American Jews and Israeli Politicians
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
There is something very off-putting about the double standard that Israeli political leaders believe they can impose on American Jews. Israel is a sovereign state which in 70 years has become a truly remarkable country. This transcends Israel’s linkage historically, theologically, religiously, and culturally to Jews throughout the world. Israel today has a dynamic, booming economy. Israel has a booming economy, is a leader in research in a multiplicity of fields, and has become a magnet for foreign investment. It is also one of the leading creative spirits in the world in music, art, literature, film, and other cultural arenas.
At the same time Israel today presumes that it also is the political leader of world Jewry; but it does not want to recognize that Jews’ connections to Israel do not necessarily deserve blind allegiance. It also does not accept the fact that different Jews in the Diaspora have legitimate diverse connections to Israel. This is part of the tension which has been at the root of Israel-Diaspora relations over the past few years.
This situation has been exasperated since Donald Trump became a candidate, intensified over the past two years, and was visible again during the mid-year election campaign season. Approximately 70% of American Jewry are indeed angry, frustrated, and annoyed at the failure of Israeli leaders to accept the fact that the needs of American Jews are not always congruent with the way Israelis see things.
American Jews recognize that the State of Israel needs to determine what is in Israel’s best interests and its own geopolitical concerns. Their desire to curry favor with President Trump and with the Trump Administration is understandable. It does not necessitate that American Jews need to hold Trump in the same regard or that by differing in their feelings about Trump they are advocating a policy that disrespects Israel. Disagreeing with Israeli policy in 2018 is not being anti-Israel. Being pro-Israel today no longer requires American Jews to march in lockstep with the Israeli Government.
The growth of anti-Semitism is a growing concern to American Jews. When the President decided to go to Pittsburgh to pay his respects after the tragic synagogue shooting, the Jewish community requested he postpone his trip until after the funerals were over and to visit during the shiva period. The President went on Tuesday immediately following the shooting accompanied only by his family and Israel’s Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer. He was not received by any of the community leaders except for the appropriately dignified welcome from Rabbi Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue. Dermer’s actions were correct for Israel as were the actions of those of the American Jewish community.
Israel needs to recognize that many American Jews hold the President responsible for the angry hateful rhetoric which pervaded this entire campaign season. The President clearly does not accept the fact that the incendiary character of his campaign rallies promoted and cultivated a political culture which engendered hateful behavior. The anti-Semitic tragedy in Pittsburgh, the non-active mailed pipe bombs, and the racially motivated murders in Kentucky, all appeared to have been attributable, at least indirectly, to the current political culture.
Similarly, when President Trump was asked in his post-election press conference about the elevated level of hate crimes in America and specifically about the increase in anti-Semitic incidents, the President’s answer focused almost entirely on his relationship with Israel and the esteem in which the Prime Minister holds him. The President conflated two issues to avoid addressing the causes of the serious increase in anti-Semitism in America. For American Jews, this is not satisfactory given the extent of hate which pervades America today.
American Jews and Israel need to adjust their level of expectations. Fortunately, Israel today does not face any immediate existential threat. Israel does and will continue to be vigilant and Diaspora Jewry always will be there to advocate for Israel’s needs, safety, and security. Israel, however, must cease in presuming that they know what is right for how American Jews should respond to Jewish misgivings in the United States.