By Jonathan S. Tobin
The Israeli government that was sworn in on Dec. 29 brings with it new challenges for those who care about the Jewish state.
The characterization of the latest coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the “most right-wing” in the country’s nearly 75-year history is not wrong. And most American Jews are not happy about it.
The question is whether enough of them can swallow their abhorrence for Netanyahu or his coalition partners, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, to avoid the kind of open break between the two communities that would do real, perhaps permanent, damage to the U.S.-Israel alliance.
The answer is that they should, for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that a palpable breach in the relationship will be exploited by the intersectional left wing of the Democratic Party and others who are either anti-Zionist or indifferent to Israel’s fate. It’s far from clear, however, that mainstream liberal Jewish groups are capable of transcending their ideological differences with the new constellation in Jerusalem.
Nor is it likely that they’ll demonstrate the leadership required to unite a divided community behind the idea that the wishes of Israel’s voters should be respected, and that U.S. pressure to “save the Jewish state from itself” should be vociferously opposed. For one thing, the split has an obvious cause.
Israel is a center-right country, with a clear majority preferring parties of the Netanyahu-led right-wing/religious bloc. American Jews lean heavily to the left, with most supporting Democrats over the generally more pro-Israel Republicans.
The partisan aspect of this dilemma mustn’t be underestimated. At a time when politics has replaced the role that religion used to play in the lives of most Americans, the fact that a growing number of American Jews regard the Jewish state as the moral equivalent of a red state creates an enormous barrier between them and Israelis. If Americans — including Jews — are now more opposed to “inter-political marriage” than to interracial or interfaith relationships, Jewish Democrats are bound to find it increasingly difficult to feel close to Israel.
Religious differences are also important. The majority of Americans identify with the non-Orthodox denominations the center of whose faith is liberal politics. And though most Israelis are not religious, even the secular tend to see Orthodoxy as the only legitimate form of Judaism. Americans have trouble fathoming this mindset and the fact that more than 26% of Israelis voted for the explicitly Orthodox parties of varying stripes whose representatives make up half of the governing coalition.
Yet the difference between these two tribes goes beyond politics or religion, and extends into the realm of identity. It’s about whether liberal Americans are able to accept the idea of a sectarian state.
The United States is a country whose existence is rooted in universal values that seek to break down the barriers between peoples and faiths. In contrast, Israel — like most other nations — is an embodiment of particularism. Its priority is to reconstitute and defend sovereignty in the ancient homeland of the Jews, not to be the last and best hope of all mankind.
The inherent tension between a state whose purpose is sectarian, but which seeks to govern itself democratically and with respect for the rights of the religious and ethnic minorities within its borders, is a perennial theme of Israeli debates. The current coalition represents the view that defending Jewish rights and safety should be prioritized, even while honoring and upholding — despite the slander of its opponents — basic democratic principles.
Meanwhile, the assumption that American Jews were always steadfast proponents of Zionism, and only began to become disillusioned by the ascendancy of the Likud in 1977 — especially over the 13 years of Netanyahu’s unprecedented run as prime minister — is a myth. The periods of the greatest American-Jewish enthusiasm for Israel were more the exception than the rule.
American-Jewish resistance to Zionism was ferocious in the half-century from its founding to the birth of Israel in 1948. Though two Reform rabbis — Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver — became leading advocates for a Jewish state in the 1930s and 1940s, the Reform movement was ideologically opposed to any thought of a promised land other than the United States. Mainstream groups like the American Jewish Committee had a similar bent.
The Holocaust, and then the drama of Israel’s creation and early wars, effectively squelched anti-Zionist sentiment as an active political force for a time. But that consensus ended once the murder of 6 million Jews — who had no homeland to flee to before there was an Israel — was safely in the distant past. After 1973, the possibility of a second genocide, should the Jewish state suffer a catastrophic military defeat, no longer seemed realistic.
The revival of the pre-1948 debate about Zionism was inevitable. An Israel still confronted with the arduous, often messy problems of conducting a generational war against Islamists and Arab nationalists incapable of accepting the legitimacy of a Jewish state was bound to horrify Jews.
For the first decades of Israel’s existence, the above differences with Americans were papered over by the dominance of Labor Zionism, whose universalist rhetoric meshed nicely with liberal sensibilities, even if the security policies it pursued did not. But even in its most idealized form, a particularistic project such as Zionism has been a difficult sell for American Jews, the overwhelming bulk of whom see sectarian concerns not only as antithetical to their well-being, but possibly racist, as well.
Having found a home in which they were granted free access to every sector of American society, and in which the non-Jewish majority proved willing to marry them, they unsurprisingly have had difficulty with an avowedly ethno-religious state with such a different raison d’être.
Moreover, an American-Jewish population in which the acceptance of assimilation has created a large and fast-growing group the demographers call “Jews of no religion” is bound to take a dim view of a country that specifically defines itself as a Jewish state, no matter how generous its policies toward the Palestinians or the non-Orthodox denominations might be. If many American Jews are no longer certain that their community’s survival matters, how can one possibly expect them to regard the interest of Israeli Jews in preserving their state against dangerous foes with anything but indifference?
Many Jews talk about their willingness to support a nicer, less nationalist and religious Israel than the one that elected Netanyahu and his allies. They support efforts by Democrats to pressure it to make suicidal concessions to Palestinians who, whether Americans are willing to admit it or not, purpose Israel’s elimination. They also want it to be more welcoming to liberal variants of Judaism that Americans practice, and for the Orthodox to have less influence.
But even if you think those changes would make Israel better or safer, a majority of Israelis disagree. So, while much of the criticism is framed as a defense of democracy to sync with Democratic Party talking points that smear Republicans, there’s nothing democratic about thwarting the will of a nation’s voters or seeking to impose a mindset they regard as alien to their needs.
The challenge for liberals is not just how to cope with an Israel led by Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, or to put aside the partisan hyperbole branding it as a fascist or fundamentalist tyranny. It’s accepting the fact that Israel is not a Middle Eastern variant of the blue state enclaves where most American Jews live.
They need to grasp that simple, but still difficult-to-accept concept and forget about the Israel of liberal fantasies. If they can, it should be easy for them to understand that no matter who is running Israel — or how its people think, worship or vote — the sole Jewish state’s continued survival is still a just and worthy cause.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).