The New American Jewish Struggle Over Israel: Hawks Versus Ultra-hawks

J Street isn't the only group challenging the American Jewish establishment. Sheldon Adelson is too.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and chairman of Sands China Ltd., speaks during a news conference in Macau, China, on September 20, 2012.
Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and chairman of Sands China Ltd., speaks during a news conference in Macau, China, on September 20, 2012.Credit: Bloomberg
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

The most important trend in American Jewish politics today is the collapse of the center. The American Jewish establishment isn’t only being challenged by left-leaning groups like J Street. It also faces a less widely recognized, but equally powerful, challenge from the right.

Consider this week’s spat between Sheldon Adelson and Abraham Foxman. At an event last Sunday, Adelson’s fellow oligarch, Chaim Saban, said Israel needed to support a Palestinian state if it wanted to remain a Jewish democracy. To which Adelson replied, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. I think God didn’t say anything about democracy. God talked about all the good things in life. He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state, otherwise Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”

So what? With that question, Adelson lobbed a grenade at the American Jewish establishment. When the American Jewish establishment defends Israel, it doesn’t talk much about God. That’s because while theological language plays well among conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews, it tends to alienate secular liberals. Indeed, it alienates some of the secular liberals who populate American Jewish organizations. As a result, America’s mainstream Jewish groups generally justify Israeli policy not via religion but via America’s civil religion—democracy—a creed that enjoys unquestioned reverence across the political spectrum. By claiming democracy doesn’t matter, Adelson was sabotaging the case for Israel that the American Jewish establishment has been making for decades. Which is why one of that establishment’s senior members, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, called Adelson’s remarks “disturbing on many levels.” Foxman added that, “the founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state. Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill-serve the state and people of Israel.”

The problem is that Israel has been pursuing just such an initiative for almost a half-century now. Since 1967, it has established dominion over millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack citizenship or the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.

Far from apologizing for that control, or seeking to undo it, Israel’s current government is making it permanent. And the Israeli leaders most committed to the settlement project freely acknowledge that for them, democracy is not the highest value. In the words of Moshe Feiglin, deputy speaker of the Knesset, “The State of Israel was created for the Jewish people, and its democracy is supposed to serve the Jewish people. If this state acts against the interests of the Jewish people, there is no longer any point in its existence, be it democratic or not.”

For years now, the American Jewish establishment has been laundering Israel’s behavior for American consumption: Justifying Israel’s undemocratic settlement policies in the soothing language of democratic values. But right-wingers like Adelson increasingly refuse to play along. Claiming you cherish Israeli democracy, after all, requires claiming that the West Bank Palestinians who Israel currently controls should one day have a state of their own. Since the American Jewish right sees that as both dangerous to Israeli security and an affront to God, it is challenging the American Jewish establishment by bluntly advocating a one-state solution in which millions of Palestinians are permanently disenfranchised, democracy be damned. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which Adelson helps bankroll, has partnered with conservative Christians to pass resolutions in the Florida and South Carolina legislatures declaring that they “consider Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem to be part of Israel.” The ZOA pushed a similar resolution at the Republican National Convention in 2012 but was stymied by AIPAC, which wanted both parties to go on record as supporting the two state solution.

Behind this growing conflict between the Jewish center and the Jewish right lies a demographic shift. Historically, mainstream American Jewish groups have been dominated by relatively secular Jews who vote Democratic and hold fairly liberal views on domestic issues, even as they passionately defend Israel against external criticism. But the children of these secular American Zionists are more likely to inherit their parents’ secularism than their Zionism. They’re not anti-Zionists. They’re just not as interested in devoting their free time to defending an Israeli government from which they feel distant, if not alienated.

As a result, the younger American Jews most willing to dedicate themselves to the “Pro-Israel” cause come disproportionately from an Orthodox community that is growing in both size and self-confidence. But Orthodox Jews, unlike their more secular counterparts, don’t generally hold liberal views on domestic issues. They mostly vote Republican. They’re more likely to explicitly reject the two state solution, and to justify that rejection by invoking God’s promise to give Jews the land. All of which makes them more willing to embrace the right-wing Christian evangelicals who more secular American Jews fear. In recent years, for instance, the Adelson-backed ZOA has given awards to Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee and Michelle Bachmann.

Given the larger trends in American politics, this isn’t surprising. For decades now, American politics has been growing more and more ideologically polarized. It has become harder and harder for any political institution to retain the trust of both right and left. Once upon a time, both liberals and conservatives watched Walter Cronkite deliver the CBS Evening News. Today, the liberals watch MSNBC and the conservatives watch Fox. It’s the same with Jews. Once upon a time, Jews from across the political spectrum joined groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee. Now the liberals are more likely to join J Street or even Jewish Voices for Peace and the conservatives are more likely to join the ZOA, the Republican Jewish Coalition or the Emergency Committee for Israel.

For years, the American Jewish center has tried to uphold the fiction that you can both support the two state solution and support Israel’s right to destroy the two state solution. Now the contradiction between those two imperatives is fracturing American Jewish institutional life. The result is an intra-Jewish debate that is fiercer, more divisive and more honest. And not surprisingly, Sheldon Adelson is leading the way.

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