Time for American Jews to Confront Israel’s Demons

In last week’s election, American Jews stayed steadfastly loyal to their liberal values, yet they turn a blind eye to their steady erosion in Israel.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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An Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman gesture at one another during a protest against Jewish visitors to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount.
An Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman gesture at one another during a protest against Jewish visitors to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. Reports of the demise of American Jewish support for the Democratic Party in the 2014 U.S. elections turned out to be exaggerated, as usual. A survey commissioned by J Street found that 69% of Jewish voters preferred Democrats while a Pew Research report of exit polls put the number at 66%. Both figures are similar to the Jewish vote in the 2012 elections. If the Jews didn’t turn on the Democrats in a year that they were crushed, clobbered, trounced, thumped and shellacked all over, it’s hard to imagine they are likely to do so anytime in the foreseeable future.

Jewish Republicans nonetheless tried to put their best face on what were obviously very disappointing returns. “Republicans are getting increasing support among Jewish voters,” the Republican Jewish Coalition announced. True, if one’s sole yardstick is the 2006 Congressional elections, in which only 11% of Jews voted against the Democrats, then the Republicans can rejoice at a dramatic trebling of their share. But 2006 was an outlier, with anti-Bush and anti-Iraq sentiments at fever pitch, especially among Jews. In 1980, Ronald Reagan got 38% of the Jewish vote; in the 1988 elections to the House of Representatives, 32% of Jews voted for Republicans; in 2010, 31% voted for Republican candidates. In 2014, the Republicans garnered 33%, according to Pew, or 25% according to the Jim Gerstein poll for J Street. Both figures are well within the ballpark of good Republican years, no less but no more.

More importantly, these elections were held in near-ideal conditions for Republicans, with disappointment from Obama spread far and deep; with Republicans erasing most of the bizarre candidates that alienated Jews in previous years; and with the “chickenshit” conflagration between the administration and Israel breaking out a few short days before last Tuesday’s vote.

Not only that, but it stands to reason that the makeup of the American Jewish voters this year tilted to the right, as many moderate and liberal Jews probably preferred to sit this one out, like most other American voters, while “voter anger” propelled their conservative and Orthodox brethren to the ballot booths in droves. All this, before we factor in the inexorable and undeniable growth of the ultra-Orthodox, Republican-leaning share of the Jewish vote. Thus, under the worst of circumstances for the Democrats, Jews remained loyal. They were, as Pew reported, the only religious group in America that gave the Democrats a majority of their vote, and a sizeable one at that.

2. There is bound to be a lot of analyzing and pontificating about the results, but it does seem to prove, once again, that Israel plays a much smaller role than Republicans would like in determining the Jewish vote. According to the J Street poll, only 8% consider Israel to be one of the two most important factors in determining their vote. That does not mean that American Jews are happy with Obama’s prickly relations with Benjamin Netanyahu; many of them probably aren’t. And judging by the fact that Netanyahu has a much higher favorability rating in the poll than Obama, many of them seem likely to put the onus for the breakdown of relations between the two leaders on the president rather than the prime minister.

But at their core, American Jews remain staunchly and fiercely liberal, through thick and thin, come hell or high water, through popular presidents as well as those who lose their luster. It is an anomaly that has vexed conservatives for decades. Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, even wrote a book about it, titled “Why are Jews Liberals?” “It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right,” he wrote in 2009 in an anguished effort to come to terms with the Jewish vote for Obama.

Notwithstanding their comfortable economic situation and unprecedented social acceptance, Jews continue to identify with minorities and to feel as such themselves, “to earn like Episcopalians but to vote like Puerto Ricans,” as Milton Himmelfarb famously said more than 60 years ago. Jews may not be happy with the Affordable Care Act or with Obama’s flirtations with Iran, but they cannot tolerate Republican positions on global warming, women’s equality, gay rights, affirmative action, voting restrictions, welfare benefits and, most significantly, the encroachment of church on state. And while Israel may find itself increasingly relying on the unquestioning support of U.S. Evangelicals, it does nothing to quell the unease that many Jews feel at their dominant position within the Republican Party. Evangelicals are the religious group least favored by American Jews bar none, as a recent poll found; instead of bringing Jews closer to Republicans, the Evangelicals probably drive liberal Jews away from Israel.

3. A recent editorial in Tablet magazine entitled “American Jews don’t have to choose between liberalism and Israel" rejected efforts by both the right and the left to sway American Jewish votes through the narrow prism of Israel. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the core liberal values that are sacrosanct for Jews in America are under increasing threat in Israel. Anti-democratic sentiments are gaining ground, the Arab minority is being stigmatized and isolated, and freedoms of speech and assembly are no longer taken for granted. No less significantly, the ascendant political class in Israel is made up of ultra-religious ultra-conservatives who in many ways are carbon copies of the same Evangelicals that U.S. Jews cannot abide. Even the most strident Republican voices, those whose statements repel American Jews, can’t hold a candle to the growing cadre of wild-eyed Israeli legislators and their retrograde ruminations about women, minorities, human rights, democracy and basic constitutional rights.

4. For many years, affiliated American Jews were content to channel their support for Israel through two organizations, UJA and AIPAC. You gave money to the UJA and Israel did what it wanted with it; if you were more involved, you also supported AIPAC and obediently adhered to its positions. That kind of docile discipline has disintegrated over the years: Jewish Federations have taken a greater share of donations previously addressed to Israel, and donors increasingly bypass the establishment to earmark their contributions themselves. And while AIPAC remains the main political arm of the Jewish community, J Street has provided an alternative for those uncomfortable with AIPAC’s right-wing hue and with Israel’s right wing policies.

Throughout this process, however, Israel’s civil society has remained beyond the pale. Reform and Conservative leaders regularly rile against discrimination aimed at their flock but until recently they remained mostly silent about the Rabbinate’s religious stranglehold on other Israeli Jews. U.S. Jews who go bananas whenever a Republican dares to support a divinity scene in city hall have nothing to say about the Orthodoxy that is creeping into the Israel’s political and military decision-making; even the messianic Temple Mounters, who could bring Israel to ruin, hardly merit a peep.

The same Jews who are sensitive to every minute slight against minorities in America are strangely deaf to the heaps of abuse hurled at Israel’s Arab minority on a daily basis, especially after the summer’s Gaza war. They scream bloody murder when the U.S. government tries to stifle dissent, but manage to look the other way when basic freedoms are challenged in Israel. What’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander, apparently, and while American Jews are quick to accuse the world of double standards, they are curiously blind to their own.

True, many Federations manage admirable programs in Israel that are aimed at improving the lives of women, Arabs, Ethiopians and the poor. But all of these operations are on a grassroots level and none take a determined public stand against their place of origin, at the very top. The New Israel Fund and other human rights NGOs try to create a public fuss about basic civil and human rights in Israel, but the establishment has conveniently bought into the concocted narrative that these groups’ loyalties are suspect and their reputations tainted, and their protests are therefore ignored.

Many U.S. Jews believe that criticizing Israel’s foreign and defense policy or its occupation regime in the territories plays into the hands of Israel’s enemies. Many of them believe, understandably, that on matters of life and death, only those who will pay the price should make the decisions. For the benefit of this sizeable chuck of Jews, here’s the deal: Support Israel’s fight against its external enemies, whoever they deem them to be, but pressure Israel to combat its internal demons as well. Don’t critique the occupation, but fight the metastatic spread of its ethno-supremacist Weltanschauung inside Israel’s body politic. Don’t criticize the settlements, if you don’t want to, but come out swinging against their rapid colonization of politics and public mores inside the Green Line as well. Let the world deal with the rights of Palestinians, if those don’t concern you, but make sure Israelis don’t start losing theirs as well.

“All Jews are responsible for each other,” the Talmud says, not only to bail them out on a rainy day but also to remonstrate and protest when they stray from the proper path. And as one of the sages noted in a well known analogy, the people of Israel are all on the same boat: If they don’t fix a leak in one of the vessel’s compartments, the whole ship will sink. American Jews should step up to the plate before it’s too late, not only as a matter of arevut hadadit – mutual responsibility – but also as a matter of self-preservation. Just as Israel plays an active role in safeguarding the external security of Jewish communities abroad, they must reciprocate by protecting Israel’s democratic soul. If the current evil winds are not curtailed, there will come a time when the precepts of the liberal religion that American Jews practice will command that Israel be viewed as nothing less than an abomination.

American Jews should practice what they preach and demand that Israel be just as democratic, freedom loving and respectful of minority rights as America is, or as they would want it to be. They can no longer turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to Israel’s struggling democracy, nor claim any right to remain silent. And they shouldn’t believe official Israelis who tell them things aren’t all that bad: their only aim is to watch American Jews go back to burying their heads in the sand.

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