Why the US Diaspora Misunderstands Israel
JNS.org – Israel is meant to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. But for some time now, we have been hearing that the US community is distancing itself from Israel.
The links are becoming more tenuous because the assimilation rate is now more than 70 percent. Most Jews in the United States have even been called “non-Jewish Jews.” Many adhere to universal, not particularist values, that some claim will in the end destroy Judaism itself. The US Diaspora predominantly belongs to the Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. The “Women of the Wall” controversy has only served to introduce more tension in the relationship between the United States and the Israeli government.
American Jews are well known for their overwhelming support for the Democratic Party. As the old adage goes, they earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. This has already put them in conflict with Israel’s interests. President Barack Obama’s 2015 Iran deal did not seem to dent Jewish support for him. Similarly, so hostile do most Jews feel towards US President Donald Trump that when Trump has made pro-Israel decisions, such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, they have hesitated to support him. (The General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, when convening in Israel, always meets in Jerusalem, but this year moved the venue to Tel Aviv.)
As we saw with the tragic events at Pittsburgh, American Jewry has a problem with antisemitism, but it’s a problem that it sees coming from the far-right, exacerbated by Trump’s populism. However, there is also a pernicious antisemitic anti-Zionism now penetrating the left. Jews in general are seen to enjoy power and “white privilege,” despite their history as an oppressed minority and ethnic origins in the Middle East. The new vogue for “intersectionality” pointedly excludes Jews.
What does the Diaspora find alienating about Israel? Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, recently criticized the Israeli government for its treatment of the Palestinians, its attitude towards asylum-seekers, and the dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel.
But these concerns show a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel and of the conflict. Progressives (and not just in the United States) think that the two-state solution would fulfill Palestinian aspirations. In reality, the ultimate Palestinian objective is the “right of return” — overrunning Israel proper with Arab refugees. They believe that time is on their side.
The US Diaspora also misunderstands what makes Israelis tick. Israeli support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a response to rockets and terror tunnels. But many Israelis view the Palestinian jihad as just the latest chapter in a long story of Arab and Muslim antisemitism predating anti-Zionism. Anti-Jewish hatred goes to the very heart of the conflict.
More than 50 percent of Israeli Jews have their roots in Arab and Muslim states. The American Diaspora, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi: Their background is European antisemitism and the Holocaust. They project a Eurocentric world view and their own Western values on the Arab and Muslim world.
Most Jews are in Israel because of the Arabs, not the Nazis (although Arabs and Nazis were allied during World War II). They vote for Netanyahu because of this legacy of bitterness and mistrust. Arabs will only respect a strong Israel, they believe. These Jews, their parents, and their grandparents left Arab countries due to pogroms, institutionalized inferiority, and state-sanctioned laws. Most left as destitute refugees with a single suitcase. Israel rescued them. Jews in the West may take their freedoms and rights for granted. Jews from the Middle East and North Africa do not.
When the United States — and indeed, the Western press and media — does focus on Mizrahi Jews, it is to promote the folklore that passes for Mizrahi history — the nostalgic celebration of tradition, costume, music, and food.
Desperate to show that the conflict is soluble, the media loves examples of interfaith collaboration between Jews and Arabs. In this perspective of moral equivalence, Jews cease to be the victims of Arab oppression. Many on the left are concerned with Arab rights and only interested in Mizrahi rights when they can level charges of social discrimination against the Israeli government. But at the end of the day, the Israeli public will not approve a peace settlement that ignores Mizrahi justice, and their right to recognition and compensation.
Only education can break down mutual misunderstandings and bring the two halves of the Jewish people closer together.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).