Did Trump make the Israel-Diaspora divide seem smaller?

Images of Israeli and American flags projected onto the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem following the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Images of Israeli and American flags projected onto the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem following the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

By Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS

If there is one thing the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community generally agrees on these days, it’s President Donald Trump. The vast majority of Jews are loyal Democrats and, for the most part, supportive of the anti-Trump “resistance.” But a curious thing happened after Trump announced that the U.S. is finally officially recognizing that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Groups representing mainstream Jewish opinion, even those that are clearly liberal, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), applauded.

The key question, however, is whether this is a last gasp of the old pro-Israel establishment or evidence of its continued strength.

Given the fact that most American Jews don’t like the current U.S. administration and are not thrilled with the government in Jerusalem either, it wasn’t a given that a decision that was widely panned in the mainstream media would meet with approval from most Jewish groups.

While AIPAC was predictably favorable, the backing for Trump from the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that is often paralyzed by the ideological and denominational splits within the broad community it tries to represent, was significant. The favorable stand of the ADL was particularly important because the organization has been prone to taking stands that smacked of partisanship, both against Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, since longtime leader Abe Foxman was replaced by former Obama staffer Jonathan Greenblatt. But rather than play politics over Jerusalem, the ADL welcomed Trump’s announcement.

This debate comes only a week after the major dustup in which Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely criticized American Jews in an interview on the i24news cable station. Many in both countries took this controversy—though overblown and the result of comments that have to some extent been taken out of context—as reason to start to writing off the Israel-Diaspora connection. But the willingness of so many mainstream Jewish groups to stick their necks out even a little bit for Trump can’t be dismissed.

Even in an American Jewish community that is probably less interested in Israel than it used to be, Jerusalem still means something. While most American Jews are not supportive of West Bank settlements, backing for Israel’s hold on Jerusalem is arguably still as much of a consensus issue in the U.S. as it is in Israel. That Trump embraced the reality of Israel’s capital and the rights of the Jewish people to Jerusalem in a way that didn’t foreclose the theoretical (though unlikely due to Palestinian intransigence) possibility of a two-state solution helped shore up that consensus.

But while the support for Trump’s move is encouraging for those hoping to strengthen the bonds between American Jews and Israelis, celebrations must be tempered.

That groups that are primarily partisan Democrats—including most Jewish Democratic officeholders—would oppose Trump on Jerusalem or any issue is to be expected. The same is true of left-wing organizations like J Street, whose primary purpose was to serve as cheerleader for President Barack Obama’s effort to pressure Israel to make concessions—including on Jerusalem—or open anti-Zionists like Jewish Voice for Peace.

But the willingness of the Reform movement—the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S.—to express “concern” because of its negligible impact on the dead-in-the-water peace process rather than support for Trump’s move was an ominous indication that all is not well in the relationship between Israel and American Jews. The same is true of the similar opposition from the small Reconstructionist movement and the initial silence from the Conservative movement on the issue.

If groups that require those studying for the rabbinate to spend a year in Jerusalem are not prepared to enthusiastically and openly back Israel’s rights there, it begs the question of how much they are being influenced by liberal politics that have nothing to do with the Middle East as well as by anger stemming from an understandable dismay about the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. Since these groups can claim to represent the bulk of affiliated Jews, there is still good reason to worry that the pro-Israel consensus is fraying, if not in danger.

Let’s hope that rank-and-file Jews in the pews and among the groups will send their leaders a message that whatever their views on Trump or other issues, the vast majority still maintain their solidarity with Israel on Jerusalem. For all of the warning signs of trouble, what Trump may have done is to signal that the emotional pull of Jewish affection for Israel’s capital is, at least for the moment, still capable of matching partisan fervor even in our hyper-partisan times.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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