End of a love affair?
The relationship between US Jews and Israel is becoming more and more strained, argues Moshé Machover. This is an edited version of his talk to the May 22 London Communist Forum
I am going to talk quite a lot about American Jews, but, like all communities, they are rather heterogeneous. However, I do want to exclude from my assessment those who are Jews in a passive sense and instead concentrate on those who have an active interest in being Jewish. It is not that the others are in denial about or are ashamed of their Jewishness: it is just that it does not play a major role in their life.
I have quite a lot of relatives in America and it so happens that on one side of my family they are Jews in an active sense, but on the other side they are not. It is not that they hide it, but they are Jews in a passive kind of way. But even amongst active Jews, maybe in a secular sense, I would like to exclude those who have been hostile or averse to Zionism and the state of Israel. A famous case is Moshe Menuhin, father of the violinist, Yehudi. You can see that he was actively Jewish by the names he gave to his children, but he was resolutely anti-Zionist. He was a member of the American Council for Judaism, which was very actively Jewish, but also anti-Zionist. And then there are ultra-orthodox Jews, who are also very actively Jewish in a religious sense, but hostile to Zionism.
Probably not many people in Britain have noticed the growing rift - more like a schism - that has been developing within that portion of the Jewish community that up to now has been pro-Zionist and very ardent in its support of Israel, but is now drifting away very quickly. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, but it has escalated considerably, and I would like to refer to a few of its manifestations.
Here is a quote that is not one of the most extreme, published last month, on April 18. It is very telling, because it comes from Jane Eisner, the editor of the most important Jewish American newspaper, Forward - it is the equivalent of the Jewish Chronicle,except that it is much more open. Because of her position, she writes very discreetly and diplomatically. The title of her article is: ‘It’s time for Israel to recognise that diaspora Jews are already home’ - something that the Zionists clearly do not want to hear.
The article starts:
The state of Israel is 70 years old - well past its early growing pains; it is strong, confident and distinctive. North American Jewry is still here - strong, confident and distinctive in its own fashion. But the relationship between the world’s two largest Jewish communities is growing more and more strained, and, on this milestone anniversary of independence, it is the subject of much hand-wringing over whether and how it can ever be repaired.1
This is language as strong as she dares use.
I would also like to quote from another very recent article2 in the Israeli daily, Haaretz, about one of those Jewish billionaires who, according to some, are strongly influencing US policies towards Israel. His name is Charles Bronfman, who is an ardent Zionist and has co-founded and contributed millions of dollars to a project called Birthright, whereby especially young Jews from America and elsewhere are brought to Israel to make them aware of their ‘birthright’.
He complains that Israel is not respecting the concerns of American Jews. What is needed, he says, is a “reverse Aipac” - referring to the Jewish pro-Israel lobby group in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The job of this “reverse Aipac” will be to lobby in Israel for US Jews … He says he is“perplexed and angry” at how Israel is treating the Jews of the diaspora and is concerned about what he calls “the fractious Jewish world” that will “cause a decline of the Jewish people everywhere”. In particular, he targets Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom he blames for all sorts of things - on religious grounds, which I will come to, as well as political grounds.
There is another article in Forward by Kathleen Peratis, a member of the editorial board, entitled ‘My Zionism is fading - one expulsion at a time’. She is referring to the expulsion of human rights activists from Israel. The article begins:
I feel like I am standing on a melting ice floe. For decades, I have loved Israel. I want it to thrive as a shining, rights-abiding country. And yet, increasingly, I find I can envision a day when I (or maybe my children) will not want to go there any more.3
Then there is an article published last year entitled ‘The greatest Jewish crisis: growing estrangement from Israel’.4 And I could also mention the former Aipac activist, MJ Rosenberg, who now wants it to be registered as a ‘foreign agent’ - that is what groups that work on behalf of another country are obliged to do in the US (the Communist Party used to be so registered).5
Another article I have read recently is headed ‘Ashamed to be Jewish’.6 I do not think they mean it, but Israel’s actions are certainly having their effect on American Jews.
US and Israel
To understand the growing rift it is necessary to grasp how and why this relationship between Israel and US Jews - this ‘love affair’, as I call it - began. And you have to look in the right direction - which is what Ian Donovan, for example, fails to do.7 Such people look to Israel as the driving force behind the relationship, but its source is actually located in the United States.
Let me explain what I mean. This whole issue is closely connected to the pro-Israel lobby. This section of American Jews has certainly been part of it, but it is by no means the only or most important component. By far the biggest numerically are the Christian evangelicals - there are at least five times more US evangelicals than there are US Jews, and in terms of support for Israel they are at least as important (although, of course, the exact numbers of both can only be estimated).
There is a quite widespread thesis, summed up by the acronym, Itwad (‘Israeli tail wags American dog’), whereby Israel is somehow able to dictate US policy, at least as far as the Middle East is concerned. There are various versions of this, the most celebrated being that of the US so-called political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. They are very careful (and correct), by the way, not to talk about a ‘Jewish lobby’. Rather it is the ‘pro-Israel lobby’ - it is clear that its evangelical component is far larger, especially in electoral terms. They put forward the thesis that this lobby somehow dictates a policy towards the Middle East that is contrary to US interests.
It is important to understand where they are coming from: they are ‘political scientists’ who happen to support a minority view within the US bourgeoisie that is opposed to current US policy. They are among those who stated that the invasion of Iraq was a ‘huge mistake’ - and they did not wait until after the event to claim that. No ruling class is completely united over its state’s policies, and they belong to a group of bourgeois intellectuals and writers who support what is now very much a minority view within the US ruling class.
They are liberals, I am sure, who support the Democratic Party rather than the Republicans, but there are also those who adhere to left versions of Itwad. The more famous representatives are the French leftwinger, Jean Bricmont, and the US writer, James Petras, who is actually very good in his analysis of Latin America, but comes close to anti-Semitism when it is a question of Itwad.
Here is not the place to discuss this thesis in detail.8 But in reality there is no need for the pro-Israel lobby to try to influence American policy ‘against the interests of the United States’, because it is a well established and provable fact that Israel is a strategic asset for the US, especially in the Middle East, but also globally.
None of this means to say that the pro-Israel lobby - by which I mean not only the Jewish section, but the Christian section too - is not influential. It is influential, but there are limits to that influence. It is unable to override policy on matters that are currently considered by the ruling class as vital to US interests. There have been several cases where US policy ignored what the lobby had been campaigning for and went another way.
The most recent example is that of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Barack Obama. You may well remember how energetically the Israeli government itself lobbied against it, yet the US administration went ahead, because at that moment the ruling elite believed that such a deal was in its interests. This has, of course, now changed, but not as a result of the influence of the Israeli lobby. True, the Trump administration is making use of the arguments it puts forward - as well as Netanyahu’s highly theatrical appearance on television, which included ‘revelations’ of facts that were long known. But in reality Donald Trump is acting on behalf of a different section of the US ruling class.
Nevertheless, the lobby is powerful and its role is the following:
- First of all, to reinforce those aspects of US policy on which the Zionists and the American ruling class agree.
- To deter criticism and police those who may object - there will always be some opposition.
- When the ruling class is divided and there is an internal struggle over policy, the lobby can weigh in on one side or the other.
- Most importantly, the lobby does influence and in some cases determines the outcome on issues which the state of Israel regards as impacting on its vital interests, but which the US ruling elite does not regard as vital.
The US relationship with Israel is not that of a master and his butler. Israel is certainly the junior partner, but it is a partner nevertheless, and so the US ruling class has to take into account its essential interests. An instance of this is the whole business of a ‘two-state solution’. It is no secret that the US ruling class would have no reason to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state - perhaps not of a fully fledged kind, but one which could formally be referred to as a state of the Palestinian people - and an end to the occupation. But Israel has always resisted this, and the US has never fully applied the pressure which it potentially could on this issue, because this is something about which Israel is insistent. All the above, with appropriate modifications, applies to the Jewish section of the Israel lobby and those elements of the US Jewish community that have been part of it.
However, this situation - an influential pro-Israel lobby, and the huge commitment of that section of American Jews to Israel - was not always the reality. While it may seem to many that things have always been so, this is not the case. These phenomena had a beginning and, at least as far as this section of American Jews (especially the younger generation) is concerned, they are approaching a crisis and possible end. You have to understand the history in order to understand what is happening now.
This role of the US pro-Israel lobby, and the love affair of American Jews with Israel, began in the 1960s - in particular after the war of June 1967. I remember events from those times and can recall what used to be the case in the United States before 1967, but the person to listen to on this issue is Norman Finkelstein, who has done an enormous amount of research on the question. I would refer you to a series of three interviews he gave to the Real News Network in June 2017 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 war. I am referring specifically to the second interview, when he tried to explain how this started.9
He methodically went through major Jewish publications before 1967 and he only came up with three articles of note on the US-Israel relationship. One of them dates from 1956, which is when Israel, together with Britain and France, participated in the Suez war, without seeking US permission, and the three powers were compelled to withdraw on the insistence of president Dwight D Eisenhower. And this article supports the US position, not Israel’s.
I remember this very well - I was politically active at that time. There was no effective objection from the pro-Israel lobby - in fact there were commentaries supporting the American position against the Suez war. There was very little manifestation of commitment to Israel in opposition to US policy. The mood was more one of treating Israel like a charity - people donated money to particular Israeli causes. This is still the case: the companies owned by American Jews did not and still do not invest in Israel or base their businesses there: they donate to various projects. One US Jewish billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, is a casino capitalist who makes his money in Las Vegas, but he gives a lot of it to Israel in support of a freebie newspaper, Israel Today, which is a propaganda sheet for Netanyahu.
However, he does not determine what Netanyahu does - it is the other way round. In fact, Netanyahu has on occasion gone against him - one of the corruption scandals in which the prime minister is involved relates to the fact that he complained to Arnon Mozes, an Israeli publisher, that his newspapers were always full of criticism of Netanyahu. They had a meeting, where he was asked to stop this, to which Mozes agreed, but in exchange Netanyahu promised to do something to help Mozes by revising the favourable conditions which Adelson’s free sheet enjoyed. In other words, Netanyahu went against the interests of one of his big American donors, in favour of a local Israeli newspaper magnate.
So what changed in 1967? Finkelstein gave several reasons by way of explanation, but the main one is that prior to 1967 American Jews were very happy where they were. Migration to the USA, from eastern Europe and so on, had improved their lot and, especially after World War II, many were ‘upwardly mobile’. Their economic situation had rapidly improved. But they were still regarded as outsiders. There was a lot of anti-Semitism - and anti-Semitism in America, I can tell you, is much worse than in Britain. Partly that is because freedom of speech is enshrined in the US constitution and as a result there is quite a lot of open hate speech directed against Jews.
The Jewish part of the bourgeoisie did not quite feel that they belonged - for instance, a lot of golf and country clubs excluded Jews until quite recently. And one of the most frequent anti-Semitic accusations levelled against Jews is that of ‘double loyalty’ - they are not loyal to America first and foremost, but instead pursue their own narrow interests. And when the state of Israel was created this became even more pointed - Israel is a foreign country, after all, so to display too much commitment to it was not looked upon kindly. Where was their patriotism?
However, when suddenly Israel became a strategic US asset, being associated with it became a way of asserting American patriotism - someone who supports America’s favoured ally cannot any longer be accused of double loyalty. This sentiment increased, as Israel became more and more important - not only regionally, but eventually in global terms.
In her article I quoted earlier, Jane Eisner, Forward’s editor, confirms that the big change happened in 1967: “Israel’s near-miraculous victory over its Arab neighbours in 1967 marked a turning point in how world Jewry viewed the Zionist homeland …”
All this helped to validate the place of Jews in US society, including that of Jewish capitalists. Previously, Israel’s ‘law of return’, rather than acting as an asset for Jewish capitalists, as some claim, was something they felt uncomfortable with, because the entitlement of any Jew to Israeli citizenship strengthened the insinuation of double loyalty: if you are a potential citizen of another country, how can you be completely loyal to the United States? However, now that Israel is our favoured ally ...
So, rather than US Jews having a material interest in Israel, which they try to leverage by using their allegedly enormous influence in the United States, it is actually the other way round. This section of American Jewry has used their association with Israel in order to leverage their position in US society and make it more secure: it served to validate their American patriotism. Americans are encouraged more than any other nation to be overtly patriotic - the Stars and Stripes can be seen everywhere in the US.
The new Jewish relationship which started in 1967 began under the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson, but the fact that Israel began to be regarded as a strategic asset of the United States was part of a bipartisan policy - there was no great difference between the two parties, although Jews predominantly vote Democrat, as far as one can rely on such statistics.
So what has happened? A rift has developed within American society, which started to become more and more visible under Obama. Americans are split into two camps, which detest each other. Bipartisan politics has collapsed. In Congress the two parties often used to consult and come to some arrangement, but this came to an end under Obama. Under his administration the Republicans torpedoed any attempt to arrive at a bipartisan policy and it is very difficult for the legislative system to work unless there is some degree of collaboration. But it is not just the two main parties - in present-day America this has been exacerbated under Trump, but actually the fact that Trump became president is an expression of this very deep rift. Unfortunately it is a rift that has not occurred on class lines - there is a lot of working class support on the right-populist side of the divide. Of course, on the pro-Obama side, there was organised labour and a lot of trade unions.
So it is complicated, but the split has driven Americans into two more or less equal camps. Suddenly it is not clear what it means to be an American patriot, and the image that American Jews want to promote to display their patriotism is contrary to what the Israeli government supports within the US. So long as there was bipartisan policy towards Israel, American Jews who supported Israel found themselves alongside Christian evangelicals - which they fear for good reason, since they are riven with anti-Semitism. But this did not matter so much when they were not in mutually hostile political camps.
The pro-Zionism of the evangelicals is motivated by the idea that, when all the Jews are gathered in the Holy Land, then there will be ‘Armageddon’ - the ‘second coming’ - and everybody will have to convert to Christianity; those Jews who do not do so will perish. In other words, they support Zionism for reasons that will not be beneficial to Jews.
There is more explicit anti-Semitism in the side that is now in office in America - something that Jews detest. However, Netanyahu does not care about such anti-Semitism in America - or anywhere. That is all the better for Israel, since it encourages more Jews to ‘return’ to Israel. So that is not exactly an attitude that goes down well with American Jews.
In other words, support for Israel - despite the way that Israel is now acting - is no longer consistent with American patriotism, in the way that the section of American society to which most Jews belong understand it. So this creates a problem and hence the rift. When Netanyahu went to America during the Obama administration, he was reminded that more Jews voted for Obama than for Netanyahu. The billionaire, Bronfman, belongs to that section of American Jews who hate what is happening now, while Adelson is on the other side - he is in a minority among US Jews. He supports not only Netanyahu, but also Trump - he made huge donations to Trump’s presidential campaign. So the majority of US Jews are now in a conflict between what they regard as being good Jewish Americans and support for Israel.
In a more recent article, Jane Eisner puts it quite bluntly. The title of this article is: “Israel may love Trump’s policies. But they are a challenge to American - and Jewish - values’.10
Finally I would like to point out the religious dimension of the rift. A recent editorial (May 18) in Haaretz said that Netanyahu was making a huge mistake by siding with evangelicals against most American Jews. This is dangerous, claimed Haaretz - US Jews are our most reliable allies, yet they are being alienated. But this is not the only religious dimension of the split. There is another one, of which, I suspect, most people are not aware. US Jews mainly adhere to different styles of Judaism to that which predominates in Israel. The overwhelming majority of practising US Jews are aligned with the reform, liberal or conservative forms of Judaism - very different from the more orthodox form.
By contrast, in Israel, the strictly orthodox rabbinate has a monopoly on all Jewish religious issues. They often insult American Jews who visit Israel and who want to pray at the western wall of Temple Mount. While US Jews, along with others from abroad, will pray together, both men and women, the orthodox rabbinate does not allow this. So when women want to pray at the sacred wall, they are shooed away. This is religious persecution of Jews by Israel!
Netanyahu recently promised to reach a compromise, whereby those Jews who come to Israel and whose Judaism takes a different form would be allowed to share this holy place. But he has reneged on this. In the US there are synagogues with women rabbis, which for strictly orthodox Judaism is an abomination - almost like Catholics electing a female pope! And the predominance of orthodox Judaism in Israel has increased over the last few years, and this has contributed to the rift.
To cap it all, the Israeli government is now proposing a bill that will give Israel’s rabbinical courts power over non-Israeli Jews.11 This will not go down too well among US Jews …
So, just as it is clear why the ‘love affair’ started, there are sound reasons why it is coming to an end. The two sides are now in a situation where they need to go to a marriage counsellor - although it probably would not help.
2. Haaretz May 4: www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-birthright-co-founder-netanyahu-widening-israel-diaspora-rift-1.6054413.
5. Forward March 2 2018: https://forward.com/opinion/395676/its-time-for-aipac-to-register-as-a-foreign-agent.
6. Haaretz May 17 2018: www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-trump-base-celebrates-jerusalem-embassy-move-u-s-jews-mourn-gaza-deaths-1.6092560.
7. Donovan has repeatedly stated in letters to the Weekly Worker that the “overrepresentation of Jews” - who have a “material interest” in Israel by virtue of the law of return - in the US bourgeoisie is what lies behind US support for Israel.
8. See, for example, ‘US imperialism and Israel’s role’ (Weekly Worker June 11 2015) for my view on this. There is also ‘The dog and the tail’ (October 8 2015) - a review of a book by Jeff Halper, War against the people, which goes into great detail about Israel’s role in relation to imperialism.
10. Forward May 11 2018: https://forward.com/opinion/400912/how-moving-the-embassy-and-nixing-the-iran-deal-challenge-american-jewish/?utm_content=daily_Newsletter_MainList_Title_Position-1&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%20-%20Sun%202018-05-13&utm_term=The%20Forward%20Today%20Monday-Friday.
11. Haaretz May 4: www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-s-rabbinical-courts-may-get-new-power-over-non-israeli-jews-1.6054204.