OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

The clash of American liberal Jewry and Israeli nationalism

American and Israeli Jews share DNA, familiarity, goodwill, a love of the Torah and a love of the homeland, but live very different lives and have consequently developed very different mindsets.

Israeli and American flags. Credit: Israel Defense Forces via Wikimedia Commons.
Israeli and American flags. Credit: Israel Defense Forces via Wikimedia Commons.
Yishai Fleisher
Yishai Fleisher is the international spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron and an advisor to Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s landslide electoral victory and the ascendancy of the Israeli conservative-right have deepened the rift between Israel and American Jews, most of whom identify with the liberal left.

Days after the election, nine leading American liberal Jewish groups sent a letter to the American president they hate so much and whose election they worked so hard to prevent. In it, they urged President Donald Trump to preserve the two-state solution in the face of a pledge by Netanyahu to annex the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria.

Four ostensibly pro-Israel Jewish Democrats—Reps. Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey of New York, Ted Deutch, (D-Fla.) and Brad Schneider, (D-Ill.) released a similar letter warning Israel not to annex parts of Judea and Samaria, because such a move, they said, would endanger the two-state solution.

And in an article published just days after Netanyahu’s election, Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the ultra-liberal umbrella group the New Israel Fund, wrote:

“A move to annex the occupied territories would corrode Israel’s international standing, rupture its relationship with the American Jewish community and likely extinguish any remaining chance for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.”

What it all boils down to is that we have reached a point where American Jews are calling upon the American president to override the will of the Israeli people on matters of Israeli national security.

The chutzpah of the American Jewish liberal leadership

Such is the clamor of American liberal Jewish leadership to keep the failed two-state model, which calls on Israel to cut out 20 percent of its New Jersey-sized landmass and give over the most storied stretches of the Promised Land to the corrupt crooks of the PLO and the terrorist organization Hamas.

Yet the Israeli election proved, and many polls show, that Israelis—as opposed to the American Jewish liberal leadership—are done with the two-state concept. In the aftermath of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and the subsequent takeover there by Hamas that led to three full-out wars and innumerable rockets being fired on Israel, most Israelis have concluded that giving away land is a bad idea, and have voiced that opinion democratically.

Much to the American Liberal Jewish establishment’s frustration, the Israeli sovereignty movement, which Netanyahu alluded to and which calls for Israel to control the ancestral Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria, is gaining momentum. And in Washington, Trump’s is the first U.S. administration not reflexively in favor of two states. Indeed, rumors from the Beltway whisper that Trump’s “deal of the century” does not call for Palestinian statehood at all.

Red state Jews–blue state Jews

Being an Israeli Jew with conservative-nationalist leanings, I am often asked, especially when visiting the American heartland states, why it is that American Jews are predominantly liberal. Many American non-Jews are downright mystified as to why any Jew would be against what they perceive to be the natural link between conservatism and Judeo-Christian biblical values. Many gentiles also want to know why liberal Jews are anti-Trump and pro-Palestine.

In his 2018 New York Times article titled, “How America’s Jews Learned to Be Liberal,” Steven Weisman quotes an AJC poll which found that “Israelis approve of President Trump’s handling of United States-Israeli relations by 77 percent … but only 34 percent of American Jews feel the same way.”

Weisman concludes: “Israelis are red-state Jews. American Jews are blue-state—politically liberal in their outlook.”

To be sure, there are many American Jews on the political right who agree with Israeli nationalist policies, and there are Israelis on the left who are much closer to the American Jewish liberal position. However, the broad trends of American Jewish liberalism and Israeli Jewish nationalism are clear.

Why do American Jews tend to be liberal?

Throughout the centuries, from Ukraine to England and from Yemen to Syria, Jews lived in countries given to anti-Semitic violence. Jews were often victims of intolerance, xenophobia and exclusion. Yet they were able to thrive in these places by succeeding financially, excelling educationally and gaining social status.

In an effort to mitigate the dangers they faced, Jews also employed a sophisticated defense mechanism: the teachings of liberalism. At universities, in the courts, in the banks and in their dealings with local authorities Jews sent out a message of tolerance, diversity and inclusion in hope that their host societies would internalize these values—become more liberal as it were—and that the Jews would benefit from that liberalism and be spared. This strategy worked until catastrophes struck such as the English Edict of Expulsion of 1290, the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, or the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Anti-Trumpism as self-preservation

Today’s American Jews may not feel themselves to be living in a hostile country—and America is indeed a great country which has allowed Jews to live and thrive  in peace. Still, the United States is a gentile country, not a Jewish state. Even with a high rate of public success and participation, Jews living in America feel a 2,000-year-old subconscious impulse to broadcast the values of tolerance and multiculturalism in an effort to mitigate any potential ferocity on the part of the ruling host.

The anti-Trump fervor that has seized American Jewry can be readily understood in this light. The American Jewish left sees in Trump a personification of ultra-nationalism which, their collective memory tells them, leads directly to violent anti-Semitism. While Trump seems to be totally pro-Jewish, American liberal Jews manage to paint him in anti-Semitic colors, seeing him as the source of white nationalism and the alt right.

“Bring him down before he brings us down! Stop the growth of nationalism before it becomes full-blown Nazism! De-fang the potentially violent ruler using the messaging of liberalism while you still can!” These are instinctive and classical reactions of liberal diaspora Jewry.

Why Israelis tend to be nationalistic

In contrast, the Jewish state is just that: an ethnic-national Jewish state on the ancient land of Israel. The collective unconscious of Israelis tells them that they live on their own land, speak their ancient language, that they are rightful sovereigns and are in the process of rebuilding the Third Commonwealth.

The message the average Israeli citizen conveys to his elected officials is not of liberalism at all, but rather: “Rule in strength! Defeat the enemy! Defend our family nation-state and do not be overly liberal to our foes! Never again!”

In this light, Israeli support for Trump makes sense: Trump is understood to be a determined, defense-minded fellow sovereign—a strong ruler and ally.

Many American Jews are dumbfounded at the almost ubiquitous Israeli approval of a man they detest so much. But from across the pond, and in the tough Middle East reality, things look different. Trump’s nationalism and certitude might threaten American liberal Jews, but they play well in Israel where those very characteristics are needed and admired.

Immigration policy and the wall

Another example of the difference in outlook between American and Israeli Jews is immigration policy. American liberal Jews perceive themselves to be an ethnic-religious minority in America and descendants of recent immigrants. They tend to identify with potential incomers, and therefore call for a liberal immigration policy. Unsurprisingly then, American liberal Jews see Trump’s tough stance on Muslim and Mexican immigration as a direct attack on them and their values.

The Israeli Jew, however, sees it quite differently. Many Israelis see African or Arab migration as a threat—as a concerted effort to chip away at the Jewish state from the inside and endanger Israel’s stability. In Israel, Trump’s immigration policy is understood to be the normal course of action for a sovereign nation surrounded by hostile countries; Israel has put up defensive walls itself.

Clearly, the contrast in the day-to-day realities of Israeli and American Jews leads to policy prescriptions that are drastically different. The very modes of thinking about these problems are oceans apart.

For some, nationalism looks like fascism

So if Israelis are red-state Jews and American Jews are blue-state, it’s not surprising that they often collide.

American liberal Jews tend to see the Palestinians as a downtrodden minority, but Israelis, in large measure, see them as part of hostile Arab Middle East majority. The same goes for the “West Bank,” which the American liberal establishment continues to see as occupied territory is seen by a majority of Israelis as an integral part of their ancestral homeland. Same goes for the behavior of the Israeli army, which American liberals generally see as being too forceful, while Israelis, whose children serve on the front lines, generally see it as being too restrained.

In turn, many Israelis discount American liberal Jewry’s policy prescriptions. Without verbalizing it, Israelis wonder whether American Jews, whose approach to statecraft is one of a powerful and vocal minority in a host country, can give useful advice to Israeli Jews who drive tanks and fly jets in defense of their own threatened yet sovereign Jewish state.

Israel’s security is not a Jewish issue

Recently, I was in Washington and sat with a Christian red-state congressman. We talked about Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and the position of the “settlers”—Jews proudly living in the ancestral homeland and blocking a jihadist takeover—who clearly favor Israeli control of these areas. Suddenly the congressman asked me: “OK, but what will my colleagues, the Democratic Jewish congressmen, say about this?”

I replied: “Congressman, do you ask these Democratic Jewish congressmen how to vote on abortion issues? Of course not. So why would you ask them about Judea and Samaria? What should be done with these territories is an Israeli issue—not a Jewish issue. The American liberal congressmen don’t serve the Israeli constituency, they haven’t served in the Israeli army, and they don’t bear the burden of dealing with jihadism. They don’t own this issue.”

Indeed, when it comes to policy issues in the Jewish world, there should be a distinction between general Jewish issues and local ones. General Jewish issues might be the question of conversion, or even of religious control at the Western Wall. However, the issues of Israeli foreign policy, Israeli security, dealing with Palestinians, decisions on Judea and Samaria, Knesset elections—these are not general Jewish issues, these are Israeli issues. The loud parading and weighing-in of the American liberal Jewish voice on strictly Israeli issues is illogical, patronizing and shameful.

Loving Israel to death

American and Israeli Jews are two related communities living across the ocean who share DNA, familiarity, goodwill, a love of the Torah and a love of the homeland. However, we live very different lives and have consequently developed very different mindsets.

Rather than fighting about it, the way forward is to adopt a posture of mutual respect and support where possible, but also allow for some daylight between one another when dealing with respective regional policy issues. It’s great to pipe up, because it shows love and care, but on the other hand, since the American Jewish and Israeli realities and perspectives are so different, it’s good to know when to butt out as well.

Those American Jews who publicly defend Israel’s choices give voice to Israeli policies in the halls of American power, and that is an important task. Yet those American liberal Jewish voices who have become detractors of Israeli policy should have less sway. They endanger the U.S.-Israel alliance, and frankly, Israel’s security. They advocate for bad policy, like the two-state “solution,” for a region they don’t understand and in circumstances they don’t share. They go against the will of the Israeli people and give Jewish cover to anti-Israel forces. Their mindset and behavior are that of a minority ethnic group living in a host country, and not like that of Israel—a sovereign state, an American ally and a burgeoning regional power dealing with the harsh reality of the Middle East.

Yishai Fleisher is the international spokesman of the Jewish community of Hebron and an Israeli broadcaster.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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