A symposium on Obama, Israel, and American Jews.
We asked 31 prominent American Jews to respond to this statement:
The open conflict between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has created tensions between the United States and Israel of a kind not seen since the days of the administration of the first President Bush. And those tensions are placing unique pressure on American Jews, who voted for Barack Obama by a margin of nearly 4-to-1 in 2008 after being assured by Obama himself and by his supporters in the Jewish community that he was a friend and an ally of the State of Israel despite his long association with, among others, the unabashedly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Reverend Jeremiah Wright. ¶ We argue that American Jews are facing an unprecedented political challenge, and at a crucial moment, with the need to address the existential threat to Israel—and by extension to the future of the Jewish people as a whole—from a potentially nuclear Iran. How will American Jews handle this challenge? Can Obama’s Jewish supporters act in a way that will change the unmistakable direction of current American policy emanating from the White House? Will American Jews accept Barack Obama’s view that the state of Israel bears some responsibility for the loss of American “blood and treasure” in the Middle East? Will they continue to extend their support to the Obama administration and to Barack Obama’s political party?
Their responses appear on the following pages in alphabetical order
American Jews like to support Democratic politicians in the U.S. and their rough equivalent, the Labor Party, in the State of Israel. When a Democrat seems close with a Labor government (as Bill Clinton did with Ehud Barak), they are supremely happy; when a Republican seems close to a right-wing or centrist Israeli prime minister (as George W. Bush was to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert), they are satisfied; when a Democrat fights with a right-wing Israeli government, they are unhappy. They don’t know which side they’re on.
Poll data and impressionistic evidence suggest that American Jews are increasingly dubious about Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. Most major Jewish organizations, except those that exist solely to support the Democratic Party, have weighed in with anxious complaints, and Democratic politicians also have backed away from public support for the Obama approach.
This is a useful test of American Jews and their leaders: which is the deeper commitment, to Democratic Party politicians regardless of their policies, or to the security of Israel? What do they do when a president presents a left-wing version of American security interests that not only says that the Iraq war was bad and we need to get out of Afghanistan (popular sentiments among American Jewry) but adds that Israel is a threat to American security? How do they react when a Democratic president seems intent on a personal rapprochement with the Islamic world and appears to view Israel as more obstacle and albatross than ally for our country?
How Orthodox Jews will react is clear; those who voted for Obama will abandon him, and the Republican candidate in 2012 will get a majority of Orthodox voters. The question is how Reform and Conservative Jews (and the unaffiliated who say they are “just Jewish”) will react to a White House whose indifference to Israel’s security is palpable. They will certainly not leave the Democratic Party, any more than they did when Jimmy Carter was displaying hostility to Israel and somewhat more Jews voted for Reagan. Many will even more energetically support Democrats in Congress, to prove to themselves that they are still “progressive” at heart, even if they cannot back Obama.
But my own sad prediction is that among non-Orthodox Jews, the real divide will be between activists (whether leaders of community organizations, synagogue officials, major donors, or regular synagogue goers) and the broader majority of Jews. The activists will dump Obama; the rest will not, for their commitment to Israel and, for that matter, to Judaism is simply less powerful than their secular religion—liberalism as represented in the Democratic Party. Whatever excuse they supply themselves (for example, the Republican candidate for president, or even vice president, will undermine “a woman’s right to choose”), they will be displaying their priorities. Israel is simply not near the top of their list.
For which reason, more committed Jews can only thank God for the greater commitment of so many evangelicals—whose party loyalties have not become a religious faith and who will indeed dump Obama if he abandons Israel in a time of peril.
Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2001 through early 2009, he served in a variety of positions on the National Security Council, among them deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy.
MORRIS J. AMITAY
The unjustified criticism of Israel by U.S. government officials, including the president, makes it absolutely necessary for Jewish supporters of Israel to speak out in opposition to this dangerous trend in U.S. Middle East policy. Given Obama’s questionable past associations, this should have been expected.
What with all the other challenges Obama faced, who could foresee how quickly he would disparage Israel while moving toward the imposition of a U.S. plan? When the president linked the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the loss of American “blood and treasure,” he stepped over the reddest of lines. Israel should not take the president’s growing hostility too personally, though; witness Obama’s demeaning treatment of other allies—none of whom, however, is threatened with genocide.
The president’s inept handling of foreign affairs is the result of a misguided worldview combined with an abysmal lack of experience and highlighted by his scant résumé. For political leaders to succeed in Washington, it is not necessarily about what they know, or even whom they know—but where they have been. In dealing with international issues, President Obama simply has not been there. And humility not being one of his strong points, Obama is displaying the arrogance of power by dealing harshly with friends while seeking favor from our enemies.
Beginning with the Franklin Roosevelt administration, most Jewish Americans seem to have been born with Democratic DNA, making it difficult for them to see beyond Obama’s rhetoric about “unbreakable bonds” between America and Israel. They must begin to realize that a U.S.-imposed plan would both fail to bring about the change needed in a region with multiple conflicts and despotic rulers and threaten Israel’s future security and survival.
For Jewish-American Obama supporters, the time for giving this administration the benefit of the doubt should be over. We now have such “lovers of Zion” as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft advising the administration as to the outline of an American “peace” plan. Fortunately, the U.S. Congress remains overwhelmingly supportive of Israel’s security, with more support now from Republicans than from Democrats. Forty years ago, when I worked in the Senate, the numbers were reversed.
A great deal of the responsibility for getting the administration back on the right course, for both Israel and America, now falls on Obama’s Jewish supporters, who must make their concerns known. While maintaining their liberal orientation on social issues, Jewish Democrats should insist that our country work closely with Israel to achieve shared goals and put the onus for lack of progress on the other side. At a time when more attention should be paid to spinning centrifuges in Iran than to building homes in Jewish areas of Jerusalem, I fervently hope that Jewish Americans of all political persuasions let their views be known. Only time (which is quickly running out) will tell what effect this will have. I would be pleasantly surprised if my liberal co-religionists were up to this task—but I fear that I will be disappointed.
Morris J. Amitay is a former executive director of AIPAC and the founder and treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee.
American Jews are predominantly progressive, and like President Obama, they largely subscribe to a progressive interpretation of world affairs. Unfortunately, the progressive assessment of Israel and of Middle East politics is based on a reckless illusion that thwarts worthy progressive goals and undermines vital American interests.
The illusion is that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is the root cause of instability, violence, and war in the region. If only Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank and ease restrictions on the Gaza Strip, then, progressives contend, a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state would emerge. This would placate restive Muslim populations throughout the Arab world and enable the international community to concentrate on other matters, including Iran.
The illusion prevents progressives from grasping what our allies in the region see clearly. Not only Israelis but also Sunni Arab states across the Middle East—from Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf to Lebanon and Egypt along the Mediterranean—view the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sponsorship of Islamic extremism and pursuit of nuclear weapons as the chief threat to their interests and the great menace to the maintenance of international order.
The progressive illusion antedates Obama’s presidency. The learned and the political classes throughout the United States and Europe subscribe to it, the Arab press promulgates it, and the United Nations holds it as an article of faith. By affirming it through deliberate, public, and one-sided imposition of pressure on Israel to make concessions in advance of negotiations, the Obama administration has baffled and demoralized Israelis, pulled the rug out from under Palestinian moderates, lent legitimacy to the demonizers of Israel around the world, and given Iran a windfall of precious time to promote terror and develop nuclear weapons.
On June 14, 2009, 10 days after President Obama’s Cairo address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a landmark speech at Bar Ilan University. While insisting on Israel’s determination to establish secure borders, he declared his willingness to go anywhere to discuss peace, invited Arab leaders to come to Israel, and became Israel’s first conservative prime minister to affirm the Palestinians’ right to govern themselves in their own state.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bold gestures have not been reciprocated.
Consistent with their professed values, progressive Jews should seek to persuade the president they helped elect to make progress toward peace. To begin again, President Obama should encourage Arab leaders to accept Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation; convince Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to declare in Arabic to their own people—as no Palestinian leader ever has—that they recognize Israel’s right to exist as a free, democratic, and Jewish state; publicly identify the war waged against Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies by the forces of radical Islam as the chief obstacle to the attainment of peace in the Middle East; and block Iran’s arming and financing of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
KENNETH J. BIALKIN
Since Harry S. Truman, all presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, have professed friendship for Israel. But the test lies in conduct, not rhetoric. Some presidents thought to be unsympathetic to Israel have delivered stunning evidence of understanding and support for the Jewish state’s existential struggle.
President Obama has signaled a change in policy in a peace process designed to convince the Muslim world to think better of the U.S. by pushing harder on Israel. This new emphasis of seeking greater approval of America is hardly likely to soften Arab attitudes toward Israel and might actually reinforce existing hard-line views. It is increasingly obvious that the failure to make progress in Middle East peace lies primarily in the continued refusal of the Arab world (except Egypt and Jordan) to accept Israel as a peaceful neighbor. The president would be better advised to utilize his formidable persuasive powers and high standing in the world to lead the international and diplomatic community toward convincing the Arab world to accept the reality of Israel’s existence and to welcome it as a friendly neighbor. He would be surprised at how friendly Israel could become if that realization were nourished.
Support for Obama from American Jews in the 2008 election was helped by several factors that will be absent from the 2010 elections: namely, disapproval of George W. Bush, opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, the McCain/Palin ticket, and excitement that America might elect a black president. Other factors that favored Obama in 2008 may yet persist in 2010, for example, Jewish liberal bias and traditional pro-Democrat drift. Recent polls of the Jewish community, however, reflect a clear decline of Jewish support from 2008. A Quinnipiac poll in April reported that 67 percent of Jews did not approve of Obama’s handling of Israel. Many Jews reacted with fury at the treatment accorded Israel’s prime minister in the Biden affair and to the demands of the administration for concessions on Jerusalem. Initially, many who had supported President Obama were hesitant to be critical, perhaps for fear that they would offend the president or risk their newfound access to the White House. Also, Jewish organizations whose constituents include both Democrats and Republicans were slow in finding a balance of words to describe the concern that had spread throughout the community. The president’s letter in April to a Jewish leader reaffirming U.S. support for Israel was a clear effort at damage control by the White House.
But the genie is out of the bottle. With the fallout from the Biden affair, the struggle for Jerusalem has begun. The contretemps has forced all Jews to examine their deepest feelings about Jerusalem. It has obliged Jews and others to reflect on who has deeper claims in the Holy Land—Jews with an almost unbroken history in the region or the relatively recently arrived peoples now collectively called Palestinians. President Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 wrongly attributes Israel’s claims solely to the horror of the Holocaust. He neglected to recognize more than 3,000 years of an almost continuous nexus to the land of the Bible. He ignored the patrimony of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, the prophets, Jesus, and others. The refusal to acknowledge Israel’s connection to the Land of Israel is a deliberate effort by Israel’s enemies and detractors to minimize the history of the Jewish people and their contributions to principles of justice, freedom, monotheism, and morality, which have seeded and fertilized the development of the Abrahamic religions.
Kenneth J. Bialkin is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The prevalent narrative that Jews voted for Barack Obama in high numbers because they felt comfortable with him on Israel is incorrect. The American Jewish Committee poll in late September 2008 showed Obama at 57 percent and McCain at 30 percent among Jewish voters. This demonstrated that the concerns the Republican Jewish Coalition and others raised about Obama were, at the time, having an effect on the Jewish community.
There is little question that the U.S. economic collapse in October was the main impetus for Obama’s receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote. Without that game-changing event, I have every confidence that Obama would have received much lower support among Jews.
In light of this, Obama’s decline in the polls and the buyer’s remorse we are seeing now are not surprising. The AJC’s annual survey of American Jewish opinion in March showed that only 57 percent of Jews approved of Obama’s job performance. In early April, a McLaughlin poll found that a plurality of Jewish voters, 46 percent, would consider voting for someone else rather than re-elect President Obama. Also in April, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 67 percent of Jewish voters disapproved of the president’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
The challenge for the Jewish community going forward—in light of the pressure being placed on Israel to cease building in its eternal capital of Jerusalem, the demands for unilateral Israeli concessions to move the peace process forward, and an administration that continues to drag its feet as Iran moves closer to developing a nuclear weapon—is to stand up and to speak out.
What should be most troubling to the American Jewish community is that surveys show a widening partisan gap in support for Israel, with Republicans supporting Israel in far greater numbers. Low support for Israel among rank-and-file Democrats should set off alarm bells in the offices of every Jewish communal organization and in the Jewish community.
Underscoring that fact is that only a small handful of Democrats have put support for Israel above partisanship and have spoken out against the recent pressure of the Obama administration. The silence from party leaders like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi has been deafening.
U.S. Jewry must come together in a bipartisan fashion to stand up and speak out. The Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council should work together, along with others in the community, to send an unambiguous signal to the Obama administration that pressuring Israel, our ally and friend, must stop.
There are times in history when the Jewish community is tested—and this is one of them. When we look back on this period, we must be able to answer the question “Where were you then?” by saying honestly that we stood up and spoke out and did everything we could.
Matthew Brooks is executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Jewish Policy Center.
Did american Jews need the “assurance” mentioned in your premise when they made the decision to support Barack Obama in 2008? That is not by any means clear. Sure, Obama mouthed a few bromides about Israel’s security during the campaign, but Jewish voters, like other Americans, were aware that this candidate’s history was uniquely hostile to Israel. They knew of Obama’s tame attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s church (which gave Louis Farrakhan a “lifetime achievement award” and offered space in its bulletin to Hamas). They were aware of his friendships with Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi and of his affection for Third World causes. They heard him promise to hold face-to-face meetings with Ahmadinejad, Castro, and Chavez “without preconditions.”
Arguably, Israel’s security was not a high priority for the 78 percent of Jews who voted for Obama. Though the Democratic Party has been (with the exception of the first Bush administration) the less pro-Israel of the two major parties for four decades, Jewish attachment to the Democrats has remained slavish. Even in the face of the ardent and even inspired support of Israel by President George W. Bush, Jewish voters were unmoved, handing 76 percent of their votes in 2004 to Senator John Kerry.
But until 2008, fuzzy-mindedness on the part of Israel’s supporters, while it may have been unwise and even, in the case of Bush II, ungrateful, was something less than pivotal. A vote for Clinton over Dole, or even Kerry over Bush, would not have put Israel’s very existence at stake. Many American Jews, along with many Israelis, put misplaced faith in the “Oslo process” and other chimeras seductive to liberals. But with an Iranian bomb looming, the stakes in 2008 became dire. Only a fool would deny that an Iranian bomb might spell the nuclear annihilation of Israel—a holocaust more comprehensive than the Nazis’. Yet most American Jews, staring this nightmare in the face, shrugged it off.
Does it trouble Jewish voters to see President Obama warmly shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, assiduously courting Bashar Assad, and flattering Ahmadinejad, while delivering the most stinging rebukes to Netanyahu? It’s difficult to know. An American Jewish Committee poll found that Obama’s support among Jews has declined by 22 points in the past year. Yet 55 percent of American Jews still support the way Obama is handling U.S.-Israel relations—more than the 50 percent who approve his handling of health care.
Israel has better friends in America than American Jews. A 2008 poll found that 82 percent of American Christians believed they had a “moral and Biblical” obligation to support Israel (including 89 percent of evangelicals). A 2010 Gallup survey found that 85 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. The figure for Democrats was 48 percent. The notion that America’s support for Israel is the result of sinister manipulation by Jews is risible. Millions of Americans of all faiths (and none at all) feel a warm attachment to a fellow democracy and an ally in the war on terror. If Israel’s relationship with its most important ally depended only on American Jews, a frightening situation would be even worse.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ
The line in the sand, for me, has always been Israel’s security. I decided to vote for Barack Obama, having previously favored Hillary Clinton, only after Obama went to Sderot and affirmed Israel’s right to do whatever was necessary to stop rockets from targeting Israeli civilians. When Obama became president, I was not surprised that he took a tough stance against Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which I too have opposed since 1973. I noted with satisfaction that although Obama criticized the settlements on the West Bank, he did not criticize the security barrier that was built, in part, on land captured in the 1967 war. I also noted with satisfaction that the Obama administration categorically rejected the Goldstone Report—a report that was entirely inconsistent with candidate Obama’s statements at Sderot.
I began to get worried about the Obama administration when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel appeared to link American support for Israel’s security with Israeli actions regarding the settlements. I became even more concerned when Vice President Biden and General David Petraeus were quoted as suggesting that Israel’s actions could affect American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Emanuel, Biden, and Petraeus quickly distanced themselves from this linkage argument, it continues to have a life of its own, despite its falsity, as evidenced by the fact that while Israel was seeking to make peace in 2000-2001 by creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza with a capital in East Jerusalem, al-Qaeda was planning the 9/11 attack. So Israel’s “good” actions did nothing to make America safe from Islamic terrorism. On the other hand, when Israel took tough action against Gaza last year in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s “bad” actions did not increase American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such linkage is also dangerous because its implication is that Israel must cease to exist. The basic complaint that Muslim extremists have against Israel is not what the Jewish state does but what it is: a secular, non-Muslim democracy that promotes equal rights for women, gays, Christians, and others. Regardless of what Israel does or doesn’t do, its very existence will be anathema to Muslim extremists. The only action Israel could take to mollify such extremists would be to commit politicide.
Another source of concern for me has been the Obama policy regarding Iran. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a memo in which he acknowledged that America has no real policy that is likely to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons. Instead the Obama administration is moving toward a policy of “containment,” which is no policy at all but rather an implicit admission of failure. At the same time that it has been weak toward Iran, it has been firm toward Israel in telling an ally that has been threatened with nuclear destruction that it may not exercise its inherent right to prevent its citizens from becoming victims of a second Holocaust advocated by a tyrant who denies that the first occurred.
So I am worried about the direction the Obama administration seems to be taking with regard to Israel’s security. I will not join the chorus of condemnation by right-wingers directed against the Obama policy with regard to the settlements, or even with regard to a divided Jerusalem. The Obama administration has not yet crossed my line in the sand. I hope it never does so, but if it does, I will be extremely critical. In the meantime, those of us who supported Obama must continue to press him against compromising Israel’s security and against suggesting a false and dangerous linkage between Israel’s actions and the safety of American troops.
Alan M. Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard University and the author of the upcoming book Trials of Zion.
NATHAN J. DIAMENT
A clear majority of American Orthodox Jews, the group that I am privileged to represent in Washington, do not have the political schizophrenia described by the questions framing this symposium. A majority of Orthodox Jews did not vote to elect Mr. Obama in 2008 precisely because of their concerns over what his policies would be toward Israel. Currently, most Orthodox Jews oppose President Obama’s activist pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking because our segment of the pro-Israel community, like most Israelis, do not believe that the Palestinians are either interested in or capable of concluding a peace deal any time soon.
Nonetheless, those who assert that there is an “‘unmistakable” anti-Israel “direction?.?.?.?emanating from the White House” are incorrect. In fact, the White House is schizophrenic.
Mr. Obama explicitly insists that he subscribes to the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, is unshakably committed to Israel’s security, and is actively pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal for the sake of, among other things, Israel’s best long-term interests. Indeed, under the Obama administration, every aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship—other than the Israeli-Arab peace process—has not only remained on track from previous administrations but also has flourished. Military cooperation, intelligence-sharing, trade relations, opposing the scurrilous Goldstone Report at the UN, even working to avert Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are all areas where the Obama and Netanyahu governments are working well together. The disagreements over peace-process issues—even the feud over housing in Jerusalem—have not resulted in the Obama team’s scaling back these other tracks of support, much less yielded any threats to cut off American aid to Israel, as Israel’s enemies would wish.
In terms of the atmospherics of the relationship, we are indeed experiencing tensions between the American and Israeli leaderships “of a kind not seen since the days of?.?.?.?the first President Bush,” and President Obama is responsible for this atmosphere. While the most recent and most disturbing catalyst for these tensions was the administration’s escalated reaction to the Ramat Shlomo Jerusalem-housing announcement issued during Vice President Biden’s March visit to Israel, it spans a longer arc.
In the space of Mr. Obama’s presidency, one can anchor the beginning of that arc in the president’s Cairo speech, which contained phrases jarring to Jewish sensibilities. It continues with his administration’s condemning as “settlements” “harmful to peacemaking” any Israeli construction across the Green Line—from an isolated hilltop to East Jerusalem—and supporting Arab demands for a total construction freeze as a precondition for peace negotiations.
It currently culminates in an administration spokesman reporting that, in reprimanding Prime Minister Netanyahu for the Ramat Shlomo housing announcement, Secretary of State Clinton said that the Israeli move harmed not the peace process but rather the “bilateral relationship” between America and Israel; and administration officials telling the New York Times that there has been a shift in the approach to relations with Israel precisely because of a belief that American “blood and treasure” are imperiled by a lack of resolution regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
As I am writing these words (in late April), the Obama administration is in the midst of a full-court press of Jewish-community outreach because of the outcry over these accumulated events.
The president’s national security adviser, General Jones; his senior adviser, David Axelrod; and Secretary of State Clinton each addressed Jewish audiences in the space of a fortnight. Most notably, the president himself sent a public letter to the Jewish community, via the Conference of Presidents, in which he repudiated the view that “Israel bears some responsibility for the loss of American blood and treasure” (saying America’s “alliance with Israel serves our national security interests”) and rejected the calls for him to propose and force an “American peace plan” to resolve the conflict.
But the president also, in that letter, derided the “noise and distortion about my views” as opposed to “the actual approach of my Administration toward the Middle East”—as if the president and his team had contributed nothing to the negative narrative.
Thus, the outreach effort is sure to fail and will not preempt the next crisis unless two things occur.
First, the president must seize control of the message he wants to convey. If he wants there to be no mistaking his position that there is “no space” between the U.S. and Israel on matters of the Jewish state’s security—whether that be in dealing with the existential threat of a nuclear Iran or the contours of a peace deal with the Palestinians he will press for—he not only has to say so clearly and repeatedly; he must also shut down those within his administration who deviate from that message.
Second, the president must align his peacemaking efforts to practically serve that policy purpose and not an ideological predisposition.
The president has ignored the history of past Israeli-Arab peacemaking, which demonstrates that Israel will “take risks for peace” when two conditions are present: an Arab leader who is obviously a real partner for peace (think Sadat), and the Jewish state’s clear belief that the United States “has Israel’s back.” Neither of these conditions is present, and Mr. Obama’s approach to date has only made them further out of reach. The president must change course and press the Arabs not only to stop incitement against Israel but also to take steps toward normalization with Israel; and he must show Israelis that they can still count on America.
“How” should “American Jews handle this challenge?” Not by asserting the Barack Obama is anti–Israel, not to mention worse. American Jews should hold President Obama to the standard of his own words. American Jews, including Orthodox Jews, share his goal—ensuring Israel’s long-term security and Jewish character—and we must insist that his administration intelligently pursue that goal.
Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
You lost me at “Reverend Jeremiah Wright.”??The editors of Commentary could have decided to conduct a substantive debate about the merits of the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel. Instead they decided to frame the “discussion” by positing that in Israel’s hour of need, we have a Reverend Wright–worshiping president who is blaming Israel for the loss of American “blood and treasure” and what are liberal Jews going to do to make up for the error of their ways?.?.?.?in other words, by asking the equivalent of “When did you stop beating your wife?”
Commentary does not appear to want a real debate about the administration’s Middle East policy. So a related topic presents itself: how the bulk of Jewish conservatives have joined a movement that is much less interested in policy and intellectual debate and much more interested in whipping itself into a lather over the perfidy of its opponents and bemoaning either the stupidity or the disloyalty of that opposition.
The evidence of this hysterical campaign can be divided into a handful of story lines.
Imaginary Policy Advisers: Throughout the 2008 election cycle, conservative Jewish circles fixated over Obama’s supposed Middle East policy ties to people like Rashid Khalidi and Reverend Wright. They warned the Jewish community that these types of people would be guiding Obama’s foreign policy. Now that the administration is stocked with people like Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Hillary Clinton, many of those same voices are, in defiance of all logic, yelling I told you so.
Historical Illiteracy: Historical analogies are great for analyzing complex current problems. But how credible is your argument when everything comes down to Munich and Chamberlain? Describing administration policies, as one Obama critic recently did, as the equivalent of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. is laughable.
I Have in My Hands a List of Known Communists: Too many Jewish conservatives are loath to argue actual facts and so they resort to made-up facts. Recently, Jewish conservatives have spread blatant misrepresentations—such as claims that the administration was encouraging Palestinian protests in Jerusalem and that Obama had changed visa policies to obstruct Israeli nuclear scientists from entering the United States. This phenomenon is not confined to marginal characters. Elliott Abrams feels comfortable putting words never uttered into the mouths of both the columnist David Ignatius and President Obama when he says that “Obama came to the conclusion that he should impose a ‘peace plan.’”
The Jewish Masses Are Asses: Perhaps the most telling Jewish conservative behavior pattern is the reaction to the continued pattern of Democratic voting in the Jewish community. Jewish Republican analysts have spent years whining about Jews supposedly voting against their “self-interest.” According to these experts, only naïveté, ignorance, and worship of the false religion of liberalism can explain this perverse Jewish voting behavior.
Critical times demand cool analysis, reasoned discussion, and a profound understanding of the difference between enemies and friends. The hysteria, partisan one-upmanship, and painting of opponents as disloyal are a formula for Jewish disaster.
Ira Forman is CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
ABRAHAM H. FOXMAN
I believe American Jews will mobilize if they truly believe the Obama administration is fundamentally changing the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and undermining Israel’s security. They are not there now, partly because they haven’t reached a definitive conclusion as to where the administration is going, partly because they admire the president, and partly because they don’t feel very comfortable about the settlement issue and the Netanyahu government.
There is much to be concerned about regarding the assumptions and directions of the administration. Its unwillingness to see what Israelis have gone through in the past decade—three major initiatives to move forward met with rejection, terrorism, and extremism—is disheartening and leads to a misreading of options.
The administration’s making the settlement issue a sine qua non of negotiations was a bad mistake, not only because it provided an excuse for the Palestinians not to come to the table, but also because it left an impression that America saw pressure on Israel as a way to curry favor with the Islamic world. (Israel has already made offers on settlements, but major change can happen only in the context of significant and unprecedented Palestinian steps toward peace.) The administration publicly making Jerusalem an up-front issue heightened the Jewish community’s anxiety and concern.
Also, its comments suggesting that it buys the idea that American interests in the wider Middle East, including the ability to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, are dependent on peace between the Israelis and Palestinians are equally misguided.
The piling on against Israel left an impression that America’s long-held bipartisan policy was changing, having an impact on the Israeli public and Israel’s enemies.
On the other hand, the administration has shown enough flexibility to back off certain positions. For example, on settlements and Jerusalem, after starting unnecessary brouhahas, it seems willing to compromise. Questions remain, however, as to whether this is a tactical move to pacify critics or whether it reflects a deeper understanding and policy changes.
For American Jews as a whole (there is already a certain segment that believes that the administration has gone too far), breaking points could come if the administration does not protect Israel in the UN Security Council should the Palestinians opt for a unilateral declaration of statehood; or if the administration comes up with its own plan leading to efforts to impose it on the parties; or if the administration loses its focus on seeing to it that Iran does not get nuclear weapons.
At any of these points, traditional American Jewish concern for Israel’s well-being will kick in despite suggestions by some that the Jewish community has changed. I remember hearing back in the days of Menachem Begin’s tenure as prime minister how things had changed, but Jews showed up when needed. I believe the same would happen now.
The question for me is not whether Jews will stand up but how effective we will be. In that respect, the key factor will be Democrats in Congress. Can the community mobilize the Democratic majority in both houses to take issue with the president of their party? This will be a major challenge that will require persistence, initiative, and creativity.
In the final analysis, I’m still hopeful that things never reach that point, that the relationship, despite ups and downs, will remain intact. If not, I’m confident we will rise to the occasion as we have many times in the past.
The fact that the president, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod have found opportunities to rearticulate the strong U.S.-Israel strategic and special relationship indicates that the administration has begun to hear some of the concerns reverberating in the Jewish community, and not only from Republican Jews.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Some american presidents have had an instinctive sense about the Jewish people, about the way defenselessness and vulnerability have contributed to the tragedies of Jewish history and about the role the modern State of Israel has played in giving sense to that history. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman and George W. Bush—a diverse group of politicians from widely different backgrounds—had this instinct. Barack Obama does not.
There were plenty of clues that, despite a substantial number of Jewish supporters and advisers, candidate Obama did not have a decent appreciation of the Jewish psyche: his membership in a church that honored Louis Farrakhan; his former spiritual adviser who had a deep animus for Israel and trafficked in conspiracy theories; his foreign-policy team, which was populated with people who were demonstrably insensitive to Jewish concerns.
But perhaps the best indication that for Obama the Jews and Israel are merely political issues, not instinctual or personal points, came in the summer of 2008. At the AIPAC policy conference on June 4 of that year, Obama delivered a speech in which he articulated a philo-Semitic autobiography and Zionist credentials, declaring, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” Days later, Obama retracted his declaration, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that his clarion call for a united Jerusalem suffered from “poor phrasing.” If his commitment to an undivided Jerusalem was contrived for the AIPAC audience, there was every reason to believe that the balance of his address was as well.
The defining characteristic of presidents who are respected as friends of the Jewish people and Israel is their willingness to put principle over politics. Think of Truman’s support for the nascent Jewish state over the strenuous objections of the U.S. national-security and foreign-policy establishment. The essence of Obama’s Jewish problem is his penchant for putting politics over principle.
What explains this penchant? First, nothing about Obama’s formative years in Indonesia or his politically formative years on Chicago’s South Side would suggest a principled attachment to the Jewish community or Israel. Those are locales hardly less devoid of philo-Semitic and Zionist sentiment than Plains, Georgia, or Kennebunkport, Maine.
Second, Obama’s political style is that of the perpetual campaign. Since moving into the White House, he has taken his operation to the world stage, seeking popularity and an enhanced relationship with the Muslim world. That’s a contest one wins by confronting Israel rather than by endorsing its existential concerns about Hamas, Hezbollah, and a nuclear-armed Iran.
Third, Obama consistently attempts to define his presidency in grandiose, unprecedented terms, from stimulus plans to health-care reform. In the foreign-policy sphere, nothing could appeal more to the vanity of a president who won a Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of potentiality than to untie the Gordian knot of “Middle East” peace. And in Obama’s political milieu, Israeli security and the concerns of American Jews are dispensable to that worthy goal.
Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.
Long before his election as president, it was clear that Barack Obama felt little of the traditional American warmth for Israel or any particular repugnance for the enemies that Israel and America have in common. As Commentary’s editors suggest, his exceptionally close ties to the man he described as his spiritual mentor, the Israel-bashing Reverend Jeremiah Wright, should have given pause to any pro-Israel voter. So should the persistence with which he vowed to undertake direct presidential diplomacy with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the virulently anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic president of Iran—“without preconditions.” Yet many American Jews chose to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, telling themselves that he could be numbered, as Alan Dershowitz wrote at the time, “among Israel’s strongest supporters.”
Only the willfully blind could believe that now. And many American Jews are willfully blind.
Time and again, Obama has made clear both his lack of sympathy for the Jewish state and his keen desire to ingratiate himself with Arab and Muslim autocrats. The disparities in the administration’s tone and attitude have been striking. For the prime minister of Israel, there have been humiliating snubs and telephoned harangues; for the rulers of Iran, invitations to “engage” and sycophantic New Year greetings. When Damascus was reported to be arming Hezbollah with Scud missiles, Obama’s secretary of state observed mildly that the U.S. “would like to have a more balanced and positive relationship with Syria.” When Israel announced plans to build more homes in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, by contrast, the secretary of state angrily condemned the announcement as “an insult to the United States.”
Even more egregious is Obama’s insinuation that American troops are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because Israel won’t agree to peace on the Palestinians’ terms. The Israeli-Arab conflict “is costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” the president said in April—a claim not just false but also recklessly close to a blood libel. No wonder the number of Israeli Jews who see Obama as pro-Israel is minuscule: just 9 percent, according to the Jerusalem Post.
When the first George Bush was in the White House, he evinced a similar anti-Israel animus, and some of his advisers worried that his Mideast policy would hurt the president with Jewish voters. “F— the Jews,” Secretary of State James Baker notoriously responded, “they don’t vote for us anyway.” They didn’t: when Bush ran for re-election in 1992, he drew only 11 percent of the Jewish vote—less than a third of those who had voted for him in 1988.
Is it likely that two-thirds of the overwhelming majority of Jews who backed Obama in 2008 would abandon him in 2012, assuming he runs for re-election and his animus toward Israel persists? To ask it another way: would most American Jews vote against a Democratic nominee out of concern for Israel?
There is no reason to think so. American Jews have been stalwart Democrats for nearly a century, and their partisan affiliation shows no sign of weakening—not even as the Democratic Party’s support for Israel grows steadily weaker. When Gallup earlier this year surveyed Americans on their sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 85 percent of Republicans expressed support for Israel—but only 48 percent of Democrats did so. Reams of data confirm that solidarity with Israel is now far stronger among Republicans and conservatives than among Democrats and liberals.
That is why if they are forced to choose between standing with Israel and standing with the Democratic Party, many American Jews will simply deny that any choice must be made. As evidence, consider a recent Quinnipiac University poll, in which fully 50 percent of Jews described Obama as a “strong supporter of Israel”—a far higher proportion than the 19 percent of evangelicals, 23 percent of Protestants, and 35 percent of Catholics who said the same. Denial is not an uncommon response to cognitive dissonance, and a goodly number of Jewish Democrats will find it easier to keep telling themselves that Obama is strongly pro-Israel than to rethink their party loyalty.
To be sure, in 2012, Obama isn’t going to duplicate the 78 percent of Jewish votes he drew in 2008. But will American Jews turn away from him en masse? Don’t bet on it. “F— the Jews,” Obama’s advisers can tell him. “They’ll vote for us anyway.”
Jeff Jacobyis a columnist for the Boston Globe.
There is no real love without criticism, the Talmud teaches. And if the United States always endorses whatever policies emerge from the unstable, often incoherent coalitions of Israeli governments—well, that’s not love; it’s indulgence and condescension.
Real friends hold their friends responsible for reciprocity and good judgment. It will sometimes be unpleasant, but ultimately we who love Israel and want her to flourish as a Jewish, democratic state should welcome honest American friends.
I see no cause for concern in an American administration that expects Israel to refrain from building as provocatively as possible, and shaming the vice president in the process. Foolishness like that entails consequences. If Israeli-American relations endure a rocky passage as a result, whose fault is that?
Similarly, I want my real friends to tell me the truth: that time is not on my side, demographically or geopolitically; that unilateral withdrawals in Lebanon and Gaza brought no peace but negotiated agreements with Egypt did; and that it is in my interest to encourage the leadership of Salam Fayyad, still relatively weak but the best we can hope for from the Palestinian Authority.
American Jewish discourse about Israel remains binary—with us or against us—and crude. But the truth is that Israel, like America, has partisan discourse over its important challenges. Although Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to power, consistent, large majorities of Israelis (71 percent, according to a March Hebrew University poll) nevertheless favor an independent Palestinian state. How can President Barack Obama be “against” Israel or “betray it” by advancing a position that most Israelis favor?
One can support Obama’s measured, friendly pressure without falling into the facile trap of linkage. It is just delusional to expect that American “blood and treasure” would be magically secured in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the Gulf once Palestine is independent. Nor will Israel be welcomed into the Arab League once Kiryat Arba is evacuated. But unquestionably it is in America’s interest to ameliorate this intractable problem, both for the sake of its close Israeli friend and, yes, to enhance the goodwill of less dear friends and even mortal adversaries elsewhere.
I do not suspect the Obama administration’s sympathies or some putative anti-Semitism. (Jeremiah Wright? Rahm Emanuel? Which one works in the White House?) Furthermore, Americans’ sympathies continue to run more than 3-to-1, with Israel over the Palestinians, as a CNN poll found last month. This country is not about to shift its long-term alliances.
So there is much less to all the hubbub of the recent strained relationship than meets the eye. The worrisome element, it seems to me, is that this may distract Israelis as well as American Jews from the real issue that should be indelibly stamped on our minds: restraining a nuclear Iran. American Jews should hope not for American coddling over the territories but rather for real leadership on that existential threat. If the United States provides that, Israel and her friends will be happy to build their apartments on a different hill.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City.
The only surprise about the tension between the Obama administration and Israel is that anyone is surprised.
While President Barack Obama was less than frank about his intentions to govern from the center, he never projected himself as a supporter of Israel beyond a few bland campaign clichés. There were certainly clear indicators of what to expect: he palled around with Palestinian scholar and Israel-basher Rashid Khalidi and sipped Chardonnay with “reformed” domestic terrorists who’d been overtly hostile to Israel for decades. He admired Edward Said. He sat in a church pew for years and blithely ingested anti-Israel and frankly anti-Semitic rhetoric without a word of protest.
The greater issue isn’t that Obama is no great friend of Israel and never will be. The fascinatingly perverse tendency of Jews to vote against their self-interest is. Even with my psychological training, I don’t understand it. However, it is nothing new. Our history is rife with fractiousness and the tendency to over-intellectualize and to complicate simple issues of self-preservation. To some extent, our ability to promote an infinite array of opinions has contributed to the richness of our culture. Often, however, it has lead to tragedy. Let’s not forget that it was a certain group of Jews that invited the Romans into Jerusalem.
My personal opinion—and I’ve written about this before—is that the bifurcation of Israel and Judaism is structurally fallacious. The Land of Israel is an essential ingredient of Judaism practiced fully. Thus, it is impossible to be anti-Israel and not be anti-Jewish. And in fact, the war being waged against Israel by the Muslim world is, at the core, a religious dispute. Radical Islamists no longer talk about Zionists; they come right out and broadcast their goal of eradicating worldwide Jewry. The same squarely theological cast informs Islam’s struggle against “Western values,” which is really a buzzword for Christianity. Failure to recognize any link between Israeli and Jewish survival is the same old pathological denial that has informed the most tragic chapters of Jewish history.
No doubt there are many people who will disagree, ranging from the pseudo-Zionists of J Street to the Satmar Hasidim. Hostility toward Israel engenders fascinating levels of Jewish “pluralism.”
Obama will come and go. Jewish antipathy toward Israel and Judaism itself will endure. And that is the challenge.
Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 32 best-selling novels, five nonfiction books, and numerous essays and scientific articles. He is professor of clinical pediatrics and psychology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
U.S.-Israeli relations are still reeling from the Obama administration’s smear campaign launched against the Jewish state in March following an Israeli government announcement that 1,600 new apartment units had been authorized to be built in an existing Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. As part of that campaign, various administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the president himself, have blamed Israel for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process, and the president has snubbed its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during a White House visit. Worse still, some administration officials have suggested that Israeli actions were endangering the lives of American military personnel in the Middle East.
Although the Israeli government’s construction-approval announcement, which came during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel, was an exercise in poor judgment, it violated no previous Israeli commitments to the United States. Months before Mr. Biden’s visit, Netanyahu’s government had turned down an Obama administration request to stop all building in East Jerusalem, which is part of Israel’s capital and home to some 280,000 Jews, as well as all settlement construction in the West Bank. However, in a move hailed by Secretary of State Clinton as “unprecedented,” Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction to assist in getting stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority moving. In addition, he took other confidence-building measures such as lifting numerous roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank to improve the quality of life of Palestinians. Apparently, all this was not enough for the Obama administration, which ignored the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of Israeli peace offers and their and the Arab states’ refusal to make any conciliatory gestures toward Israel, and instead chose to label Israel as the obstacle to peace.
The Obama administration seemed bent on a course of diminishing the stature and importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance and redirecting U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Arab direction. The White House even suggested that if Israel did not agree to its demands for territorial concessions to the Palestinians, the administration would put forth its own peace plan and impose a solution on Israel.
As a result of the clear intention of the president to wring concessions from Israel that could jeopardize its security while encouraging the Palestinians and the Arab states to escalate their demands, a number of organizations and several individuals denounced the Obama administration for its hostility to the State of Israel, our only democratic and reliable ally in the Middle East.
The Obama administration was counting on its support in the Jewish community, which gave him 78 percent of its vote in the presidential election that elected him—a percentage second only to that of the African-American community. It is true that for several weeks, Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel in Congress and elsewhere were dangerously silent. Then people began to wake up. In a poll taken on April 22 by Quinnipiac University, the Jewish community replied with 67 percent disapproving of Barack Obama’s “handling [of] the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.” In another poll, support for President Obama in the Jewish community went down to 58 percent, a loss of 20 points. In the Quinnipiac poll, it was revealed that sympathies of Americans were greater for Israel among Republicans—70 percent—while for Palestinians it was at 8 percent; whereas among Democrats, it was 46 percent for Israel and 19 percent for Palestinians.
At this point, the Obama administration decided it had gone too far, certainly in view of the upcoming biannual congressional election and the fear of losing either one or both Houses. So, on April 20, the president wrote a letter to the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in which he assures the Jewish community of his commitment to Israel and pledges that the U.S. will not seek to impose a peace agreement on Israel, which some observers have suggested was his motive in creating the crisis.
Some have argued that the president’s efforts to restore the U.S.-Israel relationship to what it was—one of total trust—are insincere and should be rejected. For now, I am willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt. But I also believe we must be ever vigilant and prepared once again to stand up and oppose efforts to bludgeon Israel into engaging in any actions that threaten its security and defensible borders. Whenever President Obama asks Israel to make a concession to the Palestinians to advance peace, he should simultaneously require the same of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, he should now demand of the Palestinian Authority that it state in Arabic, Hebrew, and English that it accepts the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel to exist side by side with a Palestinian state.
Ed Koch is former mayor of New York City
While “I-told-you-so” vindication feels good (I was senior Middle East adviser to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign), it is no substitute for the urgent re-education of Barack Obama.
No American president has ever entered the Oval Office with so many bad ideas about the Middle East, half-baked in the ovens of the Middle East departments at Columbia and the University of Chicago. Two of these ideas are particularly pernicious and might be described as the Khalidi Doctrine, after Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American professor who gave Obama his Middle East primer at Chicago. First, the American resort to force in the Middle East is always counterproductive; second, the unresolved Palestine problem is the hinge on which the entire Middle East turns.
Guided by these two ideas, Obama’s ship ran aground almost as soon as it left port. The diplomatic drive to tame Iran was bound to stall without the backup of a credible military threat—the willingness to use force, despite its downsides. The implosion of Plan A, “engagement,“ has left a strategic vacuum, which only now the administration is beginning to fill with stiffer rhetoric. And putting the Palestine problem front and center has only incited the intransigence of the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. By declaring a peace deal a “vital American interest” and tussling with the Netanyahu government, Obama merely jacked up the Palestinian asking price for renewing negotiations and everything else.
As the two pillars of the Khalidi Doctrine crumble under the weight of reality, champions of an alternative approach are finally getting some traction. They insist that U.S. diplomacy toward Iran is doomed, absent the threat to use force if talks fail. And they argue that tinkering with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is a dangerous distraction from the main event: Iran.
How do we know whether these ideas are making inroads? First, there was the “dual loyalty” smearing of Dennis Ross by an anonymous administration official, which looked like a desperate lunge to head off just this kind of rethinking. Second, the president of the weather vane called the Council on Foreign Relations and suddenly reversed direction: chasing an Israeli-Palestinian deal, he announced, is “a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.” To judge from these gyrations, the re-education of Barack Obama has begun.
What can American Jews do to accelerate it? They must keep their and Obama’s eyes squarely on the ball. When Obama visited the town of Sderot during his campaign, he declared that “a nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation not just in the Middle East but around the world. Whatever remains of our nuclear non-proliferation framework, I think, would begin to disintegrate.” That is the Obama for whom most Jewish Democrats cast their votes: a president who would secure the greater peace. Call it the Sderot Pledge: American Jews must unite around it and hold Obama to it.
Martin Kramer is senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
How,” the editors of Commentary ask, “will American Jews handle” the challenge of a potentially nuclear Iran? My (somewhat dyspeptic) answer: poorly. Just as poorly as they have handled so many other real-world challenges that can’t be solved in accordance with conventional liberal pieties.
Fortunately, neither American nor Israeli foreign-policy need be guided by the head-in-the-sand political views of much of the American Jewish community. If the U.S. does act to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, it will be due to a drumbeat of criticism of the Obama administration’s lack of a serious Iran policy. That criticism is coming from American hawks, most of whom are not Jewish, more than from American Jews. So if the Obama administration is shamed into doing something effective with respect to Iran, perhaps the Jewish community will one day thank the Christian hawks. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
For that matter, if the Obama administration is pressured into treating Israel, as previous administrations have, as an ally instead of as a problem, American Jews should be grateful to non-Jewish Americans for being so pro-Israel and for doing the pressuring. But I wouldn’t bet on much in the way of expressions of gratitude in this instance either.
And of course it is possible that dovish and pro-Obama Jews are finally awakening to reality. But I can’t say I’d recommend betting on this happening on a massive scale either.
Now if Israel acts against the Iranian nuclear program, it will of course be thanks to the foresight of the Israeli government and the fortitude of the Israeli people. One does hope, if Israel does act, that she will receive the support of the American Jewish community. One knows she will have the strong backing of American conservatives and evangelical Christians.
It’s sad that the American Jewish community is so lacking in political wisdom and in ecumenical gratitude. It’s fortunate, on the other hand, that so many Americans and Israelis tend toward good sense and political courage. That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of both the Jewish and the American state. I’m even hopeful that things will work out in the short term vis-à-vis Iran, and with respect to American-Israeli relations.
But I’m doubtful that this will be due to the American Jewish community rising to the challenge. I hope I’m wrong.
William Kristol is the editor of the Weekly Standard.
At his core, Barack Obama is a leveler—an eraser of distinctions. Most Americans savor his unique ability to blur divisions based on race, or to demolish barriers between the impoverished and the privileged. In other areas, the president’s leveling instinct creates far more controversy, particularly when it morphs into a stubbornly nonjudgmental form of moral relativism. On national-security issues in particular, his denial of distinctions has led to dangerous confusion between the decent and the degenerate, between friend and foe, and, ultimately, between right and wrong. The administration has offered new protections to terrorists at Gitmo while threatening criminal prosecution of counterterrorist operatives who helped protect us from their murderous schemes. With similar blindness, the Obama team seems determined to punish the Israelis despite their innumerable risks for peace, while rewarding the Palestinians for their unshakable intransigence.
Mr. Obama’s obtuse approach to Israel doesn’t reflect anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism so much as it expresses his refusal to consider the overriding moral dimension to the Middle East conflict. In this, he presents a painful contrast to his predecessor. George W. Bush made his share of foreign-policy errors, but he never lost sight of the irreducible difference between nations that sought a peaceful, stable, democratic world and those he unabashedly called the “evil-doers”—gangster regimes and terrorist bands bent on domination and destruction. When it comes to Israel and her enemies, Alan Dershowitz (who supported Obama’s presidential campaign) memorably drew the crucial distinction on my radio show: “If the Palestinians put down their weapons, there would be peace tomorrow. If the Israelis put down their weapons, there would be genocide tomorrow.” In other words, there is no moral equivalence between those who seek only security within their own borders and those who yearn to annihilate a neighboring people.
Assuming that President Obama continues to ignore or obscure the contrasting agendas of Israeli and Islamic combatants—that he continues to worry more over Jews building apartments in Jerusalem than over Muslim fanatics building nukes in Teheran—will Jewish voters wake up to the administration’s threat to our interests and our values?
That seems doubtful, since so many secular Jews share the president’s discomfort with moral judgments and recoil from the imposition of absolute categories of good and evil on contemporary affairs. For one thing, talk of ultimate right and wrong smacks inevitably of religiosity, and Jews remain disproportionately disengaged from organized faith—they are vastly less likely to affiliate with congregations, or even to profess belief in God, than their Christian neighbors. The most conventionally religious elements in the Jewish community, the Orthodox, display no reluctance to uphold clear distinctions between good and evil, and they voted overwhelmingly against Obama—just as their less stringent compatriots unblushingly backed their fellow relativist by similarly lopsided margins.
A major shift in the Jewish vote would require a deeper shift in Jewish attitudes and an unlikely new willingness to reaffirm the most rigorous, judgmental aspects of our tradition. The sad fact is that most Jews like Obama’s leveling approach, and his eradication of differences, including the existential distinction between Jew and Gentile. Consider the goofy pride with which so many besotted liberals pointed to the recent White House seder, led by Jeremiah Wright’s long-time congregant in his conspicuous yarmulke, presiding over the annual ritual of particularistic national origins despite his admitted ignorance of Jewish tradition. By contrast, when George W. Bush hosted menorah lightings in the White House, he never presumed to kindle the lights himself but instead assigned the task to Jewish offspring of fighting men who were serving their country in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This president, unlike Mr. Bush, would feel profound discomfort with the uncompromising Jewish emphasis on separation—between pure and impure, kosher and nonkosher, Sabbath and weekday, good and evil. After all, the Book of Genesis shows God beginning the work of creation through the process of division—between light and darkness, waters above and waters beneath, earth and seas, and so forth. TheHavdalah (“Separation”) prayer recited by religious Jews at the conclusion of every Sabbath emphasizes this crucial aspect of the sacred: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who separates between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor.”
When more Jews resonate with this eternal imperative to draw crisp distinctions, they will rally to Israel’s uniquely compelling case as a singular example of decency in the most desperate, depraved corner of the earth, but until then they will probably continue to make common cause with our relativist-in-chief.
Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show.
AARON DAVID MILLER
Jews worry for a living. Their dark and catastrophe-laden history compels them to do so. But American Jews, paradoxically freed from the existential threats faced by their co-religionists around the world, particularly the Israelis, seem to worry more.
I put forward a notion in my last book, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, called the cosmic oy-vey. The phrase is designed to capture the persistent capacity of some (maybe even many) American Jews to elevate their worries on almost every issue to the level of an existential concern. Jimmy Carter writes a bad book that makes the New York Times bestseller list, and the sky is falling; professors Walt and Mearsheimer make a grossly flawed and oversimplified argument about the pro-Israeli lobby, and you’d think the world were coming to an end.
Today the cosmic oy-vey is at work again, even subtly intertwined in the assumptions advanced in the Commentary Symposium, assumptions with which I am now wrestling.
There’s plenty for American Jews to worry about concerning Israel: Iran’s possible acquisition of a nuclear weapon; the increasing lethality, range, and precision of Hamas and Hezbollah high-trajectory weapons; and the fact that given the grim prospects for any serious peacemaking, a continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is virtually certain.
I would argue, though, that what is not worth worrying about is the current administration’s brouhaha with Israel. If you want to worry about something related to President Obama, worry about the fact that his administration still lacks an effective strategy to deal with Iran; worry about the fact that the president has no serious strategy for resolving the Arab-Israeli issue; worry about the fact that America is bogged down in two costly and unpopular wars in which victory is measured not by can we win but by when can we leave; and worry about the fact that al-Qaeda, over time, is bent on acquiring and detonating a nuclear weapon in the United States.
It’s true that the United States is going through a tough patch in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Of the three worst periods of tension in that relationship, the current crisis still doesn’t approach 1956 (over Suez), 1975 (the reassessment of the second Sinai disengagement agreement), or 1991 (over housing loan guarantees and settlements). In these three cases, sanctions against Israel were either threatened or used. And while the current tensions are not just a bump in the road (and could even worsen), the U.S.-Israeli bond has proved remarkably resilient over the course of the last 60-plus years. The marriage of interests and ideology creates a powerful and enduring bond that links Israel and the United States together.
No, what worries me is that unlike previous periods of tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, this time around, nobody on either side seems to be in charge; nobody knows how to climb down, let alone how to use the current crisis to his advantage, or how to get back on track. The Israeli prime minister is a prisoner of his own ideology and his coalition; the president is a prisoner of his own transformational goals and his illusions about certain issues pertaining to Arab-Israeli peace.
Right now, both the president and the prime minister see the world more in terms of how they want it to be, rather than how it is, and neither seems to appreciate the reality in which the other lives. The honeymoon is over; divorce is not an option. So, until Obama and Netanyahu are able to find common ground on some policy initiative that matters to them both, restoring a functional partnership will be extremely difficult. And the next six months will resemble more a soap opera than serious cooperation between the United States and Israel. And that would be a terrible outcome for two nations that face profound challenges in an angry, turbulent, and dysfunctional region.
Aaron David Miller is public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and has been an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Are you still glad you voted for Obama?” my grandfather is asking my mother over the phone, in his pre-Passover call from Jerusalem. With the time difference, he has precious little time before the start of the holiday; in America, we have hours still.
I slink away to avoid being pulled into the conversation that I know is to follow. In the days leading up to the election, my grandfather and I had our own heated discussion about Obama, my fervor for his candidacy contrasting with my grandfather’s immense dislike, and it’s not an argument I’m eager to repeat. My mother’s response, which I can’t avoid hearing, comes as no surprise: “I’m very angry at Obama,” she says, having reluctantly voted for him, one of many American Jews who were lifelong Democrats yet worried about his stance on Israel. I, like many American Jews, voted for him without reservation.
Once my mother gets off the phone, there’s no time to talk politics in the swirl of Passover preparations—too many bitter herbs to be sliced—but it’s still on my mind at the seder, where Jewish history is compressed into past, present, and future at once. The eternal optimist who says Next year in Jerusalem is side by side with the doomsayer who reminds us that in every generation, an enemy will rise up to destroy us.
Whether the perceived Obama shift away from Israel will translate into a concrete policy still remains to be seen. Even so, it’s the beginning for me of a painful, reluctant disenchantment. I’m feeling the classic discomfort of cognitive dissonance, supporting the Obama agenda on most other issues but adamantly disagreeing with much of the liberal political world when it comes to Israel. Whose blind spot, whose contradiction, is this? Mine or theirs?
“I get it,” Obama famously said in his State of the Union about the economy, and it is those words I want to hear him say, and say sincerely, regarding Israel’s history, its all-too-valid fears, its current plight. Without those words, these are lonely, uncertain times for this Obama loyalist. I feel this most keenly at the end of Passover when, at my Republican in-laws’, I await the subject of Obama and Israel to be raised. Whereas before I would have argued vehemently in his support, now, closing my mouth, not sure what to think anymore, I’m reminded of a line from Shalom Aleichem, as Tevye the Dairyman grieves at having said goodbye to one of his daughters: “Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?” As I sit at the table, tired of matzoh, I know what to say.
“Have you heard any news of global warming?”
Tova Mirvis is the author of two novels and is currently a visiting research associate at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.
The geniuses in the Obama administration have now twice provoked and twice lost the same gratuitous fight with the Netanyahu government. Unfortunately, these defeats don’t deter them from persisting with their misconceived goals.
The first fight began in May 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded an end to Israeli building activity on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Four months later, after figuring out that this policy obstructed the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy they fervently sought, the geniuses backtracked and returned to Democratic Party policies-as-usual, meaning good relations with Jerusalem.
In March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton, and Obama then picked the same fight with Israel all over again, now over Jerusalem specifically. This time, the administration needed only six weeks to retreat from its foolishness, as signaled by National Security Adviser James Jones’s speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Elie Wiesel’s lunch at the White House.
Notwithstanding these tactical retreats, the policy of “linkage”—belief that the well-being of the Middle East depends primarily on an Israeli-Palestinian accord—remains very much in place and will bedevil U.S.-Israel relations at least through the next two and a half years of Obama’s presidency.
At this difficult time, three facts console me. First, Israelis take more “risks for peace” and offer more “painful concessions”—i.e., they make more irreversible mistakes—when U.S.-Israel ties are warm and strong. In contrast, tense U.S.-Israel ties render such bad decisions less likely. This is one silver lining in Obama’s missteps.
Another silver lining is the apparently permanent damage these fights have inflicted on Obama, who in the eyes of many Zionist Americans is seen as insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Third, Obama’s fights with Israel occur at a moment of particularly strong American support for Israel; one recent poll, for instance, shows a 10-to-1 preference for Israel over the Palestinians. Add to this the deep fabric of U.S.-Israeli religious, family, commercial, and cultural ties—as symbolized by the just-signed bilateral open-skies agreement—and it appears that a president, especially one who has cascaded in the polls and must be deeply concerned about the forthcoming midterm elections, can go only so far to antagonize the very large body of pro-Israel voters. Thus, I am worried but not acutely so.
The title and questions in this symposium focus on American Jews. But the Arab-Israeli debate in the United States has changed to the point that “Jews” no longer adequately defines the actively pro-Israel camp. As Jewish defamers of Israel grow more prominent and organize themselves (think J Street), so do ardently pro-Israel non-Jews (think Christians United for Israel). I therefore suggest rephrasing the discussion, substituting “Zionists” for “Jews.”
Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” Yet in our own time in America, it is within a political rather than a religious context that the undying stubbornness of the Jewish people manifests itself most blatantly. Their early ancestors had the golden calf; they have the Democratic Party.
Consider: since 1928—before Franklin Roosevelt, be it noted—a staggering 75 percent of Jewish voters have on average gone for the Democratic presidential candidate. In all those years, and long past the point where the Democratic Party served either their interests or their ideals, whether as Jews or as Americans, only one of its candidates—Jimmy Carter running for a second term against Ronald Reagan—failed to get a majority of their vote, and even he scored a plurality in a three-way race.
There is no more telling example of the stubborn persistence of this pattern than the 2008 election. Thus, in spite of Barack Obama’s close association with the anti-Semitic likes of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Professor Rashid Khalidi, the Jewish vote for him was 35 points—35 points!—higher than the pro-Obama white vote in general, and it was even 11 points higher than the Hispanic vote. Broken down by religion: the Jewish vote was 33 points higher than the Protestant vote and 24 points higher than the Catholic vote. Only with blacks (95 percent) did Obama do better than with Jews.
Nevertheless, except for the heartbroken disavowals of Ed Koch and the angry attacks of Marty Peretz over Obama’s betrayal of the soothing assurances they had given to their fellow Jews of his great friendliness toward Israel, his army of Jewish supporters has greeted this betrayal with a disgracefully tepid response (which is at least less dishonorable than the sycophantic apologetics of a leading Jewish cheerleader like Martin Indyk). More disgraceful still is how Obama’s Jewish supporters have treated his evident willingness to accept an Iranian bomb in spite of repeated declarations that it is “unacceptable.”
The American Jewish community of the 1930s and 40s has often been excoriated for its “silence” in the face of Roosevelt’s failure to do much about Hitler’s threat to rid the earth of Jews. But compared with the response of today’s community to Obama’s treatment of Ahmadinejad’s threat to do unto the Jewish state what Hitler did unto the Jews of Europe, the voice of yesteryear’s “Jews of silence” sounds like a mighty roar.
And so, even though the 2012 Jewish vote for Obama is unlikely to reach its astronomic 2008 height, it is a good bet that a majority will support him once again. “F— the Jews,” said James Baker to George H.?W. Bush in 1992, “they won’t vote for us anyway.” I can easily imagine Rahm Emanuel (who is famously fond of the F word) saying to Barack Obama, “F— the Jews; they will vote for us anyway.” After all, Emanuel knows as well as Baker that when it comes to the stiff-neckedness of the Jewish people, the Democratic Party is a worthy descendent of the golden calf.
Norman Podhoretz’s 12th book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, was published by Doubleday last fall.
Here are five points that may help to explain current American-Israeli tensions and American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.
1. To understand President Obama, one must understand that he is the first leftist—not liberal, leftist—to serve as president of the United States. While President Franklin Roosevelt was also a man of the left regarding economic policy, social policy, and expanding government, today he would be considered “conservative” regarding foreign policy and the nature of American civilization. FDR believed in American exceptionalism and advocated fighting for others’ liberty. Even before the war, he regularly spoke of America as, in his words, “the guardian of Western culture.” The Democratic Party would not consider for nomination a man who said such things today. Today’s left rejects such notions. For example, when asked last year by the Financial Times if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The left wants America to be like other countries—particularly the social democracies of Western Europe. Therefore, a leftist president simply cannot be as pro-Israel as a president who believes in American exceptionalism. Rather, he will likely be as pro-Israel as the Europeans are.
2. A fundamental characteristic of the left is a desire that America be loved, or at least liked, by the world. That is far more important than being strong, and it may well preclude risking world opprobrium for backing Israel.
3. This president particularly wants to be liked in the Muslim world. He feels that he has a great advantage in changing the Muslim world’s views of America because he has a Muslim father, a Muslim name, and spent some of his early years in Indonesia. A president seeking singlehandedly to change the Muslim world’s attitudes toward America and the American president is not likely to be as strongly pro-Israel as was the last president, who was prepared to have himself and America disliked by Muslims who hate the Jewish state.
4. If President Obama watched MEMRI or Palestinian Media Watch, and thereby viewed the daily Palestinian and other Arab television broadcasts of Nazi-like Jew-hatred, perhaps he would realize that the overwhelming obstacle to Mideast peace is a hatred that has no parallel anywhere in the world. Until then, however, he will continue to hold the left’s belief that Israel is as responsible, if not more responsible, for the lack of peace in the Middle East.
5. Finally, most American Jews are not nearly as passionate about Israel as they were a generation ago. Many are indifferent because being Jewish is of no particular significance to them. Many are liberal?/?left and may loathe the right more than they love Israel. And some are leftist more than Jewish in their values and passions. Therefore, many American Jews will support an American president on the left against an Israeli prime minister on the right.
Add to these five observations Iran’s developing nuclear weapons while America’s president—not to mention the United Nations Security Council—is not as nearly as tough as necessary on that country’s fanatically anti-Israel regime. One then appreciates why many of us believe Israel is in danger.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio-talk-show host, a syndicated columnist, and the author of four books.
There was a time, not so long ago, when support for the State of Israel was what most bound together the American Jewish community. Now, sadly, it is Israel that most divides us.
How did that happen, and what can be done about it?
As long as Israel was the underdog in its conflict with the Arab world, and particularly in the early years of the state, the overwhelming majority of American Jews were firmly in the Zionist camp, giving their energy and primarily their dollars toward ensuring a safe haven for the remnants of European Jewry after the Holocaust, the immigrants from Arab countries, and other fellow Jews living in the holy land.
The Six-Day War marked the high point of pride in and identification with the Israeli people, widely seen as Jewish Supermen in the heady days after the defeat of the mighty Arab nations. But gradually that image changed. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Lebanon War of 1982, and the first intifada five years later, Israel increasingly was seen in the eyes of the world as Goliath rather than David, no longer the plucky little nation surrounded by 100 million hostile Arabs but instead the mighty war machine preventing Palestinians from having a state of their own.
American Jews who lived through the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, and who witnessed its early struggles, identified with Israel in their kishkas. Not so, though, a young generation that has grown up long after the Six Day War miracle and the euphoria of the Entebbe rescue. Their memory is of the Rabin assassination, checkpoints, intifadas, and widespread condemnation of Israel as occupier, and worse.
Too few of our young people receive a serious Zionist education, even in our best Jewish day schools. They may learn about Judah Maccabee but don’t know Menachem Begin from Natan Sharansky. Most find the Mideast conflict confusing as they watch the Palestinians become the darlings of their liberal friends, particularly on college campuses. Lacking the historical knowledge and moral confidence to make Israel’s case, too many of our sons and daughters tune out of the discussion.
Birthright Israel has been a great success this past decade, reintroducing Israel in a positive light to tens of thousands of young people, but there is only so much a 10-day visit can do.
The prospect of confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem today is deeply troubling to our young people, and perhaps a losing proposition for pro-Israel supporters. Those who helped elect Barack Obama, moved by his vision of transformation and of restoring respect for America among the nations of the world, may well believe that “tough love” rather than creative advocacy is what Israel needs.
For a generation that has done little to teach our children the history, ethical imperative, and moral passion of Israel, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York and founding chair of Write on for Israel, an advocacy program through journalism for high school students.
JONATHAN D. SARNA
American jews have always been happiest when the policies they espouse comport with those that their government espouses. When America battled the Nazis during World War II, when it battled Arab terrorists and al-Qaeda, when it fought Iraq in the Kuwait war, and when it overthrew Saddam Hussein, Jews cheered; their interests and Washington’s interests seemed in perfect alignment.
At other times, though, Jews have significantly differed from government policy, and this was true long before the State of Israel came into existence. In the wake of brutal anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia in the first decade of the 20th century, American Jews campaigned to abrogate an 1832 treaty of commerce with that country. President William Howard Taft, influenced by business leaders, strongly opposed this move and sternly lectured American Jews on the folly of their dissent when they met with him to discuss the issue. Nevertheless, the Jewish community courageously stuck to its guns. Taft was compelled to abrogate the treaty in 1911, and many Jews (including the powerful Jacob Schiff) punished his party and supported the Democrats or the “Bull Moose” Progressives led by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
Jews likewise consistently dissented from government policies that sought to limit immigration. Restrictionists who favored literacy tests and tight immigration quotas during the 1910s and 20s regularly charged that Jews put their own interests ahead of the country’s best interests, but Jewish leaders stood firm. Rather than cowering before those who defined “national interests” differently, they advocated for what they believed right, even when this put them at odds with presidents whom Jews had helped to elect.
So there is nothing unique or unprecedented about the current conflict with the White House. Indeed, Jewish disagreements with White House policies, particularly concerning the Middle East, characterized the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations as well, and in those days Israel was a good deal weaker and more dependent than it is now.
The last Democratic president who was perceived (correctly, as we now know) to be an opponent of the State of Israel and its policies was Jimmy Carter. His weak-kneed, idealistic, and naïve foreign policy—uncomfortably similar, in some ways, to that of Barack Obama—alienated millions who had previously supported him. In 1976 he had garnered fully 71 percent of the Jewish vote. Just four years later, he became the only Jewish Democrat in 80 years to receive less than 50 percent of the Jewish vote, and was driven from the White House by Ronald Reagan, who won a higher percentage of Jewish votes than any Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Could something similar happen to Barack Obama?
Much could change between now and 2012, but signs abound that Jewish support for the Democratic administration is waning. The real question, looking ahead, is whether the Republicans will be able to use this to their advantage. To do so, history suggests, they will need to nominate a candidate whose views on American policy, foreign and domestic, comport with those most Jews hold dear. If Jews decide that the Republican candidate in 2012 more closely aligns with their views than Barack Obama, it is a safe bet that the Republican candidate will win many more of their votes than McCain and Palin did in 2008.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of American Judaism: A History
The current tension between the United States and Israel is less than a crisis (for example, Suez 1956) and more than a passing tempest (the Israel-China “Phalcon” episode, 2000). In my view, it registers a 5 or a 6 on the diplomatic Richter scale. But that relatively good news should be cold comfort—the potential for mistrust and recriminations to morph these early tremors into a level-9 earthquake are depressingly real. In the meantime, even the current modest level of tension has had the nasty side effect of giving intellectual terrorists, like Harvard professor Stephen Walt, free rein to use mainstream publications to engage in McCarthyite “dual loyalty” attacks on dozens of patriotic Jewish Americans, myself included.
While Commentary has asked respondents to focus on the role of Jewish Americans in this evolving U.S.-Israel relationship, it is a mistake to overlook the crucial role played by non-Jewish Americans. I am not speaking about the “silent majority” of Americans that still poll in support of strong U.S.-Israel ties in overwhelming numbers. And I am not speaking about the rise of pro-Israel sentiment among conservative evangelicals or its drop among liberal Christian groups. Rather, I focus on what I call the non-evangelical Christian Zionist policymakers. (I haven’t figured out a catchy acronym yet.)
Historically, the role played by these courageous friends of Israel—from Clark Clifford to Alexander Haig—was critical. But who at the highest levels of our foreign-policy elite, especially those outside the ranks of elected officials, play this role today? Among Republicans, George Shultz remains an exemplar. Among Democrats, Evan Bayh, a soon-to-be-ex-elected official, retains a powerful voice. There are, of course, others. But compared with a generation ago, the bench is pretty thin.
There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, not all of them negative or regrettable. To a certain extent, for example, this is an unintended consequence of the growing acceptability of Jewish foreign-policy practitioners, especially as concerns the U.S.-Israel relationship and wider U.S. Middle East policy. But at the same time, among many in the foreign-policy elite, there has been an unmistakable decline into indifference toward and detachment from Israel and the fate of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
When times are good, this doesn’t matter very much. But when times are bad—and especially when they are getting worse—the absence of this critical layer of robust, sophisticated, and influential advocacy of strong U.S.-Israel ties can be devastating.
So as Jewish Americans analyze their relationship to Israel, Obama, and American politics on the pages of Commentary and elsewhere, let’s please remember a larger reality—if U.S.-Israel friendship becomes viewed solely or even predominantly as an indulgence to the American Jewish community, without vocal and effective champions among non-Jewish foreign-policy practitioners who rally to its defense because U.S.-Israel friendship advances U.S. strategic interests, the chances that it will survive the level-9 earthquake are slim. Rebuilding that sort of support (starting with support among the Democratic foreign-policy elite, given the current administration) is where we need to refocus our efforts.
Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The problem with President Obama’s approach to Israel is that he means well. Pressuring Israel has no political benefit for him, only risks. Yet he seems to believe that it is the right thing to do for peace, since peace—in his view—comes from raising the stakes to a near rupture in the U.S.-Israel relationship. His administration argues that the U.S. knows Israel’s best interests better than its own elected prime minister. It is ironic, to say the least, that an administration that has gone to extraordinary lengths to listen to almost every other nation has no qualms about dictating to Israel.
All this would be bad enough in isolation, but it is not. The flap with Israel has distracted from the central global security challenge of our time: Iran’s race to obtain nuclear weapons. If Iran succeeds, the first casualty will be the Arab-Israeli peace process, since Hamas and Hezbollah will be greatly strengthened, and no Arab player, including the Palestinians, will risk normalization, let alone making peace, with Israel.
Under normal circumstances, American Jews would turn to other political forces to compel a course correction. Indeed, the shock absorber in the U.S.-Israel relationship has historically been the Congress. Whenever there has been tension between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister, Congress has stepped in. Even in the recent flare-up, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer co-authored a letter to President Obama reminding him that the U.S. “must be both a trusted mediator and a devoted friend to Israel.” Senator Barbara Boxer penned a similar letter.
The good news is that these letters were signed by overwhelming majorities in both bodies—333 House members and 76 senators. But digging a little deeper reveals a worrisome trend: while 96 percent of House Republicans signed the letter, only 64 percent of House Democrats signed it; similarly in the U.S. Senate, over 90 percent of Republicans signed on, but only 64 percent of Senate Democrats would join.
Even more striking were some of the individuals who refused to sign, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a much-talked-about possible majority leader, and John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The same is true in the House, where many of the party’s leading lights took a pass. The uncomfortable fact is that there are real divisions among congressional Democrats over Israel, and those divisions are widening and cementing in ways not seen in decades.
Another shock absorber could be the grassroots constituencies that form the basis of a political party. But sadly, outside the Jewish community, there is not a single constituency within the Democratic coalition for whom Israel is a priority. To the contrary, most of the Democratic base regards a strong Israel as counter to American interests and values. As far as powerful groups that care deeply about Israel, there is simply nothing comparable in the Democratic Party to the cultural conservatives, evangelical Christians, and national-security hawks, all of whom are highly influential blocs in the GOP and all of whom view a strong Israel as a priority.
Today, Democrats in Congress, in the executive branch, and at the grassroots level are at best deeply divided over Israel and at worst deeply hostile, and the need to confront Iran has fallen off their radar screen entirely.
This presents Jewish Democrats with a question: will the Democratic Party be a party that is pro-Israel and internationalist, or a party that confronts Israel while allowing real global threats to grow? If it is the latter, then the Democratic Party is not a pro-Israel party. Make no mistake: it might have some pro-Israel members in office, but that is different from being a pro-Israel party.
Dan Senor is the co-author of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. He is adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Two recent Jerusalem Post headlines on the same April day encapsulate our current moment. The first declared: “Most Americans unhappy with Obama’s handling of Israel ties.” The second: “Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama.”
What a contrast. The U.S. has now reached a point where American citizens are so comfortable with Israel that they prefer the policies of Jerusalem to the policies of Washington. And yet, at this moment, American Jewish leaders are struggling over the question of criticizing the administration’s policies toward the Jewish state.
American Jews now differ from the rest of America—and the world—in understanding President Obama’s coldness towards Israel. Despite the president’s words and not-unsubtle actions, American Jews remain a loyal voting bloc in a party whose supporters are far less likely to be supportive of Israel than are those in the rival party (48 percent among Democrats, 85 percent among Republicans).
This seemingly unshakable loyalty has a real-world impact on Israel’s future. If Obama knows that he can take for granted the Jewish vote, then he has very little incentive to take Israel’s side in questions about the peace process, terrorism, or even its right to exist. In effect, Obama can invert James Baker’s dictum “F— the Jews, they didn’t vote for us any way” to “F— the Jews, they will vote for us anyway.”
In this, American Jews are serving as critical enablers for Obama’s ability to pursue his political interest and personal ideology. From his perspective, the Jews are in his corner and will remain there regardless of his behavior. To take just one example: Obama saw how a simple White House “seder” photo op could quiet stories about his poor treatment of Netanyahu. This leaves Obama free to pursue deeper relations with Israel’s enemies with little fear of losing his Jewish constituency.
Jewish Republicans have long been simply watching events, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. With each new development—the failure of Oslo, 9/11, Bush’s staunch support for Israel, and Obama’s coldness towards Israel—we hope a massive and dramatic shift is around the corner. We hope one event will cause Jewish voters to find a home in the Republican Party. Yet, as in Waiting for Godot, the awaited moment never arrives.
In contrast, opinion in Israel has experienced a tectonic shift. Israeli Jews have rejected the Obama approach, probably because their lives are directly on the line. Various polls have shown Obama’s approval among Israeli Jews as low as 4 percent. This shows that Obama does have a considerable talent to unite the famously fractious sons of Abraham—in America for him; in Israel, against.
Still, Obama’s shift of American foreign policy away from Israel may not be entirely costless. The saving grace, as it were, for Israel is not the Jews but the Gentiles of America, who see in Israel a kindred spirit in favor of modernity and opposed to terror. To the extent that Obama suffers for moving away from Israel, it will be because non-Jewish Americans reject his policies. In the meantime, Israeli Jews will continue to wonder why their American counterparts lag behind the rest of America.
Tevi Troy is visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior White House aide under George W. Bush.
RUTH R. WISSE
The essential question for Israel,” writes editor David Remnick in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “is not whether it has the friendship of the White House—it does—but whether Netanyahu remains the arrogant rejectionist that he was in the nineteen-nineties.” This triple twist (a) guarantees Israel the friendship of the flagrantly unfriendly president, (b) manifests corresponding contempt for Israel’s elected leader, and (c) pins Arab “rejectionism” on the rejected party. Remnick’s bow to Obama is deeper than Obama’s bow to the Saudi King, and his antipathy to a strong Israel is greater than Obama’s contrition over a strong America. The president is a certain kind of American, and Remnick is his kind of American Jew.
Fortunately, there are also other kinds. Never before in the Jewish Diaspora has a political group worked as efficiently as AIPAC in defending the Jewish polity against its enemies. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has likewise managed to work on behalf of Israel rather than against it, no small feat in the swamp of Jewish political infighting. Anti-Semitism—now in its new and improved form of anti-Zionism—is sharply resisted by public thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, as it never was in the 1930s. America encourages Jews, along with all its minorities, to defend their rights at home and abroad. America will not be at fault if they fail to do so.
There is much at stake in this challenge. By now it is obvious that the organization of modern politics against Jews is a catch-all for ideological warfare against whatever Jews are thought to stand for—free-market competition, equal rights, liberal democracy, “the West.” This proxy war has been waged by Arab and Muslim rejectionists against Israel for 63 years. “Little Satan” is a handier target than big America. A war so preposterously unilateral calls for unprecedented powers of resistance from Israel and political support from democratic allies who recognize the threat to themselves. Since scapegoating Israel prevents meaningful improvement in Arab and Muslim countries, the essential question is not whether Israel has the friendship of the White House—right now it doesn’t—but what the world suffers on that account.
I appreciate the bumper sticker that reads “don’t worry, america: israel is behind you!” Far from putting American lives at risk, Israel has so far borne the brunt of anti-Western hostilities. America “brings its soldiers home”; Israel is the home that soldiers. American Jews bear a double responsibility to get behind both Israel and America in their common struggle against hostile leaders and rotten ideologies. Will some prefer the Remnick twist? Probably. But the Russian Jewish immigrants I’ve come to know in Boston did not vote for the most left-wing member of the Senate. My faith in the future of democracies lies with them.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University.
A wish: that there should be less noxious speculation about the president’s origins and less invidious speculation about his “real” views. I assume he views the prospect of a nuclear Iran with horror, as any sane man would, and wishes to forestall it if possible. I assume he wishes Israel to survive in peace. I am heartily sick of the invective that loads my in-box imputing to the president traitorous, anti-Semitic, or conspiratorial motives, usually allied to pseudo–psychological diagnoses.
A belief: that the following political calculus is profoundly mistaken—the Bush administration warmly embraced Israel and there was no peace. Therefore, chilliness and pressure on Israel will bring peace. The opposite of an unproductive policy is not automatically a productive one. The president who cannot sustain the confidence of both sides will not succeed. The administration’s posturing is unworthy; alienating a steadfast ally through neglect or carping achieves nothing and risks a great deal.
A surprise: that the government of Israel would permit anything—anything—to separate it from the United States at this time. Iran’s designs should push parochial agendas to the side. In this battle, Israel needs to count on as much cooperation as possible. This is a nuclear bomb; you don’t talk housing units in Hiroshima.
A fear: that even if there is regime change in Iran, its desire to be a nuclear power will not abate. Nor will the influence of that part of the population for whom Israel is a temporary and unjust intruder. This is the most terrifying development in the postwar world, and talk of “containment” is acquiescence to Armageddon. It is not certain that Iran will explode a nuclear device should it acquire one. Even the devout can be pragmatic. Men are not machines, nor does sharia—or halacha or the expectation of the eschaton—make them so. But the temptation to an apocalyptic mind is present and dreadful. And that which you do not explode you can still exploit.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue in Los Angeles.
ERIC H. YOFFIE
I believe that there is no “Barack Obama policy” on Israel, just as there was no “George W. Bush policy” on Israel. There is an American policy, and it has been remarkably consistent for nearly two decades: a Palestinian state alongside Israel, under conditions that will guarantee peace and security for both—and that will enable Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.
President Obama is a friend of Israel, and his administration is filled with friends, with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Dennis Ross leading a long list. His concern about Israeli settlements does not reflect fundamental differences with past administrations; it reflects the simple fact that settlers outside the major settlement blocks that will remain part of Israel have grown in number from 50,000 to 100,000 since the mid-1990s, thereby calling into question the viability of the two-state solution on which American policy rests.
The Obama administration has made many mistakes. It should have been more emphatic in articulating its support for Israel and far more assertive in publicly demanding Palestinian concessions. But the president supported Israel on Gaza, withdrew from Durban II, increased military cooperation with Israel, and has done much else to produce a strong pro-Israel record in word and deed.
The administration is right to encourage Palestinian moderates; the alternative to the Palestinian Authority is Hamas. American Jews, I believe, welcome their government’s activism and see it as an opportunity, not a danger. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that PA leaders have the courage to make real peace. Thus, the challenge for Israel—and American Jews—is to keep attention focused on Palestinian obstructionism. This will best be accomplished not by confronting the administration but rather by cooperating with it. An Israel that settles beyond the security fence, builds in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and refuses to remove illegal outposts will be playing into the hands of its enemies. An Israel that works with the U.S. to develop a common strategic understanding, including the red lines that it cannot cross, will defuse current tensions.
The prime minister of Israel has expressed his support for a Palestinian state. By telling the United States specifically how it hopes to get there and putting the burden on the Palestinians to respond, Israel will advance and deepen the American-Israeli alliance.
A nuclear Iran is a profound threat to Israel. Any conceivable response to this threat—economic sanctions with real teeth or military strikes—will require strong American backing. The administration has taken positive steps on Iran, and American Jews must now focus their attention on working with their government to gain support for decisive action in the days ahead.
I don’t speak for American Jews and neither does Commentary. The poll data that we have on their views is conflicting and inconclusive. But if the past is any guide, American Jews want pro-Israel advocacy to be firmly bipartisan. Those who prefer to see the American government as the enemy and to demonize the president may be serving their own political agenda, but they are not helping Israel. U.S. Jews want to avoid showdowns, to stress shared values, and to strengthen the ties that bind the U.S. to Israel and that have been the heritage of both Republican and Democratic governments for half a century. Their agenda should be our agenda today.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
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Obama, Israel & American Jews: The Challenge
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Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
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Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
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The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
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It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.