The Israeli government’s decision on Sunday to freeze a much-touted compromise on the Western Wall, which would have created a non-Orthodox prayer space equal in status to the existing Orthodox area, sparked numerous warnings of a grave rift between Israel and American Jewry. Commentator Rachel Sharansky Danziger, for instance, wondered how the relationship could continue after the Israeli government “delivered a resounding, ‘You don’t actually matter to us’” to American Jews. But there’s a flip side to Danziger’s question that many commentators have ignored: The confrontation ended as it did partly because too many American Jews have delivered that same resounding message to Israelis in recent years.
Numerous previous battles over religious issues in Israel have ended the opposite way, with the prime minister bowing to American Jewish pressure. As recently as 2011, for instance, the government froze and ultimately scrapped a planned reform of conversion procedures because American Jews objected. Since American Jews were both members of the family and important sources of American political support, no Israeli prime minister wanted to alienate them, and neither did most ordinary Israelis.
If that sentiment is fraying today, it’s not just because of fringe anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or even the growing ranks of the utterly indifferent, but also because of the attitudes of many American Jews who call themselves–and in many ways genuinely are–pro-Israel. To understand why, it’s worth pondering something Jewish-American author Jamaica Kincaid said in an interview with Haaretz earlier this month about Israel’s control of the West Bank.
I think one of the reasons this whole thing with the occupation and the territories is so alive is because most people do what Israelis do, just do it. They just do it! It’s not a conversation. You conquer the line, you drive the people off it, or you kill them. You know, you just do it. Then you move on. And maybe 100 years later, you have a little ceremony where you say, the head of state says, ‘I’m so sorry I did that.’ But you just do it…
“I suppose what surprises me is that Israel is the winning society, so I don’t expect it to be so self-examining. Usually, winners don’t examine themselves at all, but in Israel constant questioning and constant examining, constantly stating why you are right.
Kincaid is obviously correct: If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict draws disproportionate international attention, it’s in part because Israelis themselves endlessly and vocally debate its legitimacy, morality, and possible solutions. It’s also because, as an outgrowth of this debate, Israelis have made numerous attempts to solve it over the past quarter century, including repeated rounds of peace talks and unilateral withdrawals, and action of any kind is obviously more newsworthy than stasis.
But to many American Jews, even many who consider themselves pro-Israel, it doesn’t seem to matter that Israelis have repeatedly made generous peace offers, only to have the Palestinians walk away without even bothering to respond. It doesn’t seem to matter that every territorial withdrawal has led to a massive increase in Palestinian terror. It doesn’t seem to matter that numerous conflicts worldwide have produced far more bloodshed and far more oppression than this one. It doesn’t seem to matter that after almost 25 years of failed peacemaking efforts accompanied by vigorous internal debate, a solid majority of Israelis has reluctantly concluded that while a Palestinian state might be a good idea in principle, in practice, for the foreseeable future, there’s no better alternative to the status quo.
Despite all this, liberal American Jews are convinced that they know better – that the continued “occupation” is mostly Israel’s fault, that Israel must end it immediately regardless of the price in Israeli blood, and that their job as American Jews isn’t to support Israelis’ painfully reached conclusions, but to pressure Israelis to disregard the lessons of their lived experience. If there’s a better way of telling Israelis “You don’t actually matter to us,” I don’t know what it might be.
Moreover, pursuant to that attitude, many American Jews–and again, not just fringe groups like JVP–are actively undermining Israel in various ways. Mainstream American Jewish groups like campus Hillels repeatedly host speakers from organizations that spew outright lies about Israel, such as Breaking the Silence, which even recycles the medieval blood libel about Jews poisoning wells.
American Jews also provide substantial financial support to such organizations, mainly through the New Israel Fund. Rabbis and Jewish organizations provide cover for anti-Israel activists: Leading liberal rabbi Sharon Brous, for instance, praised Linda Sarsour for “building a movement that can hold all of us in our diversity with love” even as Sarsour explicitly banned all Israel supporters from her movement, while the Anti-Defamation League defended Keith Ellison, one of the few congressmen who consistently backs anti-Israel resolutions while shunning pro-Israel ones, as “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism” right up until he was caught out in overt anti-Semitism. American rabbinical students term Israel’s very existence a cause for mourning and engage in anti-Israel commercial boycotts. The Union for Reform Judaism urges members to step up their criticism of Israel. And on, and on.
In short, American Jews no longer the bastion of support for Israel that they once were. And if they still believe they have a familial relationship with Israelis, it increasingly feels like an abusive one in which the abuser shows his “love” by causing pain. Thus, it’s no surprise that support for Israel has plummeted among young American Jews; how many of them ever hear anything positive about Israel from their “pro-Israel” elders?
The result is that some Israelis are starting to feel, as Hillel Halkin wrote in Mosaic last month, “The distance between Israeli and American Jews is growing? Let it grow … so what?” Until recently, few Israelis would have said such a thing, and I still consider it a tragedy. But if American Jews keep telling Israelis that everything they think, feel and experience “doesn’t actually matter to us,” the number of Israelis who agree with Halkin will only grow.
Originally published in Commentary on June 28, 2017