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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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Meanwhile, young American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel in rough proportion to their lack of Jewish education and affiliation, and particularly so if they hold left-wing views that increasingly depict Israel in a negative light. The argument, however, that anti-Semitism is the main cause of assimilation is nonsense; to the contrary, the relative absence of anti-Semitism in America, certainly compared to a half century ago, removes a thick layer of in-group loyalty glue that is actually accelerating the assimilationist and intermarriage trends. Israel’s domestic politics has contributed to the growing divide, too, by allowing the Orthodox rabbinate to dominate the issue of conversion to Judaism—and in increasingly ahistorical, extreme ways—thus alienating large numbers of American Jewish families with members who were converted according to Jewish law, but not by the “right” kind of rabbis.

Anyone who is honest about it knows that American Jewish demography is shattering. As the most recent Pew data vividly demonstrate, the overall weight of a numerically shrinking community is shifting to modern- and ultra-Orthodoxy, while the demographic bottom is dropping out of so-called liberal Judaism. Something similar, though not for the same reasons or in the same way, is happening in Israel, and a more visibly religious Israel is not attracting the affinity of nonreligious American Jews as the tanned and taut kova tembel-hatted kibbutzniks of the 1950s and 1960s once did.

As Orthodox Jews become Israel’s most fervent supporters on the American scene, less religious and less knowledgeable Jews are feeling more awkward taking up the same cause, especially if their closest gentile peers exhibit jaundiced attitudes toward Israel. The emergence of counter-lobbies like J Street, and the growing prominence in intellectual and academic circles of Jews who criticize Israel publicly in the name of a kinder, gentler Zionism, are all symptoms of the general phenomenon. J Street provides room for young liberal Jews to express support for Israel, and that is to the good. But there is no way—even for themselves sometimes—to tell if they are sincere or if they are instead subtle practitioners of what Hannah Arendt once so shrewdly described as the arts of the parvenu. The mere existence of such Jewish voices makes it more acceptable for non-Jews to criticize Israel out of a host of motives, and that in turn raises a cost for rank-and-file American Jews to be vocal supporters of Israel. That’s not how it used to be.

There is, in short, plenty of daylight between American Jewry and Israel, and the torrid sun is starting to burn us. There’s no reason to expect any abatement of the trend.

2➷3: Israel -U.S.

The U.S. and Israeli governments under successive administrations in both countries have had a direct strategic relationship that operates on a different plain from American (and Israeli) domestic politics. That relationship between executive branches has always turned more on “hard” geopolitical considerations, while aspects of the special relationship below that level has tended to give pride of place to “soft” aspects of cultural affinity.

The “hard” strategic relationship has proceeded in two major phases since 1948, with a transition period in between, but it was born in a classic Jewcentric drama when President Harry Truman rejected the advice and analysis of his Secretary of State, George Marshall, and many other senior members of his administration to enthusiastically support the birth of the State of Israel. For Truman, the Jews of America stood for the Jewish people in history as mediated through the prism of Anglo-American Protestantism. Truman actually cried when Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog told him, during his White House visit on May 11, 1949, what the president had done, in broad meta-historical terms, for the Jewish people. In a private meeting after Truman left the White House, he replied to the thanks offered by the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary by answering his host, “What do you mean ‘helped’ create [Israel]? I am Cyrus; I am Cyrus!”

But after Truman left office in January 1953, Israel came to be viewed by official Washington as a strategic liability—a barrier to improving relations with the Arabs and other Muslim-majority countries so as to keep them safe from the designs of Soviet Communism. John Foster Dulles’ delusions notwithstanding, American Jewry was virtually powerless back then to deflect that narrative from the high offices in which it had gained pride of place; it was reinforced at the time by the oil lobby, which partly explains U.S. policy during the 1956 Suez crisis.

Things began to change even before the Eisenhower Administration ended and then accelerated during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Again the reasons were several. By the mid-1960s the mirage of creating close relations between the United States and the “progressive” regimes of the region, especially Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, had dissipated, while Israel’s development successes and its Western liberal aura under successive social-democratic Labor governments aligned nicely with the ethos of the New Frontier and the Great Society.

The second phase of the relationship, in which Israel came to be considered a strategic asset, crystallized after the June 1967 war, in which Israel defeated two Middle Eastern clients of the Soviet Union and tarnished the Red star in Arab eyes. That is when the Johnson Administration first supplied Israel with major military platforms, notably its air power, after the French government cut Israel off. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger subsequently reasoned that the United States must not allow the Soviet Union to aid its clients at Israel’s expense, and so from 1969-70 onward the United States expanded military aid to Israel in most every form. The rationale was that no peace negotiation between the Jews and the Arabs could succeed so long as the Arabs believed they had a potentially successful military option courtesy of the USSR. U.S. support for Israel, then, would defeat Soviet regional strategy and create the preconditions for peace, and peace would in turn serve U.S. interests by stabilizing the region to general Western advantage in the Cold War.

The shift in U.S. strategy led first to Anwar Sadat booting the Soviet presence out of Egypt in July 1972. When the United States and Israel failed to respond to Sadat’s shift, it set in motion what became the October 1973 war. But U.S. policy led ultimately to the March 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. From then until the end of the Cold War, the strong U.S. position in the region validated the Nixon-Kissinger strategic narrative. Despite some prominent but highly ahistorical claims to the contrary made after 9/11, and despite several neuralgic but usually brief episodes of U.S.-Israeli friction, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East between 1967 and 1991 was a rousing success by any reasonable measure.

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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