Will American Jews Pass the Test?
American Jews are periodically tested by virtue of their association with Israel. Operation Defensive Shield, when the European press was filled with reports of 5,000 Palestinian civilians slaughtered – some shot in the head, others buried alive -- constituted one such test. Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza constituted another.
Today the test comes by virtue of the decision of the Obama administration to sever the special relationship between the United States and Israel. In an April 13 press conference, President Obama stated that the Middle East conflict is "costing us significantly in terms of blood and treasure." The New York Times, a reliable barometer of the President's thinking, if nothing else, spelled out the significance of those words. According to the Times, the President drew "an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere." In doing so, Obama signaled the increased likelihood that he "will offer his own parameters for an eventual Palestinian state." The Times further predicted, based on conversations with senior administration officials, that this "new thinking" would lead to "tougher policies toward Israel."
Simply put, the shoddy Walt-Mearsheimer thesis that Israel is a strategic liability for the United States has not only gone mainstream, it now guides the Obama administration's foreign policy. As Jonathan Tobin put it in Commentary, the President has painted "any Israeli refusal to accede to [his] demands as a betrayal in which a selfish Israel is stabbing America in the back."
The President seeks to make American Jews uncomfortable expressing support for Israel's position by unsheathing the "dual loyalty" charge. From day one, the administration has actively promoted JStreet as an anti-Israel alternative for American Jewry. These efforts have met with some success. Many American Jews have wearied of defending Israel. David Metzger, "an American Jew (Reform) and long time supporter of Israel," warned in a April 1 letter to the Jerusalem Post, "You might not realize what a PR problem this has become in the U.S., but when support of Israel, even within the American Jewish community, begins to erode, there is a problem."
WHAT WOULD CONSTITUTE passing the test for American Jewry? Minimally, it would require American Jews to evince concern with the fate of six million Jews in Israel. While it would be unfair to expect American Jews to cast their votes solely, or even primarily, on the basis of their perceptions of what is good for the Jews of Israel, the greater and more imminent the threat to Jewish lives in Israel, the more central one would expect Israel to be in the political calculations of American Jews.
Concern with the fate of the Jews of Israel involves first of all empathy for our situation. In March 2002, prior to the launching of Operation Defensive Shield, 130 Jews were killed in terrorist attacks, culminating in the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya. That's the equivalent of over 50,000 Americans killed by terrorists in a single month. Only after thousands of rockets were launched at southern Israel, over a period of three years, and the citizens of Sderot completely traumatized, did Israel launch Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. In judging Israel's actions, American Jews should try to place themselves in our situation. When there exists a broad consensus among the Jews of Israel about how to best to protect the lives of Israel's Jews – those in most immediate danger – that consensus should be treated with a degree of deference.
Second, American Jews should exercise a healthy degree of skepticism when confronted with charges of Israeli atrocities or war crimes, especially as so many of those claims have been conclusively proven to be wild fabrications. And finally, American Jews' obligation towards their brethren in Israel requires that they remain informed on matters with the most direct impact on the physical safety of the Jews of Israel.
The letter from the aforementioned Mr. Metzger is an example of a failure on the third count. He castigates the Netanyahu government for "insisting on continuing construction of settlements at a time when the U.S. is trying to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and at a time when the U.S. is trying to unify the world against the Iranian threat – both for your benefit." He is either unaware that Israel has instituted a ten month freeze on settlement building or else he shares the Obama administration's view that the Jewish neighborhoods built in Jerusalem since 1967 are settlements.
Nor does it occur to him that an imposed "peace" between Israel and the Palestinians -- or at least the half of them living in the West Bank -- that does not guarantee Israel's security is not to Israel's benefit. That is why he wrongly assumes that Prime Minister Netanyahu's positions reflect a "need to appease the hard-line base of his coalition," not a broad Israeli consensus. (Over three-quarters of Mr. Metzger's fellow American Jews, in two recent polls, opine – correctly, I believe -- that the Palestinians would still seek the destruction of Israel after achieving statehood, which if true makes a two-state solution at present a suicide pact.)
Metzger writes as if a nuclear Iran were solely an Israeli concern, and thus to the extent that President Obama seeks to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is motivated by beneficence towards Israel. True, Israel would be the first country on which Iran would train its nukes. But Sunni Arab regimes are terrified of the mischief an expansionist, nuclear Iran could provoke. They have repeatedly made clear to the United States that stopping Iran is far more important to them than the Palestinian-Israel conflict (and thereby made mockery of the administration's linkage of progress in resolving the latter to the former).
Far from aiding Israel, President Obama's Iranian policy has been tailor-made to ensure that Iran obtains nuclear weapons. The policy of engagement has allowed Iran to move closer to its goal unhindered for sixteen months. In both September and December, the President ignored his own deadlines for some sign of a positive Iranian response, further convincing Ahmadinejad that he has nothing to fear from the United States.
By linking sanctions to Russian and Chinese agreement, Obama ensured that they would be toothless. And by insisting that any sanctions target only the Revolutionary Guard, but not harm the Iranian people, Obama effectively protected the mullahs from popular pressure and any threat of regime change. Along the way, Obama has resisted calls from Germany, France, and Great Britain to join them in imposing sanctions with a bite, and ignored Congressional legislation targeting Iran's oil refining capacity. Finally, no less an authority than Secretary of Defense William Gates warned in January memo that the administration has no policy in place when such weakened sanctions as may eventually be imposed prove ineffectual.
HOW HAS AMERICAN JEWRY – 78% of which voted for Obama in 2008 – responded to the administration's demonstrated animus towards Israel over the past month and the evident failure of its Iran policy? Important voices have been raised lately decrying the administration's approach to Israel: Elie Wiesel, former Mayor Ed Koch, Ronald Lauder and Morton Zuckerman, both former heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, ADL director Abe Foxman, and Richard Wexler, the former lay head of the Chicago Federation. Even Alan Dershowitz, a long-time Obama stalwart, warned the President that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, he will be remembered by posterity together with Neville Chamberlain.
But with the exception of Mayor Koch all those mentioned have been active players in Jewish institutional life for decades. And the octogenarian Koch belongs to a generation of strongly identified ethnic Jews that is rapidly passing from the scene.
Still, even among the rank-and-file of American Jewry, the President's harsh approach to Israel has not passed unnoticed. In a mid-March poll by the American Jewish Committee, a fairly tepid 55% of those polled expressed support for the administration's conduct of U.S.-Israel relations. And in a Quinnipiac University poll released April 22, American Jews disagreed with the President's handling of the Palestinian-Israel conflict by 67%-28%. (In the same poll, 50% of the Jews polled still described the President as a strong supporter of Israel, as opposed to only 23% of Protestants and 35% of Catholics.)
In the AJC poll, the plurality of Jews, 47%, support the President's Iranian policy, though somewhat inconsistently, only 5% think there is good chance that sanctions can deter Iran. In the Quinnipiac poll, 50% of Jews, as opposed to 44% of the general public, approved the administration's Iran policy.
The impact of these attitudes on the 2010 midterm elections or the 2012 presidential election remains unclear. The only poll to directly address the question conducted by McLaughlin and Associates for the Zionist Organization of America found that 46% of American Jews would consider voting for a candidate other than President Obama, whereas 42% would not. It is far too early to say how the 58% not firmly committed to Obama will ultimately break – the 2012 election is still over two and a half years away. But it is not inconceivable that he will receive a record low percentage of the Jewish vote for any Democratic candidate.
Even if American Jews disapprove of the President's treatment of Israel, the issue has still not generated any visceral outpouring of emotion comparable to the Washington march during Operation Defensive Shield. Koch pronounced himself "shocked by the lack of outrage," and claimed that one prominent Jewish leader told him that a Washington protest march would draw fifty people at most. Richard Wexler concluded his blog entry: "Our silence is our shame."
ONE FINAL POINT MUST BE EMPHASIZED: the test facing American Jewry has more to do with the future of American Jewry than it does with that of Israel. The major support for Israel in America today comes from tens of millions of Christians, not from American Jews. Eighty per cent of Republicans (whose ranks include few Jews) harbor positive feelings to Israel, as opposed to only 53% of Democrats, according to a recent Gallup Poll. No other country elicited such a wide disparity of opinion.
An even sharper disparity appeared in a recent Zogby poll for the Arab-American Institute: 73% of Democrats versus 24% of Republicans favor America pursuing a "middle course" between the Palestinians and Israel in the Middle East. A recent bi-partisan House letter to Secretary of State Clinton, critical of the administration's recent handling of relations with Israel, failed to garner only seven Republican signatures, but 91 Democrats (a full third of the Democratic caucus) refused to sign.
Should the President reconsider his present course with respect to Israel, it will have more to do with not wishing to provide another emotional rallying cry to Christian supporters of Israel already incensed by Obamacare, than to the fear of a loss of Jewish support. Outside of Florida, it is hard to think of another state where a decline to 60-65% of the Jewish vote for Obama would be decisive in the 2012 presidential election.
But Israel remains vital for American Jewry. Only support for Israel and identification with the plight of its six million Jews provides concrete expression to the concept of Jewish peoplehood for most American Jews. Without Israel, Jewish peoplehood becomes an anachronism. American Jewry's concern with the fate of their fellow Jews remains the primary means through which American Jews develop any sense of themselves as part of a people with mutual responsibilities and the best barometer of the vitality of the concept Jewish peoplehood.