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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

Adam Garfinkle
November 05, 2013
(Illustration Tablet Magazine)
(Illustration Tablet Magazine)

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.

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.

With no Cold War, however, is Israel still a strategic asset to the United States? Just look around at the spate of post-1991 “greater” Middle Eastern “episodes”—Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya, Syria, Egypt and, prospectively, Iran. In which of these cases could Israel be aptly characterized on balance as a useful ally of the United States? It is true that Israel helps out in several general ways—intelligence sharing, joint maneuvers, weapons and tactics testing, porting—but in crises it is reduced to bystander status for the most part. In most of the episodes listed above Israel has been either irrelevant or somewhere between a complication and an inadvertent nuisance.

The general lack of fit between American interests in the region and Israel’s utility as an ally in the post-Cold War era helps explain why we hear so many general remonstrations about a shared interest in democracy and in fighting terrorism and countering the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons, especially Iranian ones. It all happens to be true, but it only needs to be articulated so publicly and so often because the opportunities for actionable strategic alignment where it counts most—at specific sparking points of geopolitical engagement—are so meager.

This also accounts for the traction the “Israel lobby” thesis has gotten recently. The argument is not remotely new. The same arguments Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer hauled out in 2008 had been rehearsed many times before, including by George Ball, one of the most prominent American diplomats of the postwar era, in a 1992 book titled The Passionate Attachment. But none of the earlier efforts had much clout. More than a decade removed from the end of the Cold War, however, the most recent visitation of this old argument has had a tangible impact, not least in the bowels of the American military and intelligence communities. Again, whether one credits the arguments or not, the point is that they have gained traction for a reason: the tectonic shift of the strategic landscape with the end of the Cold War.

3➷1: U.S.-American Jewry

The decay of the first two sides of the triangle that constitutes the special relationship is no revelation. Honest observers know most or all of this to one degree or another. But the deterioration of the third side is less well understood or acknowledged. The relationship between American Jews—and through them Israel—and American society at large is also changing.

As with Harry Truman—and Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush after him—large numbers of Americans, from the very beginning of the European settlement of North America, came from a branch of Anglo-Protestant stock that made them sensitive to the narrative of Jewish election and the unique, divinely ordained role of the Jews in history. The Christian Zionism and generic Judeophilia of Anglo-American Protestantism is well documented. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the Christian Zionism advocated by Lord Shaftesbury, John Nelson Darby, Laurence Oliphant, William Eugene Blackstone, and many others preceded the advent of modern Jewish Zionism. We see a reflection of this thinking today, of course, in the American Evangelical community.

There has been anti-Semitism in America’s past, to be sure, but there has been less of it than in any other Euro-Christian-based culture. And when it was at its most virulent in the post-mass immigration period of the 1920s and 1930s, its most notable vanguard was no Protestant but rather the Irish Catholic priest Father Coughlin. To one degree or another, all of David Hackett Fisher’s hearth cultures, so brilliantly laid out in his Albion’s Seed, were Judeophilic—and that habit of the heart also came down in large part to black Americans through the African-Methodist and other churches.

This cultural inheritance goes far to explain the affinity of most Americans today with Israel. Ironically enough, intermarriage constitutes a new factor pointed in the same direction, as ever more non-Jews acquire Jewish relatives and, accurately or not, presume their attachment to Israel. It also explains why politicians are reluctant to take anti-Israel positions: They are not just covetous of Jewish support; they know that there are far more Christian voters with strong feelings on the subject than there are Jews.

But this, too, is gradually but ineluctably changing. Just as the affinity between Jews and typical Americans will decline as American Jewry’s public face becomes more religious, so that affinity will lessen from the other direction as American society becomes less Anglo, less avowedly religious, and especially less Protestant. Both non-Christians and non-Protestant Christians lack traditions of Judeophilia comparable to that of most Protestants, whose Abrahamic, Scripturalist focus makes them more familiar with the Hebrew Bible and more sympathetic with the rhythms and lessons of Jewish history. The percentage of Americans who identify as Protestants fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2012; sometime during those years the majority of Americans ceased being Protestant for the first time since the birth of the Republic. Given immigration statistics and birthrates, that trend will not only not be reversed, it will accelerate.

The data show too that the United States as a whole is fast approaching the point where non-“white” minorities will collectively outnumber “whites,” as is already the case in some states and in many large cities and counties. Political consultants for both major parties are keenly aware of these trends, of course, and are plotting strategies accordingly. It may not be fair or justifiable, but a lot of minority people think that Jews are “white” but Palestinians and Arabs are “people of color.” The latter are also depicted frequently as oppressed and downtrodden at the hands of “white” Jews in Israel and “white” imperialists elsewhere. As American demography shifts away from “white” Protestants, the narrative of American electoral politics with regard to the Middle East is certain to reflect that change.

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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Adam Garfinkle is founding editor of The American Interest and author of Jewcentricity: Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed and Used to Explain Nearly Everything.

Adam Garfinkle is founding editor of The American Interest and author ofJewcentricity: Why the Jews Are Praised, Blamed and Used to Explain Nearly Everything.

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