It is tempting to say that this moment – angry demonstrations in Israeli streets, bitter debates about democratic values, persistent conflict with Palestinians – is one of those times when American Jews’ sentiments toward Israel are being tested again. But in truth, there has never before been a moment like this.
A time when an Israeli prime minister returned to office amid scandal. When the architecture and independence of the Israeli judicial system is under threat. When elements of military reserve units are hesitant to conduct drills. When the American president expresses deep disapproval of perhaps the U.S.’s closest overseas ally. When liberal American Jews look askance at the power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society and politics. When wide swaths of American Jewry worry that the democratic ideals that the United States and Israel have shared for three-quarters of a century are in jeopardy. All this during continuing conflict with the Palestinians.
“For sure, this is a peculiarly difficult period,” Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, said in an interview. “This moment brings tension for the vast majority of American Jews who are committed to democratic values and who support Israel in part because of that and are now face-to-face with an Israeli government that is not committed to those democratic values.”
This – the combination of all these factors, a perfect storm of strain – has prompted enormous unease among American Jews, who are generally reluctant to be critical of Israel. And yet this winter many of them are saying that they cannot abide what is happening in the Jewish state.
But “the fire bell in the night” – the phrase can be attributed to Thomas Jefferson who, during the 1820 negotiations over the Missouri Compromise, said that the sectional tensions over slavery “awakened and filled me with terror” – was an essay this month in The New York Times by high-tech entrepreneur and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Until this moment, Bloomberg was an enthusiastic political and financial backer of Israel.
He wrote, “My love for Israel, my respect for its people, and my concern about its future are now leading me to speak out against the current government’s attempt to effectively abolish the nation’s independent judiciary.” His article bore an ominous title: “Israel Is Courting Disaster.”
There have been frosty times before in this vital relationship, some in recent years, especially during the Barack Obama presidency. But seldom if ever have American Jews worried about the issue that – aside from Israel’s role as a refuge for Jews – most intimately ties the two countries’ democratic values. And seldom if ever have leading figures in the relationship stated, as Indyk did, that “These guys are fascists and they are pressing a fascist agenda.”
It will take a lot to destroy the relationship between American Jews and Israel, but events in the last few months have fractured those ties.
“At the core of American Jews’ relationship with Israel was the notion of shared values and shared interests,” said Mara Rudman, a former Clinton and Obama national security official who now is executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank. “A key value for many Jewish Americans was Israel as a democracy … yes, a homeland for the Jewish people but a homeland for the Jewish people that was also a democracy. The basic tenants of a democracy are not only majority rule but also how you safeguard the rights of minorities. And the role of courts is critical to that in democracies.”
As Americans warily prepare to join Israelis in celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Jewish state’s independence, the level of financial aid that Jews in the United States have provided since 1948 may be in jeopardy.
The trends are worrisome. American Jews provided $2.9 billion in support of various Israeli interests in 2015, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. But the rate of growth has slowed substantially, according to a Brandeis University study.
“While reflective support for Israel has long been a touchstone among American views,” according to a 2020 report in the respected journal Inside Philanthropy, “this has become a more polarizing issue in recent years amid rising disenchantment with that country’s political direction and treatment of the Palestinians.”
The gravest danger is among the rising generation of American Jews, whose narrative about Israel lacks the inspiring spirit of Jewish pioneers in the Holy Land and whose views, at least in part, have been shaped by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that they almost certainly have encountered on college campuses.
“Periodically, it is said that American Jews are becoming increasingly detached from Israel,” Chaim I. Waxman, the founding chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences al Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, wrote in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs late last year.
The question is whether this represents a fundamental change in American Jews’ views of Israel.
“It really depends on how things fall out,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the nonpartisan Washington-based Middle East Institute, the oldest American think tank focused on the region. “The main is the fight for democracy. American Jews can voice their opinions but they will not determine the outcome. They are largely spectators but their voices do matter, and the actions they take do have an influence.”
Indyk sees a silver lining, though it must be said it’s a frayed garment, one that is substantially different from the one that for generations has provided warmth for both sides of the relationship.
“I believe it will lead to a much more mature relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel,” he said. “It has been an immature relationship because we have not been allowed to say what we think as a community. As a result of this, we will find our voice and our relationship with Israel will be a more favorable one.” Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.