On Feb. 27, Israeli-American Elan Ganeles was fatally shot by Palestinian terrorists while driving by the town of Jericho on the way to a friend’s wedding. The horrific murder followed a tragic month in Israel during which 14 lives were lost to Palestinian terrorism.
After the attacks, American officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or issued expressions of “deep condolences” to the victims’ families.
While expressions of sympathy are a reassuring indicator of a stable alliance, there has also been a torrent of American criticism on a host of issues ranging from Israel’s strategy on Ukraine to internal Israeli debates over judicial reform.
The Biden administration’s pivot away from Israel became clear last month when the U.S. backed a U.N. Security Council statement condemning Israel’s legalization of nine “settlements” in Judea and Samaria.
Little attention has been paid to the Jewish leaders who are abetting this change in U.S. policy. It remains expedient to blame politicians for this shift but, in fact, American Jewish institutions have fostered an atmosphere favorable to cooling U.S.-Israel relations for decades.
In his 1998 article “Netanyahu and American Jews,” Jonathan Broder described a White House state dinner that took place the previous year honoring Israel’s then-President Ezer Weizman. Among those invited were ten senior representatives from U.S. Jewish organizations.
The article stated that President Bill Clinton went around the room and asked each Jewish dignitary if they agreed with the conclusions of a poll conducted by the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) that showed 84% of American Jews surveyed “favored U.S. pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to save the faltering Middle East peace process.”
To Clinton’s surprise, the Jewish organizational leaders expressed unanimous agreement with the IPF study and rejected any attempt to dispute its findings.
Moreover, not one Jewish attendee spoke favorably of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This left the task to Clinton, who suggested that Israel’s cabinet, rather than Netanyahu, was causing an impasse in the peace process.
Broder interpreted the exchange between Clinton and Jewish leaders as a “watershed” moment in U.S.-Israel relations. It was the point when the mainstream Jewish leadership began to give a pass to American politicians seeking to change America’s pro-Israel stance.
This shift has been confirmed by Jewish voting trends. President Jimmy Carter’s negative attitude towards Israel resulted in a steep drop in Jewish support for his 1980 reelection bid. His percentage of the Jewish vote plummeted from 71% in 1976 to 45% in 1980. Decades later, however, President Barack Obama’s highly antagonistic relationship with Israel led to dip of only nine points. He won a healthy 69% of the Jewish vote in 2012.
Today, Jewish figures cloak their denunciations of Israel’s government, which includes right-wing ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, behind fashionable slogans about the two countries’ “shared values” and “vibrant democracies.”
Taking his cue from Jewish groups, who have all but stripped their platforms of any defense of Israel and supplanted it with a Ukraine-focused agenda, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of Israel “providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs.”
Who can blame a delegation of U.S. senators for refusing to meet with Smotrich and Ben-Gvir while on a diplomatic junket to Israel? After all, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations failed to invite members of the government representing the Religious Zionism, Shas, Otzma Yehudit and United Torah Judaism parties to address the group’s leadership meeting in Israel.
Excluding a sizeable part of the Israeli government because of ideological differences is contrary to the principles of dialogue and cooperation so eagerly espoused by American Jewry.
For his part, Ambassador Nides was criticized after chiding the Israeli government for its judicial reform plans. During a February podcast interview with former Obama official David Axelrod, Nides said, “We’re telling the prime minister, as I tell my kids, pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together.” To his credit, Nides later attempted to “clarify” his comments.
That Nides felt so comfortable with expressing such opinions suggests that he may have been influenced by a statement released a month earlier by North America’s largest Jewish federation, which “respectfully” implored Netanyahu to address the sensitivities surrounding the proposed reforms.
Jewish institutional leaders must resist catering to the political whims of contemporary society and prioritize Israel advocacy instead. As non-citizens of the Jewish state, adopting a degree of humility is a good place to start. A continuous airing of grievances cements the disappointing reality that not only the Democratic Party but also Jewish organizations are causing friction in the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Irit Tratt is a writer and pro-Israel advocate who resides in New York.