Netanyahu's Real Victim? The American Jewish Establishment

A new, GOP-centered Jewish alliance powered by Sheldon Adelson is gradually taking its place.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Netanyahu finishes his address at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington. March 4, 2014.
Netanyahu finishes his address at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington. March 4, 2014.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Who are Benjamin Netanyahu’s American victims? Not Barack Obama. Despite Bibi’s best efforts, he’s still in office, and retains the affections of most American Jews. Not the left-wing activists who oppose a Jewish state within any borders: Bibi’s settlement mania has been a bonanza for them. “We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu,” declared BDS leader Omar Barghouti last December. “Without him we could not have reached this far.”

No, Bibi’s real American victims are the people who appear publicly to be his friends: The leaders of groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress is simply the latest example. He’s destroying the old American Jewish establishment and building a new one in its place.

For decades now, the old American Jewish establishment has relied on a distinction between the way American Jews see the United States and the way they see Israel. In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League combats “all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” The American Jewish Committee “advances human rights and democratic values.”

The ADL and AJC champion voting rights, gay rights and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Even AIPAC, which does not support a liberal domestic agenda (it is agnostic on all domestic issues), relies heavily on members who do. Almost 90 percent of American Jews support abortion rights, after all. And American Jews remain more than twice as likely to identify with the Democratic Party as with the GOP.

Yet when it comes to Israel, a switch flips and establishment American Jewish groups lose their passion for “human rights” and “democratic ideals.” They almost never publicly criticize Israel for denying millions of West Bank Palestinians the right to be citizens of the country in which they live, the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, the right to travel freely and the right to live under the same legal system as their Jewish neighbors.

Over the years, maintaining this moral distinction has grown harder. Outside the Orthodox community, younger American Jews are less tribal and less fearful than their elders. As a result, they are less likely to exempt Israel from the universalistic, human rights-oriented perspective they apply to their own country. And that alienates them from establishment American Jewish groups that give the Israeli government virtual blank check support.

But if generational change was already causing mainstream American Jewish groups problems, Netanyahu is making them worse. The American Jewish establishment needs to make liberal Democratic Jews feel comfortable backing the Israeli government. That’s harder when the man leading the Israeli government colludes with Republicans against a Democratic president. The more American Jews feel forced to choose between Obama and Netanyahu, the more that undermines American Jewish groups that rely on the proposition that you can support them both.

And it’s not just that Bibi himself clearly prefers Republicans. A new, GOP-dominated American Jewish infrastructure – which includes organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America – is being built around him. At its center sits Bibi’s longtime patron, Sheldon Adelson. If the old American Jewish establishment tries to combine support for Israeli policy with domestic tolerance, the new American Jewish establishment is nakedly Islamophobic. Adelson, for instance, is on record as saying that “the Muslimswant to kill all Jews.” The ZOA sponsors talks by anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller.

If the old American Jewish establishment relies on Jewish Democrats, the new Jewish establishment alienates them. At its 2014 gala, the ZOA honored Ted Cruz. In 2013, it honored Michele Bachmann and Mike Huckabee. It would be hard to find politicians whom American Jews dislike more. Indeed, American Jews even disapprove of Adelson himself, according to a recent J Street poll, by a margin of three to one.

The moral distinction that has long underpinned organized American Jewish life is fading. Liberal American Jews are increasingly critical of the illiberalism of Israeli policy. And the American Jews who support Israeli policy increasingly support an illiberal agenda inside the United States.

This, in part, is Bibi’s American legacy. He’s strengthening the American Jewish right and the American Jewish left. His victims are the people who made their living somewhere in between.

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