For American Jews troubled by the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency, last week’s press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have offered a momentary return to normalcy.
Trump may have presided over an outbreak in anti-Semitism unknown to most Americans under 40, he may have proposed restrictions on refugee entry that call to mind the shuttered doors which greeted those fleeing Europe during the Second World War, he may have appointed as ambassador to Israel a man who has described American Jews critical of the Israeli government as “worse than kapos” – but in consistently declaring his unwavering and unconditional support for Israel, Trump has sounded chords familiar to American politics. The presser provided a platform for this comforting song.
Instead, Trump declared that the U.S. is no longer partial to a two-state solution and berated an Israeli reporter for asking about anti-Semitism. The American Jewish establishment issued a collective gasp. Organizations scrambled to issue statements that might both express and alleviate concern.
The press conference was most alarming, however, not for the positions offered, nor the particularly incoherent Trumpian way in which they were articulated. Rather, it revealed the implications and dire consequence of the last several decades of American Jewish politics.
Since the rise of AIPAC in the 1980s, a single purpose and a single message has driven the politics of the American Jewish establishment. That aim is to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. And it is justified with the oft-repeated words: “shared values.”
This phrase plays to braided myths woven deep in the American Jewish psyche. The first is the myth of American exceptionalism. In this story, the U.S. is a nation with a special mission to the world, a country based on principles of equality and justice with a history of perpetual progress toward the achievement of those ideals. This is a narrative with a particular hold on American Jews, who tend to see themselves as both leaders in the narrative’s realization and proof of its power.
Israel carries, for American Jews, its own myth of exceptionalism. In this tale, Israel is a scrappy nation founded against all odds by a people thrown out of every other country in which they lived and brutally exterminated in Europe, a nation that managed to make the desert bloom and found an oasis of democracy in a sea of Arab theocracy and autocracy. According to this story, Israel is a land of economic ingenuity and a living symbol of Jewish justice, compassion, and perseverance against intransigent hatred and anti-Semitism.
No matter the actual history or policies or politics of either country, these myths endure. If racism or economic stagnation or mass poverty persists in the “land of opportunity,” it is only because we have not yet fully achieved our promise or “those people” have not yet addressed their failings. If the Jewish people are a just people, the occupation cannot be a dehumanizing system of manifest brutality. It must be a momentary misfortune due to Palestinian refusal to accept Jewish self-determination. Any aberration to the narrative is easily assimilated into its arc, unfortunate errors that will inevitably and in time be corrected.
Both the right and the left in American Jewish politics are intoxicated by these myths. It is more obvious on the right, with its unwillingness to consider that the Israeli government might be anything other than entirely innocent. But the left has its version as well. When I worked with J Street, I told audiences that absent a two-state solution, Israel could not “remain” the Jewish democratic homeland – as if a country that exercises sovereignty over a territory in which half its subjects do not have the right to vote faces a crisis only in some distant, potential future.
These myths help justify a political project that claims neutrality in the service of a “bond between nations.” The elected governments of each, after all, cannot help but serve their country’s worthy ideals. Regardless of the policies unfolding in either the U.S. or Israel, the primary aim of American Jewish politics remains the same: protecting the relationship between them.
This leads us to the odd scene of the last week, as the American Jewish establishment was collectively cast as the part of Captain Rains in Casablanca, feigning surprise to discover gambling at the cafe. We are “shocked, shocked!” to find that after years of the Israeli government undermining a two-state solution an American president would follow suit. And we are “shocked, shocked!” that when our president dismisses the rise in anti-Semitism provoked by his election the Israeli prime minister would so quickly leap to his defense. What exactly does an “unbreakable” and “iron-clad” relationship look like, if not this?
The major institutions of the American Jewish community now faces the aftermath of a pyrrhic victory. They can’t help but celebrate an American president who stands shoulder to shoulder with an Israeli prime minister, even as the governments of both press forward policies overtly hostile to democratic norms. In Israel the occupation grinds through its 50th year as illegal outposts are retroactively authorized. In the U.S., the president is systematically attacking a free press and independent judiciary while encouraging an overt American nativism many thought buried in history. So long blinded by the drive for strong bonds between Israel and the U.S., most American Jewish communal institutions now find themselves impotent to address these historic threats.
Certainly, some perceive the nature of the challenge. HIAS is throwing itself into the leadership of the refugee fight. #IfNotNow has made it impossible for Jewish institutions to collude with the present administration without hearing from an army of Jewish millennials. The Reform movement, for the first time, is opposing a nomination for ambassador to Israel. Even the ADL is adopting a more aggressive stance. The question is whether such efforts can expand, grow and overwhelm the paralysis that continues to dominate the most powerful Jewish communal institutions.
This question – of whether American Jews can shape a politics that can meet the challenges of today – is not new to 2017. But Trump’s election has exposed its urgency. Whatever shape that politics takes, it will require an embrace of the hard truth that there are no predetermined outcome to political battles, that neutrality is a mask for cowardice, that we are only as good as we behave and not what we declaim, and that values are easily celebrated and only with difficulty and courage lived.
Daniel May was Director of J Street U from 2010-2013. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Religion, Ethics and Politics at Princeton University.
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