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J Street’s False Foundational Myth

The Alienation Thesis or the Distancing Thesis or the Detachment Thesis or whatever we’re calling it this week — the claim American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel because of Israeli policies — is the central dogma of the anti-Israel left. If it’s true then groups like J Street are engaged in the salutary work of broadening pro-Israel Jewish politics to include traditionally anti-Israel positions. If it’s false then those groups are taking Jews who would have ended up with muddy pro-Israel sentiments and are needlessly bombarding them with anti-Israel propaganda. “Alienation” or “distancing” or “detachment” is the argumentative premise at the source of everything that happens downstream.

It’s not an accident that sophisticated erstwhile J Street defenders like Jeffrey Goldberg instinctively throw it in whenever they try to defend the organization. J Street itself, for all of the organization’s borderline aggressive lack of tactical acumen, makes a point of blandly asserting that the thesis is true. Hand wringing pathos-soaked “why must Israel do things that make me sad” Jews like Peter Beinart have been blandly pretending it’s valid for the better part of a decade.

Except it’s false. It’s so false that when you unpack it into constituent parts it’s false in multiple distinct and borderline contradictory ways, none of which manage to cancel each other out. In the most generous case J Street-style partisans assume American Jews are alienated from Israel because all the American Jews they personally know are alienated from Israel (figuring out the precise degree to which that’s breathtakingly revelatory is left as an exercise for the reader). In the less generous case they’re hoping against hope that no one ever scrutinizes their pretexts for uniquely mainstreaming anti-Israel smears into the American Jewish community.

Fundamentally there are two claims being made by J Street and their ilk. The first is that American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel, which is a flatly empirical claim. The second is that American Jews’ ostensibly increasing estrangement is on account of Israeli policies, which is a causal claim. Neither is tenable.

On the latter question of causality, let’s put aside the overarching silliness of pretending that railing against real and imagined Israeli sins will somehow make conference attendees more sympathetic to Israel. J Street’s subtler causal claim is about the source of alienation – Israeli policies – rather than what might solve it. But they’re making that up.

We’ve known for years that identification with Israel varies with Jewish identification. Especially for younger Jews, it’s a consequence of Jewish identity not its cause, which is why Beinart’s implicit claim otherwise triggered extensive on-point blogging on the link between Zionism and different strains of Judaism. Even Beinart, in contrast to J Street, has given up the ghost on there being a link between political views and emotional ties to Israel — which is only fair inasmuch as the best studies say no link exists:

On the right, in particular, writers describe the recent successes of J Street as an indicator of Jewish alienation from Israel (there is no evidence that it is so). The left also promotes the distancing narrative but mainly as a political weapon against Israeli government policies, which are described as alienating the next generation from Zionist and Jewish identities. Add to the mix the perennial interest of Jewish organizations in fundraising and you have a very potent set of interests driving the distancing narrative.

If there was decreasing American-Jewish attachment to Israel — i.e. the basic empirical claim, which is false — it still wouldn’t be because of Israeli policies. But there isn’t. In January Matthew Ackerman posted numbers on young Jewish identification that showed that a “feeling of attachment to the Jewish state is at least as strong among young Jews as it is for older Jews [and] has been gaining traction of late.” As for American Jews of all ages, AJC polling shows that pro-Israel attachment hasn’t changed in a decade. When asked how close they feel to Israel, between 65% and 75% of American Jews respond “very close” or “fairly close” (2011: 68%, 2010: 74%, 2009: 69%, 2008: 67%, 2007: 70%, 2006: 76%, 2005: 77%, 2004: 75%, 2003: 74%, 2002: 73%, 2001: 72%).

A 2011 poll of American Jewish voters unpacked that support in terms of concrete positions: 93% of respondents were concerned that Israel is “being threatened by Arab nations and Iran that want to destroy Israel,” 81% were opposed to “Israel being forced to return to its pre-1967 borders,” 73% supported Jerusalem “remaining the united capital of Israel,” and, critically, 88% of respondents insisted that “recognition of Israel as a Jewish State” had to be a “prerequisite for Palestinian Statehood.” Media outlets continue unblinkingly assert otherwise – see Jonathan’s post from yesterday on Iran polling – but that doesn’t make their oh-so-convenient wishful thinking any less false.

That poll was largely in line with a CAMERA poll taken about the same time. When asked, “If Israel no longer existed tomorrow, I would consider it to be…” 58% of American Jews answered “a major tragedy that personally concerned me” and another 24% went further and described it as “the biggest tragedy of my lifetime.” Again alienation pushers like Nicholas Kristof kept writing as if the CAMERA poll and several others didn’t exist, because why not?

Perhaps most critically, CAMERA poll respondents did not believe — as J Street pretends American Jews do — that Israel was responsible for the breakdown of the peace process. Instead they indicated that the Israeli government (84%) and its people (85%) are committed to establishing genuine peace, and a large majority blamed Palestinian incitement for the deadlock (77%).

Only 12% of respondents thought that either settlements or the “occupation” were responsible, which is exactly the opposite of what J Street pretends American Jews believe. There’s a reason, after all, why Obama lost almost half of his Jewish support at the height of his diplomatic offensives on settlement construction. It’s not because Jews feel alienated from Israel on account of settlement construction.

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