Warning: A look at the results of the national survey of American Jews’ viewpoints conducted only weeks ago for the Jewish Electorate Institute may make your eyes glaze over.
Here are some of the findings: Two-thirds of Jews expect to vote for a Democrat in next year’s midterm congressional elections. No surprise. Seven in 10 Jews view Joe Biden favorably. Of course they do. Eight of 10 Jews view Donald J. Trump unfavorably. No great revelation there. Seven in 10 feel it is important that the United States provide financial aid to Israel. Ho-hum.
And so on.
But hold it. Keep going through those numbers. Explore a little further and the eyes that were glazing over suddenly will pop out. Can this be so: that one-quarter of American Jews believe Israel is an apartheid state?
Apartheid of course was a specific condition – the legal separation of the races in South Africa beginning in 1948 – the very year, it turns out, of Israeli independence. The word itself comes from the Afrikaans language, growing out of the Dutch root “apart,” for “separate.”
But since the end of formal apartheid more than a quarter-century ago, the word has been employed more as metaphor than noun. Increasingly, the word has been used to describe the separation of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.
For a long while the word was employed in a facile manner, kind of as a critics’ arch shorthand to describe the separate worlds inhabited by the two groups and thus served as a cudgel to pour disgrace on Israel. But the term also has been encased in international law, originally in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and then – 15 years later – in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
This past spring, the word took on a more ominous meaning.
First, in March, the International Criminal Court began an investigation into whether apartheid exists in the broad region controlled by Israel. Then, only two weeks before the latest surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, Human Rights Watch – an international organization headquartered in New York that conducts research and advocacy on human rights – released “A Threshold Crossed,” a blistering 213-page report arguing that Israeli authorities were committing “the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” The application of the emotionally loaded phrase “crimes against humanity” (summoning images of the Holocaust, where the principal victims were Jews) and “apartheid” (summoning images of a globally reviled social system of oppression, one condemned by Israel at the United Nations) was especially searing.
“Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy,” the report said. “In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity.”
Supporters of Israel – a country that had voted to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions against South Africa in its apartheid period – were quick to find fault with Human Rights Watch, and Steven A. Cook, the columnist at “Foreign Policy,” acknowledged that while the report was “damning,” it seemed “unlikely to have much influence on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians or on the Western powers that express an interest in ending it.”
Even so, the notion that Israel was imposing a stigmatized social system both stung — and stuck.
“There are a substantial number of younger Jews who accept that characterization,” said Kenneth D. Wald, emeritus professor of American Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Florida. “Many of them may not know what apartheid actually was. They don’t remember when there wasn’t an Israel, they don’t remember the Six-Day War. For them, Israel has always been the dominant power in the Middle East. They look at Israel as if it should be a liberal democracy, and it is not. It is an ethnic democracy. For a lot of American Jews and others, that is a different thing to accept.’’
But for a lot of Jews, it also is difficult to accept that Israel might not be true to its founding ideals – ideals that are, to be sure, a Rorschach test, one where Americans in particular project their democratic values onto the Jewish state. So the apartheid poll result is not out of sync with a separate poll question in which a third of the American Jewish respondents agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.” Still, nearly two-thirds said they had an emotional attachment to Israel.
The poll’s sponsor, the Jewish Electorate Institute, describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to deepening the public’s understanding of Jewish American participation in our democracy,” but the Times of Israel characterized it as “a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats.” One way or another, the report cannot be summarily dismissed at a time when American relations with Israel are in transition and when businesses such as Ben & Jerry’s, the ice-cream purveyors, announce – as they did earlier this month – that they no longer will sell their confections in the West Bank and East Jerusalem because they wanted to “end complicity in Israel’s occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield both are Jewish.
“There’s growing impatience among a certain segment of American Jews about the policy of the Israeli government, particularly the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government, which can be accused of violating the human rights of Palestinians,” said L. Sandy Maisel, the Colby College political scientist who was co-editor of “Jews in American Politics,’’ published in 2001. (Disclosure: I contributed both the introduction and final chapter of that volume. Wald co-wrote a chapter.)
“But,” Maisel continued, “that is very different from saying that American Jews have lost their commitment to Israel.”
Make no mistake. The Human Rights Watch report and the new poll results are a challenge for Israel and American Jews at a time when the Biden administration is shaping its Middle East policy and when tensions still smolder following the springtime violence.
“When the Jewish population becomes among the most vocal critics of Israel, you know it’s not a message problem,” said Frank I. Luntz, a prominent Republican pollster who has been involved in Israeli politics for decades. “This is a message crisis. But I can’t say I’m surprised. The Israeli government has shown little concern about its image for years now.”
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.