Note: This column originally ran on April 23 but has not previously been posted on my website
Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel just a week before Independence Day, and for Israelis, those days are thematically as well as temporally connected: One of many reasons why a Jewish state is needed is to save Jewish lives. Young American Jews also acknowledge a thematic connection. Shockingly, however, the connection many have been taught to see is the exact opposite: that the Holocaust is why a Jewish state shouldn’t exist—or at least, why they as Jews shouldn’t care about it.
Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed this. But then I read the column that Haaretz published on April 11, the eve of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In it, Steven Davidson described the standardized Holocaust-education curriculum he teaches his sixth-grade Hebrew-school class in Brooklyn, N.Y. As he noted, he is just “one of hundreds of Jewish educators across Canada and the U.S. to utilize the Holocaust curriculum developed by the nonprofit organization, Facing History & Ourselves.” Since 1976, this curriculum “has educated over half a million students in the U.S. and Canada about the Holocaust.”
So what does it teach Jewish students? “The lesson,” Davidson explained, “tasked me with writing a quote on the board: ‘I love my daughters more than my nieces, my nieces more than my cousins, my cousins more than my neighbors. But that doesn’t mean that we detest our neighbors.’ ” He asked his students’ opinion of this sentiment; unsurprisingly, all but one approved it.
And then, “I revealed to the class who said that quote: Jean-Marie Le Pen, Holocaust-denier and renowned xenophobe.” And also renowned anti-Semite, though one can see why Davidson didn’t mention that. After all, the whole point of this lesson is that loving some people more than others is evil—the kind of thing only a Jean-Marie Le Pen would do. Why confuse the message by mentioning Le Pen’s hatred for Jews, in particular, as if that were something Jewish students should care about?
The ensuing discussion drove the point home. One student soon “realized” that this quote is “like America First,” Donald Trump’s slogan, and Trump is a far greater symbol of evil to these students than Le Pen, whom most had never heard of before. As Davidson noted, “My sixth-graders generally hate Trump because nearly all their parents do.” Soon, students were explicitly connecting Trump to the Nazis: “During another lesson, a couple of students related the Brownshirts and Nazi rallies to Trump encouraging and retweeting violence on his behalf.” The conclusion of this logical progression was clear: Loving some people more than others is Nazi behavior—something no good Jew can countenance.
Of course, any parent who actually cared no more for his own child than for some random child down the block would probably be indicted for child neglect. But the curriculum’s designers know the instinctive parent-child bond is strong enough to overcome such indoctrination; that isn’t their target.
Rather, their target is the bond Jews feel for their fellow Jews. Because that isn’t one of humanity’s deepest instincts; it’s very much a learned behavior.
The canonical Jewish texts taught it by intertwining universal principles with particularist messages about the special obligations owed one’s own people, like “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Talmud Shevuot 39a) or “The poor of your own city take precedence” (Talmud Baba Metzia 71a). Yet even American Jews who never studied these texts used to be taught this behavior. Most Jews of my generation can remember charity boxes at home in which we put money for Israel or Hebrew-school events when we wrote letters to imprisoned Soviet Jews; the unambiguous message was that we had a responsibility to our brethren.
Today, many American Jewish children are taught the exact opposite: that feeling any special responsibility toward their fellow Jews is Nazi-like behavior, and only if they eschew such feelings can they be good Jews who have internalized the Holocaust’s lessons. Given this, is it any wonder that in a 2013 Pew Research poll, 73 percent of American Jews deemed remembering the Holocaust an essential part of being Jewish, but only 43 percent said the same for caring about Israel and just 28 percent for being part of a Jewish community?
This also explains why many young American Jews are “distancing” themselves from Israel. American Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum have increasingly blamed this on Israeli policy (see, for instance, last month’s New York Times op-ed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, a longtime Republican and supporter of Israel’s ruling center-right Likud Party).
Yet even if Israeli policy fulfilled American Jews’ wish list in every particular, that still wouldn’t give them any reason to care about Israel one whit more than they do about any other country. Only if they felt a special affection and concern for their fellow Jews—and hence for the Jewish state where almost half of world Jewry lives—would American Jews have reason to feel any special affection and concern for Israel.
Instead, they are taught that special affection and concern for their own people is wrong. And if so, then special affection and concern for the one country on earth belonging to their own people is doubly wrong. In fact, the Jewish state’s very existence is wrong, because states shouldn’t be concerned with the fate of one particular people any more than individuals should.
Thus it’s no surprise that when the National Survey of American Jews asked respondents in 2007 whether they would see Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy, about 80 percent of Jews aged 65 or older answered yes, but only 50 percent of Jews under 35 did. After all, why should Jews who have been taught that particularism is evil feel bereaved at the loss of the world’s only Jewish state?
And that is the tragic irony of Holocaust education in America today: Young Jews are being taught that the only way to internalize the Holocaust’s lessons is by becoming indifferent to the possibility of a second one. For the destruction of Israel, with its 6.6 million Jews, would assuredly be nothing less.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 23, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
In January 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.’ ” Out of 23 countries surveyed—13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies—only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.
Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50 percent in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.
Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments—some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.
And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.
A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions—international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70 percent did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.
Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32 percent of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).
The same thing happened on questions about immigration, which Israeli respondents almost certainly interpreted as referring to non-Jewish immigrants (the ostensibly neutral Hebrew word for immigration, hagira, is actually used only for non-Jews; Jewish immigration, for which Israeli support has traditionally been high, is called aliyah). Israel was among the six most immigrant-averse countries in all four categories: belief that employers should prioritize hiring locals over immigrants, concern about immigrants’ impact on social/public services, concern about their impact on jobs and opposition to uncontrolled immigration.
Yet when it came to the question about feeling like a stranger in your own country, Israel again suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with just 20 percent of Israelis agreeing. Only Japan, at 14 percent, was lower.
Two factors help explain Israel’s exceptionalism in this poll. One is simply that complaining is Israel’s national sport; Israelis routinely gripe about every aspect of their country. Many of those grievances relate to real problems. Nevertheless, the reality is rarely anywhere near as bad their complaints make it sound (a fact that American Jews, who often accept the Israeli left’s complaints at face value, should bear in mind).
Indeed, Israel’s flourishing economy, high standard of living, and high levels of both personal security and personal freedom are all testaments to the fact that its institutions aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as Israelis deemed them in this poll. Countries with truly dysfunctional institutions rarely score well on any of these fronts.
And despite their complaints, Israelis actually do know this. That’s why Israel consistently ranks as the 11th happiest country in the U.N.’s annual “World Happiness Report,” and why on overall assessments of the country—like whether society is broken or whether people feel like strangers in their own land—Israelis were far more upbeat than respondents in most other countries Ipsos Mori surveyed.
But there’s also a deeper reason. Israelis understand that there is only one Jewish state, and for all its flaws, its very existence is something precious and worth preserving. That’s why 90 percent of Israelis define themselves as Zionist. For Zionism, at bottom, is simply the belief that the Jewish people has a right to its own state, and that a Jewish state therefore ought to exist.
This has enabled Israel to escape one of the modern West’s besetting ills. In a world where elite opinion scorns both religion and the nation-state as anachronistic but has failed to provide any compelling source of identity to replace them, many Westerners have grown increasingly unsure of their identities. Hence, it’s no surprise that they feel like strangers in their own land—or as if their societies were broken.
Israelis, in contrast, are very confident of their identity: They are Jews living in the world’s only Jewish state. Thus, it’s impossible for most Israeli Jews to feel like strangers in their own country; this is the state created precisely so that all Jews, anywhere, will always have a home.
Similarly, it’s difficult for most to feel that their society is broken when, against all odds, it has not only successfully maintained the first Jewish state in two millennia, but also turned it, in 70 short years, into one of the world’s most thriving countries. Israel has successfully absorbed Jewish refugees from all over the world and continues to provide an insurance policy for Diaspora Jews nervous about their own countries’ future. It has built one of the world’s 20 wealthiest economies per capita. It has maintained a robust democracy despite being at war since its inception. And its growing economic, military and diplomatic clout led American analysts Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keeley to rank it last year as one of the world’s eight great powers.
Thus, despite arguing bitterly over what policies their country should pursue and complaining endlessly about its many shortcomings, Israelis are overwhelmingly glad that a Jewish state exists, and committed to both preserving and improving it. And that’s why most will be celebrating on Israeli Independence Day next week. Because the very existence of a Jewish state, whatever its flaws, is grounds for rejoicing—and all the more so when that state has so many real achievements to celebrate.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 11, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
Bipartisanship was the watchword at last week’s AIPAC conference, but it’s no secret that pro-Israel Democrats have trouble swallowing Israelis’ enthusiasm for President Donald Trump, whose approval rating in Israel hit 67 percent even before he decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They can understand Israel’s joy over that decision. But they can’t understand its seeming disregard of Trump actions that harm Israel, like abandoning Syria to Iran and Russia or divulging classified Israeli intelligence to Russia’s president.
The explanation is simple, but unfortunately, Democrats won’t like it: Barack Obama set the bar for U.S-Israeli relations so low that there’s literally no Israel-related issue on which Trump has been worse than his predecessor. And there are many on which he’s been not just modestly better, but spectacularly so.
In Trump’s negative column, Syria is “Exhibit A.” Anyone who has heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lately knows that Iran’s growing presence there is a top security concern. Moreover, thanks to Russia’s presence in Syria, Israel can’t handle this problem alone; Russia is way out of its weight class. Consequently, it needs America’s help, which hasn’t always been so forthcoming.
Nevertheless, it’s not Trump who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia; that was Obama’s decision. When Syria’s civil war first began, America could have prevented Tehran and Moscow from moving in at relatively low cost. But by the time Trump took office, both were well-entrenched; ousting them now would be far more difficult and costly.
Granted, there are still things America could do—and Israelis wish America would do them. But thanks to Obama’s choices, low-cost solutions no longer exist. In this situation, many U.S. presidents would have opted for inaction. Certainly, Trump’s Democratic rival would have; as Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was party to his decisions. So despite their dismay about the current situation, Israelis can’t blame Trump for this.
Leaking Israeli intelligence to Vladimir Putin, in contrast, isn’t something Obama ever did (as far as anyone knows). But his administration did regularly leak classified Israeli information to major media outlets. And judged by the all-important standard of how likely the information is to reach Israel’s enemies, that’s considered even worse.
With Putin, there’s at least a reasonable chance that Israeli secrets won’t be shared with enemy countries, as proven by Israel’s hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in recent years. To avoid conflict with Russia, it gives Russia prior notice of all such strikes. Yet there’s no indication that Russia ever shared this information with Syria and Iran; if it had, one would have expected Syria’s aerial defenses to be ready and waiting. Instead, most Israeli strikes encountered no Syrian resistance at all. (In the one major exception—Syria’s downing of an Israeli plane last month—the warning almost certainly came from Iran; it would have alerted Syria to expect retaliation after an Iranian drone launched from Syria was downed over Israel.)
In contrast, information leaked to the media goes straight to enemy intelligence agencies, which routinely scan open-source material. And some of that information was potentially deadly. For instance, when Israel first began airstrikes in Syria, it deliberately refrained from claiming responsibility; that let the Assad regime save face by blaming Syrian rebels rather than Israel, thereby reducing the risk that it would feel compelled to retaliate. Yet the Obama administration repeatedly told the media Israel was behind those strikes, raising the risk of a Syrian retaliation that could spiral into war. Trump’s leaks haven’t been anywhere near that dangerous.
Now consider the positive side of the equation. The embassy move stands out by any standard; it’s something many presidents promised, but none before Trump ever delivered. And many pro-Israel Democrats seem to underestimate just how important this is. The global refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the starkest form of delegitimization. Not only is no other country in the world denied the right to choose its own capital, but if Jews have no right to their holiest city—to which they prayed to return for 2,000 years—what do they have a right to? For putting an end to this outrageous discrimination, and thereby encouraging other countries to follow suit, Trump would deserve the gratitude of Israelis even if he never did another thing.
His financial sanctions against the P.A. (for funding terrorists) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (for perpetuating the conflict) are similarly unprecedented and welcome.
Other Trump moves, like Nikki Haley’s appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shine brighter due to the contrast with Obama. Though Israelis would always have adored Haley, in 2008 she would have been just the latest in a long bipartisan tradition of outstanding pro-Israel U.N. ambassadors (think Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Jeanne Kirkpatrick). But Obama’s ambassadors were a different breed. Even when opposing anti-Israel resolutions, they lambasted Israel in harsh terms, rather than actually defending it. And though it hurt Israelis deeply to have America join the world body’s round-the-clock “Two Minutes Hate Against Israel,” this isn’t primarily about hurt feelings.
Such speeches signaled to other countries that America would be fine with any anti-Israel action they chose to take as long as Washington didn’t have to be complicit in it. And that encouraged both the European Union and the United Nations to take steps towards anti-Israel boycotts (product labeling and compiling a corporate blacklist, respectively). Haley’s pro-Israel speeches send the opposite message: America has Israel’s back, and anti-Israel actions will rouse America’s wrath.
The same goes for Trump’s scrupulous avoidance of public spats with Israel. That, too, might have seemed unremarkable in 2008. But after eight years of Obama’s nonstop public feuding with Israel, which insinuated to other countries that Israel was fair game, Trump’s reversal of this behavioral message simply elates Israelis.
For most American Jews, Trump’s domestic policies are obviously more important than his Israel ones, and that’s legitimate; his domestic policies more directly affect their lives. But Jewish Democrats ought to grant Israelis the same courtesy. Accept that they judge Trump on his Israel policies rather than his domestic ones, as the former are what directly affect their lives. And after eight years of Obama, Trump’s Israel policies have so far been a welcome relief.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 14, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Mainstream media outlets like to complain about “fake news” emanating from sources other than themselves, but the mainstream media itself has taken fake news to new heights in its recent coverage of Jerusalem. Leading media outlets have asserted, inter alia, that Jews never cared about Jerusalem until a few decades ago, that Jews didn’t live in East Jerusalem before 1967, and that Jordan protected freedom of worship in the city.
Exhibit A is the New York Times’ mind-boggling backgrounder on Jerusalem, which “informs” readers that Jews didn’t really care about the city until “hard-line religious nationalism” came into vogue a few decades ago. To produce this flat-out lie, the reporters omit crucial facts, downplay those they can’t omit and rely heavily on Arabs–who have made a fetish of denying Jewish links to Jerusalem for decades–to tell their readers what Jews think (though, naturally, they also found some Jews to echo these claims). Thus, for instance, they paraphrase historian Issam Nasser as saying, “The early Israeli state was hesitant to focus too much on Jerusalem,” while Prof. Rashid Khalidi asserts that post-1967, “Jerusalem became the center of a cultlike devotion that had not really existed previously.”
To support this idea, the reporters omit almost any fact that might contradict it. Readers are never told, for instance, that Israel’s founding fathers–the ones who ostensibly had little interest in Jerusalem–fought some of the bloodiest battles of the War of Independence in an effort to save the city from its Arab besiegers.They even took the extraordinary step, after repeated failures to open the road to Jerusalem militarily, of building an entirely new road through very difficult terrain to relieve the siege.
Readers also aren’t told that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, repeatedly stressed Jerusalem’s importance, declaring it “the heart of the State of Israel,” which “Israelis will give their lives” to keep, because for Israel, “there has always been and always will be one capital only.” And they’re certainly never told that the devotion to Jerusalem Khalidi deems of such recent vintage actually dates back 3,000 years, to the First Temple, and that throughout two millennia of exile, Jews prayed facing Jerusalem and begged God to restore them to their holy city.
But on the rare occasions when the reporters can’t omit an inconvenient fact, they shout, like the Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Thus, the Times’ reporters do concede the pesky fact that Israel’s founding fathers–those same people who ostensibly didn’t care about Jerusalem–relocated Israel’s capital to the city the moment it was safe to do so, a few months after the war ended, and even codified this decision in legislation. But the information is hidden in a parenthetical aside: Jerusalem’s “western half became part of the new state of Israel (and its capital, under an Israeli law passed in 1950).”
Unfortunately, this backgrounder was no aberration. Just a few days later, a Times editorial asserted that “East Jerusalem was exclusively Arab in 1967, but Israel has steadily built settlements there, placing some 200,000 of its citizens among the Arab population and complicating any possible peace agreement.” You’d never know from reading this that east Jerusalem was “exclusively Arab” in 1967 only because Jordan had ethnically cleansed every last Jew from the area 19 years earlier. Prior to this ethnic cleansing, Jews had not only lived there almost continuously for 3,000 years but constituted an absolute majority of the city’s residents for the past century. Still, one can understand the paper’s dilemma. It might be difficult to explain to readers why the Times, which normally condemns ethnic cleansing, suddenly condones it when the victims are Jews; much better to simply conceal the fact that it ever happened.
Nor is the Times unique. The Israeli paper most quoted by mainstream media outlets overseas–Haaretz–had a true gem in the fake news department in the form of an op-ed, printed without editorial comment, by Jordan’s Prince Hassan Bin Talal. He blithely asserted that “His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, like his late father King Hussein, has been relentless in defending the rights of all believers to be able to worship freely in Jerusalem at their respective holy places, as has been the case for centuries.”
Of course, during the 19 years when King Hussein ruled east Jerusalem, not one Jew was even allowed to visit, much less pray at, the Western Wall, not to mention the Temple Mount. The Jordanians razed synagogues in east Jerusalem, vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and used the gravestones as construction material. Religious rights weren’t exactly sacrosanct during the previous 1,300 years of Muslim rule either. Some rulers were more tolerant of Jewish worship than others. But the intolerance reached its pinnacle under Hussein, and would most likely have continued under Abdullah had Israel not liberated the area from Jordan before he took the throne.
Finally, there are all the European leaders whom mainstream media outlets laud as paragons of “fact-based” governance in comparison to Donald Trump. As the Elder of Ziyon blog pointed out, leaders who have repeatedly voted for resolutions declaring east Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory” suddenly lined up at last Friday’s Security Council meeting on Jerusalem to declare that actually, the city is a corpus separatum, and therefore even western Jerusalem isn’t Israeli.
Clearly, these two positions are mutually contradictory: If the city is legally an international corpus separatum, as per the 1947 Partition Resolution, then it can’t be occupied Palestinian territory. Yet many European leaders evidently have no problem advancing both contradictory positions simultaneously, depending on which is more useful at any given moment for denying Jewish rights to Jerusalem and privileging Palestinian claims.
All of the above examples reflect a belief that any lie is permissible in the service of the sacred goal of denying Israeli rights in Jerusalem. But Jerusalem isn’t unique in this regard; mainstream media outlets have also deemed the truth dispensable in the service of other ideological goals. And then they have the gall to wonder why so many people, confronted with such obvious lies from the people they trusted to tell them the truth, now put more faith in “alternative facts” than they do in mainstream media and politicians.
Originally published in Commentary on December 13, 2017
That Arab and European leaders are protesting President Trump’s intent to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is no surprise. Nor is it any surprise that groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace joined them. I was, however, genuinely shocked that the leader of America’s largest Jewish denomination also joined the denunciations. Until recently, any mainstream American Jewish leader would have been embarrassed to oppose U.S. recognition of Jerusalem publicly.
And yet, it’s of a piece with recent decisions by non-Orthodox Hillel directors to bar mainstream Israelis from speaking on campus, and with the fact that Birthright Israel recently dropped the Union for Reform Judaism as a trip organizer because it was recruiting too few students. Taken together, all these facts paint a worrying picture.
I’ve always objected when I hear people on the right term the Reform Movement anti-Israel because of its stance on the peace process. After all, its views aren’t far from those of Israel’s mainstream center-left, and any mainstream view ought to be legitimate within the pro-Israel camp.
But in its opposition to recognizing Jerusalem, the URJ has zero support from Israel’s Zionist center-left. The chairman of the Labor Party, currently Israel’s largest opposition party, praised Trump’s expected decision. Yair Lapid, head of the other main opposition party (which is currently outpolling Labor), demanded that the rest of the world follow suit.
Indeed, only two Israeli parties shared the Reform Movement’s reservations: the Arab community’s Joint List and the far-left Meretz, which used to be a Zionist party but no longer is. Its platform doesn’t define it as Zionist, its official spokeswoman defines it as “a non-Zionist Israeli party,” and key backers of its current chairwoman are busy floating the idea of an official merger with the anti-Zionist Joint List. Thus, in opposing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem, the Reform Movement has aligned itself with the country’s anti-Zionists against the entire spectrum of Israeli Zionist opinion.
In his statement, URJ President Rick Jacobs insisted that the Reform Movement does consider Jerusalem to be Israel’s “eternal capital,” to which the U.S. Embassy should move someday. But the URJ “cannot support” Trump’s “decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process,” Jacobs said, as it objects to any “unilateral steps.” Other Reform Jewish organizations, including the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women’s Rabbinic Network, endorsed this statement.
Maybe to American Jewish ears, Jacobs’s statement sounds innocuous and reasonable; indeed, as a poll published in September showed, a whopping 80 percent of American Jews oppose moving the embassy right now. But effectively, what it means is that the Reform Movement–and 80 percent of American Jewry–has ceded sovereignty over Jerusalem to the Palestinians. They, and only they, have the right to decide if and when anyone else recognizes the city as Israel’s capital. Absent Palestinian consent, Israel isn’t entitled to have a recognized capital.
If the Reform Movement really believed Jerusalem was Israel’s “eternal capital,” then American recognition of it would be a bilateral issue to be decided between America and Israel. The Palestinians would have nothing whatsoever to say about it.
The URJ’s claim that recognition would impede the peace process holds no water. Moving the U.S. Embassy to western Jerusalem in no way precludes a Palestinian state with its capital in eastern Jerusalem, which is what Palestinians claim to want. The Reform Movement has given the Palestinians veto power over territory that even the Palestinians themselves don’t claim.
This same disregard for Israel is evident in the URJ’s failure to fill its participant quotas for Birthright trips to Israel, which resulted in Birthright dropping it as a trip operator a few weeks ago. Though the vast majority of people who go on Birthright trips are non-Orthodox, most of them sign up with Orthodox trip operators rather than non-Orthodox ones. Why? Because, unlike the non-Orthodox operators, the Orthodox put time and money into actively recruiting students.
“They actually have student recruiters working for them who go around literally knocking on doors,” one Hillel advisor complained to Haaretz. “That’s not how the rest of us operate.” The Orthodox groups even use time-honored capitalist methods like paying successful recruiters. One operator, for instance, offered a free return trip to Israel or a $600 gift certificate to any participant who signed up ten friends.
In other words, Orthodox groups think getting college students to Israel is important enough to warrant an investment of time and money. The URJ and other non-Orthodox groups don’t consider it important enough to warrant investing time and money—even though the non-Orthodox community, theoretically, has far greater resources at its disposal, being both larger and far wealthier than the Orthodox community.
For any pro-Israel group, having the younger generation get some firsthand acquaintance with Israel would seem an obvious desideratum. But evidently, the Reform Movement thinks otherwise. And it’s not just trips to Israel that non-Orthodox groups consider unnecessary. Increasingly, they aren’t even interested in hearing from Israelis, as recent cancelations of mainstream Israeli speakers by several campus Hillels show.
There’s been a lot of talk in both America and Israel recently about the fraying relationship between Israel and liberal American Jews. But I’m starting to think all this talk is missing the point. If the URJ sides with the Palestinians against Israel over Jerusalem and evinces no interest in exposing young people to mainstream Israel through either visits or speakers, is there really any relationship left to maintain?
Originally published in Commentary on December 6, 2017
The growing divide between Israeli and American Jews was a major topic of conversation at this week’s annual meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was also the topic of a lengthy feature in Haaretz, which largely blamed the Israeli government. Inter alia, it quoted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro as saying, in reference to that majority of American Jews who identify as non-Orthodox and politically liberal, “There is an idea that has some currency in certain circles around the Israeli government that says, ‘You know what, we can write off that segment of American Jewry because in a couple of generations their children or grandchildren will assimilate.’”
I agree that the idea of writing off this segment of American Jewry has some currency in Israel. But in most cases, it’s due less to fantasies about liberal Jews disappearing than to a belief that Israel will have to do without them whether it wants to or not, because liberal Jews can no longer be depended on for even the most minimal level of support. And by that, I don’t mean support for any specific Israeli policy, but for something far more basic: Israel’s right to be heard, by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
Nothing better illustrates this than recent decisions by two campus Hillels to bar mainstream Israeli speakers from addressing Jewish students. At Princeton, it was Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, and at Stanford, it was a group of Israeli Arab veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. I can understand Hillel refusing to host speakers from the radical fringes. But how are Jewish students supposed to learn anything about Israel if campus Hillels won’t even let them hear from representatives of two of the country’s most mainstream institutions – its elected government and its army?
Both Hillels later termed their decisions a “mistake” – most likely under pressure from Hillel International, whose CEO, Eric Fingerhut, was the lead author on Princeton Hillel’s apology. But that doesn’t change the fact that at two leading universities on opposite sides of the country, the Hillel directors, both non-Orthodox rabbis, initially thought canceling the speeches in response to progressive students’ objections was a reasonable decision. Princeton’s Julie Roth thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear an official Israeli government representative try to explain the government’s policies. And Stanford’s Jessica Kirschner – backed, incredibly, by the university’s “pro-Israel” association – thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear from non-Jewish Israelis who don’t agree that Israel is an apartheid state.
American Jewish rabbis and lay leaders obviously have the right to disagree with Israeli policies. But how is any relationship possible if one side won’t even allow the other to be heard? Gagging and boycotts Israel can get from its enemies; it doesn’t need American Jews for that. So if Israel can’t even rely on them to enable interested students to be exposed to mainstream Israeli views, what exactly are they contributing to the Israel-Diaspora relationship? And why, under these circumstances, should Israel have any interest in accommodating their concerns about, say, prayer arrangements at the Western Wall?
Moreover, consider who did step in to allow the Princeton and Stanford speeches to take place as planned – the Orthodox Chabad movement, which, on both campuses, volunteered to host the speakers on very short notice. If Orthodox groups are the only ones in America these days even willing to provide a venue for Israelis who deviate from progressive orthodoxy, why wouldn’t Israel give greater weight to Orthodox views than non-Orthodox ones?
Nor is this problem limited to college campuses. The most salient example – one worth revisiting precisely because both sides consider it a turning point in the relationship – was the dispute over the Iranian nuclear deal.
Given the almost wall-to-wall Israeli consensus that the deal was dangerous (despite deep disagreements over how best to oppose it), many Israelis felt no less betrayed by American Jewish support for the deal than many American Jews felt when Israel reneged on the Western Wall compromise two years later. As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told Haaretz, “We went to American Jews and told them that the Iran deal endangers 6 million Jews in Israel, and that it’s not an American political issue, but rather, a matter of Jewish existence, and I don’t need to tell you what happened.” Indeed, absent that sense of betrayal, I suspect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have been more willing to rebuff ultra-Orthodox pressure over the Western Wall.
But policy disagreements I can accept, even on issues of existential importance. What I found far more troubling was liberal American Jews’ reaction to Netanyahu’s efforts to lobby against the deal, which Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz accurately described as follows: “Considering that 70 percent of American Jews had voted for Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s efforts to lead a revolt against him were seen by many in the Jewish community as unconscionable.” Indeed, many prominent American Jews vociferously objected to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the deal, using terms like “humiliated” and “angered” to describe their feelings. Yet somehow, I haven’t heard a word from them against European leaders’ efforts today to lobby Congress to defy President Trump and preserve the deal.
In short, many liberal American Jews didn’t just oppose the Israeli government’s policy, they even objected to the government’s efforts to publicly advocate for its chosen policy. Effectively, they declared that Israel had no right to make its views heard in America if doing so discomfited them.
Many liberal Jews remain staunch supporters of Israel. Yet the ranks of the Roths and Kirschners seem to be growing every year. And though Israel and Diaspora Jewry can survive disagreements about policy, if liberal American Jews aren’t even willing to hear what Israeli Jews think, and provide a platform for others to hear it, the relationship will be over. I continue to think that would be tragedy. But you cannot have a relationship with people who don’t even acknowledge your right to speak – even if those people are your family.
Originally published in Commentary on November 15, 2017
While some Israeli minorities might plausibly say this (ultra-Orthodox Jews upset by American Jewish pressure for religious pluralism, radical leftists upset by American Jewish support for Israel), it’s hard to see those minorities alone adding up to 21 percent of respondents. But why would any mainstream Israelis, who have traditionally been appreciative of Diaspora Jews’ political and financial support for Israel, now feel that overseas Jewry has become a negative factor, a force contributing to social divisions?
If I had to answer in four words, I’d say “the New Israel Fund.” But the NIF is merely the most visible face of a deeper problem, as demonstrated by another shocking poll released last month: Mainstream American Jews are increasingly siding with Israel’s enemies on issues that many Israelis consider fundamental to their country’s well-being.
The poll in question, by the American Jewish Committee, surveyed American Jewish opinion on a range of issues. But two questions were particularly noteworthy.
The first asked respondents what they thought about moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Supporting the embassy move used to be a mainstream American Jewish position. Yet in this poll, only 16 percent of respondents favored moving it immediately. Even more shocking, only another 36 percent supported moving it “at a later date in conjunction with progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.” A full 44 percent said they didn’t want the embassy moved, period.
Most Israelis want international recognition of Jerusalem as their capital. Palestinians, by contrast, overwhelmingly oppose it. So on an issue where Israelis and Palestinians are clearly at odds, American Jews overwhelmingly opted to side with the Palestinians against Israel. Almost half didn’t want the embassy moved at all, and most of the rest wanted to give the Palestinians de facto veto power over the move–which is the real meaning of saying it should happen only “in conjunction with progress” in peace talks. And needless to say, recognition of Judaism’s holiest city—the focus of Jewish prayers for millennia–as Israel’s capital is hardly a trivial issue.
This same divide was evident on a question about establishing a Palestinian state. Fully 55 percent of the AJC’s respondents said they favor establishing a Palestinian state “in the current situation.” Only 40 percent opposed it.
The “current situation,” lest anyone forget, is one in which Palestinians adamantly refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or drop their demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel; in which every Palestinian party–including Mahmoud Abbas’s supposedly “moderate” Fatah”–lauds anti-Israel terror, incites it, pays generous salaries to terrorists, and educates its children to hate Israel; in which most Palestinians say their ultimate goal isn’t a Palestinian state, but Israel’s eradication; and in which Hamas, one of the two major Palestinian parties, still openly proclaims that goal.
Consequently, as repeated polls have shown, most Israelis believe a Palestinian state under current conditions would be inimical to their well-being. Far from bringing peace, they believe it would simply turn the West Bank into a base for anti-Israel terror, just as Gaza has been since Israel withdrew from that territory in 2005. Thus, on an issue that’s literally life and death for Israelis, a majority of American Jews sided with the Palestinians against mainstream Israelis.
Are most Israelis actually familiar with this poll data? Of course not. But they intuit it from the behavior of one of the most high-profile American Jewish organizations in Israel – the NIF.
The NIF has become toxic not just for Israeli rightists but also centrists and even the soft left. As an example, take Women Wage Peace, a group seeking to mobilize Israeli and Palestinian women to lobby for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In an interview last month, its founders said they decided to stop accepting money from the NIF after their first year in operation because they wanted to broaden their base beyond the hardcore left and feared association with the NIF might drive away the centrists they sought to recruit.
Nor is this surprising. That same month, in response to a tweet asking whether Israel is “an evil country” or “just committing ethnic cleansing on a regular basis,” the NIF’s Israeli president, Talia Sasson, tweeted, “It is both.” Also that month, Ruchama Marton, founder and president of one of the NIF’s best-known grantees, Physicians for Human Rights, published an op-ed in Haaretz advocating for BDS.
In other words, the NIF has no problem with a chief executive who publicly calls Israel “evil” and falsely accuses it of systematic ethnic cleansing. And despite claiming that it doesn’t “fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs,” it has no problem with its grantees’ chief executives publicly promoting BDS. Given this, is it any wonder that even soft-left groups like Women Wage Peace don’t want to be associated with the NIF?
Nor can the NIF be dismissed as a fringe organization. Unlike, say, the widely condemned Jewish Voices for Peace, the NIF is well within the mainstream American Jewish fold; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, today the president of America’s largest Jewish denomination, the Reform movement, used to chair one of its grant committees. And with annual donations topping $26 million in 2016, from a long list of donors, it clearly has a non-negligible support base. It’s not in the top financial tier of American Jewish organizations, but neither is it anywhere near the bottom.
A generation ago, an organization whose executives and grantees spouted anti-Israel canards or advocated anti-Israel boycotts would have been as toxic among American Jews as it was among Israelis. That fact that today’s NIF instead has broad support among American Jewry tells Israelis everything they need to know about how far away from Israel many American Jews have moved.
Given this, it’s not surprising that a growing number of Israelis view Diaspora Jewry negatively. The only question is whether anything can be done to close this widening rift before it’s too late.
Originally published in Commentary on October 24, 2017
Last Friday, for instance, Austria’s national student union passed a motion denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic and saying the movement recalls the Nazis’ economic boycott of Jewish businesses. The resolution also said BDS activists shouldn’t be given funding or venues in which to promote its campaign. The motion, which was pushed in particular by a student group called GRAS (Greens and Alternative Students), passed almost unanimously, with one abstention and no votes against.
The previous week, the Green Party in the German state of Bavaria passed a resolution denouncing BDS as “anti-Semitic, hostile to Israel, reactionary and anti-enlightenment,” adding that it “reproduces the National Socialist slogan, ‘Don’t buy from Jews!’” The resolution, introduced by the party’s youth wing, also urged the national Green Party not to cooperate with BDS. Given that some prominent Green Party members have actively promoted anti-Israel boycotts, this uncompromising denunciation effectively amounts to a grassroots revolt.
And this week, the Left Party in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, decided not to consider a motion urging Israel “to end the occupation and the Gaza blockade” and demanded the European Union end its Association Agreement with Israel due to the blockade and Israel’s West Bank security fence. Given that the Left Party (Die Linke in German) is easily the German party most hostile to Israel, this development is surprising.
The party offered no explanation when it announced the decision on its Twitter account, but Jerusalem Post reporter Benjamin Weinthal suggested it might be related to what Martina Renner, a Left Party member of parliament, said about the resolution earlier this month. The “motion sounds like it was written from Israel boycott groups,” Renner said. “From this the executive board of @dielinke clearly distances itself.” Renner’s statement left no room for doubt: Even the Left Party wants nothing to do with BDS and anti-Israel boycotts.
All these examples have something in common: The anti-BDS push is coming precisely from the groups that are normally least sympathetic to Israel–leftists and young people. In other words, BDS is losing not just among groups that could be expected to oppose it, like the U.S. Congress, but among the very demographic that ought to be its principal bastion of support.
Of course, even many people who oppose boycotting Israel as a whole still think boycotts are acceptable as long as they target the settlements alone. The problem, as the UNHRC blacklist makes glaringly obvious, is that this isn’t actually possible.
One of the companies that received a UNHRC warning letter this week, for instance, was Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Why? Because Bezeq provides telephone and internet service to the settlements. Nor is Bezeq unique; many of Israel’s largest companies provide services to the settlements, including the banks, the Mekorot Water Company, the Israel Electric Corporation, and all cell phone operators, because physical and economic infrastructure companies are expected to provide service to all Israelis.
Moreover, the blacklist as compiled by the UNHRC and other BDS advocates also defines East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as “settlements.” In other words, to satisfy the boycotters, Israeli companies wouldn’t merely have to stop providing essential services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank; they’d also have to stop providing services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Israel’s capital, not to mention the tens of thousands of non-Jewish, non-Israelis living in both eastern Jerusalem and the Golan. Complying with the boycott would, thus, cause a humanitarian crisis of major proportions –and, therefore, it isn’t going to happen.
Until now, because most boycott initiatives have been small-scale, it’s been possible for people who advocate “just boycotting the settlements” to ignore what that actually means. The irony is large-scale initiatives like the UNHRC blacklist, by publicly spelling out exactly what it entails, make it much harder for people to keep ignoring the truth: that “boycotting the settlements” actually means boycotting Israel.
Nevertheless, this realization isn’t going to sink in without a lot of work on the part of both the Israeli government and Jewish and pro-Israel activists worldwide. Indeed, that’s one of the main lessons of the victories to date.
When the BDS movement first emerged, many well-meaning people advocated ignoring it rather than fighting it on the grounds that fighting it would simply inflate the importance of an otherwise insignificant movement. But victories like those of the past few weeks show why that strategy was wrong. The growing understanding that BDS is anti-Semitic didn’t happen because Israel and overseas activists ignored the movement; it happened because both the Israeli government and overseas activists relentlessly explained the connection between boycotting Israel and anti-Semitism. And a similar effort will be needed to explain that “boycotting the settlements” is just a euphemism for boycotting Israel.
Even though large swaths of polite society are now perfectly comfortable with anti-Semitism as long as they can tell themselves it’s just “anti-Zionism” or “fighting the occupation,” open avowals of anti-Semitism are still taboo. Once stripped of the comforting pretense that it’s not anti-Semitic, BDS will be finished. And groups like the Austrian student union and the Bavarian Green Party are now tearing that pretense to shreds.
Originally published in Commentary on October 18, 2017
Last week, the German Interior Ministry released a report on anti-Semitism which stated that during the first eight months of this year, a whopping 92 percent of anti-Semitic incidents were committed by right-wing extremists. That sounded suspicious for two reasons, which I’ll get to later, but since I don’t speak German, I couldn’t scrutinize the report for myself. Fortunately, the German daily Die Welt found the results equally suspicious, and this week, Benjamin Weinthal of the Jerusalem Post reported on some of the problems it flagged.
Weinthal explained that in a federal report on anti-Semitism issued by the German government earlier this year, “the crime of ‘Jew-hatred’ is classified in the category of ‘politically motivated right-wing extremist crime.’” But once Jew-hatred has been declared a right-wing crime by definition, most of its perpetrators will inevitably be classified as far-right extremists, even if they shouldn’t be.
Die Welt cited one particularly blatant example from summer 2014 when Israel was at war with Hamas in Gaza. The war sparked numerous anti-Israel protests, and during one, 20 Hezbollah supporters shouted the Nazi slogan “Sieg Heil” at pro-Israel demonstrators in Berlin. Hezbollah supporters are Islamic extremists, not neo-Nazis, even if they chose to taunt German Jews by hurling Nazi slogans at them. Nevertheless, the incident was classified as a far-right extremist crime, thereby neatly removing a case of Islamic anti-Semitism from the statistics.
There are two good reasons for thinking the linguistic acrobatics, in this case, represents the rule rather than the exception. First, a 2014 study of 14,000 pieces of hate mail sent over a 10-year period to the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Israeli embassy in Berlin found that only three percent came from far-right extremists. Over 60 percent came from the educated mainstream–professors, PhDs, lawyers, priests, university and high-school students. And these letters were definitely anti-Semitic rather than merely anti-Israel; they included comments such as “It is possible that the murder of innocent children suits your long tradition?” and “For the last 2,000 years, you’ve been stealing land and committing genocide.”
Sending hate mail is an anti-Semitic incident in its own right, even if it’s not reported to the police (as most of these letters undoubtedly weren’t). Thus unless you want to make the dubious claim that Germany’s educated mainstream–unlike that of other Western countries–consists largely of far-right extremists, it’s clear that far-right extremists aren’t the only people actively committing anti-Semitic acts.
Second, in other Western European countries, Islamic extremists are a major source of anti-Semitic crime. Thus it’s hard to believe that Germany–which, as several terror attacks over the last two years have shown, is hardly devoid of such extremists–would be the one exception to this rule. In contrast, it’s easy to believe the German government would manipulate its definitions to downplay Islamic anti-Semitism because German courts have already done the same.
In perhaps the most notorious case, a German court ruled in 2015 that three Palestinians who firebombed a synagogue in July 2014 didn’t commit an anti-Semitic crime, but were merely trying to draw “attention to the Gaza conflict.” That ruling was upheld by an appeals court earlier this year. I can’t imagine a German court ruling that firebombing a church to draw attention to, say, the U.S. war in Iraq was a mere political expression rather than a hate crime. But neither the lower court nor the appellate one saw anything anti-Semitic about bombing a Jewish house of worship to protest Israel’s actions (the men were convicted of vandalizing the synagogue, but given only suspended sentences). So presto, Islamic anti-Semitism has been eliminated from the picture.
Far-right anti-Semitism is, of course, real. But so are left-wing and Islamic anti-Semitism. And by pretending the latter two don’t exist, the German government has made it impossible to combat those types of anti-Semitism effectively, since you can’t fight something whose very existence you refuse to acknowledge.
This might not matter to Berlin; the German government clearly cares more about fighting the far right than fighting anti-Semitism, and evidently considers redefining all Jew-hatred as right-wing extremism a legitimate means to that end. But it ought to matter to Jews of every political stripe.
Thus both sides of the American Jewish community need to call out Germany on its whitewash. They should also avoid replicating its despicable practice of redefining anti-Semitism to suit its own political purposes since doing so will only allow the strains of anti-Semitism they deny to metastasize. And in the end, as history has proven time and again, neither right-wing nor left-wing anti-Semites offer immunity to any Jew, even when they’re on the same political side.
Originally published in Commentary on September 12, 2017