Is U.S. military aid to Israel a right-wing or a left-wing issue? Nothing in Tablet’s article calling to “End U.S. Aid to Israel” suggested partisan argumentation, yet some of the online discussion it inspired immediately swerved in that direction. Nicholas Kristof’s column making a similar argument in The New York Times a few days later, suggested that ending aid to Israel is part of a liberal agenda, even as he gave a backwards nod to the Tablet piece, noting that “it’s not just the liberals” who argue that aid should be cut. Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Ron Kampeas labeled Siegel and Leibovitz “two right wingers” in a tweet that declined to mention the Tablet authors by name while expressing surprise that Kristof was getting “pro-Israel flack.” Netanyahu, Kampeas tweeted, “has been thinking about this since the 1990s.”
Let’s set aside the question of whether the assumptions about the political affiliations of the Tablet authors are correct—in fact, their body of published writing suggests that they are not so easily grouped under an ideological label—the apparent need to politically pigeonhole a complex essay is frustrating and unhelpful. Siegel and Leibovitz argue that aid as currently structured does more harm than good to Israel because it stunts Israel’s domestic defense industry, curbs Israel’s autonomy, and transforms the country “into a scapegoat for every lunatic conspiracy theorist in America to indulge in Jew-baiting in the guise of pontificating about ‘U.S. foreign policy.’” They point to the damaging effect that the focus on aid to Israel has on America’s own strategic priorities, while also making the more provocative claim that “America’s manipulation of the Jewish state endangers Israel and American Jews.” Finally, they question the wisdom of channeling American Jews’ political energies into supporting a policy that is, at bottom, a subsidy for the U.S. defense industry. Their argument appears to be rooted in the belief that both the U.S. and Israel would be better off refocusing their commitments on their respective national interests—a claim that has both left and right wing versions but is far too specific and nuanced to be reduced to the crude lens of political bias.
There are profound unstated questions underlying this essay that simply get glossed over or ignored in the rush to assign it to a political team. Among them: How to ensure Israel’s success going forward? What strategic value does Israel provide to America and what can America offer in return? What is the best way for American Jews to express solidarity with Israel? What is the right path forward for Americans and Israelis together? These questions invite American Jews to look at the aid not as Democrats or Republicans but first and foremost, as members of the Jewish people.
In a sense, it is unsurprising, and perhaps even inevitable that these questions should immediately evoke partisan bias. Although Israeli and American Jewish analysts of all stripes have over the years raised the point about U.S. aid’s harmful aspects, in the current political climate in the U.S. the most vocal advocates for canceling or limiting aid have been Democratic politicians from the furthest reaches of the progressive end of the spectrum. Some of them are aggressively hostile to the Jewish state, others hardly bother to hide their contempt for it. They are wholeheartedly applauded by those who’d like to see Israel erased from history. The former head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, who has made a career out of demonizing Israel despite evincing the same level of historical understanding of the state found in an average freshman dorm, has tweeted Kristof’s column out three times.
Liberal American Jews—which is still the majority of American Jews—have failed to resist the Democratic Party’s recent pull to the left toward its radical progressive wing. That means that in addition to being influenced by its activist positioning on “defunding the police’' and other domestic political issues, they have also increasingly adopted its hostile stance toward Israel. Disconnected from the religious and historical heritage and from the Zionist perspective that is baked into Jewish holy books and liturgy, many American Jews replaced the traditional sources of Jewishness with a fervor for the politics of Israel that has both supported, and is now turning against, the state. The problem is that, like Kenneth Roth, their passion has often outpaced their understanding, making them reliant on slogans and susceptible to manipulation. Most American Jews, for instance, don’t speak Hebrew and are therefore unable to follow the Israeli national conversation. They learn about Israel either from Western media sources or from those Israeli journalists and activists whose speciality is serving as “American whisperers.” As a result, they entrust the job of interpreting the country for them to commentators who often do so through the familiar lens of American politics, leaving out nuance and complexity, while pandering to U.S. sensibilities. The truth is that when it comes to Israel, many American Jews don’t even know enough to ask the right questions.
One example of this failure is evident in the coverage and perceptions of Israel’s internal conflict over judicial reform. Mainstream American media as well as many Jewish publications have presented it as a Manichean standoff between the good, progressive Jews of Tel Aviv who are fighting for democracy and the evil, far-right West Bank settlers yearning for a dictatorship. Completely absent from this caricature is any sign of interest in the complex layers of Israeli history, politics, and culture, let alone the class and ethnic aspects of the conflict. Many American Jews would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that what drives many pro-reform Israelis is not a craving for more settlements, a wish to escape military service, or a desire to turn Israel into a theocracy. What drives them, rather, is a desire to correct the many injustices they feel they have suffered at the hands of the current system.
Most left-wing Israelis are aware of this point but reject it because it comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum. But as the Israeli journalist Avishai Ben Haim shows in his book Second Israel (which is not available in English), the sense of discrimination and oppression among millions of Israelis is too real to be dismissed on partisan grounds. That most liberal American Jews are blind to this story is ironic, given the degree to which liberal American Judaism is built around social justice and repairing the world.
In his talks, the former Soviet dissident and current Israeli politician Natan Sharansky often notes the absurdity of looking at antisemitism in a partisan way. What a victory for our enemies, he likes to say: Instead of standing united against their enemies, Jews fight each other over which antisemitism is worse—the right-wing or the left-wing kind.
It’s time to recognize that adopting hyperpartisan postures on issues critical to Jewish collective existence, including in Israel, is just as harmful. One can agree or disagree with Siegel’s and Leibovitz’s arguments about military aid to Israel. But conducting this debate while clinging to American political identities will help neither American Jews nor Israelis.
With Jews comprising just 2.4% of the U.S. population, it is a safe bet that America will survive no matter what political choices its Jewish citizens make. The same cannot be said about the future of the American Jewish community and Israel. When thinking about the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, American Jews would do well to learn to shed their left-wing and right-wing allegiances and look at the issues facing them from a radically different angle—the Jewish one.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.