I can recall numerous instances during election years of my father receiving calls from friends, Jewish and non-Jewish (more Jewish, but that just reflects the proportions of his friends!), who asked him where various candidates, particularly the two presidential candidates, stood on Israel; more often than not, I sensed, these were Democrats (again, reflecting the proportions of my parents’ friends) who support Israel strongly (ditto) making sure that Barack Obama or John Kerry or Al Gore or Bill Clinton (and maybe even Paul Tsongas! I remember my parents supporting him) were good enough on Israel that there was no reason not to vote for him. My father was seen both as more informed than they and as having a trustworthy gut—kishkes, if you will—on the issue. In a word, he was a validator.
Spencer Ackerman’s post today locating the fulcrum of Israel politics in the United States not with the Jews but with the Christian Right reminded me of this. Ackerman is right that a certain type of evangelical voter represents the most numerous strong supporter of Israel, more numerous than American Jews. Even more valuably, using a certain hard-line, Likud-style politics to appeal to them is far more efficient than it is to appeal to Jews. Jews disagree about everything, and about nothing more than Israel. By contrast, while there are no doubt plenty of policy fissures within the evangelical movement—I’m not an expert, but I don’t see why they would all agree on tax policy, or for that matter on the death penalty—Israel is not one of them. Ackerman writes, he says, “to remind my fellow liberal Zionist American Jews that we’re not the crucial actors here. Our conflicted tribal feelings are beside the point, and we flatter ourselves if we think otherwise.”
I’m inclined to disagree. (Ackerman does add, “That doesn’t release us from an obligation to advocate for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in freedom and peace,” and there, of course, I am with him.) If anything, I think the phenomenon of “post-Jewish Zionism” makes it more incumbent on American Jews at least to care about Israel, to engage with it, and to see it as part of their responsibility to their Jewishness. We may not be as numerous as the evangelicals, but we are the ones they look to, as my father’s friends looked to my father. We are the validators. Despite the fact that it would be much more fruitful just to take Israel appeals directly to the evangelicals, the Republican hopefuls did not give their Israel speeches this week in front of Christians United for Israel; they gave their speeches in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition. This is why there is such intensity over the votes of a two percent bloc of the population: electorally, American Jews are walking force multipliers. It’s why a special election in a hilariously obscure (and obscurely Jewish) corner of Queens and Brooklyn became a national story, and why, a week later, Gov. Rick Perry’s Israel press conference featured himself and the victor, Rep. Bob Turner, as the only two Gentiles on a very crowded stage.
I always hesitate to go so far as to declare just about any affiliation mandatory to a given identity, and I’m certainly not suggesting that to be a responsible American Jew one must feel a certain way about Israel. But I think American Jews should consider that, by virtue of their identities, they have an outsize power to shape American policy toward Israel. And what comes with great power?