For most of the past 64 years, Israeli and American Jewry enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. Both sides gained a great deal from the arrangement. Israelis got a fierce and loyal funder and defender – one that happened to be an important constituency in the most powerful country in the world. American Jews got a sense of mission and purpose, and, through advocacy and philanthropy, got to participate in the epic Jewish national project. Even if we didn’t really understand each other quite as well as we thought we did, the relationship between our two communities was predicated on shared values, a bedrock commitment to an unshakable American-Israeli alliance, and a vision of Israel that was both a Jewish homeland and a liberal democracy.
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But this relationship is changing. More and more, it seems as if the world’s two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. On some of the biggest issues, it is not clear how much we still have in common. The recent election in the United States and the coming election in Israel are a case in point.
Two months ago, about 70% of the American Jewish community voted to reelect Barack Obama. This, despite an unprecedented multi-million dollar campaign by the Sheldon Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel and other groups attempting to peel away Jewish votes from the president and the Democrats by arguing that Mr. Obama was bad for Israel. The attempt to present the election as a referendum on the president’s pro-Israel bona fides flopped, but not before it furthered the perception that supporters and surrogates of the Israeli government were choosing sides and trying to influence an American election. This didn’t go over so well with American Jews.
That this effort failed so miserably came as a surprise to nobody, other than Mr. Adelson and the neo-cons. American Jews are liberal, and have been for a very long time. In fact, you have to go back to 1920 to find an election in which more Jews voted for the Republican candidate for president than the Democratic one, and then only because the Jewish vote split between the Democrat (19%) and the Socialist (38%). What’s more, most American Jews don’t disapprove of President Obama’s position on Israel. In fact, a majority supports the president’s handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and strongly supports a two-state solution.
But while most American Jews report that they feel close to Israel, only a tiny percentage of them actually base their vote on it. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish voters cite the same priorities as other Democrats: the economy, health care, education. These American Jews care about Israel, but it is only one of many things they care about. And when they – the vast majority of the Jewish American community - perceive that Israel is acting in ways antithetical to what they assumed were shared values, the danger is that they will walk away.
Which brings us to the Israeli elections. If the polls are correct, on January 22, Israelis will elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It is likely to be even more hardline than the current coalition, on whose watch Israel’s relations with the Obama administration soured over disagreements over Iran, Israel’s expanding settlement enterprise, and the moribund peace process. This coalition presided over an Israel in which Knesset members from the ruling parties pushed forward a raft of patently anti-democratic legislation, women fought attempts by some in the ultra-Orthodox community to exclude them from the public sphere, and government ministers vowed to make the lives of African refugees in Israel miserable and expel them. Criticism of these policies from Israelis was all too often characterized as treason. Criticism from abroad was merely proof that “the world is against us.” None of this was lost on worried American Jews.
The coming coalition is likely to redefine “right wing” in Israel. The authors of the most anti-democratic legislation in Israeli history are now positioned high on the Likud-Beitenu list, and we are sure to see a renewed attempt to restrict judicial independence, the media and civil society, especially the human rights community. The passage of the Boycott Law in the last Knesset is a worrisome harbinger of more attempts to limit freedom of speech and conscience. The Likudniks who guarded the flame of their party’s traditional commitment to individual rights and democracy have been tossed off the party list, replaced by extremists and champions of the settlement movement. New parties, like Habayit Hayehudi, headed by opponents of the two-state solution who openly advocate annexation of the occupied territories, are gathering strength and will likely exert strong influence on the new government’s agenda.
I don’t think that many Israelis understand just how badly all of this damages Israel’s international standing, particularly its relationship with the overwhelming liberal Jewish community of a country that venerates its Bill of Rights. I’m sure many of the talkbacks to this article will say that they could not care less. But righteous indignation and name-calling are not substitutes for the advantages that come with a strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And that relationship is at risk.
Luckily, there are reasons for hope. Millions of Israelis are deeply committed to Israel’s founding democratic and Jewish values, and are concerned about the direction in which their country is headed. The same polls that predict a victory for the hard right also show significant, albeit divided, strength for a center-left bloc, and many still-undecided voters. An invigorated opposition championing democracy, peace, human rights and social justice could provide a critical check and an alternative direction for Israel.
On the issues, recent polls show that Israel, much like America, is closely divided, with the values and policies of the left at least as popular as those of the right. Progressive political parties may be less popular in today’s post-Oslo Israel; progressive ideas are not.
This Israel still shares enormous common ground with the American Jewish community. Without engaging in the blatant electioneering shenanigans that damaged Israel’s image during the American election, we must find ways to support those whose values we share as they fight to take back their country. And it is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to speak truth to the new ultra-nationalist extremists of Israel, to tell them that the path they are on is damaging Israel and endangering its relationship with the American Jewish community that has always stood with it. It will be a difficult task. But that is what true friends are for.
Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.