Asked about the obligations of American Jews to Israel, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen once offered this analogy. Imagine if Jews living in Rome around 135 C.E. had learned that Simon Bar Kochba was planning to lead the Jews of Judea in revolt. Living in the seat of empire, those Roman Jews might have realized that the revolt would likely end in tears. Should they not have used the insight that their particular vantage point offered to help their brethren avoid disaster?
The analogy is not perfect, but Cohen makes an important point. American Jews will never possess the intimate understanding that Israelis have of their own political culture. What we do possess is an intimate understanding of the political culture of the superpower on which Israel relies. And American political culture is growing more critical of Israel. There’s been a noticeable change even in the last few months.
To understand why, one must realize that Americans have always felt most comfortable defending Israel in the language of democracy. To combat Israel’s “delegitimization,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often stresses the Jewish people’s biblical ties to the land. That rhetoric works among conservative Christians, but it’s too theological for most Americans. Stressing Israel’s democratic character, by contrast – the political ideals it shares with the United States – appeals to Americans of all stripes.
That’s why Israel’s American supporters keep claiming that Israel’s government wants to create a Palestinian state, even as top Israeli leaders themselves insist they don’t. If Israel doesn’t want to create a Palestinian state – if its leaders are comfortable permanently controlling millions of people who cannot vote for the government that oversees their lives – then the core rationale that Israel’s American defenders have been using all these years breaks down.
That’s starting to happen. A few years ago, only experts fretted that settlement growth was killing the two-state solution. Now it’s a cliché. The failure of John Kerry’s peace mission and this summer’s war in Gaza have emboldened the American media to begin peering beyond the two-state solution. And the more journalists discuss the prospect of an Israel that permanently and undemocratically controls millions of stateless Palestinians, the more they question Zionism itself.
Eleven years ago, when Tony Judt advocated a binational state in The New York Review of Books, it created a scandal. Today, newspapers publish similar arguments all the time. In just the last month alone, The New York Times has published Antony Lerman’s “The End of Liberal Zionism,” which declared, “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, has published Patricia Marks Greenfield’s “An Israel Equal for All, Jewish or Not,” which insists that Israel “must be a fully secular state.”
In the mainstream American media, the taboo against questioning Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is lifting. In the three weeks after Lerman’s oped, I received more requests to debate anti-Zionists than I had received in the previous three years.
This should worry Israel’s leaders a great deal. It should worry them because once Israel’s Jewish character becomes a subject of controversy rather than an unquestioned fact, many liberal-minded Americans will find it difficult to defend. That’s not because they are anti-Semites. It’s because outside the Christian right, Americans intuitively assume that governments should have no religious or ethnic character. Indeed, a clear plurality of American Jews already tell pollsters they want Israel to separate religion and state. They just don’t realize that in saying so they’re challenging political Zionism itself.
I still believe the best answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a democratic Jewish state alongside a democratic Palestinian one. I believe that because, in a post-Holocaust world, I want there to be one country that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life. And I believe it because among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, nationalism remains a massively powerful force. To assume each community could subordinate its deep-seeded nationalism to a newfound loyalty to secular state strikes me as utopian. Secular binationalism barely works in Belgium. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea it’s probably a recipe for civil war.
But this requires arguing that Israel/Palestine is, at least right now, fundamentally different than the United States. It requires defending Zionism as something alien to the American experience, something necessary because in Israel/Palestine, the civic nationalism we revere here is neither possible nor desirable. That’s very different than arguing that the United States should support Israel because it’s America’s Middle Eastern twin.
For all his references to Derek Jeter and "Gone with the Wind," Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t understand Americans as well as he thinks he does. Yes, an aging minority of Fox News-watching whites will support Israel no matter what, because they admire Jews and fear Muslims. But younger Americans are less white, less religious, less nationalistic and less racist. And the harder they find it to conceive of Israel as a democracy, they harder they’ll find it to support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Israelis need to realize that by undermining the two-state solution, Netanyahu is prompting a debate inside the United States about Zionism itself. That debate will take a long time. But unless Israeli policy changes, it’s a debate that we Zionists may ultimately lose.
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