I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.
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This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.
Shortly after this conversation, Israel’s government announced that while it would evacuate five homes constructed on Palestinian-owned land in Beit El's Ulpana neighborhood in the West Bank, it would also build 851 additional housing units elsewhere in the territories. The prime minister declared that: “There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government.”
These two developments - increasing U.S. Jewish disconnection and the Israeli government's expansion of settlements - are intimately related: The first is explained by the second. The settlement enterprise, long the central issue of Israel’s internal politics, has become the constant, harping theme of political discussion about the Jewish State, causing concern, dismay, and confusion among even the most committed American Jews.
While some Jewish leaders (full disclosure: I have done this myself) attribute the focus on settlement to unfriendly press coverage in America, in reality the opposite is true. Many American Jews read Israel’s daily press, now widely available in English, and see that the obsession with settlement comes from the Israeli side and not the American side. To follow events in Israel is to read about Ulpana and Beit El, Migron and Givat Assaf. This week’s settlement crisis will give way to next week’s settlement crisis. And the settlement movement – the NRA of Israel – will continue its fanatic, unrelenting drive to expand settlements into every corner of the territories. And with increasing frequency, settlement activity will descend into hooliganism and violence.
American Jews worry and wonder: Is it really true that Israel’s government is not capable of putting an end to the tire-slashing and mosque-burning? How can it be that Israel does not dismantle settlements and outposts that, by its own definition, are illegal? Why is government after government, whether of the right or left, so unable to stand up to those whose explicit intent is to put an end forever to any hope of a two-state solution?
The apologists make the same tired arguments again and again. Well yes, settlement is an issue, they say, but “most” settlement is in the major settlement blocs, and therefore is not a problem. In the first place, this argument is flat-out wrong. Since the mid-1990s, the settlement population outside of the major settlement blocs has risen from about 35,000 to over 80,000, and Netanyahu’s most recent promise to build included units in this area.
And in the second place, this argument no longer makes any difference. After decades of non-stop settlement activity, most of it condemned by their own government, American Jews can no longer distinguish between one kind of settlement and another. And while they can explain and defend many things, they can neither explain nor defend the settlement mania that has gripped Israel for so long.
Has all of this pushed American Jews into the arms of Peter Beinart? Not at all. While Beinart is an astute critic who says many sensible things, he has a strident tone, nave notions about Palestinian leadership, and unworkable ideas on a boycott of West Bank products. American Jews remain sensible and centrist, skeptical of Palestinian intentions, and worried about the dangers that Israel faces.
They see real threats from Iran, Egypt, and Gaza, and they are unwilling to join a chorus of angry, public criticism—even if, ironically, they sometimes agree with that criticism. The result is that they keep Israel in their hearts, at least to a degree, but feel unsettled and distressed and increasingly turn their attention elsewhere.
There is an answer to this dilemma, and it does not require grand, sweeping concessions from Israel. But it does require an Israeli government that will make clear to the Jews of America and the world that the agenda of the Jewish State is not being set by its most radical elements; that keeping settlers happy is not Israel’s highest priority; and that a tough-minded approach to peace will be pursued no matter what the settlers say or threaten.
These goals could be accomplished in a variety of ways: Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has called for a “rational policy” that involves building only in the settlements blocs; Alan Dershowitz has called for a freeze on settlements, conditioned on a Palestinian return to the bargaining table; David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has called for setting tentative borders for the Jewish State. These proposals are not identical, but what they have in common is that they say to the settler movement: Enough! You will not determine our destiny.
If this does not happen, will American Jews rise up in revolt? Probably not, for the reasons noted above. Nonetheless, a reluctance to criticize is not an embrace, and the declining place of Israel-focused programming and speakers in Jewish venues is a warning that requires action. Standing up to the settlers is the best place to start.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.