Israel And America Move Right — Away From Most American Jews
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Israel And America Move Right — Away From Most American Jews

Arnold M. Eisen
Arnold M. Eisen

Many Jews have reacted with understandable horror to the news that Donald Trump has named as ambassador to Israel a man who ardently supports West Bank settlers and calls Jews who oppose those settlers via support of J Street “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction,” and “far worse than [the] kapos” in the Nazi death camps.

Israelis on the political right have understandably rejoiced in David M. Friedman’s appointment, and expressed satisfaction at the election of a president who, unlike Barack Obama, is widely regarded as sympathetic to their cause – an expectation strengthened by last week’s vote in the Security Council and Trump’s promise that U.S. policy toward Israel is about to change.

I—a centrist lover of Israel concerned, like most Israelis, with both the need for security and the need for peace—am greatly alarmed by what these developments portend not only for Israel but for the relationship between the world’s two most important Jewish communities. The future of the Jewish State and the Jewish people may well hang in the balance more than at any point since the Yom Kippur War, and with it the future shape of Judaism.

I say that having just returned from a visit to Israel prompted by a conference sponsored by its National Library. Three things stood out for me at that conference. The first was its title: “The Fate of Secularism.” This was a gathering of intellectuals worried that the values of breadth, openness, and free inquiry that guide their work are under siege in a state, and a world, increasingly given over to fundamentalist religion.

The 77,000 swing state votes that gave Trump his victory could have their most immediate impact upon the future of the state, and the people, of Israel.

That message was underscored by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who in a subtle and substantive address worried that the three major Jewish “tribes” that comprise Israeli society—secular Jews like himself; modern/ Zionist Orthodox Jews, and charedim — were moving ever farther apart. I was struck by the seriousness of the president’s tone, reflecting the gravity he perceived in Israel’s present situation — and by the fact that the fourth “tribe” of Israeli society, one the president had named in previous addresses, was not mentioned.

That omission was in keeping with the broader silence on the subject of Palestinians at the conference, reflecting a lack of hope that any kind of peace agreement can be reached in the near future. “Israelis know that occupation of the territories poses an existential threat to the future of the State,” one highly-regarded political moderate explained to me over lunch. “Giving back the territories would pose an equal threat. So we don’t talk about it.” What good would talking do at this point?

In the hallway, a prominent Israeli foreign policy expert explained to a colleague that the most immediate and important impact of Trump’s election would be to move Netanyahu further to the right. Obama had been a counterweight to the forces who pose the only electoral challenge that Bibi currently faces. He will have to move right, lest he lose power — witness his blistering response to the UN vote. If Israel continues down its present path, supported by the Trump administration, the Palestinians will lose all hope for a state in the foreseeable future. Jewish history will decisively turn. The 77,000 swing state votes that gave Trump his victory could have their most immediate impact upon the future of the state, and the people, of Israel.

In such a context, Israelis view American Jewish scruples about Trump’s comments concerning Mexicans or Muslims as somewhat trivial, on a par, say, with American Jewish agitation for a greater non-Orthodox presence at the Western Wall. Even Israeli liberals seem united in the belief that Obama was not Israel’s friend, and that Trump may well be—all that matters to a country fiercely proud of its independence, and aware that armed conflict in the near future with Hamas and Hezbollah is virtually inevitable.

Gary Rosenblatt’s column of December 16 expresses a sentiment I too heard during my recent visit: “…that most Israelis don’t understand or really care about the diaspora communities or their concerns.” That lack of caring holds true, I think, with two major exceptions: Orthodox American Jews, closely connected to their counterparts in Israel and direct beneficiaries of the latter’s monopoly on government recognition and patronage; and support from AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, which Israelis believe can be relied upon to back government policy no matter how far it moves to the right or diverges from the wishes of the majority of American Jews (90 percent of whom are not Orthodox and 70 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton).

The more that American Jews take the broader view of America’s interests, and Israel’s, that has led every U.S. administration until now to support a two-state solution; the more that we do not identify ourselves as Orthodox or pro-settlements; the more we insist that all streams of Judaism should be recognized and supported—the more we will be speaking a language that most Israelis do not speak and do not want to hear. And, I fear, the fewer American Jews will care about Israel, or about the Judaism that Israel increasingly defines, and the fewer Israelis will care about us.

It is worth remembering this Chanukah that even as they battled external foes, the Maccabees deepened divisions among Jews. Our sages virtually erased them from the Chanukah story as a result, emphasizing instead God’s saving power. Seeking reasons for the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis cited a factor they knew all too well: bitter hatred that pitted Jews against one another. Our generation is not immune to that plague. Americans who care about our country will have to devote great effort in the coming months to healing the rifts opened during the recent electoral campaign. Let’s hope the election does not exacerbate already serious divisions among Jews from which our small and fractious people may not easily recover.

Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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