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The Triangle Connecting the U.S., Israel, and American Jewry May Be Coming Apart

For decades, shared interests kept all three players in a mutually beneficial relationship, but its end might not be such a bad thing

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(Illustration Tablet Magazine)
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American Jewry is in for a real shock: The “special relationship” between the United States and Israel is fast eroding. The strategic, cultural, and demographic alignments that gave rise to and sustained for more than half a century the special relationship between the United States and Israel are all changing. These changes have independent sources, and the relevant dynamics are playing out in different ways and at different rates. But make no mistake: They are connected to and influence one another.

The simple understanding of how the special relationship works is linear: American Jews go to bat in American politics for Israeli interests, as they understand them, because Israeli interests are believed to be inseparable from Jewish interests. This is the “lobby” model, and we recognize its appurtenances: the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a galaxy of smaller, sometimes explicitly partisan groups, from J Street to the Emergency Committee for Israel.

In truth, however, the relationship consists of a metaphorical triangle linking American Jewry with the governments of Israel and the United States. In the natural course of political events, all three actors intermediate between the other two, for good and ill. For example, even as American Jews lobby for Israel in American politics, Israeli governments sometimes get between American Jews and their own government: Jonathan Pollard is one example, and the loan guarantee fight during the George H.W. Bush Administration is another. So is the more contemporary effort of the Israeli government to put AIPAC and other American Jewish groups much further out on their skis in advocating a hawkish policy toward Iran than either the George W. Bush or Barack Obama Administrations have considered wise.

But the U.S. government sometimes musses with the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, too, even if only as a side effect of pursuing other objectives. The recent peripeties concerning the Obama Administration’s prospective military strike on Syria furnish a case in point: While that awkward dance was stumbling across the floor in its earlier steps, Israel and hence AIPAC kept unusually quiet, lest taking a position in favor of a strike put them both on the wrong side of strongly opposed American public opinion. When the White House asked Israel to voice support for military action, it complied, quickly making AIPAC’s soundtrack audible. When the president did his 180, dropping his plans to strike in favor of a Russian-brokered chemical-weapons inspection regime, it left both Israel and AIPAC hung out to dry. Israel’s detractors in the United States did not miss the opportunity to excoriate the Jews both here and there, deepening the division within American Jewry between those who are comfortable with AIPAC’s relationship with a right-of-center Israeli government and those who are not.

Over time, the dynamics of the triangular relationship have changed the character of the three actors themselves—most of all American Jewry. Let’s take a side-by-side look.

1➷2: American Jewry-Israel

In the first three decades of Israel’s existence as a modern independent state, there was very little daylight between it and the overwhelming majority of American Jews. The reasons were several, but chief among them was the fact that these were the same people. The majority of the American Jewish community and of the pre-state Yishuv were European Jews, and mostly Central or East European Jews. The movement out of the Russian Empire beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, after the May Laws, flowed both to North America and to Palestine.

In the postwar years, religious Jews in North America felt a keen affinity with religious Jews in Israel, just as most progressive, secular, socialist-minded Jews in North America felt an affinity with Labor Zionism. When Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook figured a way to entwine Zionism with Orthodox Judaism, he helped bridge the practical gap between secular and religious, and at the same time he created a kind of stereoscopic resonance between Jews in Eretz Yisrael and Jews in America.

The experience of the Shoah dramatically annealed these changes in the context of a radical shift in global Jewish demography. Even for most secular Jews, the Zionist project took on a transhistorical sense of purpose in the ashen shadow of the Holocaust. Never had divisions among Jews in the modern era seemed as insignificant as they did between 1939 and 1959. And American Jews had objective reason to take pride in the heroic history of Zionism, both before and after May 1948. That history, with its narrative of an oppressed people yearning to be free in their own land, seemed to echo many facets of the American civil religion and, in due course, the equally heroic struggle embodied in the Cold War—especially once Israel and the United States began constructing their special strategic relationship in the mid to late 1960s. Just as important, Israel’s underdog status in the region resonated strongly with the underdog self-image of American Jewry; it was important that American Jews believe Israel needed them, and, in fact, it did.

Finally, for first- and second-generation American Jews, intermarriage rates were vastly more modest and Jewish-educational attainments were superior on average to what they have become today, when a record percentage of self-identifying American Jews receive no religious education at all. The gossamer thread of Jewish memory that binds the generations one to another, while always thin and vulnerable, was much stronger 40 years ago than it is today.

Much else has also changed. The horrors of the Holocaust and the unalloyed heroic phase of Zionist history are fading into history, as is the sense of common kindred ties between American Jews and Jewish Israelis. As a state with a strong economy and a strong military, Israel no longer needs American Jews as it once did, even as American Jews need Israel a lot more than they once did. It has already been three and a half decades since some prominent Israelis, notably Yossi Beilin, told American Jews to stop buying Israel bonds—because the cost of processing the things exceeded the value of the money being borrowed—and to use the money instead to seriously educate their children as Jews and Zionists. American Jews eventually got the “Birthright” program out of that tête-à-tête, which has been a great success, but little else. Older American Jews still have problems getting used to the idea that Israel no longer needs their ministrations and money.

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The Triangle Connecting the U.S., Israel, and American Jewry May Be Coming Apart

For decades, shared interests kept all three players in a mutually beneficial relationship, but its end might not be such a bad thing