Jewish Americans and Israel/Palestine: Pressures and fissures heading toward 2020
A woman walks by an election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Donald Trump, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Sept 15, 2019. Hebrew on billboard reads "Netanyahu, in another league." | Oded Balilty / AP

Several years ago, I attended a weekend of Limmud LA, a broad-spectrum Jewish learning forum in the Los Angeles area. I attended a session on “The Future of Judaism” with four or five panelists. At the end, a rabbi from the audience asked, “How is it that not one of you even mentioned Israel?” The panelists looked at one another in a kind of chagrined silence, until one of them took the mike and said, “Not many people in America look to Israel for moral guidance on how to conduct our lives as Jews.”

There have always been discernible differences between the lives of Israelis and the lives of Jews in the Diaspora. Now those differences have become an abyss.

Daniel Gordis, writing in the New York Times from his home in Israel, explains why the rift between Jewish Americans and Israelis will widen. Jewish Americans are steeped in liberalism and see equality among individuals and groups as paramount, while Israeli Jews are dedicated to preserving Israel as a Jewish state. The real sticking point is that somewhere between 20% and 25% of the Israeli population is not Jewish, so the Israeli effort, in law and custom, that makes them second-class citizens is considered anti-democratic by Jewish Americans. The steady movement toward annexation of the Occupied Territories (since the 1967 War) and continued unwillingness to allow Palestinians to achieve statehood are further irritants to a democratic sensibility.

Perhaps the rift will heal when Israel stops claiming it is oppressing its non-Jewish citizens, and denying Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza human, political, civil, and economic rights, in the name of the Jewish people worldwide. Jewish Americans do not want to be pressured into complicity with Israel’s deeds that they consider morally problematic.

The single most repeated command to Jews in the Hebrew Scriptures, more so even than honor the Sabbath, is to respect the stranger among you, for you were slaves in the land of Egypt. To a people whose history and essence are bound up with immigration and migration, this mandate has always been supreme, all the more so as Jews seek to claim equal democratic rights in whichever lands they choose, or are forced to settle.

A self-destructive messianic obsession has overtaken a large percentage of the Israeli population—not just the ultra-religious, not just the far-right followers of the egregiously racist Rabbi Kahane, but average Israelis of Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic origin, poor as well as rich, and mostly young enough not to have known any other reality than Occupation. Many of the poor are religious—and a quarter of Israel’s children and families are considered poor. They are generally bought off by having one of their coalition party leaders installed as Minister of Education or some other influential post.

The idea of a return to Biblical Zion has been perverted into an idolization of land acquisition by any means. The official names for the West Bank territories are Judea and Samaria. Any place that has a Biblical name is fair game for Israeli appropriation.

Among those Jews in the Diaspora, about half of the world’s Jewish population, the largest percentage live in the U.S. Many of them are thinking that, like other periods of fanatical overreach in the past when theology has been married to governance, the current project too cannot come to a good end.

What were once quiet reservations and disagreements have turned into vocal opposition to Israeli policies. It started with the failure of Israel to return the conquered territories after the 1967 War and has only grown in intensity ever since as it became clear that Israel, despite—and maybe because of—Oslo, never had an honest intention of allowing a Palestinian state to emerge.

Demonstrators walk outside of the Verizon Center where the 2016 American AIPAC Policy Conference was taking place in Washington, March 21, 2016. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

No wonder so many young Jews, among many others, have been drawn to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other protests against Israel policy, as the only way of saying: I was brought up Jewish, I identify as a Jew, I have Jewish values, and Israel no longer looks like a homeland where I would want to live and bring up my kids. A certain percentage of these American Jews, raised at least in theory on the one-person-one-vote ideal of democracy, would like to end any definition of Israel as a Jewish state at all and turn the whole land of historical Palestine into a fully democratic, secular nation with equal rights for all.

Which would not, by the way, be a complete rejection of Zionism, which has become, more than Judaism, the Israeli state profession. Some strands of Zionist thinking a century ago—and vestiges of such thinking remain even today—held that a return to the land was a spiritual good for Jewish people, especially those who had been hounded out of one country after another in other parts of the world, but that establishing a political state would be a mistake of both historical and theological proportions.

The Lobby and Israeli hasbara

The “Israel Lobby” is represented most visibly by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has the power to make and break U.S. politicians according to their dedication (or not) to Israeli state objectives. Principally, AIPAC is concerned with keeping up the flow of money from U.S. taxpayers to Israel, making sure that issues surrounding the Occupation and Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens get as little legislative and media attention as possible, passing federal and state laws determining that BDS and expressions of “anti-Zionism” are objectively “anti-Semitic” and therefore illegal and punishable, and monitoring professors and students on university campuses for “anti-Zionism.”

AIPAC’s efforts in these goals are backed up by a consortium of pressure groups including most of the “establishment” Jewish organizations, temples and synagogues, associations of Jewish clergy, and the Jewish campus organization Hillel. Zionism, in its current Israeli right-wing state form, must be defended at all costs, its opponents defamed as anti-Jewish.

The Lobby’s assault on “The Squad” in Congress, all women of color who dare to raise questions about Israel, parallels an ongoing investigation and shaming of professors and students around BDS or any criticism of Israel or Zionism purported to be hurtful and discriminatory against Jewish students. The Lobby works in close coordination with Israeli hasbara, the Zionist nation’s public relations arm, which engages in diversionary persuasion any time the Occupation comes up.

Hasbara has perfected the classic “What about?” rhetoric. You mention the Occupation and any Israel defender will respond, “What about…?” What about Palestinian and Arab treatment of LGBTQ people? (This is called “pinkwashing” of Israel.) What about equality for women? What about all the fantastic medical research Israel does? What about Israel’s dynamic economy that has given the world so many inventions? Its creative, uncensored films and arts? Its role as an anti-terrorist military ally to the United States and its development of anti-terrorism measures—walls, weapons, checkpoints, tactics? Its place of refuge for Jews fleeing Nazism, pogroms, and discrimination? And of course the old standby, the only democratic nation in the Middle East.

Younger Jews tend not to be affiliated to synagogues or other establishment organizations that serve in large part as a conduit for Israeli hasbara—in fact, that’s one reason they stay away. Thus they are not constantly subjected to messages of “Israel right or wrong” and feel more at home in the larger struggles to expand democratic rights both at home and abroad.

The public relations campaign has intensified in light of the decreasing interest of young American Jews in accepting a free trip to Israel under the Birthright program, designed to cement Jewish Americans’ positive feelings about Israel and to encourage Jews to accept Israeli citizenship as their birthright even as it is denied to indigenous people whose families have lived there for millennia. It has not worked especially well. Young people may enjoy the vacation, but they see through the propaganda and in some recently publicized instances have spoken out demanding to see the Occupation and meet Palestinians.

Revulsion toward Trump and Netanyahu

Donald Trump’s December 2017 decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem reversed America’s own past policy and world consensus. Other decisions, such as appointing the inexperienced David Friedman, Trump’s personal bankruptcy lawyer and a stalwart supporter of the West Bank settlements, as Ambassador, have finally convinced many peace activists that the two-state solution, a Palestinian state alongside Israel, is a fantasy never to be realized.

Trump’s Jerusalem decision shattered the path to peace, granting official blessing on a short path to fully realized apartheid in Israel/Palestine. His recognition of the occupied Golan Heights just before the Israeli election last April, designed to bolster Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s standing at the polls, was widely hailed in Israel. Shortly after the election, Netanyahu announced he was naming a town “Trump Heights” in that area. There is no country in the world where Trump is more lionized than Israel. As is Trump’s surrogate, his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom he has placed in charge of devising the so-called “Deal of the Century” to establish peace in the Middle East.

Acts by the president and his team, as well as generous campaign contributions from America—from Jews such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and from the pro-Netanyahu, pro-settler evangelical movement, the so-called Christian Zionists—lent incalculable support for Bibi’s re-election in April, though that level of backing has not been so widely reported in the latest round in September. No comparable corresponding donations were received by the peace camp. It has been reported that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a 2016 campaign promise in exchange for Adelson’s $25 million contribution toward his election.

A few weeks before the April election, Netanyahu came out with the stunning statement that Israel is the nation state only of the Jewish people, taking the nation-state law passed by the Knesset to a higher stage. Recently, in advance of the repeat election in September, after he failed to secure a governing coalition, he vowed to annex parts of the West Bank into Israel proper. The latest declarations out of Jerusalem aroused protest not only from liberal Jewish organizations, but even raised hackles at AIPAC for finally tearing the mask off Zionist racism. These positions are anathema to most Jewish Americans.

Although apartheid is a crime against humanity according to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, no action against Israel can be expected from the U.S., surely not so long as Republicans control the executive and Congress, and also not so long as the Israel Lobby influences the votes of many, if not most Congress members, threatening those who question Israel’s policies with primary challenges and broad-brushed accusations of “anti-Semitism.” The one time the U.S. failed to back Israel in a vote at the U.N. took place late in President Obama’s term.

Worldwide response to Israel: Tanzanians protesting the 2008-2009 Gaza bombardment by Israel, January 2, 2009. | Muhammad Mahdi Karim / GNU Free Documentation License

The latest hasbara buzzword is “intersectionality.” Jews are supposed to have a single, supreme identity—Jew—epitomized by a conflation of Jewish and Israel loyalty. Anything that dilutes or provides nuance to that, such as Jews who are racially diverse, are immediately suspect of uncertain loyalty. This suspicion has fallen particularly hard on African-American Jews, either by conversion or parentage, because vocal segments of the African-American community have come out forcefully in support of Palestinian demands of justice, which resonate with African-American demands at home. The notion of settler or colonial states is familiar to them. They are also aware of everyday anti-Black racism in Israel against the Ethiopian Jews who have settled there and become Israeli citizens, and against immigrants from Africa fleeing violence and poverty.

The question of Jewish loyalty is an old one. The classic anti-Semitic trope is that the unreliable Jews among us (the “perfidious” Jews, according to old religious language) owe their loyalty to their international co-religionists and their supranational faith. They are the globalists, internationalists, or cosmopolitans, all code words for conspiratorial Jews, and frankly disloyal. Such thinking has historically not been limited to capitalist demagoguery, but sadly has occurred in some socialist lands as well.

Buying into this mythology, Trump has now said that Jews owe their loyalty to Israel, i.e., to the current right-wing government, which sent shivers down the spines of almost every Jewish American. Now it’s not just Jewish-Israeli loyalty, but Jewish-Israeli-Trump-Republican loyalty that is being demanded.

Given the revulsion most American Jews feel toward Donald Trump and Bibi, the alienation of Jewish Americans from Israel has never been higher than it is now.

Jews and the Democratic Party

American Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democratic for the past century. The only dip in that record took place when Ronald Reagan was able to siphon off close to a half of the Jewish vote. Otherwise, Democrats have secured upward of 70% and often over 80% of the Jewish vote, approaching levels of liberalism traditionally seen only amongst African-American voters.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee keeps both major U.S. political parties in line when it comes to questions of policy dealing with Israel. Here, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are seen addressing the 2019 AIPAC policy conference in Washington on March 26, 2019. | Jose Luis Magana / AP

At home in the U.S., the 2018 midterm election brought Democrats into the majority in the House. Although the Democratic Party leadership is uncritically pro-Israel, some of the newly elected members include a significant fraction, not just The Squad, who want to see the U.S. pursuing a more balanced policy that recognizes Palestinian rights to self-determination. Yet that small fraction is supported by the Democratic rank and file, only 27% of whom favor Israel over Palestine, according to a January 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

Since Israel gained its independence in 1948, the Democratic Party has devoted prodigious efforts to keep Democratic voters in the pro-Israel camp. Israel policy has been, as much or more than any other in Congress, a bilateral concord of interests. Democrats for Israel, an organized caucus within the party, is devoted to making sure that while Democratic voters continue to uphold progressive positions on domestic and even on many international affairs, their support for Israel will be unwavering.

The chief Democratic Party electoral pollster and strategist is Mark Mellman. He is basically the Democrats’ counterpart to the GOP’s Frank Luntz and Karl Rove. His Democratic Majority for Israel guarantees that Democrats stay in line on Israel. He is also an advisor to most of the current Democratic presidential candidates, giving them talking points when they are confronted with tough questions about the Occupation and Israel’s human rights record, especially from activists in a Jewish youth organization called “If Not Now” who regularly turn up at town halls, press conferences, and community forums.

Mellman instructs candidates how to pivot off these challenges with vague and empty criticisms of the Occupation and the need for a two-state solution to solve the conflict, but with no concrete proposals for a way forward. Candidates can also be counted on to repeat such claims as “only democracy in the Middle East” and deny that apartheid exists in Israel (“What about the Arab parties represented in the Knesset?”). Of course, Mellman is a harsh critic of BDS and The Squad, often forcing fellow Democrats to differentiate their own views from any criticism of Israel or the Israel Lobby, setting The Squad up for potential primary challenges and loss of financial support from the national party.

Democrats were outraged when Bibi was invited by the majority Republican Party to address Congress in March 2015, not only sidestepping State Department protocols but insulting President Obama himself. Part of the GOP strategy was to convince American voters—especially evangelical Christian Zionists—that the Republicans are more pro-Israel than the Democrats, as well as undermine the traditional Jewish Democratic vote.

In the most recent election in Israel, Mellman and his group lent their influence and expertise to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party because Gantz was an easier sell to the Democratic Party’s candidates, officials, boosters, and voters than the hated Netanyahu, even though in terms of Occupation and apartheid, General Gantz’s policies were barely distinguishable.

In 2020, Jewish Americans are not expected to place any higher priority on Israel than in the past, when Israel has rated at #10 of Jewish voters’ priorities, far behind jobs, foreign policy, housing, women’s rights, access to education and healthcare, etc., largely the same issues most other Americans are concerned about.

Control of the House is not expected to revert to the GOP, but if in 2020 the composition of the Senate changes, that would open up new vistas on Israel/Palestine. And if a Democrat takes the White House, the U.S. government will effectively be put on notice to do something real and credible about the Middle East. Although this is a background, not a foreground issue in most voters’ minds, the expectation is that policy on this question, as on so many others, will have to change significantly.

Jeff Warner and Dick Platkin contributed to this story. A follow-up on the still inconclusive September 2019 elections in Israel will be published shortly.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.