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American Jews Don’t Have To Choose Between Liberalism and Israel

Despite what pundits and politicians—on both sides—have been telling us

November 05, 2014
President Barack Obama leaves a news conference on November 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama leaves a news conference on November 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

If there’s anything that Jews are supposed to know, it’s that stories are important. In ways earthbound and transcendent, the stories we tell ourselves—about others, but also about ourselves—determine the future. As voting day approached, a troubling narrative began circulating again about American Jewish voters and liberalism. Troubling because it is not true, but more so because it has been specifically designed—by two opposing groups, married in cynicism—so that it becomes true. Now that the elections are over, it’s time to take a critical look at the stories we’ve been told by those jockeying for our vote, and how these stories are not just wrong but also ruinous.

The narrative in question claims that American Jews feel forced to choose between their deeply felt liberalism and a connection—any connection—to the State of Israel. The first group peddling this idea, which can be roughly defined as the Jewish friends of Karl Rove, has been touting it for years. According to them, it no longer matters what you believe on every issue that has traditionally defined liberalism in this country; Israel–or, more broadly, the Middle East–is the only relevant litmus test. And on this, the administration is not simply liberal; it’s a Trojan horse bearing fanatical, radical policies that will mortally endanger the state of Israel and undo the fabric of American life. Do you want to be responsible for that? No? Well, then there’s only one option for you: You are already, or must become, a Republican.

The second group pushing this is an administration and its cheerleaders, who have been notably busy lately—calling the prime minister of Israel “a chickenshit” and taunting him with comparisons to Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin, who otherwise have not figured prominently in the administration’s pantheon of political heroes. Expressing this public disdain for Bibi is thought to be part of an effort to re-start the Middle East peace process, which collapsed in flames this summer.

But does this make sense? For starters, it doesn’t take a deep thinker to see that the Israelis and Palestinians couldn’t be further apart at this particular moment. Moreover, cursing the prime minister of Israel is not usually the kind of gesture that entices him to negotiate. Instead, what seems obvious is that the administration’s immediate goal isn’t a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, which everyone agrees is not remotely likely right now, but rather in its own in-progress negotiations with Iran. For that deal, which many observers expect to be announced sometime around Thanksgiving, to be a triumph rather than another in a recent series of political messes, the administration needs to mute opposition within the Democratic Party. By threatening Jewish Democrats with the idea that their loyalties to Israel may put them outside the liberal tent, the administration and its water carriers hope to keep their supporters in line when an interim deal, or interim-interim deal, with Iran is announced.

Support for equal pay, or health-care reform, or union rights, or abortion rights, or anti-discrimination laws, or protecting the environment, or the idea that corporations should pay their fair share of taxes—none of these are enough of a basis anymore for your liberalism. What now defines American Jews—and only American Jews—as liberals is whether they back the administration on Israel. If you don’t think Netanyahu is not just an opportunistic politician but also the devil; if you don’t see Mahmoud Abbas as a man singlemindedly committed to peace; if you don’t agree that John Kerry is doing God’s work bringing Israelis and Palestinians together; if you don’t think the leaders of Hamas are people who can be reasoned with—and even if you agree with all of the above but are perhaps a little unsure about the wisdom or the necessity of ever-closer U.S. ties with the Mullahs in Tehran—then you should accept that you aren’t a liberal anymore.

The problem is that we don’t believe that most American Jews actually felt forced to choose between their liberalism and Israel, until opinionators and politicians told them this is what they were feeling (or should be feeling), and that the time to decide is right now.

Most of us long for peace in the Middle East, and we at Tablet are happy to hear anyone’s ideas about how that can happen, as long as they don’t involve making excuses for how gun-toting religious extremists of whatever persuasion are in fact people who can be reasoned with, or why Jews should build a third Temple in the center of Jerusalem, or alternatively be prohibited from visiting a place to which they have a deep historical and emotional connection that predates the existence of nearly every single member-nation of the U.N. We also don’t want to hear about how either the Jewish population of Israel or the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza can be conveniently relocated somewhere else, or should disappear from the map.

In the meantime, we’re not sure why any Jew must have her political or emotional life or social identity reduced to her feelings about Bibi Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas any more than Chinese Americans should have their politics defined by their feelings about the current government in Beijing, or Episcopalians should feel forced to answer for their feelings about the tangled relationship between Prince Charles and his mother. Instead, we believe that American Jews should take back their right to assert whatever they reasonably believe about Israel as thinking, feeling people; they can and should do so as Democrats and as Republicans, and especially as Americans.

Whatever our feelings about Bibi—and they run the gamut—we don’t like being played by people on either side of the political spectrum looking for a quick advantage over the other side. The latest example, which came from the left, repulses us every bit as much as when evangelicals tell us that we are part of God’s plan to return Jesus Christ to Planet Earth, or right-wing billionaires declare us all to be Republicans in the hopes of getting a bigger break on their corporate taxes. Our feelings about Israel may contribute to the sense of who some of us are as Americans or as Jews, but the idea that we should all be reduced to those feelings is stupid—and offensive. We at Tablet would never let anyone else—from either side of the political spectrum—tell our story for us, and we don’t think our readers should either.

Editorials do not (necessarily) reflect the views of staff writers, editors, contributing editors or columnists.