U.S. Jews Should Put Themselves Before Israel

Jewish support for Israel is important, but it can't substitute for Jewish identity.

The second-richest Jew in the world is once again in the spotlight. Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miri have together donated $10 million to Winning Our Future, the political action committee supporting Newt Gingrich's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and the pundits are asking how one man and his wife can be allowed to sway an election with the weight of their money.

Whether this princely sum and the television ads it has bought will be sufficient to sway enough GOP voters away from Mitt Romney and secure Gingrich the nomination is still highly debatable. But the media's reaction to the Adelson gift has not focused only on the role of big money in presidential politics. Just about every report and column written on the subject ascribes Gingrich's positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Adelson's central motive for backing him.

Newt Gingrich - AP - 27012012

There is a degree of hypocrisy in the way the media is treating Adelson. While he may have given the largest donation so far of this presidential election cycle, $10 million is far from the highest sum ever donated by an individual in American politics. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, another rich Jew, financier George Soros, still holds the record as the top political contributor, for donating $23.7 million during the 2004 elections to organizations supporting John Kerry's unsuccessful campaign. But Soros was coming from the liberal/left end of the political spectrum, while Adelson has been branded an "Israel-firster."

For those of you who have not been following the raging debate in the American blogosphere over the past few weeks about the use of this term, here's a short summary of the conflict: Two prominent organizations firmly rooted in the left wing of the Democratic ideological establishment - the Center for American Progress, a think tank, and Media Matters, an online information hub - have come under fire for the tone of their criticism of Israeli policy and of support for that policy by the Obama administration, the Republicans and, most controversially, the pro-Israel lobby in the Jewish community. Nothing new there, of course, but what heated up this by now rather boring argument was the term "Israel-firsters," which some of the left-wing bloggers writing for CAP and Media Matters used when referring to diehard defenders of the Jewish state.

Israel-firster is an extremely loaded concept. It echoes the America-first anti-war movement that existed in the United States from the late 1930s until Pearl Harbor, a movement with a distinct anti-Semitic flavor, as its main spokesman, Charles Lindbergh, blamed the Jews for trying to push America into the war against Germany.

But even without the historical connotation, to call American Jews Israel-firsters is to accuse them of disloyalty and of preferring another country's interests, and it denies them the right as American citizens to champion the position that the United States should be supporting Israel. It is no coincidence that "Israel-firsters" was coined and used over recent decades mainly on bona fide anti-Semitic websites by the likes of David Duke.

This does not mean that questioning whether American and Israeli interests (and especially those of the current Israeli government ) are identical is not a perfectly legitimate exercise. Neither does it mean that bloggers who used an anti-Semitic term are themselves anti-Semites (not surprising, many of them are Jewish ). All it does is point to a sore lack of judgment and historical awareness on their part.

A slippery slope

It's true that Gingrich once wrote that the Palestinians are "among the most international and most advanced people in the Arab world," while now he refers to them as an "invented people." But that is the way the American political game is played. Contributions to candidates buy the donors access and influence. His position may have shifted over the last six years - once, he wrote that Washington should "insist on an end to Israeli expansionism"; now, he says he does "not oppose any development in the Israeli-occupied areas" - but politics is the art of flexibility.

Since no journalist has the ability to examine Adelson's heart and mind, how can they dispute his claim that he believes he is acting in America's best interests, which he sees as linked with an ultra-right-wing vision for Israel's future? Even if many of us believe such a path is disastrous for Israel and not entirely useful for the United States, there is a legitimate argument to be made that we are wrong on both counts. And denying American Jews the legitimacy to make it is an extremely slippery slope.

But while questioning the loyalties of Israel's staunch supporters is a dishonorable and nasty tactic, there is a debate to be had on the centrality of Israel in Jewish-American life. Some American Jews are so obsessed with Israel, from both right and left, that their Jewish identity seems rather mixed up.

A host of surveys and polls have shown that for a majority of American Jews, Israel is not a major factor when voting for president. But a sizable minority does take Israel into account when entering the voting booth, and this minority includes most of the Jews who tend to be more affiliated and involved with Jewish life.

American Jewish support is of course valuable to Israel (though sometimes, one feels it would be a good idea for Israeli leaders to meet other American Jews, not just those who tell them how wonderful they are ). But it cannot serve as a substitute identity.

Every year as I look at the program of the General Assembly, the annual conference of the Jewish federations of North America, I fail to understand why Israel takes up over a third of the sessions, seminars and workshops, way above the time delegates spend discussing the dilemmas facing their own communities. Being Jewish may mean having a stake in the Jewish state, but it cannot be the denominator of a person's Jewishness.

If Israel lets you down, that is not a reason for feeling less Jewish. On the contrary, it should make you strive for your own ideals and values as a human being, a Jew and an American.

For their own sake, and for Israel's, American Jews should learn to put themselves first.