Will, an American Harvard student, looked up as we were eating dinner and said in a trembling voice, as if the 200-year-old ceiling would cave in the second he opened his mouth: “I cannot see one good reason we should continue supporting you guys over there.”
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Over the course of my three-and-a -half years at Harvard I have become used to anti-Israel remarks from some of my European (overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian) friends. But this voice of doubt, if not disengagement, about Israel came from an American and a devout Democrat, who has participated in two campaigns for seats in the Senate and the House, and is well on his way to becoming a leading figure on tomorrow’s Capitol Hill. Like Will, more and more Harvard students are criticizing Israel. You might be thinking: The elitist liberals of Harvard are no indicator of what is going on in the United States or the Democratic Party today. And you would be absolutely right. Unfortunately, it just happens to be the perfect litmus test for what is going to happen in the Democratic Party – tomorrow.
Just as many of today’s leading political and judicial figures started their way in the corridors of the Ivy League, it is certain that these students will one day also come to lead the liberal half of The Land of the Free.
The Democratic Party’s old generation is still strongly committed to Israel’s well-being. The likes of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and even President Obama are still as pro-Israel as they come. Next election’s candidates will also be no different – rising stars like New York’s charismatic governor, Andrew Cuomo, or Newark mayor Cory Booker have done everything but bake us Valentine’s Day cookies.
But if we scrape off these layers, as more and more old leaders are replaced by young ones, we find a bleak picture for Israel.
Another friend who graduated last year with high honors for his work in the Department of Government asked me rhetorically, in reference to the Israeli government announcement to expand the E-1 settlements near Jerusalem, the day after the U.S. voted against Palestinian statehood in the UN, “do you really think it makes sense for us to give you weapons as you keep embarrassing us?”
It is not so much the questions themselves that are worrying as their tone and the feeling of infuriation behind them. And sadly, our pathetic attempts at hasbara (public relations) have been failing, even as every Israeli spams their Facebook feed with photos of Palestinian rockets and quasi-informative bullet-points. It all comes back to the West Bank, the settlements and Palestinian statehood; and as long as we control the West Bank – no army of eloquent English-speaking spokespeople can help us.
No, despite our efforts, things will get worse. As long as the criticism came from Europe or better yet – from one of the hostile third-world cartoonish dictatorships that comprise most of the international community, we could feel safe. But we have done a wonderful job at aligning the American left more closely with the rest of the world. Some in Israel would love to think of Netanyahu as a sophisticated diplomat, smooth-talking the international community; or as his election slogan so modestly said: “When Netanyahu speaks, the world listens.”
Let’s take a moment to remember some highlights: The E-1 settlement gaffe, intervening in the U.S. elections in support of Romney, Netanyahu confidante Ron Dermer's scathing letter to the New York Times calling it biased and anti-Israel, and many more. The Netanyahu administration with its odd assortment of American neo-conservative immigrant advisors has made one idiotic decision after another. Whether these are the result of Netanyahu’s poor choice of advisors or of his own narrow-minded ideology – the consequences remain the same and the damage to Israel’s interests persists.
But as much as it is convenient to blame it all on Netanyahu, what we see is a longer trend. The interest in Israel as a partner is diminishing as it becomes less clear how we are more than just a trouble-maker, and our presence in the West Bank is increasingly becoming more of an ideological problem for liberal Americans. It is not a coincidence that Hollywood - another liberal stronghold – has picked as Oscar nominees two films that are critical of the Palestinian problem.
Still, the next few years could start a change. If Yair Lapid joins the coalition, as appears likely, he could moderate Netanyahu and perhaps the trend can be slowed down. Perhaps a less right-leaning government this time around, that creates fewer diplomatic fiascos for the U.S. and reignites a peace process with the Palestinians will be a good start. The issue after all has nothing to do with any deep hatred toward Israel; but rather just a general fatigue with the delinquent child whose older brother is tired of having to protect him in the schoolyard.
In his heyday President Nixon, exasperated with Harvard’s alleged uber-liberal agenda, called this fine institution “the Kremlin on the [river] Charles.” Harvard has always been far more liberal than the American public; but to ignore what Democrats like Will are saying is tantamount to betraying Israel’s interests. The U.S.-Israel relationship needs to be refortified, and relying only on the undying love of religious Evangelical Republicans may soon leave us empty-handed and alone.
Tom Dan, born in Holon, Israel, is a senior at Harvard and a member of the Association of Harvard Israelis.