Commentary Magazine


Is the Jewish Community Split?

According to Time magazine in September, “Most American Jews are apprehensive, if not heartsick about the anguished debate that has broken out inside their community on the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government.”

That was, and remains, the conventional journalistic wisdom about what has been happening in the American Jewish community, and some version of it could be read or heard in all the media over the last months. Yet while this conventional wisdom is right about the apprehension and the anguish, it is wrong on the nature and substance of the debate. But then much of the Jewish community itself is also misled on this point, which is one of the reasons for its apprehension and anguish.

To begin with, though many American Jews acted as though there were a great division in their community over Israel’s initial thrust into Lebanon in June, no such division actually existed. Typically, a professional survey of “connected” Jews in northern California in August found that well over nine out of ten approved of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon; other regional and national findings were consistent. “Connected,” in this case, refers to that half of the Jewish population which has identified with some portion of the organized community. They are, in any event, the Jews who are involved in supporting Israel financially and politically; therefore if a “split” were to be of any significance, it would occur among them. It did not.

Not only was there overwhelming American Jewish approval of Israel’s move into Lebanon, but four out of five Jews approved Israel’s move “northward to West Beirut.” An even larger proportion believed that Israel’s troops should not withdraw from Lebanon until PLO and Syrian forces had withdrawn.

However, about half of the Jews who supported Israel’s initial actions in Lebanon felt that other Jews disapproved of those actions. Indeed, the majority of these Jews felt that most Americans in general disapproved of those actions, and had become hostile to Israel as a result. Yet at that juncture in the summer, none of the four published national surveys of American public opinion indicated a high degree of general hostility on the part of the American public.

How did so many American Jews come to the conclusion that there was a discrepancy between their views and those of other Jews, and of other Americans in general?

Part of the answer is that a kind of “media halo effect” had come into play. Many people commonly and mistakenly believe that while they can resist the impact of the media, most other, less sophisticated, people will be overwhelmed by it. Jews were indeed anguished by the pictures and stories featured in the media coverage of the war in southern Lebanon. They were anguished for good reason: people were being killed. Just because Jews supported the need for the Israeli action does not mean they were feeling triumphalist about it; they were not. And their anguish was edged with the belief that these media images were shearing away the support of less sophisticated “others.”

They were wrong. Those images, scarifying as they were, did not in themselves cause any great swing in American public opinion.

Another media phenomenon pressed on the faltering nerve of many American Jews. This was the use of the war images by sectors of the Jewish population which had always been lukewarm about or inimical to the idea of Israel. One advertisement, out of Berkeley, achieved instant national fame. Headed “Menachem Begin Does Not Speak For Us,” it was signed by several hundred ostensibly Jewish names, and was thereafter referred to again and again throughout the country as evidence of a new Jewish “split.” A newspaper as far away as Glasgow, Scotland, made inquiry about the ad. But there was nothing new in this particular “split,” as one could tell by a goodly number of the recognizable names. Among them were some old-fashioned anti-Israel leftists, parading their disillusionment with Israel’s inhumanity but not mentioning that they themselves had always cherished the dream of dismantling the Jewish state. And another contiguous tradition among Jewish intellectuals reasserted itself vigorously in this case and in the case of several other ads in the New York Times and elsewhere over the summer: the tradition of anti-militarism, particularly when it comes to Israel.

This is a long-standing tradition. Fifteen years ago, after the 1967 war in the Middle East, Robert Alter wrote in COMMENTARY:

It is becoming increasingly clear that for a good many Jewish intellectuals Israel’s victory was a profoundly unsettling experience. . . . [Such an American Jewish intellectual] must surely have felt an uneasy stirring in his preconceptions at the sight of those Israeli Mystères flashing wing upon wing across his television screen, and at the voices of the professional analysts describing the Israeli campaign as the most perfectly executed operation in modern military history. From the growing reaction in print against Israel, it is apparent that many of these intellectuals are attempting to resolve their own uneasiness by directing at least a qualified hostility toward Israel, hastening to dissociate themselves from this use of naked power by Jews.1

One such intellectual, cited by Alter in his article, was I. F. Stone. Raising high the issue of “moral schizophrenia,” Stone drew a distinction between the moral Jew’s “sense of mission as a Witness,” and the immoral Jew’s concern “only with his own tribe’s welfare.” As applied to Israel, the distinction was presumably between the state as the embodiment of some abstract spiritual values and the state as a flesh-and-blood polity, complete with militia. But since, to judge by the writings of Stone and other intellectual Jewish detractors of Israel, the spiritual values of Israel did not much interest them either, the issue of schizophrenia could only be seen as a dodge.

The same fringe, with some new recruits, emerged swiftly in June 1982, decrying the Israeli use of military force, and again raising the distinction between moral and immoral Jewish behavior. Waving the media war pictures, they spoke out, they signed ads, they wrote articles.

Again, they constituted a minuscule portion of the Jewish population, and by and large they did not represent any new “split.” But they were taken by many flustered Jews as evidence of such a split, especially amid much informal parlor discourse about Israeli moral standards.

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This kind of reaction among American Jews was itself not new. In a Gallup poll done for Newsweek in 1981, for example, Jews recorded an uneasiness over Israeli policy which was not warranted by their own attitudes toward that policy.

In that poll, as in a Yankelovich survey the same year, most Jews supported actions which Israel had actually taken. More than four out of five thought that the Israeli government’s attitudes toward a Palestinian state on the West Bank were “reasonable”; most supported the annexation of the Golan Heights and the taking out of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. In fact, according to the Gallup survey, only one out of ten Jews said that they were less sympathetic to Israel than they had been before the Begin government had assumed office four years earlier, and over half said that they had become more sympathetic since Begin’s advent. Yet they also expressed some uneasiness about Begin, and thus Newsweek headlined the poll results: “Jewish Misgivings About Begin.”

One basic clue to this apparent riddle is that over half of the American Jews polled—the same American Jews who themselves approved of the specific actions the Begin government had taken—also agreed that “Begin’s policies are hurting support for Israel in the Middle East.” In other words, American Jews seemed to be looking over their shoulders to see what their neighbors thought, rather than abiding by their own judgments.

It is particularly notable that, in the August 1982 regional survey, over half of the general sample, and about one-third of the leadership, agreed with the proposition that “the current Israeli government is too inflexible.” These were the same people who approved the basic actions of the Israeli government in Lebanon. Indeed, almost three-quarters of those who counted the Israeli government “too inflexible” specifically endorsed its moves in Lebanon up to that point.

What we see here is at least partly over-the-shoulder nervousness. Those Jews who thought that the American public had become more hostile to Israel since Lebanon were almost twice as likely as others to agree with the characterization of the Israeli government as “inflexible.” And Jews who believed that Americans disapproved of Israel’s action were also more likely to believe that Americans are prone to anti-Semitism.

Another set of factors was also involved. It became clear during this period that most Jews expressing uneasiness about the Begin government were uneasy not so much because of what the Israeli government had done as because of what they expected that government to do in the future.

American Jews have long been divided on the handling of the Palestinian Arab problem and the disposition of the West Bank and Gaza. In the past two years, surveys of Jewish opinion have come up repeatedly with the same configuration of opinion: about two-thirds of American Jews believe that these problems should be solved within the framework of Israel’s security, rather than within the framework of historical or religious or “Greater Israel” claims. They oppose handing over the West Bank without serious security compensations; they oppose negotiations with an unreconstructed PLO; they oppose the establishment of an “independent Palestinian state” in today’s circumstances—but they do think that Israel should hold on to only as much of the West Bank as it needs for security. Fewer than a third of American Jews would oppose Israeli withdrawal under any circumstances, or tend to believe that the West Bank belongs to Israel historically, religiously, and irrevocably.

The 1982 regional survey again confirmed this configuration. And those who recorded their belief that this issue should be dealt with more “flexibly,” in a security context, were those who tended to believe that the Begin government was “too inflexible.” It has long been an article of conviction among many Jews that, while the official position of Begin is that “everything is to be negotiated,” he has no intention of ever giving up any portion of the West Bank. That was the source of American Jewish uneasiness about Begin before the Lebanese action, and it is still a main source of uneasiness. The Lebanese action stimulated that uneasiness because this war against the PLO, as it got closer to West Beirut, could be represented as a prelude to tightening Israel’s hold on the West Bank.

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A certain amount of looking over the shoulder at American opinion is surely reasonable. Most American Jews agree that Israel’s survival depends on American support. Therefore, for the majority of American Jews, what America does and what America thinks is crucial for Israel. However, there is a standard and stubborn Jewish miscalculation about the source and nature of American opinion on Israel.

Since the creation of the state of Israel, the general American attitude toward it has been chiefly shaped by one variable: Is it good for America? There have been buttressing considerations, especially in earlier years—e.g., Israel as a refuge for Hitler’s victims—but these sentiments have not in themselves determined American opinion.

The question—“Is it good for America?”—is not in itself as crass as it might sound. We know certain things about the American public. To put it bluntly, Americans are proud of their country, and to a much greater extent than the people of all other major industralized nations. In 1978, in the wake of Vietnam, Gallup found that 95 percent of American youth were willing to proclaim their national pride, while only about 60 percent of the youth on the Western European continent were willing to do so. It is critical to note that these American youths were not more “satisfied” than others with conditions in their country. The Americans were dissatisfied and critical, but they were not “alienated.”

The aspect of America about which Americans are most proud is its political values; and of those the one they name most often is “freedom.” Americans, in other words, do know what their country is all about, even when they are dissatisfied with its practice. If Americans regard the Soviet Union as their chief antagonist in the world, as they do, they see the antagonism operating not just in the military realm but in the realm of values. When Americans worry about their country’s security, as they do, they worry about its values as well as its property.

In short, most Americans see the United States as standing for something important in the world, in addition to providing them with security and economic well-being. On all counts, they will normally support any ally deemed important to this country. But they will especially support any ally whose values are consistent with those of this country. They will treat that ally’s apparent defects in the same way they treat their own country’s defects: with dissatisfaction and criticism, but without ultimate alienation or withdrawal of basic support.

And that is the way American public opinion—guided by the signals it has received, by and large, from Washington, D.C.—has seen Israel ever since America became heavily involved in the Middle East: as a country not without its defects but as an important ally of the United States, and one whose values are consistent with its own.

What this means, in short, is that non-Jewish Americans are less unsettled than are Jewish Americans by negative images of Israel. All other things being equal, non-Jewish Americans are not put off by pictures of Israel waging war, or even of Israel ousting West Bank Palestinian Arab mayors. Indeed, even those Americans who think that Israelis are mistreating Palestinian Arabs still say they fully support Israel. The only time that public support seems to soften is when there are signals from Washington that Israel is straying as an ally. Thus, mutually hostile exchanges between President Reagan and Prime Minister Begin have had a more negative influence on American public opinion toward Israel than any pictures of destruction in Lebanon.

This is not a matter of cynicism, as Jews especially should recognize. In the Jewish tradition, a distinction is often made between the righteous man who commits good acts and the righteous man who commits evil acts, and between them both and the unrighteous man. There has never been and probably never will be a politically righteous society which does not on occasion commit evil acts, or acts which create evil effects: On the other hand, politically evil acts are mitigated through the creation and maintenance of politically righteous societies. The young Americans who say that they are proud of the United States but ashamed of many things it has done are accepting that proposition.

A politically righteous society embraces aspirations which are in accord with our best ethical standards, but, more critically (since we all know about the road to hell), it is an open society, open to history, to change, to the remedy of error, to the persuasions of the citizenry. By that definition, Israel is a politically righteous society, and so it is in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Americans do not necessarily approve of all Israeli actions, but they believe Israel to be a politically righteous society.

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So far as American Jews are concerned, they have a list of major “failings” which they would charge against Israel. Some of them are domestic failings, having to do with social and economic and religious arrangements within Israel itself. But more of them have to do with the foreign policy of the Begin government. Not that American Jews had been uncritical of the previous Labor governments and their foreign policy. Some, for instance, felt that Labor had missed a critical opportunity for peace with the Palestinian Arabs by not taking more vigorous initiatives during the post-1967 euphoria. But even before Lebanon, American Jewish criticism had accumulated mainly around the Begin government.

There were probably a variety of causes for this, including the Begin government’s “religious” approach to territory and to military strength. A sizable proportion of American Jews also shrink from the tone of the Begin government in its conduct of foreign affairs. When President Reagan made his peace proposals last September, many American Jews had the same specific objections as did Begin himself—-but for the most part they applauded the positive aspects of Reagan’s approach, and were taken aback by what they saw as Begin’s diplomatic boorishness in rejecting it out of hand. And even when the Begin government has acted in a manner of which American Jews approve, as in the peace negotiations with Egypt, there have been complaints about the Begin style and about the Begin image, which do not conform to the American Jewish idea of what an Israeli leader should be, or what impression he should make on their American neighbors.

This kind of response goes beyond looking over one’s shoulder and begins to resemble something that deserves to be called a Jewish failure of nerve. Symptoms of such a failure of nerve are evident in the very fact that American Jews have exaggerated the negative reactions of other Jews and other Americans in certain times of crisis, even in the face of contrary evidence. They have insisted on interpreting dissatisfaction as alienation. And they have again and again made Chicken-Little sounds about irrevocable splits within the Jewish community. After the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, after the first bombings of Beirut this summer, after the Begin government’s reaction to President Reagan’s proposals, the cry went up: “This year, there will be great resistance to fund-raising for Israel . . . we are in trouble with our young people. . . .”

Another symptom is the plaintive cry in some circles for better public relations. If only—the litany goes—we and Israel could do a better job of public relations, if only we could match the petrodollar propaganda campaign, the sky would not be falling. At its most naive, this lament assumes that all dissatisfactions with Israel are problems of “image,” which can be dissipated in the same way that a brand of soap is sold. But the lack of fairness with which the media tend to treat Israel is largely a function not of image but of what has been called the theory of “discontinuity,” otherwise known as man-bites-dog. If Arab kills Jew, that is no surprise, no news; if Jew kills Arab, it is news. This attitude of the media is in tacit complicity with the dynamics of the Jewish failure of nerve: Israel’s misdeeds are on their face more alarming than the misdeeds of others.

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The Beirut massacre provided a “worst-case” test of the Jewish failure of nerve. Nobody, including those who propagandized otherwise, believed that the Israelis wanted the massacre to happen or had anything to do with it directly. But it was clear to almost everybody that Israel had made some culpable blunder, or set of blunders, and the criticism of the Begin government soon began backing up to earlier events. Some thought that the chief blunder was sending troops into West Beirut in the first place. The majority of surveyed American Jews, having approved the Lebanese invasion and the “move northward,” had nevertheless been uneasy about any deep Israel? involvement in West Beirut, and opposed an “all-out attack on West Beirut.” Some simply felt that West Beirut would be a trap for the Israelis, while those most hostile to Begin felt that the move into Beirut was an act of military arrogance; after the shock of the massacre there developed some strength for the revisionist theory that the entire Lebanese operation had been just such an act.

Still others felt that the inexcusable blunder was to have made an alliance with the Phalangists, although, given the choices, that was antamount to saying that the blunder lay in any Israeli involvement in Lebanese politics. And there was the necessarily related blunder ascribed to the Israelis of arming the Phalangists and, at least indirectly, the murderers. As for the operational blunders themselves, these start with the matter of allowing the murderous troops into the camp without sufficient monitoring, even though Israel knew what the background was and had accepted responsibility for peacekeeping, and culminate with the Israeli government’s initial attempt to stonewall an investigation.

These are the kinds of issues that history rules on finally, although political men have to provide an interim judgment. On the score of Israel’s role, it made no difference that the media grandly applied the theory of discontinuity to its coverage of the situation. Massacres of Christians and Muslims by Christians and Muslims had been endemic in Lebanon, a vicious cycle consuming upward of 100,000 lives over the last seven years. The massacre in West Beirut was itself apparently connected to the earlier murder of between 1,500 and 2,000 Christians in Damur by the PLO in 1976. As with Bishop Berkeley’s approach to trees falling in the forest, the media generally acted as though massacres only occurred when the Israelis were in the vicinity. Nevertheless, Israelis were in the vicinity, and justifiable criticism of the media does not negate justifiable criticism of Israel.

The Beirut massacre should have provided an occasion for demonstrating that sharp criticism of Israel is possible without a failure of nerve, yet among American Jews, the surface symptoms of just such a failure of nerve became quickly apparent. Around the land, the sky-falling cries were heard, as perhaps never before: “This time we’re in real trouble with the American public. . . .” And just as quickly, these expressions of despair were amplified by television and the news magazines into evidence of a deeply fractured community.

But the basic facts which were true before the Beirut massacre and before any culpable Israeli connection to the massacre were just as true afterward. The nature of Israel as a politically righteous society had not been altered—just as the nature of the United States as a politically righteous society was not altered by My Lai or Watergate. Indeed, it is exactly in the midst of this most traumatic experience that the extent of the American public’s continuing commitment to Israel can best be appreciated. A large number of Americans were highly critical of Israel’s connection to the Beirut massacre. Even if they had been fully briefed by the media about the history of massacres in Lebanon, they would still have been highly critical. More than four out of five Americans, according to one Gallup survey, believed that Israel had committed some culpable blunder in connection with the massacre.

Nevertheless, while an overwhelming number of Americans disapproved of Israel’s role in the events surrounding the massacre, there was far from a corresponding drop in support of Israel, even given the use of the massacre as a vehicle of protest. What is more, that level of support will repair itself eventually as Israel is seen again as a democratic society, and as the alliance between Israel and America is again seen as firm. The American people’s commitment to Israel is not based on the image of Israel as a perfect society, but on the belief that Israel is important to America as part of a besieged association of political societies in the world which are fundamentally righteous in nature. The American commitment to Israel is not absolute, but it is probably reversible only if the belief on which it is based is reversed.

Damage can be done to that belief by a failure of nerve on the part of American Jewry, or on the part of American friends of Israel in public life. After the Beirut massacre, some national Jewish leaders and organizations in America did valiantly attempt to make the distinction between dissatisfaction with Israel and alienation from it. They proclaimed their unhappiness with the situation, they called for an investigation, and they declared their continued basic support of Israel. But they seemed not altogether clear on the nature of the distinction they drew or the reason for their support. Their lack of clarity was reflected in less rarefied sectors of the Jewish community, and, most distressingly, in some public officials who are close to Israel.

Senator Alan Cranston of California is as strong a supporter as Israel has had in Washington. In addition, his political background, his associations, and his temperament are very close to those of the mainstream of the American Jewish community. In a letter to Begin, Cranston complained about the Israeli government’s failure to fulfill its announced mission of “protecting life in West Beirut,” about the substituting of “naked military force for a balanced foreign policy,” and about the manner in which Begin rejected President Reagan’s proposals. In all these particulars, Cranston reflected the views of many American Jews. He also reflected their views in saying that he would continue to support the state of Israel, although he warned that others might not, under the circumstances. Then in the climax of his letter he suggested that Israel’s image as a “moral beacon” had been tarnished.

But the point, again, is that as a state Israel is a “moral beacon” not because it is free of human error and wickedness but because, like the United States, it is a politically righteous society. As such a society, it must be permitted its failings without automatically forfeiting its political legitimacy.

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Whether or not they believe that the present Israeli government is too inflexible, few Jews will disagree that there are hard negotiating stances to be taken if Israel is to survive. On a different level but on related issues, American friends of Israel will have their own hard negotiations with American policy-makers. A critical ingredient of negotiations, absent overwhelming power, is nerve, confidence, and the taking of high ground. To magnify dissatisfactions into alienation, to misrepresent the basic source of support for Israel, or to exaggerate Israel’s loss of backing among the American people could turn a failure of nerve into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We are entering a time in which the friends of Israel will have to support Israel more staunchly and in a more informed manner than ever before. To that purpose it may be necessary for the American Jewish community to open institutional channels for various bona-fide Jewish publics to debate and express their differences over and criticisms of Israel. But such debate will be effective, and will minimize abuse by the enemies of Israel, only if the failure of nerve is cured as well. Precisely because we may be entering a period of prolonged strain between Israel and America, it is more important than ever to emphasize Israel’s overarching value as a free political society—not just to Jews, but to America and to the free world in general.


Footnotes

1 “Israel & the Intellectuals,” October 1967.

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