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Have Republicans tried to redefine ‘pro-Israel?’

Most Israelis may have been thrilled with Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel, but some Jewish liberals were decidedly nonplussed by his eloquent speech to the Knesset. While the left’s lack of enthusiasm for anything coming out of the Trump administration is to be expected, the attempt to denigrate Pence’s stance as somehow damaging the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus is more than a little disingenuous.

Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (left) and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin meet on Tuesday. Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO.

Most Israelis may have been thrilled with Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel, but some Jewish liberals were decidedly nonplussed by his eloquent speech to the Knesset. While the left’s lack of enthusiasm for anything coming out of the Trump administration is to be expected, the attempt to denigrate Pence’s stance as somehow damaging the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus is more than a little disingenuous.

In The Forward, Jane Eisner threw cold water on Pence’s heartfelt explanation for the devotion Americans feel for Israel. While not necessarily doubting the vice president’s sincerity, she disagreed with the notion that support for Israel stems from America’s religious heritage. She considers doing so a distortion of American history which downplays prejudice against Jews. In her opinion, it splinters bipartisan support for Israel since secular Democrats can’t identify with Pence’s sentiments. She goes on to also say that modern Israel’s secular and largely socialist founders would be appalled by the vice president’s description of their achievement. Last, she considers Pence’s friendship suspect since he chose not to lecture Israel about its shortcomings.

Add it all together and her conclusion is that by framing the U.S.-Israel alliance in this way, Trump and Pence are redefining the term “pro-Israel” in a way that undermines widespread support for the Jewish state.

None of those criticisms stand up to scrutiny.

Eisner thinks Pence is prettying up American history by noting the way this country’s early settlers were inspired by the Bible and Jewish history and also by referencing the way George Washington supported Jewish rights and John Adams endorsed Zionism. Apparently, she would have preferred that he note the instances of “pure prejudice strewn through America’s beginning centuries.”

Of course, she’s right that there were plenty of such instances, but the reason why America was and remains exceptional in so far as the Jewish experience is concerned is that, as Washington memorably wrote, the U.S. government gave to “bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” For all of their challenges, Jews had rights and opportunities in the U.S. that were not available anywhere else. For Eisner to seek to downplay that heritage in this context says a lot about the contemporary liberal impulse to revisionism in which American history is read as almost exclusively a tale of discrimination and slaughter rather than one of the triumph of liberty.

Pence happens to be right about the way the Bible and Jewish history influenced Americans from the beginnings of this country’s existence. The close alliance with Israel isn’t an accident of history; it is the direct result of the legacy of the founders.

She’s also wrong about Democrats and liberals being unable to identify with Pence’s language. That would be a surprise to former President Bill Clinton, who often spoke of the way his religious background compelled him to support Israel. The same is true of other liberal Democrats who, whatever their differences with Pence about fiscal or social issues, share his ideas about America’s biblical heritage and the moral imperative for backing a Jewish state.

But Eisner’s lack of perspective isn’t confined to just Americans. She’s just as wrong about Israel’s founders, whom she claimed wouldn’t care for their achievement to be praised by Christian Bible-thumpers. But as much as those socialists didn’t share the faith of evangelicals, they did have an equal appreciation of the Bible. According to David Ben-Gurion, the Bible was the founding document of Jewish statehood and its history. He and other Labor Zionists were largely irreligious, but they wanted Israelis to be knowledgeable skeptics about the Bible, not its opponents or disconnected from it. And, unlike contemporary liberals, they were smart enough to know that the Jewish people needed to embrace its friends wherever it could find them. The contempt for Christian conservative defenders of Israel often heard these days on the left would have appalled them, not Pence’s emotional embrace of Zionism.

The Forward editor is also wrong about the definition of friendship. It’s true that friends should be honest with each other and speak up about differences when necessary. But the problem with many on the left is that they seem to have taken this truism so much to heart that they have come to believe that the only way to express friendship for Israel is to attack its government.

Criticism of Israel’s current government or its policies isn’t anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel. In the lively democracy of the Jewish state, Israelis do it every day. But when it comes from foreign friends, it should be accompanied by some humility. The verdict of Israeli democracy deserves both respect and a degree of deference. I know Eisner and other liberals are unhappy about the basic consensus about the lack of a viable Palestinian peace partner that is shared by a broad consensus of Israeli voters stretching from the center-left to the center-right. But while she and other Americans have every right to an opinion about Jerusalem’s decisions, the notion that it is the U.S. government’s duty to override the judgment of Israel’s voters and to, in effect, save Israel from itself, is neither respectful nor particularly friendly.

Biden or Pence?

It’s in that context that I’d like to note another side controversy stemming from the Pence visit. In welcoming Pence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was fitting that he was the first American veep to address the Knesset because “no American vice president has had a greater commitment to Israel and its people.” That caused some liberals like Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer to cry foul since they claimed Pence’s predecessor had a longer and stronger record of support for Israel.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has always been a supporter of Israel. That was made clear during his 36 years in the Senate and even while serving in the Obama administration. His devotion to it is just as heartfelt as that of Pence, even if he has accompanied that friendship with interminable lectures in which he made it clear he knew best about every issue. But while, as is the custom for such diplomatic receptions, Netanyahu may have been indulging in some over-the-top rhetoric in praising Pence, it’s also true that for all of his goodwill toward Israel, Biden will also be remembered for his part in an unfortunate and entirely unnecessary spat between the two allies.

In 2010, the Obama administration ginned up a controversy with Israel by claiming that Netanyahu “insulted” Biden by allowing the announcement of some building project in Jerusalem during the vice president’s visit to Israel. The bureaucratic posting of the housing tenders wasn’t intended to be a message to Biden or a deliberate act by the Netanyahu government. But Obama seized on it in an attempt to send a message to Israel that he considered the 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods built over the Green Line in Jerusalem to be illegal settlements and no different from the most remote hilltop outpost in the West Bank.

That was a significant shift in U.S. policy to Israel’s disadvantage. While the Trump administration is still open to a two-state solution that would divide Jerusalem if both Israel and the Palestinians agreed, the president’s December message about where Israel’s capital is located—proudly reiterated by Pence in the opening of his Knesset speech—has gone a long way to rectify that damage, which will always be associated with Biden.

The point here is that Trump, Pence and their evangelical supporters haven’t redefined the term “pro-Israel” in an effort to exclude liberals. The opposite is true. Liberals have sought to change its meaning in order to justify support for policies that undermine Israel’s self-determination and to delegitimize the Jewish state’s conservative friends. Given their animus for all things related to Trump, I don’t wonder that they are disconcerted by Pence’s devotion to Israel and the willingness of most friends of Israel to embrace him on this issue. But by seeking to attack him in this way, they are the ones who are trying to wreck the bipartisan consensus on Israel.

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

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