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A new wave of American populism could be good for the Jews

Tevi Troy
April 13, 2010
American Evangelical Christians rally in downtown Jerusalem in 2008.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
American Evangelical Christians rally in downtown Jerusalem in 2008.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

“Christoph Waltz played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews,” Steve Martin said at the Academy Awards this year, referring to the Austrian actor’s Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. Martin then gestured ostentatiously to the theater filled with Hollywood’s glitterati and added, “The mother lode.” Martin’s joke brought down the house, largely because of the (accurate) view that Jews play what some would call a leading role in Hollywood. Jews do well in other sectors of the economy as well, most notably finance, politics, and academia. Yet despite tremendous Jewish success in the United States, Jews often seem a little tentative about their place in a country they have done so much to shape. Rather than dominating the hall as they did on Oscar night, the attitude seems to resemble that of actress Sally Field, who said, incredulously and famously, “You like me, right now, you like me” after being awarded a best actress Oscar for Places in the Heart.

Similarly, Israel remains quite popular with Americans, despite being abandoned by the Europeans and pilloried on college campuses. A recent Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans report that their sympathies “in the Middle East situation” lie with Israel over the Palestinians. An even higher number, 67 percent, hold favorable views of Israel. This is a higher percentage than any winning president has received in the popular vote of a contested election in this deeply divided nation. According to the poll, the percentage of Americans who support Israel has not gone below 58 since 2002. Another, more recent CNN poll had 80 percent of Americans characterizing Israel as either a “friend” or an “ally.”

This support by the American people carries over into political support as well, as the U.S. Congress is typically supportive of Israel, as are most U.S. presidents. Opponents of Israel have even gone so far as to call Capital Hill “Israeli-occupied territory.” The annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington attracts dozens of senior government officials, and the “calling of the roll” of these officials requires three AIPAC staffers to shout out the names over a period as long as a half hour.

American support for Israel has a cultural as well as a political dimension. Hollywood often depicts Israelis positively, even as semi-invincible security professionals, in contrast to their caricatures in state-controlled media in many Muslim countries. Unlike in certain European countries, Israeli academics are prominent on many U.S. college campuses and not just in heavily Jewish areas. A few years ago, an Israeli-American professor named Liviu Librescu was killed saving some of his students during the Virginia Tech murders, which took place in Blacksburg, Virginia—not exactly a hotbed of American Jewish life.

In addition, two recent books, Start-Up Nation and The Israel Test, both highlight Israel’s economic vitality in contrast to its less free-market and less economically successful neighbors. Start-Up Nation made the business bestseller lists and may have served as a springboard for one of its co-authors, Dan Senor, to consider a run for senate from New York, although he ultimately decided against it. The book talks about Israel’s disproportionate contributions to the world of high-tech start-up companies and includes the startling statistic that Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any country other than the United States.

This steady and strong support for Israel provides little comfort for Jews, though, who are often nervous about their safety and security, even in a friendly home such as the United States. This nervousness stems from legitimate and understandable historical reasons. For centuries, Jews have been restricted, harassed, exiled, or murdered by unfriendly governments. Only 80 years ago, German Jews considered Germany to be the world’s most welcoming country for the Jews, in which Jews attained high-level positions in business, culture, and the universities. At the time, Jews found refuge in these elite institutions, recognizing that the populists of the street were far more dangerous than the elite, who ran society’s major institutions. A banker or a professor could exhibit the polite anti-Semitism of the cocktail lounge and refuse a loan or a job application, but an anti-Semitic street populist could incite a pogrom that might wipe out a community. Indeed, it was Hitler’s thuggish brownshirts who facilitated his rise to power in the nation that had formerly served as a relative safe haven.

Another reason that Jews feared populists more than the elite in Europe was the tendency of Jews to be useful to society’s leaders. Yale surgery professor and Tablet Magazine contributing editor Sherwin B. Nuland tells the tale of Francis I, who, suffering from syphilis and a scalp abscess while captive in Madrid in 1525, asked for his Jewish doctor to tend to him. Upon the doctor’s arrival, Francis learned that his “Jewish” doctor was born Jewish but had, in fact, converted to Christianity. Francis then insisted he be brought a real Jewish doctor. Despite his misery, Francis was willing to wait for a real Jewish doctor to come all the way from Constantinople.

Other examples abound of Jewish usefulness to the ruling classes, including Maimonides serving as court physician in Egypt and Lord Rothschild financing 19th-century regimes and armies. Yet the usefulness of these individuals at the highest levels did not help, and in some cases harmed, reception of their people among the lower classes. In fact, Jewish service as lenders, money collectors, and middle men between rulers and ruled made them a lightning rod for lower-class resentments against their insulated rulers.

In the United States, too, populism has had negative historical connotations for the Jews—from Ulysses S. Grant’s 1862 expulsion of Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee and the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 to the anti-Semitic rantings of Father Charles E. Coughlin and Ku Klux Klan marches in the 1930s. Jews had reason to fear populist sentiment behind all these threats and often looked to nationally elected leaders to protect them. Abraham Lincoln, for example, famously countermanded Grant’s Order Number 11, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt distanced himself from Coughlin after Coughlin’s initial support for his 1932 election.

Yet anti-Semitism has not been ingrained in the American psyche as it has been in many European nations. Our founders were philo-Semites, many of whom knew Hebrew and adorned their children with biblical names. George Washington’s famous letter to the Newport synagogue, in which he wrote that “happily the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction,” demonstrated that religious tolerance and freedom were principles of the American founding. Indeed, many of the early settlers—not just Jews but Puritans, Catholics, and Huguenots—came to this country to get away from religious intolerance in Europe and saw in America a place where they could worship as they saw fit. With the specter of religious intolerance chasing them from Europe, many early settlers, even if not explicitly philo-Semitic, were at least predisposed to the notion that religious intolerance did not have a place in the New World.

Furthermore, the noble elite of the Old World, who had often served as the protectors of the Jews in Europe, had little sway in the New World, as the new nation rejected the very notion of inherited elite. In fact, to the extent America had an elite, it was often the old-money establishment that was the most anti-Semitic, the most resistant to allowing Jews in their ivied schools, to work in their white-shoe law firms and investment banks, and to live in their tony neighborhoods. Of course, many Jews still wanted approval from this very segment of society. As wanting differs from having, obsessing about upper-crust anti-Semitism can cause Jews to lose sight of the forest of American acceptance by focusing on the trees of elitist rejectionism.

So, while the configuration of elite versus the bulk of the population may never play out as it had in Europe, this should be recognized as a positive for both Jews and Israel. Not only do Jews tend to be both liked and accepted in this country, but, in contrast to Europe, the association between Jews and the plucky, free-market, military powerhouse of Israel seems to have increased Jewish caché among underdog-loving Americans rather than lessened it.

This reversal of preexisting conditions leads to unusual alliances. One of the least-expected places for this strong support of Israel has been the evangelical Christian community. Despite mistrust and criticism of evangelicals in many Jewish quarters, evangelicals remain a key component of this country’s pro-Israel coalition, providing financial, political, and intellectual support of Israel while turning the other cheek to Jewish attacks. Indeed, Israel still unites the disparate components of the right’s conservative movement, including neoconservatives, evangelicals, economic conservatives, and defense hawks.

To the extent Israel does face strong criticism in the United States, it comes largely from elitist institutions, most notably universities. The recent experience of the mass heckling of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California at Irvine was only one prominent example of the challenges Israel, and its student supporters, face on campuses. Over the last six years, a new spring ritual called Israel Apartheid Week has encouraged anti-Israel activities on college campuses, and pro-Israel Jewish students find themselves increasingly under fire when trying to defend the Jewish state.

Beyond student activism, many of the leading anti-Israel critics in the United States are from among the intellectual elite. George Gilder, in The Israel Test, makes the humorous observation that “Jews, amazingly, excel so readily in all intellectual fields that they outperform all rivals even in the arena of anti-Semitism,” and the American examples he cites—Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Naomi Klein—are, if not out-and-out anti-Semites, at the very least elitist critics of Israel and its policies. But the truth is that there are many prominent non-Jewish critics of Israel on college campuses, including Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, from Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively, who wrote The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi; and former Weatherman and University of Illinois Professor Bill Ayers, who signed a petition calling for divestment, a boycott, and sanctions on Israel.

The United States, therefore, is in a historically unusual situation where Jews and Israel are quite popular among the populace but are less well-liked by the political and academic elite. A 2007 article in Canada’s Financial Post called college campuses “Anti-Semitism’s last North American refuge.”

Given the challenges that Israel and the United States are facing, American Jews may need to recognize this new political and historical reality and react accordingly. The American Jewish community, which loves to commission reports and month-to-month status studies, should start to process this different dynamic and adopt a range of community strategies that take into account who supports American Jews, their decades-long track record, and why Jews are appreciated, even treasured, in the United States.

This does not mean that Jews should ignore what is going on at the campus level. Far from it. But Jews should recognize that the campuses are where they need to play defense these days and that there may be other areas where Jews should work on bolstering their already significant, long-standing support. Jews are traditionally suspicious of evangelical Christians, whose strong backing of Israel cannot be denied. Jews should also reach out to other large, popular based movements, even some out of their comfort zone, to find causes beyond philo-Semitism and opportunities for expanded relationships, even further education.

Understanding the who and why questions can also help answer questions on what to do about it. The time to plan for the future is not when things are going poorly, but when things are going well. And recent polls indicate that among the vast majority of Americans, Jews are doing well. Jewish communal leaders should begin to examine how to bolster alliances with non-traditional but supportive organizations. Jewish history teaches us: Just because things may be going well does not mean they will continue in that direction.

Tevi Troy is a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former White House liaison, under President George W. Bush, to the American Jewish community.

Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Institute. He is a former White House aide and the author of four books on the presidency, including, most recently, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.