A few years back, I was asked to give a talk to some of the senior staff at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. It was fairly early in the Obama administration. The thrust of my remarks was: "This is not your father’s U.S.-Israel relationship."
My point was that a generational change was afoot. While those whose experience of Israel and its leaders had been formed in and around the Six Day War thought of Israel as the country that had made the desert green, and as a David at war with the Arab Goliaths around it, Barack Obama’s generation had a different view.
Obama graduated college at roughly the same time as the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres. His peers’ view was of an Israel that was the dominant military force in the region and one well capable of playing the bully.
Within just a few years, as Obama and those his age were starting out in their professional careers, the first intifada began. They saw images cultivated by protestors to show the imbalances between Israel and the Palestinians living within the borders Israel controlled.
Then, settlements began to expand. The narrative began to change. And for roughly the entirety of their lives they and their peers have seen an Israeli government that was open to questioning and often suspicion. That said, the country still stood out as the region’s foremost champion of democracy and as America’s closest ally.
That alliance was buffeted and altered by other geo-political changes. The end of the Cold War appeared to lower the stakes somewhat for the U.S.-Israel alliance. The onset of the War on Terror altered the situation further as U.S. ties with moderate Arab states in the region grew in importance. Further, Israel’s economic miracle was matched elsewhere in the region, in the Gulf, and at the same time.
Israel was and is the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East. But today time has taken its toll on that relationship and the reflexive support once expected from a generation of American leaders is now increasingly being questioned.
For some Americans, this shift had a different character, a deeper, more emotional component. Many American Jews felt a special tie to Israel.
They had relatives there, or they attended a synagogue that promoted the relationship, or they were touched personally by the Holocaust and the reasons for Israel’s creation in the first place. It was also expected that even if the relationship between the United States and Israel evolved, this bedrock relationship would remain immoveable, unchanging.
But of course, that was not to be either. The reflexive support of the AIPAC crowd for Israel’s government was soon countered by J Street, an organization more willing to be critical of Israeli leaders. And then as the abuses against the Palestinians were compounded by the Netanyahu administration, other more aggressively critical groups emerged.
An increasing number of American Jews who were once almost seen to have a duty to support Israel now found themselves, thanks to their American values - those that held democracy and tolerance and human rights dear - were now discovering they had a duty to question Israel’s top officials and the policies they embraced.
Further, as Israel played an ever-greater role in inflaming tensions in the region and increasingly displayed barbarous brutality in its attacks on Gaza, each more out of proportion with attacks they may have experienced or the dictates of self-defense than the last, those questions grew.
Now, however, we have reached a watershed. I was wrong when I warned that generational issues were the game-changer Israeli diplomats needed to contend with. The game-changer was the zealotry of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government itself.
The passage of the nation-state law attacks and effectively demolishes every reason for supporting the state of Israel that once existed for many American Jews and for an increasing number of Americans.
It puts the lie to the idea that Israel is a democracy by denying full-privileges of citizenship to long-time residents within the borders Israel controls.
It creates an apartheid society in which ethnic identity trumps fundamental human rights.
Hardest still for many American Jews, it flies in the face of cherished Jewish values and the lessons of Jewish history - so much so that it makes Israel in many respects, an un-Jewish state.
It also, not secondarily, makes Israel a less desirable ally, because it is harder to defend politically and morally, establishes it as more extreme and situates it as playing a more inflammatory role. Even if the Trump administration was tolerant or even supportive of this dissolute turn, that doesn’t make it in the U.S. national interest. As we have seen, often the contrary is true.
Indeed, the decision of the Israeli government to join with ethno-nationalists worldwide, including those in the Trump administration, makes the country part of one of the most dangerous movements afoot on the planet today - and also now, damagingly, foolishly, a partisan player in U.S. politics.
For a growing number of Americans and American Jews we have gone from a sense of duty to support Israel’s leaders, to a duty to question them, to a duty to actively oppose them and the government that enforces their policies. This is a harsh and heart-breaking reality.
It is not of course, an opposition to the people of Israel. Indeed, old deeply-held aspirations for what the country might become remain.
The recent mass protest in Tel Aviv against the law is a promising development - and to the extent possible, Americans and others worldwide who retain hope for a more just and equitable Israel should lend their support to such demonstrations and the movements of which they are a part.
But this government of Israel and what it stands for must be opposed in every way possible - including, given the absence of other effective options, boycotts.
To the extent that laws like the nation-state law remain the unaltered law of the land, Israel's leaders must be challenged, communities of conscience everywhere and all manner of pressure mobilized against it on behalf of those denied their most basic human rights by the law.
Israel’s government chose this path. Its acts have not only undermined its legitimacy; it has parted ways with many of those who support was in decades past most essential to its survival. History will see it as both a moral and a political mistake of the first order.
David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf
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