Diaspora Jews Won’t Force Netanyahu to Pay Any Price

The idea that the non-Orthodox segments of American Jewry—however incensed it is—will force Israel to pay a price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of the Western Wall compromise is unfounded. Rather, a convergence of factors makes the bulk of the American Jewish community unwilling to put material pressure on Netanyahu. And since Netanyahu responds only to actual threats to his position, this means he can continue to thumb his nose at diaspora Jewry and focus on his own priorities: remaining in power and maintaining the status quo—with some increases in settlements—in the West Bank.

First, most American Jews do not donate funds or direct their political activity to Israel, but to specific ideological, cultural, religious, or policy causes in Israel close to their hearts. As Theodore Sasson, a prominent researcher of American Jewry, has noted, 78% of Jewish Federations’ campaign fundraising was allocated directly to Israel in 1967; that percentage fell to 23% in 2004. Funds have increasingly been oriented toward local Jewish communities. Filling the gap, today there are several “friends of” groups that direct their activities to, for example, universities, liberal causes, or the Israeli military. Orthodox and conservative Jews focus their donations on West Bank settlements or their religious kin.

Second, the Western Wall controversy is not a crisis in diaspora-Israel relations. To see what a real crisis looks like, one needs to go back to the “who is a Jew”? disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s. While Israel’s understanding of Jew uses both a religious (Orthodox rabbinical authorities control personal status issues in Israel) and a non-religious (the Law of Return allows for any Jew to become an Israeli citizen but there is no reference to religious determination) foundation, it also recognizes conversations to Judaism performed abroad. Jewish Orthodox parties have tried for decades to enshrine the religious definition—born to a Jewish mother or converted under Orthodox standards—in Israeli law.

In 1988 the Orthodox parties pushed for an amendment in the Law of Return that would stipulate Orthodox-approved conversions. What made such change more likely (it did not ultimately pass) was that in the aftermath of an election, Likud and Labor were jostling for support of the Orthodox parties and so trying to entice them with promises to pass (Likud) or review (Labor) such legislation. For American Jewry there was a real chance the status quo would change, which would directly affect American Jews who wanted to move to Israel. The scrapping of the Western Wall compromise means a return to the status quo, and does not materially affect diaspora Jews.

Yet as tense as those moments were, American Jews quickly rallied around Israeli governments and put aside their misgivings. They did so because events quickly became more important than intra-Jewish disputes: the First Intifada in 1987, the Oslo process in the mid to late 1990s, and the Second Intifada in 2000.

Third, American Jews are increasingly fractured in their attitudes toward Israel. But while criticisms of Israel by prominent Jewish leaders and headlines by an assertive grassroots movement against both the occupation of Palestine and the policies of the Netanyahu governments make it seem as though American Jewry is on the verge of breaking with Israel, the majority of American Jews want no such thing.

According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 66% of American Jews think security is Israel’s biggest long-term problem. In practice this has meant American Jews rally around Israel when its safety is under threat. This is what happened in 1967, 1990, 2000, and during the Gaza wars of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. In such moments diaspora criticism of Israel was muted or shouted down within the community.

None of the national Jewish organizations that consider themselves Zionist and are usually labeled “pro-Israel” want such a break, either. While they might disagree with and even publicly critique Israel on specific issues, advocacy that supports the existence of a Jewish state is part of their mandates—even the essence of their existence.

These reasons indicate that Israel under Netanyahu is unlikely to consider warm relations with American Jewry as a priority. The Islamic State, the Syrian war, the continuing Iranian threat, among other security concerns, are of much more immediate concern. In addition, Netanyahu and his rightwing government are keenly interested in either precluding the establishment of a Palestinian state or continuing to avoid negotiations that could lead substantively toward such an end—both policies that the non-Orthodox American Jewish population generally opposes.

Finally, political trends in Israel suggest that the left is not likely to win power in the near future. The right and the center, which leans right, are too strong.

The spate of illiberal bills and laws that Netanyahu has promoted, facilitated, or let pass combined with the breaking of the Wall compromise are proof that American Jews have less power over Israeli policy even on issues of great importance to them. Without an alternative to Netanyahu or his government, they have little leverage over either.

Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

Defining Zionism in the Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

The attacks on French Jews in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo have clear implications for the Zionist project, and they should spark a bigger, broader transnational conversation on what Zionism means and entails in the era of Jewish statehood, power, and normality (in the classic Zionist sense).

Some have pointed out such a conversation is already taking place in Israel, and indeed has been since 1948. To the extent that (some) Israelis have debated the laws and borders of the Israeli state, I agree, though I’m not sure the fundamentals have been addressed. It’s also true that other efforts to figure out how to define Zionism and diaspora-Israel relations have been taking place that do incorporate non-Israelis. The Jewish People Policy Institute is one good example. Another is the effort by several leftwing diaspora organizations to form a bloc at the World Zionist Congress in order to promote a more critical discussion and reinvigorate global Zionist organizations. (Specific moments when the diaspora has mobilized against a particular Israeli policy, for example regarding “who is a Jew” or a Jewish nation-state bill, are more like exceptions rather than the rule.)

Still, the calls by many on the political right for French Jews to return “home” to Israel indicates a lack of interest in recognizing that the conditions that led to the emergence of Zionism have changed.

The assumption that Jews as a people cannot live anywhere else contains an implicit (and worrying, because of its political implications) eschatological element. Not in the Christian dispensationalist sense but in the underlying notion that Jews—as a national community, an important but not exclusive element of which includes the religion of Judaism—must live only in the Land of Israel. The idea that a group of people can only exist in one place for both spiritual and material reasons—and those who call for diaspora Jews to come “home” do indeed see the two as indistinguishable—displays a religious-like imperative that means the social construction that is human history is irrelevant compared to larger forces beyond our control.

There is nothing inherently unique about the Jewish people’s attachment to a particular piece of territory. Many national communities maintain a similar connection. Their history, collective memories, narratives, and myths center on a particular land. Yet the movement of people around the world is also longstanding. Particularly in an age of advanced technology that allows people to travel and communicate quickly, easily, and cheaply, the idea that one must “return” to a live in a particular territory because that is their “home” is unrealistic.

Such an assumption also ignores the historical and contemporary fact that states are never “finished”—they are constantly in a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. There are the obvious cases: we once thought Czechoslovakia was a completed state project. But more common are the less stark changes: domestic shifts in population make-up, identity, and public policy. The discussion on internal borders and political autonomy taking place in many states (e.g., Canada, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Iraq, and Turkey) is a good example of this. These are the questions that deserve attention.

At its emergence, Zionism was perceived by its leaders and adherents as a movement of no or little choice. Anti-Semitic persecution required a safe haven. At the same time, the belief that the Jews could never be a normal people so long as they lived among host societies and didn’t have their own state meant that national redemption was a necessary process, not an optional one.

An effective conversation about Zionism can only begin if participants recognize that things have changed over time. While the events in France reinforce for some the notion that they haven’t, this is a misunderstanding of world, Jewish, and Israeli history.

The Zionist project has largely been completed—Israel as a Jewish state exists, is among the more prosperous and powerful in the world, and is a focal point of pride among Jews around the world. Obviously there are details to be worked out, and challenges to be faced; but the basic goal of Zionism has been met. This should be the starting point for the conversation, rather than an assumption that it hasn’t.

American Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Part of the Problem or Part of Solution?

I have an op-ed in Ha’aretz today in which I argue that despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent appeal to them, American Jews are unlikely to push the Israeli government to make peace with the Palestinians. I give three major reasons for this:

“First, American Jews are not quite as ‘dovish’ as many people would like to believe (or as organizations like J Street like to claim). Although they are famously liberal on domestic issues, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American Jews are more conservative—they are ‘hawkish doves.’ Although a majority consistently supports a two-state solution to the conflict, most Americans Jews are very skeptical about the chances of achieving a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and they are also very suspicious of Arab intentions (in recent surveys of American Jewish opinion, sponsored by the AJC, roughly three-quarters of American Jews say they think that “the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel”). In this sense, American Jewish sentiment is very similar to that of Israeli Jews, most of whom want peace, but don’t trust the Palestinians to deliver it. 

There is also no strong American Jewish support for the establishment of a Palestinian state any time soon. In fact, in recent surveys, roughly half of American Jews oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state, and this opposition has actually increased in the last few years (from 41 percent in 2009 to 55 percent in 2011). Even more American Jews are against a division of Jerusalem in any peace agreement with the Palestinians (in the 2011 survey, 59 percent were opposed to dividing Jerusalem). Given these views, American Jews can hardly be expected to push any Israeli government to make major concessions to the Palestinians for the sake of peace. 

Second, even if more American Jews really were ‘doves’ and strongly supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, many would still be reluctant to pressure Israel to allow this. It’s not that American Jews aren’t willing to criticize Israeli governments. On certain issues, especially those that directly affect them (most notably, the perennial issue of ‘who is a Jew’), American Jews have no qualms about openly criticizing Israeli governments and pressuring them to change their policies.  But when it comes to the life-and-death issues of Israeli national security and foreign policy, American Jews are, understandably, much more reluctant to speak out, let alone apply pressure. They know that it is not their lives on the line, or their children who are serving in the IDF. They recognize that they are not ones that must live with the very real risks that Israel will have to take to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Much as they want peace for Israel, most American Jews are reticent about telling Israelis what they must do to achieve it, especially when Israelis might disagree with them.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, American Jews simply have many other things on their mind.  While most care about Israel and want there to be peace, they are, at the end of the day, not all that bothered.  Only a minority of American Jews are deeply invested in Israel’s cause and heavily engaged with Israel. This minority is more politically conservative and rightwing when it comes to Israel than the majority of American Jews. Increasingly made up of Orthodox Jews, it is this highly engaged minority of American Jews who are the most easily mobilized on issues concerning Israel. During the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, it was this minority that opposed the peace process and made the loudest noise, while the majority of American Jews who supported the Oslo Accords were largely quiet. As long as most American Jews lack the burning desire and determination to energetically champion the peace process, they will not put any real pressure on American or Israeli leaders to advance it.”

Here’s the link to the full article:
http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/american-jews-are-part-of-the-israeli-palestinian-problem-1.531936#.UcmUYxcUJyA.email