columnIsrael News

ISRAEL TURNS 75

Can Israeli resilience inspire alienated Americans?

After months of divisiveness, the country immediately united in the face of incessant rocket fire. Will a community unwilling to fight antisemitic progressives learn that lesson?

Watching the military airshow as part of Israel's 75th Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem on April 26, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Watching the military airshow as part of Israel's 75th Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem on April 26, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israelis had a rough week. The country was subjected to a barrage of nearly 1,000 rockets and missiles fired at it by Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists. Though for the most part, the Iron Dome air-defense system did its work admirably, stopping 91% of projectiles, one got through and scored a direct hit at an apartment building in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, killing one elderly woman and wounding five others.

But as is usually the case when their country is under attack from foes who wish their destruction, Israelis pulled together, united behind their government, and carried on with normal life as much as possible.

The resilience of Israelis in the face of challenges that might break other people is one of the most remarkable aspects of life in the Jewish state. The country has been torn apart in recent months by a bitter, divisive and often disingenuous battle that was supposedly about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to reform the judiciary but was really a naked struggle for political power.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that this was all forgotten amid the fighting, sirens and air raids, this past week’s events demonstrate that even in the worst of times, the vast majority of Israelis are able to rise above their differences and present a fairly united front to an often hostile world. Indeed, it was enough to frustrate the gaggle of anti-Zionist columnists at the Haaretz opinion section, who lamented the way Israelis put aside their politics and stood by their right to self-defense against people trying to kill them.

The same can’t be said about many American Jews looking on at the struggle in the Middle East with their usual mix of support, criticism and plain-old indifference.

It’s true that most of those who play leadership roles in the Jewish community made statements expressing solidarity with Israel and opposition to the terrorists. But as Jewish communities are in the process of holding some of their Israel Independence Day festivals timed to May 14, there was no massive outpouring of support for the Jewish state, as was the case in previous generations when it was under attack.

With each passing anniversary, the hoopla among American Jews about Israel’s birthday becomes less a matter of unified support and more a function of the growing alienation that some feel about the Jewish state—even the very idea of one.

While many blame this on dislike of Netanyahu and his policies, it has little to do with him and everything to do with the changing demography of a community increasingly assimilated and lacking in a sense of Jewish peoplehood. With the fastest-growing sector of American Jewry being what demographers label “Jews of no religion,” it’s little surprise that a sectarian idea like Zionism would be a hard sell for those who feel no particular loyalty to their group identity.

Still, and despite the cynicism and criticism heard from the liberal establishment about the Jewish state, we know that, as proven by the success of Birthright trips, connection with Israel helps build a stronger sense of Jewish identity among Americans, especially at a young age. Though some on the secular left find it hard to admit, Israel remains the center of Jewish life and a singular source of inspiration for a people that date back 3,500 years.

‘Nakba’ at the Senate

But the growing drift of Democrats, to whom most Jews remain loyal, away from Israel is a measure of the alienation that cannot be ignored.

More to the point, there was also little anger or political backlash when Democrats went silent about the way antisemitic progressives were allowed to hold a gathering lamenting the birth of the Jewish state—“Nakba 75”—at a Senate office building under the sponsorship of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The event was the project of Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who supports not just the antisemitic BDS movement but openly calls for the destruction of Israel. She was thwarted from holding her nakba fest (an Arabic word that corresponds to “catastrophe,” as in Israel’s modern-day establishment in May 1948) in the House by a decision of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). But no one in the Democratic leadership of the Senate, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) or the Biden administration, sought to keep a program aimed at pushing for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet and a key U.S ally off government property.

While some Jewish liberals might dismiss this as unimportant, nakba commemorations, which center around declaring Israel’s birth to be a crime that must be expunged, matter because it was a symbol of the growing influence of the intersectional left. Far from being isolated, the anti-Israel faction among Democrats is growing in number. More to the point, even at a time when Israel is under attack, the silence about the “Nakba Day” affair from Democrats was telling.

Tlaib and her fellow “Squad” member and antisemite, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), remain popular among the Democratic base. Moreover, even figures like President Joe Biden are careful to cultivate them. That was made clear when both were invited to the White House last month for an Eid al-Fitr event and the president singled them out for compliments. Democrats often blame Republicans for not isolating some of their more extreme members, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.), who, though a supporter of Israel, has made bizarre comments easily interpreted as antisemitic. Democrats are unwilling to do the same with Tlaib and Omar, despite their open and unabashed antisemitism and hatred for Israel, due to their being viewed as both progressives in good standing and pop-culture rock stars.

Their increasing influence is not unrelated to what’s been happening in Gaza and Israel.

Bashing Israel

Four days of efforts by the Israel Defense Forces—dubbed “Operation Shield and Arrow”—to take out the Islamist group’s military capabilities and its leadership did not succeed in completely silencing their fire. The IDF took its usual care in limiting the impact of their strikes on Palestinian civilians, but the inevitable casualties are being trumpeted by Israel’s opponents as crimes, even though many of those killed and hurt in Gaza were hit by Islamic Jihad projectiles that fell short of their intended targets in Israel.

The contrast between the Israeli and Palestinian casualties is depicted as the result of a disproportionate IDF response to the rockets. Yet what it really shows is the difference between the two sides’ priorities. In the Gaza Strip are plenty of bomb shelters (underneath the entire Strip also lies a massive network of tunnels and fortified strongholds used for terrorist purposes), but they are used as weapon storage facilities for the people firing them. Israel has prioritized the defense of its people with both defense systems and mandatory bomb shelters.

That hasn’t stopped the media from engaging in the usual Israel-bashing as the actual intent of Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad, as well as their Hamas and Fatah rivals who are downplayed or ignored.

That has taken a toll not so much on general American support for Israel, which is rooted in the overwhelmingly positive sentiments expressed by conservative Christians, evangelicals and Republicans, while liberals and Democrats are more sympathetic towards a Palestinian cause that demands the extinction of Jews.

The good news is that while American Jews are influenced by critical media coverage of the Jewish state, most Israelis know better than to treat their efforts to survive as depending on the goodwill of the international media. The vast majority understand that there is no point in listening to the elite chattering classes of the West, who wrongly view them as colonists or “white” oppressors in their own country.

For all of its problems—and they are legion—Israel seems uninterested in debating whether or not it has a right to exist or defend itself. American Jews would do well to learn from this, rather than think they need to save Israel “from itself.”

As the anniversary of Israel’s birthday is observed in the secular calendar this coming week (along with the Palestinians’ nakba), American Jews should pause and think of the stress Israelis face as they dash in and out of bomb shelters trying to get their kids to school (and to sleep) and take care of their neighbors, including the sick and the elderly.

But they should also be inspired by Israel’s resolution in defending its people against those who seek their deaths, as well as by the ability of Israelis to temporarily put their differences aside in the face of deadly threats. This is a moment to recognize that the Israeli people’s attitudes are not just admirable. Their strength and determination represent the future of the Jewish people.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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