Opinion

After UN Vote, American Jews Are Asking What's Going On

American Jews don’t want 1967 borders for Israel, but neither do they want a binational state. And they certainly don’t want apartheid.

Members of the UN Security Council vote on a resolution to stop Israeli settlements on December 23, 2016.
AFP PHOTO / UN / Manuel ELIAS

American Jewry, it is fair to say, is in an absolute uproar. Every Jew involved in the community has something to say about the response of the U.S. government to last week’s UN Security Council resolution on settlements. Even when there is general agreement that the U.S. was in error, there is little consensus about the broader meaning of these events and what to expect in the weeks ahead.

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I offer some thoughts on what is happening among American Jews and what lessons might be learned from recent events.

1. American Jews are profoundly uncomfortable. Nothing is more distressing to them than a major, public disagreement between their government and the government of Israel. And disagreements don’t get much more public and vitriolic than the one that is now taking place. Hardly ever in Israel’s history have Israeli government officials engaged in the kind of frenzied name-calling directed at a President of the United States that we are now witnessing.

2. Uncomfortable or not, most American Jews, including its liberal branches, were not happy with the decision of the Obama administration to allow the UN Security Council resolution to pass by abstaining rather than exercising its veto. This was due in some measure to the one-sided nature of the resolution, although by UN standards it was not nearly as bad as it could have been. But it was mostly due to the revulsion felt in Jewish circles at the inexcusable hypocrisy of the United Nations, which forever uses Israel as its whipping boy while ignoring genocides and atrocities happening elsewhere.

America’s UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, spoke with great eloquence about UN mistreatment of Israel, and called for an end to “the double-standard that undermines the legitimacy of the [UN].”  Her remarks were intended to explain why America chose to abstain. But American Jews, including many opponents of the settlements, pointed to those same remarks as a compelling reason why Israel deserves American protection in UN forums and why a U.S. veto should have been cast.  

3. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has American Jews scratching their heads in dismay at his vindictive response to the UN vote. In what can best be described as a schoolboy tantrum, Netanyahu had his government unleashed an endless stream of vicious and personal attacks on President Obama.

Not only were these attacks excessive and unnecessary, they were counterproductive. No matter what transpires in the months ahead, Israel will need to maintain strong bipartisan support in Congress and among all Americans. Since Obama is the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, it is impossible to imagine how targeting the president personally will strengthen Israel’s standing among the Democratic rank and file.

And that was not all. Netanyahu fired off meaningless threats in all directions. For example, he threatened to cut Israel’s contribution to the United Nations, a piddling sum that no one cares about.  And he summoned foreign ambassadors to receive rebukes on Christmas, one of the holiest days of the year for Christians, in what was a truly extraordinary faux pas for the Jewish state. As innumerable Israeli commentators pointed out, what would Israel say if Israeli ambassadors were summoned to foreign embassies on Yom Kippur?

None of this is to suggest that Netanyahu should have remained silent. An appropriate response might have echoed the tough words of Samantha Power about the UN’s moral failings when it comes to Israel, throwing the administration’s words back in its face. This would have been a dignified answer by a responsible leader to a difficult situation. Instead, Israel’s prime minister and his spokespeople, speaking of conspiracies and acting like lunatics, engaged in the schoolyard taunting of America’s elected leader. What, American Jews are asking, is going on?

4. Right-wing American Jews are convinced that President Donald Trump will respond to the current uproar by allowing unrestricted settlement in the West Bank, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and permitting Israel’s very conservative government to do whatever it pleases. Many other American Jews who are not right-wing fear that this is so.

The right-wingers are probably wrong. It is a considerable stretch to think that the Netanyahu government will be given a free hand. General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense-designate, is likely to be the experienced, responsible adult in the Trump cabinet and the linchpin of Trump’s foreign policy. Mattis was Trump’s best pick, a respected general with broad knowledge of diplomacy and military affairs and someone who brings to the table a profound suspicion of Iran and a healthy skepticism of Russia. Mattis is a friend of Israel, but a friend who believes in a two-state solution and who sees Israeli settlements as a potential danger to the region and to Israel.  Settlement building, he once said, if not constrained, could lead to “apartheid.”

Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State-designate, is a far more problematic choice for a variety of reasons, but he knows the Middle East well.  And he too is both a friend of Israel and well aware of how dangerous and problematic unrestrained settlement building will be.

Some worry that David Friedman, the new ambassador to Israel, will be setting policy on Israel and the Middle East for President Trump. He won’t. Mattis and Tillerson, who are cabinet heavyweights whether you agree with them or not, did not join the government so the likes of David Friedman could define its foreign policy. My bet is that President Trump will lean on his heavyweights, and they will not permit the settlement fanatics to run amuck. 

5. What American Jews yearn for most, of course, is some clarity on what Israel’s settlement policy actually is. They are inclined to support Israel’s government in the current brouhaha, but that does not mean to them that Netanyahu’s approach to settlements makes sense. He claims to want a two-state solution but builds settlements as if he doesn’t. He says that “settlements are not the issue” but always acts as if they are. He tells the right-wing political parties one thing on settlements and the American government something else. Not one American Jew in a thousand can explain Israel’s settlement policy for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist.

American Jews don’t want 1967 borders for Israel, but neither do they want a binational state. And like James Mattis, they certainly don’t want apartheid. The bottom line is that even in the current crisis, while their hearts may be with Israel, they know that clear and reasonable limits must be set on Israeli settlement building. And they also know that if the Israeli government doesn’t set such limits, and soon, the Security Council or the Americans will end up doing it for them.