Analysis from Israel

There has been a spate of articles recently about how Jews in liberal democracies round the world have moved politically rightward in response to the global left’s increasing antipathy toward Israel. In a handy round-up of the trend over at FrontPage Magazine, Daniel Greenfield cites data showing that in Britain, Canada, Australia and France, a majority of Jews now vote conservative. The one glaring exception, of course, is America – which begs the question why.

Greenfield’s answer is that non-Orthodox American Jews care less about Judaism than their counterparts overseas, and therefore inevitably care less about Israel. And certainly, that’s part of the answer: A 2013 Pew poll showed that Jewish affiliation has declined markedly among American Jews, with only 68% of Jews born after 1980 considering themselves “Jews by religion,” compared to 93% of those born in 1914-27. And among the 32% that define themselves as “Jews of no religion,” a whopping 67% raise their children “not Jewish,” 79% have non-Jewish spouses, 54% say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, and 55% feel little or no attachment to Israel.

Nevertheless, young Jews in other countries also intermarry more and are less Jewishly identified than their grandparents. So even if the decline has been steeper in America than elsewhere – an assumption for which Greenfield brings no evidence – it’s hard to see that alone as sufficient to explain this political divergence.

What’s missing from Greenfield’s answer, of course, is America itself: the anomalous fact that non-Jewish Americans are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. That certainly isn’t the case in Europe. And as an annual BBC poll shows, it isn’t even true in Canada and Australia, whose current conservative governments are staunchly pro-Israel.

Consequently, Democratic politicians are rarely as anti-Israel as their counterparts overseas, because being anti-Israel is still bad politics in America. Thus, for instance, they routinely support arms sales to Israel, whereas left-wing politicians abroad routinely oppose them. Nor does the American left’s animus against Israel spill over into blatant anti-Semitism as often as it does in, say, Europe. So for now, liberal American Jews still feel as if they can support the left without having to repudiate their Zionism or their Judaism – something that’s increasingly no longer possible overseas.

But even in America, that may not be true for long. As Sohrab Ahmari and Noah Pollak explained in detail in COMMENTARY this month, the Obama Administration and its Democratic cheerleaders have been steadily defining pro-Israel downward. During last summer’s Gaza war, for instance, the administration relentlessly criticized Israel over Palestinian civilian casualties, halted arms shipments in the middle of the fighting and urged Israel to accept a cease-fire dictated by Hamas patrons Qatar and Turkey, all while declaring itself to be unstintingly pro-Israel.

And on American college campuses, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is rapidly disappearing. See, for instance, the case of UCLA student Rachel Beyda, who was rejected for a post on the university’s judicial board solely because she was Jewish, until a faculty adviser intervened.

Thus if American Jewish liberals don’t want to go the way of their counterparts overseas – i.e., if they want to be able to continue voting left without feeling that they are thereby sacrificing their Jewish and Zionist identity – they need to mount an urgent campaign to convince their own political camp that any good liberal should also be pro-Israel. That’s far from an impossible case to make, since it has the advantage of being true, as I explained in detail in a COMMENTARY article in March. But conservatives can’t do the job for them; only liberals can persuade their fellow liberals.

And if American Jewish liberals don’t make that case, then in another decade or two, those that still care about Judaism and Israel are liable to find themselves exactly where their British, Canadian, Australian and French counterparts are now: forced to hold their nose and vote conservative, because anything else would be a betrayal of their Jewish identity.

Originally published in Commentary on May 19, 2015

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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