The Fraying Ties Between Liberal American Jews and Israel

The Fraying Ties Between Liberal American Jews and Israel

The Fraying Ties Between Liberal American Jews and Israel

A new generation of liberal American Jewish leaders will no longer uncritically support Israel, and Netanyahu no longer pretends to care.


The 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, coupled with the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and the mass protests and killings in Gaza, gives every indication of being a turning point. Israel is not divorcing America’s liberal Jewish community quite yet, but it is well on its way to estrangement.

Not surprisingly, the media coverage of what’s happening on the ground has fallen behind. The sight of Israeli Defense Force snipers shooting unarmed protesters is indeed appalling. Yet the punditocracy remains filled with those who do not merely excuse Israel’s use of excessive force but actively praise it.

This is particularly true of the New York Times op-ed page, which, aside from Michelle Goldberg’s laments for the fate of liberal Zionism, is dominated by apologists for the Netanyahu government. Shmuel Rosner is one of a dwindling number who see their role as defending Israel to liberal Jews. He authored a Times op-ed that was headlined with a phrase that ought to shock defenders of Israel: “Israel Needs to Protect Its Borders. By Whatever Means Necessary.” In the piece, Rosner argues, “Guarding the border was more important than avoiding killing, and guarding the border is what Israel did successfully.” Rosner even tried to justify the use of live bullets. We so often hear that Israel is a technocratic marvel, but is murder by sniper really the best method of border control it can come up with?

Yossi Klein Halevi is a more skillful and honest pro-Israel commentator. In The Wall Street Journal a few weeks earlier, Halevi wrote a measured, relatively balanced column, whose essential thesis was nevertheless irrelevant: “What has been missed by most observers is the rare clarifying moment that this confrontation has offered: The March of Return is an explicit negation of a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza coexisting beside Israel.” This may be true, but it is beside the point, since Israel is ruled by a party that not only explicitly rejects Palestinian statehood but also seeks to make such a solution impossible in the future. If Israel is not practicing apartheid today—and that point is arguable—there can be no doubt that it is planning its implementation soon. There is simply no other way to continue the 51-year occupation and retain the state’s Jewish character.

No doubt the most prominent member of the “Israel is always right” brigade is the Times’ Bret Stephens, formerly of the Journal, where he was known to complain of the “disease of the Arab mind.” In his latest column on Gaza, Stephens can’t even write the word “occupation” without derisive quotation marks. He whines, Trumplike, “Why is nothing expected of Palestinians, and everything forgiven, while everything is expected of Israelis, and nothing forgiven?”

This, of course, is transference of the first order. As the pro-Israel (and mostly conservative) Economist observed in a lead editorial, “Gaza is a prison, not a state…one of the most crowded and miserable places on Earth. It is short of medicine, power and other essentials. The tap water is undrinkable; untreated sewage is pumped into the sea.” Israel, the editors go on to observe, “insists that the strip is not its problem, having withdrawn its forces in 2005. But it still controls Gaza from land, sea, and air. Any Palestinian, even a farmer, coming within 300 metres of the fence is liable to be shot.”

The fact that Israel chooses to perpetuate this enforced misery within and beyond its ill-defined borders is evidence of a political transformation that would horrify the founders of Zionism and its earliest pioneers. Who are Israel’s political enemies, according to Bibi Netanyahu? They are human-rights groups, Jewish civil-society organizations, and even American rabbis who belong to groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.

And who are its friends? As Anshel Pfeffer, the prime minister’s astute biographer, notes, Netanyahu is “the toast of the new wave of right-wing, populist and autocrat-like (if not outright autocratic) leaders. They see in him a kindred spirit, even a mentor.” Look at who was invited to speak at the opening of the Trump administration’s Jerusalem embassy: John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. The former described Hitler as God’s “hunter,” and the latter believes that all Jews are going to Hell. But Netanyahu—whose government has all but endorsed the anti-Semitic campaign by the Hungarian government against the Jewish liberal philanthropist George Soros—doesn’t care. What all they share, as with Trump and company, is an unashamed hatred of Islam and its practitioners.

Another new development: Netanyahu refuses to even pretend that he cares what liberal American Jews think or feel about Israel. After all, he has billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to listen to. The Adelsons were in Jerusalem for their victory lap, just as they had spent the inauguration with Trump. Recently, we learned of an over $30 million donation—some might say payoff—to the Republican Party on top of the estimated $82 million spent on Trump and the GOP in 2016. At the same time, Adelson’s wife, Miriam, just named herself publisher of their pro-Bibi propaganda sheet Israel Hayom.

And while most of the current generation of American Jewish leaders still uncritically support Israel, that’s about to change. According to the Pew Research Center, liberal Democrats, who supported Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of 30 percent in 2001, now say they favor the Palestinians by 16 percent—an astonishing 23-point swing.

Organizations led by young American Jews, such as IfNotNow and J Street U, are dominated by those who hate the occupation at least as much as they love Israel. They read Haaretz and see hope in partnering with Israeli groups like Breaking the Silence, the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem, Molad, Peace Now, and the excellent binational publication +972. But it is these narrow threads that hold together the alliance between liberal American Jews and the nation they once considered a source of pride and admiration—and today brings only shame and sadness.

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