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July 15, 2016 7:17 am

Israel and American Liberal Jewry: The Real Reasons for the Rift

avatar by Martin Sherman

Email a copy of "Israel and American Liberal Jewry: The Real Reasons for the Rift" to a friend
Rabbi David M. Gordis. Photo: Screenshot.

Rabbi David M. Gordis. Photo: Screenshot.

Israel’s accomplishments have been remarkable.  Israel has created a thriving economy, and has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of the displaced and the needy. Israel has generated a rich and diverse cultural life and its scientific and educational achievements have been exemplary.  In spite of these achievements, however, Israel in my view has gone astray…sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure. — Rabbi David M. Gordis, Reflections on Israel 2016, Tikkun, February 22, 2016

Like the United States of America, the modern state of Israel is a country born from the aspiration for freedom, and standing out among the nations as a beacon of democracy and humanity. Israel is…an exceptional country that shares our most essential values. It is the only country in the Middle East where freedom of speech and freedom of religion are found. Therefore, support for Israel is an expression of our Americanism. — Republican Party’s 2016 Platform

Name a single country in the history of the world faced with internal and external threats comparable to those faced by Israel that has ever had a better record in human rights; a better record with compliance of the rule of law; a better record of concern for civilians?’ I have been asking that question now for 20 years probably to a million people around the world, and I’ve never gotten a single person even to stand up and name a country, because you can’t do it. — Alan Dershowitz, a longstanding supporter of Democratic Party, Jerusalem, June 9, 2015

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In recent years there have been frequent reports of a growing rift between liberal Jewry in the US and Israel, and of the increasing difficulty liberal American Jews—particularly the younger generation — have in identifying with the Jewish state.

Neither inevitable nor irreversible

This is of course an entirely absurd state of affairs.

After all, if logic, common sense and truth had any significant role to play in determining the “liberal” discourse on Israel or “liberal” attitudes toward it, Israel would be enthusiastically embraced by all who purport to cherish liberal values, such as civil liberties, socio-cultural diversity and religious tolerance. Indeed, Israel would be held up as source of pride, celebrated as a shining example of how such values can be sustained in the most inclement of circumstances, which in many other places might well have been considered justification for considerably more authoritarian governance (see Dershowitz’s quote above).

Various profound explanations have been proposed to account for the emerging disconnect between the “liberal” Jews in the US and Israel, ranging from philosophical differences to divergent societal shifts in both countries. But while there might be some measure of validity to these claims, to my mind, they largely miss the point and the dominant reason for the rift is far more mundane.

Accordingly, this alleged “animus” is neither inherently inevitable, as several pundits appear to have to resigned themselves to, nor is it inherently irreversible — other than by some far-reaching transformation of Israeli society.

Narcissistic hypocrisy vs indolent incompetence

At the root of the “liberal” Jews disaffection with the Jewish nation-state lies a dual fault — the one of “liberal” Jewry, the other of the Jewish nation state itself.

On the one hand, liberal Jewry in the US has been gravely afflicted by a narcissistic hypocrisy, which sets unattainable standards for the Jewish state to avoid being the target of its disapproval. On the other hand, Israel, as the nation-state of the Jews, has been deplorably derelict in presenting its case to the world in general and to US Jewry in particular. This has left them gravely misinformed, allowing disapproval of its policy and disinformation as to its nature to go unchallenged — and hence to flourish.

Indeed, much of the disappointment expressed by liberal Jewry is rooted in a misperception of what Israel once was, and what it has become today.

In order to illustrate this, the moronic — and often self-contradictory — lament by David Gordis (not to be confused with his nephew Daniel Gordis) as to Israel’s alleged moral degradation, is perhaps a good place to start (see introductory excerpt).

After summarily dismissing Israel’s “remarkable  accomplishments” in creating  “a thriving economy,” providing  “refuge for hundreds of thousands of the displaced and the needy” and generating “a rich and diverse cultural life and…scientific and educational achievements [that] have been exemplary,” Gordis perversely declares Israel a failed experiment — despite its staggering successes.

Totally detached from fact & reason

Gordis then goes on to elaborate on his abstruse indictment of Israel today: “Jewish life and thought have successfully navigated between three pairs of values that are in tension with one another. First, the Jewish experience has balanced the rational with the affective, the assertion with the question…Second, it has embraced both particularism with universalism, probing Jewish interiorities but looking out to the larger world, recognizing the common humanity of all people. Third, it has shaped positions which looked to the past for sources and inspiration but at the same time projected a vision for a world transformed in the future into something better than its current reality.”

Then in a wild diatribe, totally divorced from any semblance of reality, he blares: “Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary. These values have been subordinated to a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.”

In reality, “present day Israel” is — demonstrably — far closer to the model of Gordis’s ideal than it ever was, certainly far more than it was back in the days for which he allegedly yearns.

Wrong on every count

Today, Israeli society is driven far less by ideological zeal; it far less ideologically monolithic, far less under the sway of a doctrinaire socialistic hegemony, for which Gordis waxes nostalgic.  How does that make it less rational?

Israel has been in the forefront in extending aid to “the other” whenever disaster has struck: In Nepal, in Haiti and even in providing life-saving medical treatment to the victims of the Syrian civil war — to name but a few of present day Israel’s humanitarian initiatives. How is that indicative of “the worst behaviors rather than the best”?

Israeli innovation and inventiveness in medicine, agriculture, water conservation is saving/improving the lives of multitudes across the globe? How is that indicative of Israel discarding the “universal?”

And Israel’s cutting edge activities in the field of space research and exploration have put it in the world’s top five countries in this sphere of human endeavor. So has Israel really discarded the visionary?

This is merely a small sampling of how intellectually dishonest the derogatory drivel of Israel’s “liberal” detractors has become.

This narcissistic hypocrisy was aptly exposed in a perceptive piece in a Washington Post blog by David Bernstein, professor of Law at George Mason University. He wrote: “Israeli Arabs have never been more integrated into Israeli society, or made more rapid economic and social progress, than…under Netanyahu… surrounded by hostile enemies, absorbing about four times its original population in refugees, very few of whom came from countries with a longstanding liberal or democratic traditions, expecting a progressive utopia to emerge was ridiculous. Creating a reasonably liberal, multiethnic, democratic state with religious freedom in a region where there aren’t any others should be more than enough to satisfy all but the most starry-eyed idealists.”

Indeed, it should.

Beneath the disingenuous gobbledygook

Of course, denigrating Israel because it fails to meet some unattainable criteria of human behavior, conjured up by disenchanted “liberal” Jews, serves no useful purpose other than to expose their self-centered insincerity — especially when they refrain from applying the same stringent standards to any other country, including their own. For, once one strips away all the disingenuous gobbledygook, one comes to the core reason for “liberal” chagrin with Israel. This has nothing to do with how diverse or tolerant Israeli society has become, or the level of humanitarian relief it may extend to others, or how Israeli enterprise contributes to the betterment of mankind at large.  It has to do with one – and only one — politically partisan issue: Israel’s interaction with the Palestinian-Arabs across the pre-1967 Green Line (a.k.a. the “Occupation”).  The only remedial measure that “liberals” advance to deal with the “undemocratic blight” is to implement a “two-state-solution.”

Incredibly therefore, according to Israel’s “liberal” detractors,  the only panacea for Israel’s “democracy deficit” is to facilitate the establishment of yet another Muslim-majority tyranny, whose hallmarks will be homophobic persecution of homosexuals, misogynistic discrimination against women and girls, intolerance of religious diversity, and repression of political dissent.

But this is not only wildly irrational in terms of its internal logic, it is equally imprudent in terms of its operational implications. After all, every time Israel has transferred territory to Arab control, it has sooner or later, become a platform to launch deadly attacks against it. Yet with unswerving doctrinaire zeal “liberals” cling to the perilous prescription of touting tyranny and bringing hundreds of kindergartens within the range of rockets and mortars along Israel’s eastern flank.

Down to the last Israeli

It would thus seem that much of US Jewry is so blinded by its obsessive attachment to the failed formula of two-states-for-two-people that they are prepared to defend it — paradoxically under the banner of liberal political philosophy – down to the last Israeli. Indeed, in its mindless subscription to the two-state notion as the touchstone of Israeli democracy, “liberal” Jewry  disregards Israel’s many merits and highlights its inevitable defects — thus greatly contributing to its international de-legitimization across the globe. After all, who better for the Judeophobes to cite than the Jews themselves?

But beyond disregard for Israel’s virtues, US liberal Jews seem to be blind to the nature of its adversaries. Despite ample evidence, they refuse to acknowledge that Arab (including Palestinian Arab) animosity is not rooted in anything the Israel does — or does not do; but in what Israel is: Jewish. Concessions will not satiate Arab appetites, only whet them.

But if US “liberal” Jews frown upon the coercive measures that Israel is compelled to use against the Palestinian-Arabs, were they to apply the same criteria to their own country, they would have good reason to feel even more disenchanted. For, when faced with threats far less severe than those faced by Israel, the US has responded far more vigorously and less discriminately than Israel, whether in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen, with “collateral” civilian casualties dwarfing anything Israel has been accused of.

Yet strangely, few if any, embittered Jewish liberals have distanced themselves from the US because they have been disappointed by American brutality and its failure to live up to their immaculate standards of state behavior.

Expose and inform

Given the facts on the ground, Israel should in fact be the proverbial “apple of the eye” of US liberal Jewry, an object of pride it is eager to be identified with — especially in light of the harrowing circumstances under which it is forced to exist.

Sadly, Israel has done inexcusably little to harness the facts to rebuff the attacks on its democratic credentials and has allowed imperative coercive actions to ensure the security of its civilians against an implacable foe, to be portrayed as racist brutality.

Thus, Israel is losing the support of the US diaspora by default. By spending a pittance on public diplomacy, it is by its own incompetence and impotence fostering the narratives of its adversaries.

The Spring 2016 edition of the Columbia University journal, Current, ran an interesting piece entitled “Reclaiming Alienated Liberals: Israel’s Imperative for Diaspora Jews” by Benjamin Davidoff, self-professed pro-Israel advocate.  There are many things I disagree with in the article -such as the need for a Palestinian state and the call for Israel to empower J-Street, but on one matter Davidoff was spot on. He conveyed the feeling that pro-Israel advocates had been abandoned by Israel. He aptly notes: “Israel has an obligation to aid in pro-Israel advocacy on university campuses. Israel has largely ignored those fighting for Israel on campus and has failed to offer any true support for diaspora Jews… this issue directly affects the viability of the Israeli state in the future and should be of primary concern for Israel.”

On this he is quite right – and Israeli officialdom will ignore this obligation at the nation’s peril.

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  • Yeshayahu Hollander

    Certainly Martin Sherman is right that Israel should spend 100 times more than she does on public diplomacy – in the US, in Europe and – YES – in Arab countries. But that mistake is not the core problem of the Jewish Liberal Americans [JLAs]. We must ask: why do the JLAs CHOOSE to accept the Arab propaganda lies as truth and to denounce the truth published by Israel?

    The basic problem is that the JLA are very similar to the JLGs: the Jewish Liberal Germans in the heyday of the German Liberal Democracy, where Jews were equal, were cabinet ministers etc.: JLAs feel very much more at home as Americans than they do as Jews. They are first and foremost Americans, with some Jewish folklore added, just like the assimilated Jews in Germany, who fully identified with the state they lived in.

    Secondly, criticism of Israel relieves them of any possible obligation to Israel, and in curent Western culture, obligations are the last thing people want: Young Europeans openly say they don’t want to have children, because of the obligation to the children.

  • Karen Glassmaker

    Excellent article, Mr. Sherman. Very informative, thank you. ??

  • Robert Evans

    I think a lot of the confusion is based on the misconception that american jews need to be up to date and understand what is going on in Israel, and vice versa.

    For example, I am half Norwegian. If someone were to ask me what I think about the political situation in Norway, or the god Odin, I would just stare. Much the same thing probably exists between American Jews and Israel. Memories fade as urgency fades.

  • Ayatollah Ghilmeini DD

    I disagree; the American left can be seen to be dovetailing its European counterparts. The European left broke from Israel after 1967 and fully embraced the Palestinian cause ten years later.

    Most American Jews identify with left of center identity politics and our current President has taken them further down the road actually using the J-Streets of the world as a wedge between support of Israel and liberals.

    American Jews have it better than any diaspora in our history. But French Jews were also pretty complacent 25 years ago and now they are leaving; European Jewry may be extinct in 15 years. The US is now importing Islamist radicals in large numbers. The overwhelming majority of Muslims have extremely negative views about Jews and Israel. Once they have critical mass, they will attack Jews politically. We are already seeing the first random physical attacks.

    Most liberals cannot seem to even formulate any opposition to this.

    The golden age of Jews in America is at an end and people better wake and up and understand that a strong Israel is critical to our future. Lastly, there are Liberal Jews who “get it;” people like Michael Steinhardt and others. We do best when we stand together across all political groupings.

  • Steven Kalka

    Liberal Judaism is basically Democratic politics with holidays. It’s kumbaya. Liberals like to believe that all cultures are equal.

  • Arthur Fliegenheimer

    There is a saying”A conservative is a liberal whose been mugged”.Israel has been under attack every day .These people have learned to defend themselves out of necessity.In the US the peace crowd sits back drinking lattes and saying “Two wrongs don’t make a right”and Israel overreacts to attacks.;What you have are the Oscar Meyer crowd-the weinies versus the rugged individualists of Israel.What right do these weinies have to tell the Israelis not to defend themselves

  • Frank Adam

    The roots of the fault are excessive division of religion and nation state. Too many US Jews are too fond of pigeon-holing religion that they forget to steward their nation aspect as well.
    When the Moslem community is big enough to swing its weight as in France then the US Jews will remember who they are – will be made to remember.
    Meanwhile there should be a campaign to cost cut any monies for the PA or UNWRA given the Saudis and Qatar have more than enough spare money for vanity projects.

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