Israelis will go to the polls this spring to cast their ballots for a myriad of competing parties, one of which will then be asked to try to stitch together an unruly coalition, highlighting how very democratic and disorderly Israel’s parliamentary system is. This is not necessarily the best system for a nation that is in a constant state of war.
American Jews of all stripes are also gearing up to support or demonize their preferred or hated candidates and parties. Actually, it is not so different from what Israelis do themselves. But in the age of US President Donald Trump, where Israelis generally appreciate his support if not his style, many American Jews viscerally hate anything he does, even if it’s something in their interest. But do American Jews know the difference between Bibi, Bogie, Benny and Bugie?
Leaving aside the funny nicknames, this is a deadly serious question as Americans want to weigh in on this pivotal election, while the growing Iranian menace threatens Israel from three sides, and Trump plans to announce a peace plan right after the election, which some in the know say might involve some difficult or even unacceptable demands on Israel.
What are the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of American Jewry?
What could be worse for Israel’s international reputation than to have it perceived that the Jews of America on the whole believe the nation; the people of Israel are the intransient party and deserve to be punished?
Weighing in on the Israeli election from 8,000 kilometers away highlights the conflicting perspectives of the 21st century’s two largest Jewish populations.
If Israel is the home of the Jewish people, should American Jews deserve a voice, if not a vote, and be taken seriously? If American Jews don’t put their children in harm’s way, how much should their concerns be considered? After all, it is Israelis who have to live with the consequences.
Yossi Klein Halevi, in a Moment Magazine interview, said that the divide between the communities was inevitable.
”Israelis live in the most dangerous… neighborhood in the world; American Jews live in the most hospitable environment that Jews have ever lived in… Too many American Jews speak of ending the occupation as if Israel were an island in the South Pacific… not a miniscule country surrounded by some of the most lethal terrorist groups in the world… For Israelis, the essential element is Jewish solidarity and self-protection. For American Jewish liberals, it’s empathy for the other, especially the oppressed.”
American Jews are overwhelming liberal, live in economic and physical security, and haven’t changed their political affiliations despite their changing socio-economic status over generations. Israelis, on the other hand, were much more liberal 25 years ago during the euphoric but illusory days after the Oslo Accord.
All that changed for Israelis with the Second Intifada, as they shifted to the center and right. Even after the Intifada subsided, those still hoping for a reasonable Palestinian partner were disabused of the idea when Abbas refused to even respond to Olmert’s offer of 100% of the disputed territory with land swaps.
American Jews who didn’t suffer the physical and emotional consequences of the Second Intifada didn’t shift their perspective, remaining convinced that this conflict is still simply about territory and an occupation, victimizer and victim. Today many still judge Israel as the primary intransient party, as though this is still 1995.
American Jews do not understand that for most Israelis, security will be their primary concern when they go to the ballot box, not pluralism, even if they abhor the disproportionate influence of ultra-Orthodoxy.
As important as socioeconomic issues are to Israelis – and they are – they take second place to life-and-death security concerns in a society where every citizen is supposed to serve in the armed forces. In America, 1.4% of women and 13.4% of men have ever served in the military, a humbling difference.
When Israelis go to vote, they must balance lives that respect their Jewish values, but can never forget they live in a neighborhood where the weak are slaughtered and the world turns a blind eye to genocide. That is the reality they live in, and which too many Americans ignore. It explains to some extent why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endured for so long.
Americans who are interested in the upcoming Israeli election will read about it in their own echo chambers that reinforce their pre-determined points of view, rarely challenging ourselves with different opinions, usually dismissing them because they come from non-trusted sources.
American liberal Jews will read Haaretz and The New York Times, listen to NPR, watch MSMBC/ CNN and think they know what is really happening in the fistfight of the upcoming April election. Meanwhile, American conservatives will read National Review, the editorials of the Wall Street Journal, watch Fox and think they have all the answers.
From so far away, when American towns and cities are not in the crosshairs of Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah, it is easy to pontificate and give advice to Israelis, claiming your objective perspective and harsh medicine are needed for Israel’s benefit. Some even claim to be pro-Israel, rationalizing that boycotting products from Judea and Samaria (West Bank) is for Israel’s own benefit, while ignoring the incessant and unrelenting Jew hatred from Israel’s erstwhile peace partners.
This is the reality for far too many American Jews, who weigh in and think they know all about the Middle East. They tell me that this is what they have heard from their rabbis, who heard it first hand from Rabbis for Human Rights, or a speaker from J Street, an NGO that claims Israel is not a democracy, or have visited Ramallah with a trip organized by a group like Breaking the Silence, to listen to PA officials who claim it is all the occupation, not their incitement and kleptocracy.
Let’s be clear… Israel has thrown kerosene into the fire of civil relations between the communities by not figuring out some way to respect American Jewish religious denominations, allowing the ultra-Orthodox to disenfranchise the largest Diaspora Jewish community in the world.
Israelis seem unaware that American Jewish organizations are vital for their security interests by educating members of Congress about the role of Israel as a bulwark of American national security.
Which brings us to the upcoming Israeli election.
Too many American Jews cannot differentiate between Netanyahu, his policies and the State of Israel. They wouldn’t say America doesn’t have a right exist because they hate Trump; we organize and vote for an alternative in the next election.
But they are angry that the Israeli people have continued to support their current government, so they advocate “tough love” things like BDS that would do serious damage to the nation of Israel.
When the world’s major forces decide whether or not to throw Israel under the bus, economically or militarily, it does matter what are perceived to be the voices of American Jewry, too often saying that Israel deserves or needs to be punished.
Netanyahu may lose, be indicted, or win, but Israel will remain the democratic nation of the Jewish people long after his political life expires. So to all American Jews across the political spectrum, if you don’t like an Israeli candidate or a government policy, please speak out loud and clear. But don’t mistake a party or candidate for Israel the country, joining those who want to delegitimize Israel the nation.
Too many American Jews don’t seem to mind throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The author is the director of Middle East Political and Information Network™ (MEPIN™), and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. MEPIN™ is a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists, and organizational leaders
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