Whatever Happens After Tuesday's Elections, American Jews Won’t Abandon Israel

The coming American Jewish estrangement from Israel is a myth. What actually happens in Israel is much less important to most American Jews than what it stands for in their hearts and minds. But that also means there's no U.S. Jewish leverage on Israelis not to vote the far right into office.

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There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the probable outcome of next week’s Knesset elections. The health of Israeli democracy, the relations between Jews and Arabs in the country, Israel’s international standing, and, above all, the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could all be seriously damaged by Likud-Beiteinu’s likely victory and the formation of an even more right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than the one that currently exists.

One thing, however, that we should not be concerned about is the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Whatever their misgivings about Israel’s political direction are, American Jews are not going to abandon it any time soon.

In recent weeks, liberal Jews in Israel and the United States have been warning that American Jews will become alienated and estranged from Israel if Israeli politics shift further to the right. Bradley Burston predicted in Haaretz that this could be the year in which American Jews “effectively secede” from the State of Israel, and, in a similar vein, Daniel Sokatch, head of the New Israel Fund, argued here  that American Jews might “walk away” from Israel if they no longer believe that it shares their liberal values. These warnings, though no doubt heartfelt, are based on nothing but the writers’ own sense of anguish about Israel’s current political trajectory, and a conviction that this anguish is widely shared by American Jews and will lead many to emotionally distance themselves from Israel. They assume that because American Jews are mostly liberal and Israel is becoming increasingly illiberal this is bound to undermine the attachment of American Jews to Israel. This assumption is simply wrong.

To be sure, most American Jews are liberal, and some of them are deeply concerned about the rightward drift of Israeli politics. But most are not. Only a minority pays close attention to what’s actually happening in Israel. Very few American Jews have any idea who Naftali Bennett is or what his plans are for Area C in the West Bank (for that matter, how many Israelis know much about this?).

Israeli politics matter a great deal to a small number of American Jews. This highly-engaged minority cares passionately about Israel. The composition of the next Knesset and the makeup of the next Israeli government are of great importance to them. A large proportion of this highly-engaged minority are Orthodox Jews, who will be only too happy to support a right-wing government in Jerusalem. A smaller number of highly-engaged American Jews are liberal and left-wing — a minority within the minority — and these individuals will undoubtedly be dismayed if the Israeli right gains more power. Some of them may even become so dismayed that they turn away from Israel altogether, but most won’t. Instead, they will continue to complain about political developments in Israel and fret about consequences of those developments. I know because I am one of those individuals. But whatever happens next Tuesday, I won’t walk away from Israel.

Most American Jews, though, aren’t like me or like Daniel Sokatch, or indeed, like many of the readers of this article. They care about Israel, but they don’t obsess about it. They don’t think that much about it, and they don’t know that much about it. Israel, for them, is less a country, than a symbol. They care about Israel because of what it represents symbolically — Jewish power, pride, security, and survival. What actually happens in Israel and what Israel does is much less important to most American Jews, than what it stands for in their hearts and minds. As such, they will continue to care about Israel and feel emotionally attached to it, regardless of which government is in power.

This does not mean that American Jews are completely indifferent about Israeli politics or the actions of Israel’s governments. In so far as they pay attention to what Israel does and what’s happening in Israel, many will certainly be alarmed by the rise of the far right and the growing influence of politicians who reject a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or wish to rid the country of its Arab citizens. The more right-wing, illiberal, and oppressive Israel becomes, the less Israel will fill American Jews with pride. Growing numbers might even feel ashamed of Israel’s behavior, as some already do.

But this sense of shame is not a sign of alienation from Israel. It is only because they identify with Israel that American Jews can be ashamed of it (or conversely, take pride in it). We are only ashamed of people, groups, or countries that we feel we belong to in some sense — we might be ashamed of a member of our family, for example, but we do not feel ashamed by the actions of someone who is completely unrelated to us. To be ashamed of Israel, therefore, is to be somehow attached to it.

Whatever the outcome of next week’s election, then, the attachment of American Jews to Israel will not be affected by it. This attachment is still strong, despite persistent anxiety about the alleged distancing of American Jews from Israel. This is good news for anyone concerned about the American Jews' closeness to Israel, but bad news for anyone hoping that the prospect of American Jews becoming estranged from Israel might lead Israelis to think twice before voting for right-wing parties.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the co-author of Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within(Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Demonstrators exchange words during a march in Los Angeles, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2006. Credit: AP

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