In “The Failure of the American Jewish Left,” an article in the current issue of Middle East Quarterly, David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, laments the fact that “for many years, the liberal base of the Democratic Party has been steadily turning against the Jewish state.”
Brog notes the fiasco at the Democratic National Convention in September, where earnest efforts could not muster a two-thirds majority — or, apparently, any majority — for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. While “liberal members of Congress such as Harry Reid, Robert Menendez, Shelly Berkley, and Elliott Engel remain among Israel’s most outspoken defenders on Capitol Hill,” a sizable chunk of Democrats now take stances inimical to Israel.
For instance, “on January 26, 2010, 54 congressmen sent a letter to President Obama urging him to pressure Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. All were Democrats.” And in March that year, when 333 members of the House sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton protesting the administration’s excoriation of Israel for plans to build homes in Jerusalem, only seven Republicans refused to sign it while no less than 91 Democrats—over a third of all House Democrats—refused to do so.
But “even more troubling than this shift in Washington is the shift at the grassroots. On Capitol Hill, at least, most Democratic congressmen still stand with Israel. Out in the grassroots, only a minority of Democrats continue to do so.” For instance, “a February 2010 Gallup poll found that 85 percent of Republicans and only 48 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis than the Palestinians”; while “an October 2011 Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of Republicans and only 36 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis than the Palestinians.”
Brog warns of “a situation where the U.S.-Israel relationship is alternatively strong when one party is in power, then abandoned when the other party rises. In such a world, Israel’s enemies will simply build their bombs, stockpile their missiles, and await the inevitable swing of the U.S political pendulum.”
Brog is, of course, right; a situation where Israel becomes a “wedge issue” is not at all desirable. But in seeking to ward off the danger, Brog turns to a problematic address: the American Jewish left — many of whom, he acknowledges, “as the Jewish state stands accused of the worst of crimes…have waved the white flag at best and joined in the attacks at worst.” Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben Ami, Brog notes, are now the standard-bearers of this camp of “disaffected” American Jews.
Brog exhorts liberals, and particularly American Jewish ones, to change course, saying they are
best positioned to fight [the pro-Israel] battle. They are the ones who can most effectively defend Israel by invoking progressive principles to their progressive colleagues…. Now is not the time to abandon the battle of ideas…. America’s pro-Israel activists must instead redouble their efforts to expand the pro-Israel coalition and ensure that all major streams of American political thought have a home there.
Indeed, it doesn’t hurt to try. American pro-Israel activists (now, as Brog acknowledges, primarily conservatives) should try to reach as many people as they can. As is generally true of social groups, American Jews cannot necessarily be stamped with labels; those whose “progressive” identity is less clear-cut, in particular, can potentially be persuaded (some may even have voted for Romney).
But when it comes to American Jews who are clearly in the Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben Ami mold, Brog’s hope of bringing them — along with their non-Jewish counterparts — back to genuine pro-Israelism is sadly misplaced. The implications of that for future Democratic support for Israel, and for Israel itself, are indeed worrisome. Nevertheless, the gap between such people and Israel (except, perhaps, in rare individual exceptions) now appears unbridgeable.
I see five reasons why that is the case.
1. Guns. As Brog himself notes, most Israel supporters have abandoned dreams of peace with the Fatah (let alone Hamas) movement and “begun to face the grim prospect of a longer struggle for Israel’s survival.” As Israel itself gears up for elections in January, not even the left-of-center parties are flaunting the “peace” issue. It has sunk in for most Israelis that a ministate “living in peace” beside Israel is not the heart’s desire of Palestinians — and, even if it were, would hardly put the Middle East as a whole to rest.
True, right-of-center prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who by all projections stands to be reelected — recently claimed four years of relative quiet on the security front as one of his achievements. But that quiet has come at a price, as the major terrorist threats on Israel’s borders — Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah in Lebanon — keep adding large quantities of rockets and other weapons to their arsenals; and their supporter, Iran, approaches the nuclear finish line.
Israel, in other words, will have to keep living by the gun. And for American Jewish progressives — who see guns themselves as an evil that should be banned — that can hardly be an attractive picture. Since 2000, when Israel has fought Palestinian terror in the West Bank (Operation Defensive Shield) and Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) and Hizballah terror in the Second Lebanon War, American Jewish leftists have — in Brog’s earlier-quoted words — “waved the white flag at best and joined in the attacks [on Israel] at worst.”
There is no basis to think this will change. American Jewish (and other) progressives do not think Israel (or the West) has real enemies and see engaging in armed conflict as a sign of moral failure.
2. Religion. A poll earlier this year made waves by finding that 84 percent of Israelis believe in God. That does not mean, of course, most Israelis are formally observant. The Jewish religion, however, plays a complex but essential role when it comes to Israel’s identity and ethos. Emotions about Jerusalem, the capital, run high. Religious parties are part of every governing coalition. Politicians talk of a biblical attachment to the Land of Israel.
This, too, is not American Jewish progressives’ cup of tea. It was different in Israel’s first decades when — at least — its public image was that of a predominantly secular country at the cutting edge of socialism. But when the 1967 conquest of holy sites in Jerusalem brought religious undercurrents to the surface, progressive enthusiasm for Israel waned rapidly. Again, this is a “structural” difference between Israel and the American Jewish left that does not stand to go away.
3. The power of the Palestinian narrative. Overall, the Palestinians’ star may be declining lately. As a wave of mayhem and violence — referred to by some as “spring” or “democracy” — sweeps the region, no one can even pretend anymore that the upheavals afflicting Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and so on stem from the Palestinian issue, or that still further Israeli land withdrawals are the key to calming the storms.
The Palestinian issue, though, retains its hold over progressives. People of that description have been interdicted by the Israeli navy in another show of support for Hamas-ruled Gaza. Getting Israel out of the remaining territories it holds, to be replaced by what would be a less-than-friendly “Palestine,” remains the central preoccupation of groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
For American Jewish and other progressives, the idea of Third World Palestinians oppressed by gun-toting Israelis remains irresistible. The notion of being friends of the underdogs — however faux, however hypocritical — is fundamental to their political identity.
4. A right-of-center Israel. Since 1977 Israel has mostly been run by right-of-center governments, and the trend is only gaining steam. Netanyahu is completing four years at the helm of Israel’s most stable coalition ever, and polls project an even stronger right-of-center coalition emerging from the January 22 elections.
True, Netanyahu’s own right-wing credentials are questionable as he publicly endorses a demilitarized Palestinian state. His coalitions, though, continue to include sizable contingents who favor settling and claiming Judea and Samaria, some on religious grounds. Obviously, this is not to American Jewish progressives’ liking, and supporting such an Israel is difficult if not impossible for them.
Note that, when the left-of-center Olmert government went to war in Lebanon and in Gaza, pro-Israel conservatives had no difficulty sticking up for it. But progressives are made of different stuff. For them, nothing is more elemental than enmity toward “the right.” American Jewish progressives cannot identify with an Israel that repels them.
5. A right-of-center pro-Israel community. Likewise, as Brog notes, conservatives increasingly constitute the lion’s share of America’s pro-Israel camp. They even include religious Christian types who quote the Bible and oppose abortion and gay marriage. Brog, nevertheless, earnestly entreats American Jewish progressives to put differences aside and join the “pro-Israel coalition.”
But to think American Jewish liberals will stand shoulder to shoulder with Evangelicals, Jewish Republicans, and other unsavory creatures, in support of an Israel that is itself distasteful to them, is not realistic.
To sum up, then, Israel’s ongoing need to defend itself, its religious coloration, the enduring power of Palestinianism, Israel’s conservative ascendancy, and the even more pronounced conservative ascendancy in the American pro-Israel community are factors that preclude American Jewish progressives from returning to the pro-Israel stance some of them took in Israel’s early days.
Brog, in claiming that American Jewish liberals “are the ones who can most effectively defend Israel by invoking progressive principles to their progressive colleagues,” is right on a rational level. Along with its conservative and religious coloration, Israel remains a remarkable democratic success story in a dark region. Seemingly its record on such matters as freedom of expression, political pluralism, judicial independence, and women’s, gay, and minority rights should stir American Jewish progressives to not only support it, but do so with enthusiasm.
That they do not do so is not, however, a “failure” but an inevitable result of their mindset.