This week, judging from our inboxes, many American Jews had one of two impulses. They either:
A) Shared sorrow on social media about the destruction of Aleppo and the mass extermination of its men, women, and children;
B) Rejoiced at the news that Donald Trump is planning to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the naming of a so-called “hardliner” as his pick for ambassador to Israel.
Although broadly held by different cohorts, these two differing impulses are in fact symptoms of the same disease: the increasing laziness of American Jews’ engagement with politics, on both sides of the aisle—an eagerness to avoid complexity in favor of simple left-right worldviews, to be charmed at urgent moments by the meaningless gestures of shrewd politicians.
We can’t afford to do this anymore.
The American people, and their representatives in Congress, have long believed that the U.S. Embassy in Israel belongs in Jerusalem. They are right. Locating the U.S. Embassy in the western part of Jerusalem, where all of Israel’s government institutions including the Knesset and the Prime Minister’s office are located, would rectify an anomaly whose sole and transparent purpose is to stigmatize America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Arguments that moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would “legitimize” settlements in the West Bank or “pre-judge” peace talks are plainly false, since Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since its founding in 1948—not simply since the Six Day War brought territories occupied by Jordan under Israeli rule. Will some Arabs be angered by the move? Sure. We also know that, in the absence of such a move, those same feelings will still exist, and will find plenty of other outlets.
But more importantly, Jews can’t afford to be blinded by empty symbolism at a moment when the world has become a much riskier place for both Israel and America alike. Sane analysts in the United States and Israel agree that the leading danger to Israel and its neighbors right now is Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, backed by a U.S.-sponsored nuclear deal that has flooded the Iranian regime with cash while guaranteeing it a peaceful pathway to develop a nuclear bomb. Responsibility for the Iran Deal and the regional re-alignment that it ushered in rests squarely on the shoulders of President Barack Obama, who utilized all the resources of his office to ensure the safe passage of an agreement that a clear majority of the American people opposed. Trump’s promise to “renegotiate” a deal that ultimately helps his beloved Russia sounds increasingly like bluster, which seems likely to make a bad situation even worse. It’s hard to imagine that the kind of “re-negotiation” he has in mind—or any kind of “re-negotiation” of a deal that is already done—will do anything to stop Iran from exporting death to its neighbors, or inhibit its pursuit of a nuclear bomb. More likely, it will draw the United States even deeper into the triangular relationship with Iran and Russia that became the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s Syria policy, with such nauseating and deadly results.
Israelis are not the only ones who will pay the price for the Iran Deal; indeed, others are already paying far, far more—more than we told ourselves we would ever let another people pay. The Iranian people are stuck with a corrupt, theocratic regime they hate, and whose hold on power is now officially secure. And it was the pursuit by President Obama—overly mindful of the disastrous interventionism of his predecessor—of a nuclear deal that guaranteed Iran its free hand in Syria, where it has been an active participant in the slaughter of more than 500,000 innocent people. If you’re a liberal Jew, imagine how you would react if this kind of mass murder had taken place under a Republican president.
And perhaps most dangerously for America, and for democracies worldwide, Obama’s re-alignment strategy in the Middle East inhibited him from pushing back against an increasingly aggressive and sophisticated Russian cyber-warfare campaign that targeted the U.S. government, the Democratic Party, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and which sought to undermine public faith in the democratic process—with the result that Donald Trump is now President.
Perhaps there’s nothing to worry about, as some in our community would like to believe, because Jared Kushner doesn’t drive in cars on Shabbat or because David Friedman said some mean things about J Street. The problem with this line of thinking, in addition to it diverging from the closely held views of a majority of our co-religionists, is that Jews have historically failed, time and again, when we leaned on wish fulfillment—especially with regard to people in power and the hoped-for influence of the effectively powerless Jews around them. Indeed, Kushner and now Friedman are proving perfect distractions from Trump’s choices of people for actually important posts.
Let’s start with National Security Advisor nominee Mike Flynn, a man who this summer tweeted anti-Semitic garbage alleging that the Jews were the ones floating the clearly absurd idea that Russia might be (wait for it…) behind the DNC email hack. Nice deflection.
Next up is Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State. Does a man whose chief recommenders for the job include James Baker strike you as someone who is likely to have a deep and abiding concern for Israel’s welfare? How about a man who spent his life in the oil business, imbibing the prejudices of his partners in the Gulf States? How about a man whose biggest deals were with Vladimir Putin, Iran’s key regional partner? Tillerson is all of those people.
Absent any evidence to the contrary, the idea that Tillerson will be particularly sensitive or friendly to Israel’s interests in his new job as U.S. Secretary of State strikes us as wildly wishful thinking. And the idea that James Mattis, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense, who describes Israel’s position in the occupied territories as “apartheid,” will counter-balance Tillerson, is grasping at straws. If you’re a right-wing Jew, imagine for one minute what your reaction would be had any of Obama’s nominees for major cabinet positions ever used that term.
Donald Trump claims to be a great friend of Israel. So did Barack Obama. Perhaps they both are. But professions of friendship are cheap. The Iran Deal and its bloody consequences should have taught everyone in our community—on both sides of the political aisle—a lesson about the dangers of elevating symbolism and style over substance.
Jerusalem will remain the cynosure of Jewish national existence and the place to which we direct our morning prayers no matter where the U.S. Embassy is located. Donald Trump is not responsible for that. What he is responsible for, as President of the United States, is strictly enforcing the Iran Deal, and making sure that U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East are secure. So far, there is little evidence to suggest that is a priority—and increasing evidence to suggest that the next four years will see the consolidation of Iranian hegemony over the Middle East in concert with Russia, to the detriment of Israel and its neighbors.
And more immediately, we have—as Jews—made a mockery of our own pledge to speak up on behalf of others threatened the way we once were, and undermined our right to blame those who didn’t come to our aid. This is a moral blot on our consciences. And for what? For party loyalty? American Jews voted for Obama, twice, in numbers that dwarf every other ethnic or religious group with the exception of African Americans. Many of us are still proud to have done so. But it is precisely inside these broad feelings of kinship and pride that we can—and must—lay the burden of this specific horror at his feet.
To read Tablet’s coverage of the Syrian crisis, click here. For our coverage of the Iran Nuclear Deal, click here.
From the editors of Tablet Magazine.