jewish community is a minority sensitive to the needs of other minorities, as a matter of both principle and self-preservation. The Israeli Jewish community is a majority that fears minorities, convinced as well that it is acting out of self-preservation. From this, among other things, everything else stems.

David Ben-Gurion testifying before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1948
GPO / Hans Pinn

Ironically, many of the core issues that have recently surfaced with the rising tensions between Israel and American Jews echo their divisions during Israel’s first 19 years, before the Six Day War. While the establishment of Israel in 1948 was widely supported by the American Jewish community, diminishing and effectively erasing its hitherto substantial anti-Zionist opposition, the first two decades of mutual ties were uneasy. American Jewry was coming into its own, flexing its muscles, and, as anthropologist Riv Ellen-Prell notes in the Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, anxious to dispel notions of “dual loyalty” that were an outgrowth of the the McCarthy hearings.

The tensions manifested themselves in the famous “exchange of views” between David Ben Gurion and then Chairman of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein. The “exchange” was meant to lay down the foundations of future relations between the fledgling “Jewish state” (a term resented by many American Jews, who preferred “State of Israel”) to the largest Jewish “Diaspora” (a term they didn’t like much either).

The exchange reflected mainstream U.S. Jewry’s discomfort with Israel’s claim to speak on behalf of all Jews and with Ben Gurion’s repeated calls for young American Jews to emigrate, both of which evoked associations to claims of “dual loyalty.”

Given Israel’s dire economic situation in the first few years after independence and its desperate need for direct financial support from U.S. Jews as well as their help in lobbying the U.S. government to extend loan credits, Ben Gurion succumbed to most of Blaustein’s demands. His commitments to Blaustein were rendered anachronistic in ensuing years, but somehow sound as pertinent today as they were nearly 70 years ago.

Then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion meets then-President John F. Kennedy during the former's visit to the U.S. on the May 30, 1961
DPA / AFP

“The Jews of the United States,” Ben Gurion stated, “as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel. The State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way represents or speaks in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country. We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad.”

As the late political scientist and Bar Ilan University professor Charles Liebman wrote in a 1974 article entitled Diaspora Influence on Israel, the Ben Gurion-Blaustein exchange marked the rare and possibly last occasion in which Israel and U.S. Jews communicated as equals. Nonetheless, even when the balance of power was clearly shifting in Israel’s favor, Israeli governments continued to abide by the “exchange of views” – albeit in less humiliating terms – well into the 1970’s, when then Prime Minister Golda Meir wrote Blaustein that she has no intention of deviating from Ben Gurion’s commitments, now or in the future. By this time, however, the entire relationship between Israel and American Jews had been transformed by the Six Day War and its aftermath. What American Jews had steadfastly resisted in 1950 they enthusiastically embraced after 1967: Israel became the pillar of their existence, the center of their world.

It is hard to overstate the scope and intensity of the upheaval, both before and after the Israeli army’s devastating defeat of the Arab armies encircling it in May 1967. The “period of waiting” before the war evoked genuine and widespread fear that Israel would be destroyed. Haunted by remorse over what many perceived as inaction during the Holocaust, American Jews, both old and young, rallied to Israel’s side as never before. Whatever vestiges of anti-Zionism remained were swept to the sidelines. In one poll, 99% of all American Jews expressed support for the Israeli position, a staggering figure never seen before or again. 

As Arthur Hertzberg presciently wrote in Commentary magazine a few short weeks after the war, “As soon as the Arab armies began to mass on the borders of Israel during the third week in May, the mood of the American Jewish community underwent an abrupt, radical, and possibly permanent change.” 

Civilian Arab prisoners are seen after the Israeli army entered in the Old City during the Six Day War in June 1967 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Fondation Gilles CARON / Gamma-R

Flush from the IDF’s amazing victory and amazed by the mass grassroots enlistment of U.S. Jews, even Hertzberg initially greeted the outcome of the war as fomenting a mutually beneficial revolution both in American Jewry’s self-confidence and internal sense of purpose as well as in its attachment to Israel. It didn’t take long for Hertzberg to realize the inherent dangers of the occupation and to become one of the first American Jewish leaders to advocate the establishment of a Palestinian state, much to the consternation of his peers as well as Israel’s leadership.

Worries about the occupation, however, were swept aside as the revolution spread and took hold. Israel moved from the sidelines to the very heart of American Jewish life. The American Jewish community united around Israel. It committed itself to supporting the Jewish state politically and financially. AIPAC was created, nurtured and fortified until it grew into one of the most powerful lobbies Capitol Hill has ever seen. And while opposition to the occupation gradually grew, it was mostly limited to the fringes: American Jews turned a blind eye to the ongoing disenfranchisement of millions of Palestinians, assured by successive Israeli government that they would end the occupation tomorrow, if only the Palestinians would come to their senses.

The inherent contradiction between a Jewish community growing increasingly liberal – despite growing more prosperous – and a Jewish state that continued to deprive millions of Palestinians of basic human and civil rights created collective cognitive dissonance on a massive scale. American Jews developed classic defense mechanisms, blaming Palestinian intransigence, citing Israeli peace offers, comparing the plight of Palestinians to the even worse conditions of most of their Arab brethren, and, finally, denying the existence of the occupation itself.

Netanyahu’s ten-year tenure stripped away many of these defense mechanisms. J Street, an opposition lobby, was formed, fostered and, currently at least, is flourishing. Younger Jews, distant from the remorse of the Holocaust and detached from the relief of the Six Day War, drifted away. The occupation could no longer be justified as force majeure, a burden Israel must bear, despite its better wishes. Under Netanyahu, the occupation was no longer a temporary hiatus on way to peace but rather a holding pattern until annexation is achieved.

But the main impact of the occupation on American Jews and their ties to Israel doesn’t stem from what it has done to Palestinians, but rather from what it has done to Israel itself. The battle over occupation defines and delineates Israeli politics. It is the political fault line that compels the Likud to ally itself exclusively with the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist right rather than with more centrist parties with which it is in agreement on almost everything – except the future of the territories.

It is the occupation that has created a perpetual coalition between those who fear the consequences of ending it, those who wish to perpetuate it as part of the biblical Land of Israel and those who couldn’t care less as long as their religious demands are met. It is the occupation that has poisoned the Israeli public arena and given rise to chauvinism, ethnocentrism, nationalism and a growing disdain for liberal democracy. It is the occupation that perpetuates ultra-Orthodox hegemony, which refuses to recognize or extend basic religious rights to the bulk of American Jews, who are either Reform or Conservative.

Members of IfNotNow and Rabbinical school students blocking traffic while protesting Trump's US Embassy move to Jerusalem, withdrawal from Iran Deal and Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza in Washington, D.C. on  May 14, 2018
Gili Getz

It is the occupation that has spawned Israel’s recent turn to the nationalist right, highlighting the traits that American Jews would instinctively abhor in any other country. And it is the occupation that has ultimately led to Netanyahu’s last four years in office, in which masks were shorn and pretenses discarded. It is the occupation, no less than the Iran nuclear deal, which pit Netanyahu against Obama and attached him at the hip to Trump.  And it is the occupation that is buttressing Netanyahu’s continued hold on power, in the face of criminal indictments.

Even if they are still loath to admit it, it is the occupation that has driven a wedge, directly and indirectly, between Israel and American Jews.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Six Day War victory, which brought Israel and U.S. Jews closer than ever before, contained a toxic virus, which is now poisoning relations and driving them apart. The miracle contained the means of its own unraveling. If and when Netanyahu is finally relieved of his duties, before, on or after the March 2 elections, most American Jews will likely be relieved. Some might view it as a chance to repair the damage and to mark a new beginning.

But if the change is only cosmetic and if Netanyahu’s successor continues to entrench the occupation, notwithstanding efforts to repair ties with the liberal West in general and American Jews in particular, the respite will only be superficial and temporary. The poison that is the occupation will continue to contaminate efforts to rectify and rebuild.

Just as it is eroding the foundations of what Israel was and might be again, the occupation will ultimately dissolve the unprecedented brotherhood and solidarity that marked the ties between Israel and its greatest Diaspora.

It will take a “miracle”, at a scale of a Six Day War, to reverse the fatal slide and to detach Israel from the burden of occupation, which it seems unwilling to either swallow or discard. Only then, will Israeli and U.S. Jews be capable of rebuilding the proud edifice of their once idyllic ties, from the ground up.