Several months after Israel won its stunning victory in the Six-Day War, my family spent a long weekend in Washington, D.C. While walking from some museum or monument to another, we passed a deli. In its window hung a sign, written in felt-tip marker on a sheet of butcher’s paper.
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“Our specialty: the Nasser Sandwich,” the sheet announced. “Half chicken, half tongue, on Jewish rye with Russian dressing.”
We all cracked up at the joke, and behind their laughter, my parents surely felt vindication in the Jewish State’s survival. Nearly all of my mother’s family members back in Bialystok had been exterminated by the Nazis. Some of my father’s relatives, who were in safely in England during the war, had made aliyah by1967.
Historically speaking, we know that no event sealed the bond between American Jews and Israeli Jews more than the Six-Day War. Donations soared. Voluntarism surged. The numbers of olim [immigrants] spiked for the next few years. American Jews found their collective voice in public protest and advocacy, and they raised that voice in service of an irrefutably moral cause.
It feels like a moment of mythological or Biblical counterpoint that now, just a few months shy of the 50th anniversary of the war, an unprecedented rift has opened between the United States and Israel and indeed between the majority of Jews in each country. The pendulum has swung from identification to alienation.
Nothing could be further from the truth than to see the U.S.’s abstention in the United Nations vote and Secretary of State John Kerry’s blistering speech as some kind of momentary spasm of pique, or merely as the culmination of eight years of toxic relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
No, these twin rebukes of Israel mark the end of a tragic trajectory, in which the miraculous recovery of the Western Wall and Old City have led to the victory of the Occupation. America’s tacit approval of the U.N. resolution decrying settlements and Kerry’s detailed denunciation of the settlement enterprise amount to eulogies for a two-state solution. In Jerusalem and Trump Tower, liberal Zionism is reviled as Jew-hating and anti-Semitic.
Fifty years ago, the Jewish people won. As the Trump Administration prepares to take office, already tweeting out its partnership with the Netanyahu government, the current triumph belongs to Yigal Amir, the Yesha Council, and the hilltop youth. It belongs, too, to Hamas and Yasser Arafat. And it belongs to American allies like Irving Moskowitz, Sheldon Adelson and the incoming ambassador, David Friedman, the benefactors of colonial expansion.
The furious response to Obama and Kerry in centrist and even liberal American Jewish circles sounds to me like the proverbial case of “protesteth too much.” Yes, the Obama Administration would have made its case better had the speech preceded the U.N. vote. And, yes, in explaining the vote, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power should have distinguished traditionally Jewish parts of East Jerusalem and the Old City from the rest of the occupied territories.
But I have no illusion that such fine points would have altered the overwrought reaction from most of American organizational Jewry and much of the pulpit rabbinate. Kerry made the unpardonable sin of saying out loud what a majority of liberal and centrist American Jews – which is to say the vast part of the American Jewish population – have long known deep in their hearts to be true.
The settlements make the necessary division of land in any negotiated peace agreement impossible. And while much of American Jewry, like the centrists of Israel, has gone on paying lip service to the two-state solution and bemoaning the lack of a partner on the other side, our position has never been shared by the settlers and their political and financial backers.
While we sighed in prevarication, while we tacitly accommodated the occupation by attending yeshivas and visiting friends and relatives in the West Bank, the settlers built. And confiscated. And built some more.
To look back over the half-century is to see, bitterly, how we ended up here. It is also to see three distinct time periods and the shifts of Jewish opinion that characterized each.
The first, from the Six-Day War to the start of the first Intifada, saw such Arab hostility and intransigence that proposing a two-state solution ranked somewhere between fantasy, folly, and suicide.
The second, from the end of the first Intifada to the start of the second, saw the breakthrough at Oslo, the near-agreement at Camp David, and the mainstreaming of the two-state solution.
The third, from the second Intifada until now, saw a growing sense of failure in the peace process and the search for whom to blame. During the terror war of the Second Intifada, that culprit was clearly Arafat and his regime. Since then, the culprit has been less clear.
As American Jews, we were assured that if a more reasonable leader like Mahmoud Abbas were installed, or if a technocrat like Salam Fayyad developed the institutions of civil society, or if a professional Palestinian security force was trained by the American military, then the conditions for ending the conflict would be achieved. But all three of those things happened and nothing changed, at least nothing for the better.
By now, the American Jews of my parents’ generation, the ones with firsthand memories of the Shoah and the establishment of Israel, have mostly died. My generation, which lived through the existential wars of 1967 and 1973 and cannot let itself entirely disown Israel, is heading into retirement.
Our children, however, have no experience of a righteous and vulnerable Israel and no political patience for a government hellbent on turning Zion into South Africa. They will detach from it, or actively oppose it, a putative promised land gone hardal, hardline Orthodox and hardline nationalist.
Now, with the election of Trump, all of the Israeli right’s prayers have been answered. The Republican platform has dropped its former endorsement of a two-state solution. The embassy is coming to Jerusalem. Opposition to settlements will cease. Maybe the $38-billion military-aid package will be reopened to let Israel get those bunker-buster bombs for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, an operation that Trump would certainly permit.
We can engage in the parlor game of wondering what might have been different, in that third and final phase of the 50-year arc. What if Arafat had said yes at Camp David? What if Ariel Sharon had not suffered the stroke that ended his plan for unilateral separation? What if Ehud Olmert had not undermined his negotiating ability with financial corruption and his poor handling of the 2006 war?
Regardless of the what-ifs, we now have the what-is. And what is, is heartbreaking and soul-crushing.
Samuel G. Freedman, the author of books including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” is a regular contributor to Haaretz. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman