The widening chasm between American Jews and the Israeli government
When I was a kid, I went door to door in my neighborhood, asking for donations to the Jewish National Fund, best known then for its Israel forestation program. At the age of 11 or so, I imagined myself a regular Johnny Appleseed, responsible for vast forests. My neighbors were easy pickings. No one asked about the occupation of the West Bank, the civil liberties of Palestinians, the awesome political power of intolerant ultra-Orthodox Jews or the appalling mendacity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a different time. If I went to my neighbors today, my imaginary grove might be barren.
Of all the divisions regarding Israel − Arab vs. Jew, etc. − maybe the most consequential in the long run is the widening gap between American Jews and the policies of the Netanyahu government. This does not mean that American Jews − largely Democratic and liberal − no longer support Israel. They do. But that support is conflicted, fraught with worry and dismay, and, increasingly among the younger generation, sometimes barely existent.
The Israeli government proceeds as if none of this matters. Its preoccupation, naturally enough, is with its domestic constituency − the voters of the upper Galilee and not the donors of the Upper West Side. Not only don't American Jews vote in Israel, but as Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely dismissively put it, they don't serve in the army, either. Just as important, the vast majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, and they resent the hold that the very religious have over Israeli political life. As we see with Sunni and Shiite Muslims, interreligious fights are the most ugly.
For moderate or liberal Jews − in other words, for the 76 percent who did not vote for Donald Trump − Israel has become like a relative who always has to be explained. While religious restrictions matter a great deal, the overriding issue is the future of the West Bank − whether, along with the Gaza Strip, it will comprise a future Palestinian state or whether Israel will simply swallow it. This is usually called a one-state or a two-state solution. Another way of putting it is whether Israel will remain a Jewish democracy or need to repress a Palestinian majority far into the future.
The one-state solution is where the government seems headed. At the close of his last election campaign in 2015, a panicked Netanyahu vowed that he would not permit the creation of a Palestinian state. (Previously, he had hinted he might.) Netanyahu had clearly caved to the so-called settler movement, which wants more and more West Bank settlements, eventually foreclosing any chance of creating a Palestinian state. The drift toward one state is a reason former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently called the Netanyahu government "irrational, bordering on messianic."
Barak wrote that in a New York Times op-ed piece. He was even stronger a bit later in remarks to the Israel Policy Forum, which largely shares his views. Several times he referred to Israel's loss of "the moral high ground" and the effect that this is having on Jews everywhere. "We are losing the next generation," he said.
Barak is a unique figure. He is a former minister of defense, a one-time chief of the general staff and, not incidentally, the most decorated soldier in Israel's history. He is a former commando.
But he is also somewhat typical. He is one of many retired generals or intelligence chiefs who favor a two-state solution. These are men who would not trifle with Israel's security, and so when Netanyahu argues, as he has, that a Palestinian state would become a terrorist enclave, Barak and others insist otherwise. They can handle the situation.
In the meantime, Israel is increasingly criticized. On American campuses, it is routinely accused of being a racist and colonial power. Not so. But American Jews on those very campuses find it harder and harder to mount a defense. The continuing occupation of the West Bank and the Trumpian persona of Netanyahu leave them mute. Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street and a frequent campus speaker, finds that many college students feel a contradiction between what they believe are Jewish values and the policies of the Netanyahu government.
Back when I was going door to door for the Jewish National Fund, Chaim Weizmann was Israel's president. He was a monumental figure whose autobiography, "Trial and Error," is both readable and prescient. On page 462 he wrote, "I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs."
Alas, not just the world is doing so but American Jews are as well.
Richard Cohen's column is distributed by the Washington Post News Service.
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