American Jews Are Running Out of Patience With Israel

While Israeli politicians flip the finger at the world to score points with right-wing voters at home, they are alienating Israel’s most important, loyal allies: Progressive U.S. Jews.

Ori Nir
Ori Nir
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Meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem.
Meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Ori Nir
Ori Nir

Lately, American friends are asking me whether Israeli leaders are thinking straight, whether they realize how unreasonable their statements sound here in Washington, and how odd some of their policies seem.

These are people who support Israel, who genuinely care about its wellbeing, who follow the news from Israel with genuine concern, and who cannot comprehend what seems to them like self-destructive behavior. Behavior such as stepping up settlement construction while President Obama and Secretary Kerry are trying to advance peace for Israel; or publicly bad-mouthing and humiliating America’s secretary of state. Not to mention discriminatory practices and vile statements against non-Orthodox Jews; government tolerance of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox discriminatory practices against women; blatantly bigoted, racist and xenophobic statements by senior officials, and an endless flow of words and deeds that are inconsistent with liberal American values.

This frustration is not all new, and to a large extent it’s being tempered by all that is good and beautiful about Israeli society and culture, but there is a growing discontent with the news from Israel. It is particularly evident in Washington, where the policy community desperately wants to be reassured that Israel is still a dependable, sane and stable peace-seeking ally.

Recent weeks provides a wealth of examples. Israel’s Economy Minister, Naftali Bennett, told Haaretz that Kerry’s peace initiative is “suicide” for Israel and boasted, “We saved the country” by sabotaging Kerry. Later, in a Wall Street Journal article, Bennett laid out his plan for annexing almost two-thirds of the West Bank. He had the audacity to write that “annexing Area C would limit conflict by reducing the size of the territory in dispute, which would make it easier to one day reach a long-term peace agreement.”

Then there was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reported threat to fire Tzipi Livni, his cabinet minister responsible for negotiating with the Palestinians, because she met with Palestinian President Abbas.

And then there was the way Israeli officials reacted to the killing of the two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank town of Bitunia. Automatic flat-out denials before an official investigation was even launched, accusations of forgery, conspiracy theories, and not a shred of concern at what seems to have been an avoidable loss of two young lives. Foreign Minister Lieberman rejected Washington’s request to investigate the incident, calling the request “hypocrisy.” Why hypocrisy? Because 170,000 people were killed in Syria, Israel’s top diplomat explained.

The middle finger that Israeli politicians are flipping at the world may score points with right-wing voters, but it is poking the eye of Israel’s most important and most loyal allies: Pro-Israel U.S. opinion leaders, primarily progressive American Jews.
A new study by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute explores the dissonance that diaspora Jews experience (the study obviously focused on American Jews) when their values – and particularly what they consider “Jewish values” clash with official Israeli policies. The study focuses on the question of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and it presents the discord in light of the way in which non-Israeli Jews perceive Israel as Jewish and democratic and their wishes to enhance its Jewishness, its character as a democracy, or both.

The study therefore neglects to highlight the bafflement – sometimes even the horror – among many American Jews (and other supporters of Israel) as they realize that many Israeli leaders have ceased to actively pursue peace as a critical national security objective and that many Israelis have ceased to cherish it as a value. Many American Jews who are uncomfortable with some of Israel’s more controversial policies and practices are willing to accept them as long as Israel pursues peace.

Without a credible peace process, those policies and practices that seem to fly in the face of Jewish values and of the perception of Israel as a democratic state, become much harder for American Jews to stomach.

Israel’s government should pursue peace with the Palestinians first and foremost because it is a key national security interest of Israel’s citizens. But when the government dismisses or even thwarts peace efforts it ought to consider the impact of this conduct on another major Israeli national security asset – the pro-Israel community in the United States. No Israeli government should take that community’s support for granted.

Ori Nir, formerly the Washington bureau chief of Haaretz and the Forward, is the spokesperson of the Washington-based Americans for Peace Now, the sister-organization of Israel's Peace Now movement.

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