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
Even in the Democratic Party, the political home of the vast majority of American Jews since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, rising tones of anti-Israel sentiment can be discerned. Famously, when some delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention raised the idea of putting a move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the party platform, a cascade of boos and hisses erupted from the assembled delegate crowd. Meanwhile, Jews, like most Americans, are increasingly likely to identify as independents, and Jews have become increasingly visible in the Republican Party—a fact liable to dilute Jewish political clout as much as or more than the overall shrinking of the size of the community.
Not all these changes will be bad. The strategic side of the triangle that connects Israel and the United States is a case in point. A little more normalcy in the U.S.-Israel relationship could have several benign effects. Israel has other potential partners in the world, and spreading out Israel’s diplomatic-strategic portfolio is probably a good thing in the long term. But some of those new relationships cannot mature because Israel’s ties to the United States constrain their possibilities—sales of military technology spring to mind as a case in point. The March 2002 cancellations of Israel’s Phalcon AWACs deal with China is the best-known example, but there are plenty of others.
Certainly, too, as far as U.S.-Israel relations go, these changes are hardly likely to be catastrophic. There will be no complete flip from a specially intimate relationship to an especially horrendous one. Adjustments will be incremental and hardly pandemonic in character. The special relationship of the past four to five decades has been highly anomalous, and nothing that anomalous lasts for long in human affairs.
But many American Jews, who read history in very broad and emotional brushstrokes, tend not to think that way. They are often “flippists,” oscillating sharply between exaltation and the darkest pessimism—which aligns with a tendency to believe that anyone who does not agree entirely with their version of Middle Eastern realities must be an enemy, whether an anti-Semite or a “self-hating” Jew. They are not so inclined, as Jews have mostly been in other places and other ages, to say, “This too shall pass.” They are instead afflicted by a “gevalt complex” and so are often to be found playing Chicken Little, claiming that the sky is falling or that it fell yesterday but you are too dense to have noticed.
There is a reason for the “gevalt complex”: That mode of thinking tells us that what amount to religious beliefs are at stake, but not the ones you may think. Since the 1967 War, if not before, non-halakhic Jews in America (and not a few halakhic ones as well) have created, mostly without realizing it or meaning to, a shallow politicized version of Judaism that has made Israel into a substitute deity and the Holocaust that deity’s liturgy. This explains the most recent Pew poll’s finding that vastly more self-identifying Jews than before feel Jewish but are not religious and don’t believe in God: Their identity ensemble has become political.
Jacob Neusner and others started warning many decades ago that this faux-Judaism is incapable of transmitting genuine Jewish memory to future generations, and they have been proven correct by all the data we now have on assimilation and intermarriage. The reasons are not hard to identify. Of God there are many mysteries, but of any and every political entity, including Israel as a real country rather than as a beatified idol, there are many misanthropies. And what healthy child wants to associate with a community seemingly obsessed with mass murder and eternal victimhood?
If indeed the majority of Jews in America need Israel for purposes of their own communal coherence and individual self-esteem far more than Israel needs them, and if their corporate sense of place within American society depends to some degree on that connection, then the decay of the two sides of the triangle to which American Jewry is connected presages a tragedy of that community’s own making. Less American Jewish support for a more religious, right-of-center Israel will abet a diminishing affinity between Jewish and American sensibilities that are growing apart from both ends. The erosion of these affinities falls into a strategic context in which “hard” strategic factors no longer parallel and reinforce “soft” cultural ones as they once did. The diminution of strategic closeness between the United States and Israel is doubling back to widen internal American-Jewish and American Jewry-Israel divisions, as well. We may be witnessing the intermediate stages of a death spiral, where the tighter that community wants to hold on to its image of the State of Israel, and to the state’s historical prolegomenon in the Holocaust, the more damage it does to itself. That’s the way, it would seem, the triangle crumbles.
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