The Growing Anguish of American-Jewish Moderates

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN Building, Sept., 21, 2011.Credit: AP

Passover has come and gone, with a certain tension around America’s seder tables and sanctuaries. The internal political debates have turned tired, weary, hopeless. As we pack away our festive dishes and return to everyday life, one senses increasing division in the Jewish community here – a gap between extreme left and right, with the mainstream fidgeting in wordless discomfort.

The dilemma: We are caught less between countries and more between two leaders with whom we are uncomfortable, torn between that eternal dissonance of the defiant and submissive Jew in every one of us. American Jews at once identify with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiance, yet as loyal citizens also identify with our adopted home. We send our children to Israel to study and learn Hebrew; send charity donations there, too, all while continuing to invest in our communities here. We jump out of our seats to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and visit, with a sense of awe, the nation’s capital – where we continue to fight for civil rights and where both our pulpits and Twitter feeds continue to cite this nation’s founding texts. We feel blessed to have the privilege to contribute to two countries built by the hard work of immigrants dreaming of democracy and liberty.

Israel is indeed becoming a partisan issue in the United States, and with alarming speed. One side grows extreme, the other silent: the democratic ideals of the levelheaded voice seem to be lost. This divide has been the talk of the street since January, if you listen in to conversations in New York’s restaurants and synagogues, charity dinners and lectures.

The right continues to grow ever more right. Red has become redder. Enter a luncheon, a cocktail party, and hear the increasingly shameless and vulgar exclamations. “That [*%#*] Muslim president of ours!” We have grown accustomed to this, and the polite Americans among us will even muster a nod to our hawkish friends. The most racist of opinions are acceptable in private among some of the most powerful and elite, as fear spirals into hysteria. (One no longer wonders why Netanyahu employed his Election Day tactics when he warned of the “droves” of Arabs going to vote. Are we any better than our foes when there are those among us who stoop to this level of bigotry?) Sadly, Netanyahu’s comments were not decried loudly enough by conservative Jews – either because they were too afraid to vilify their idol, or perhaps because they just agreed.

Bewildered, ridden with angst

And while Republican Jews revel in the victory of this I-told-you-so moment every time President Barack Obama issues a harsh statement in the direction of Jerusalem, the extreme left divests from Israel entirely and the center is bewildered, ridden with angst.

In the past few months, much has been written on disillusioned liberal Jewish leaders and this identity clash: The Economist magazine visited Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman in The Hamptons, weighing his gnawing anxiety over his support of the Democratic Party – as he sees Obama being “petulant” toward Netanyahu. A few months ago, The New York Times Magazine visited Rabbi Daniel Zemel in Washington. He is torn between his liberalism and his Zionism: his is the camp of Jews who are kept up at night by the 1967 borders, the many Jews for whom the rich complexities of Judaism and identity are reduced to two magical, sparkling words: “Tikkun olam.”

Some avid liberals are even considering foregoing any relationship with Israel. But there is a silent majority here, too: a disillusioned, longtime-liberal Jewish mainstream whose angst has rendered them mute, uncomfortable with the rift between the leaderships, but nevertheless quietly accepting Bibi’s decisions from afar.

The moderate American-Jewish left has been unable to defend Israel on our campuses and in the media without being scorned as hawks, imperialists, aggressors – by their very own political allies. Last summer taught that we are well-advised to keep a low profile and stay quiet; better to simmer inside as the world questions your right to self-defense than risk your reputation as an enlightened cosmopolitan.

That brief window of time in which J Street promised to be an antidote to AIPAC, offering a platform for moderate American Jews to express their pro-peace Zionism without the Sheldon circus, has long passed. J Street had the opportunity to serve as a bridge between the American-Jewish left and the State of Israel, but it has gotten lost in its vilification of Netanyahu as occupier, alienating too many centrist American Jews who might otherwise appreciate liberal support for Israel – and pushing Israel to become a deeply partisan issue with impressive speed, outdoing even AIPAC.

American Jews do not wish to relive the 2012 Democratic National Committee debacle over Jerusalem, where support for Israel was far from unanimous. The community here has been fortunate enough to have affected policy in both parties. While American Jews may quietly wonder about the genuine popular will of both parties, they hope to see genuine broad-based support of Israel in both parties, beyond the narrow Jewish constituency.

I am not convinced that some Jewish Democrats are choosing to break off their relationship with Israel because of mere discomfort with Netanyahu – as much as some eagerly anticipate that headline, and as distasteful as some of his rhetoric has been. Those American Jews who are uncomfortable with Israeli policy, and are now threatening to withdraw their support, are not deeply vested in Israel’s future in the first place: If they disagree with the prime minister but still care for Israel, they are welcome to support the opposition. They are welcome to invest in the economy and to fund education – areas that may promise peace sooner than any negotiations – and to support Israeli NGOs that promote human rights, Israeli-Arab dialogue, pluralism, women’s rights ... the options are endless.

Sources in major Jewish political organizations here in New York tell me that an alarming number of Democrats in the affiliated Jewish community are doubting their own party loyalty – despite their support for liberal domestic policy. Yes, many are still troubled more by Obama’s dismissal of Israel than Netanyahu’s abrasiveness. The president has repeatedly warned the prime minister that it is time to “evaluate what other options are available to make sure we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region,” all while ignoring Israel’s concerns about an Iranian nuclear deal and the defensibility of its borders (both above- and below ground), and dismissing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s shouts of “Death to America” and Palestinian refusal to negotiate – and this is worrisome. The fact that the president is investing more in a relationship with the Iranian leadership as the Israeli leadership rants to deaf ears – this is troubling, too.

We don’t yet have the numbers – only time will tell, as the 2016 campaign machines come to life – but perhaps the most compelling show of local Jewish unease with the president’s commitment to Israel took place at the White House last week, when Democratic-Jewish leaders felt compelled to meet with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, to urge the president to “soften his tone” toward Netanyahu for the sake of the Democratic Party’s Jewish future.

When an important constituency within his own party must beg the president to reconsider, something inside is not quite right.

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