Peter Beinart, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, has written that for decades most American Jews have been told to check their liberalism at the door when it came to Israel and Zionism. American Jews tend to be liberals. We tend to get together and bemoan the injustice in our society, the inhumanity and prejudice that so many people in this world seem unable to shake off. American Jews, so forward-thinking (an old Yiddish newspaper created in 1897 in New York, which exists still in both languages, is called the Forward), so open and tolerant, we were told to check these values like a coat at the door when it came to Israel. Because Israel, its existence means that, to some extent, what we believe about the world is false. We are progressives, most of us American Jews. We believe there is always a chance at progress, that attitudes can change, that problems have solutions. But when we stand with Israel, we acknowledge this world is a little bit hostile at its core. We solemnly acknowledge that there is always the Wandering Jew, the Despised Jew, that yellow stars are stitched, irreversibly, onto our history. So despite the differences (we have guitar at shul and female rabbis, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, they have sun-tanned soldiers, right-wing settlers, dreadlocked hippies, and nuclear weapons), we acknowledge the link we share.
American Jews have long ago lost memories of suffering. Anti-Semitism doesn’t mean what it used to for us. We are Theodore Herzl’s original dream—we have assimilated. Jews are part of America, an effort of generations of hard workers and successful people wanting to rid themselves of the shtetl. Israelis are Herzl’s dream after he saw Dreyfus condemned by the French elite. They are the independent Jews. They were raised in a crucible of fire and metal and miracle, only knowing a struggle for survival for a land and a sea. A place where to will something made it a reality. Even if that reality was built on the foundations of abandoned Arab villages, on massacred bodies at Deir Yassin. Because those who made Israel for us, the American Jews, the Diaspora, they fought with the heat of the ovens burning against their backs, with the smoke of pogroms clouding their vision, with the cries of millennia screaming for redemption. They fought because we didn’t understand, really, what it meant to survive.
So we check our liberalism at the door, because we feel the Israelis are the fighters and we are the beneficiaries of their struggle. Because the world we live in accepts us until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, we see synagogues burned in Europe, we see Jews murdered in supermarkets and schools, and we understand there is nowhere else. Joe Biden heard this as a young senator during a visit from Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel. As Meir showed him on maps the events of the Six-Day War, and told him of the numerous threats her tiny country she faced, Meir explained the secret weapon of the Israelis. Their weapon was the knowledge that the sliver of land along the Mediterranean was all they had left. The world had offered nothing to the Jews but rejection. There was only one place, one place on this Earth that was theirs. The one spot on this speck of dust in this grand universe where history no longer was something that happened to the Jews, but where their destiny was their own creation.
American Jews know this, they feel this, but this is not the only reason that American Jews feel an attachment to Israel. There is the sense of some shared culture and identity, and the wonder at a place where being a Jew does not make you stand out in most places you go. We need Adam Sandler’s voice to reassure us that there are Jews in this world, but in Israel, one is surrounded by fellow members of the tribe. At summer camp, I had to explain to Israeli counselors why we needed a cover story to tell people we might encounter on a canoe trip in rural Wisconsin, explain to them why it might not be the smartest decision to say we were coming from a Jewish institution. It didn’t make sense to say you weren’t Jewish to protect yourself because, to them, being Jewish meant having a privileged place in society.
Israel can exist as a Jewish state because it is the only country in the world where Jews make up the majority of the population, around 75% of the country’s roughly 8 million citizens. The issues arise when one learns what it took to make this majority.
When the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, partitioning the territory of Mandatory Palestine into two, there were roughly 600,000 Jews living in the British-controlled territory, alongside nearly twice as many non-Jews, mainly Arabs. Following the end of the British mandate, as the Union Jack was lowered and David Ben-Gurion was declaring the independence of the Jewish state, war began. And in this war, many people that had been living on the land for generations fled or were forced to leave at gunpoint.
The gradual withdrawal of British troops with no clear settlement on the question of the future of Palestine left vacuums. These vacuums were filled with conflict. By May 15, 1948, the day that the Jewish state was declared independent, 200,000 Arabs had fled their homes. This was not enough. In order for the Jewish state to be created, more Arabs had to flee. It was 1948, barely three years since the camps had been liberated, since the depths of human cruelty and evil had been revealed to the world. Just three years since the clear answer to the Jewish question had been given in smoke and ash. And so the leaders of the Zionist movement understood their efforts had come too late, but they understood them to still be vital. They believed, with nearly two-thirds of European Jewry murdered, that the only way to ensure Jewish survival was to return the people to Eretz Yisrael. The need for the Jewish state was more powerful than ever. Yet the only way that a viable Jewish state, a true Jewish state, a country that would be beholden to no master could be created, was through the departure of the majority of the Arab population.
Many American Jews will learn this troubling history, mostly by their own endeavor. And it is a painful process, to learn that the land of milk and honey was built on blood. To know that sins were perpetrated so that you would always have a place to call home, no matter what happened anywhere else on the planet. To know the country of those cool Israeli counselors was built by such violence.
Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist and writer, wrote in his book My Promised Land about the need, and perhaps the duty, to accept the country given to him by the damned. It was his duty because it is the only way he could survive. It is always about survival. In this brutal world, the only way Jews could continue to exist was if they delved into brutality themselves. This is the situation liberal American Jews have had to wrestle with. If we believe that people deserve fair treatment, that human rights and equality are cherished values, then how can we accept that brutality is necessary for the survival of our people in a faraway land? And should we accept this?
The relationship between American Jews and Israel is well-documented and well-studied. These studies have found that it is strong, important part of American Jewish identity. According to the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a study of American Jews conducted in 2013, 43% of Jews said that caring about Israel was essential to being Jewish. In that same study, only 19% of American Jews said that observing Jewish law was an essential aspect to Jewish identity. 69% of Jews are at least somewhat attached to Israel. There is a strong link between the largest Jewish population on the planet and the Jewish population in the only country where they make up the majority.
Yet we have our differences, us American and Israeli Jews. Yes we may be a people, one people, but we are the Jewish people. We are legendary in our ability to disagree with one another. Such disagreement exists on the hot-button of the issue of the day, Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In its 2013 survey of American Jews, Pew found that 44% thought that these settlements harmed Israeli security, while only 17% say they help. In Israel, the numbers are markedly different. In 2016, Pew found that 42% of Israelis believed that settlements helped Israel’s security situation, while 30% said they were a hindrance.
These settlements have became the topic de jour because, long a division point between the United States and Israel, they are starting to have serious ramifications on the relationship between these two countries. America and Israel have long had a special relationship, supported by shared values and generous aid. Yet it seems as if, at least temporarily, the disagreement between the lame-duck President of the United States Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has led this relationship to its nadir, culminating in the recent UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. In a surprising move, the US abstained from the vote. What was usually a sure vote to protect Israel from the growing anger of the international community over the situation rang deafeningly silent, and for a fleeting second, change was in the air.
There are those who say in jest that Bill Clinton was the first black president. By that standard, Barack Obama was the first Jewish president. People such as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg have said as much. Goldberg wrote that Obama’s intellectual development under liberal Jewish Americans helped shape his worldview in such a way that he was accused, in a race for Congress against former Black Panther Bobby Rush, of being the candidate of the Jewish community. Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East has been one shaped by this liberal Jewish presence in his intellectual upbringing-- a deep sense that Jewish survival in someway depends upon a land for the Jews that has a country made up of Jews, and on the other hand, a deep sense that this state was created and exists by perhaps unforgivable sins. Barack Obama is above all things an optimist, a believer in the ability of people to work for good and to create positive change in the world. Israel is at once an idea imbibed in this spirit of can-do optimism. But it is also reliant on a deep sense of despair about the world. It exists because there were enough people who agreed that the only people they could rely on were themselves.
Much of Barack Obama’s policy towards Israel has been bark and no bite. He spoke of peace, but his efforts seemed haphazard and weary of the great obstacles a resolution between Israelis and Palestinians faces. In the lame-duck days of his presidency, he stuck his finger in Netanyahu’s eye as a parting gift. The relationship between these two leaders has been defined by its subsurface animosity, which occasionally came up for air. In November of 2011, a hot mic picked up Obama responding to then French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s complaints about Netanyahu with “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.” Netanyahu lectured Obama about Israel’s threats, Obama responded with frustration at being talked down to. Most notably, Netanyahu came to Washington on the invitation of Congress to bad mouth the deal the United States, along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, had signed with Iran over that country’s nuclear program. And now, with the United States refusing to protect Israel from international condemnation for its continued settlement of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, it seems that Preisdent Obama has had enough.
The lack of good will between Bibi and Barack has left American Jews in a unique position in their history. Jewish organizations come in many colors in these United States, but they often relied upon the ability for Jews to support the leaders both of their home state and their homeland. But Israel is changing in ways that most American Jews do not approve of, and it is becoming harder and harder to check liberalism at the door. Barack Obama’s frustration with a stalled peace process led him to finally allow long-standing U.S. opposition to settlements to become actual, legitimate foreign policy. At the same time, American Jews are growing frustrated with Israel. 38 percent believe that Israel is making genuine efforts toward peace, and most believe that Barack Obama is dealing with Israel well, according to the aforementioned Pew survey. When Donald Trump enters the Oval Office this coming January, he has made it clear that he will reverse the brief but significant change in American policy towards Israel. But it is clear that there are cracks in this special relationship, not only between governments, but also between the Jewish communities in America and Israel.