Analysis from Israel

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

One Response to The Embassy, the NIF, and the U.S.-Israeli Jewish divide

  • Ricky S says:

    EG writes that a Palestinian State would “simply turn the West Bank into a base for anti-Israel terror”. Actually, it could be a base for full-scale warfare, not just small terror actions.

    Iran has already stated it wants to supply weapons to the West Bank, as it does to Gaza and Hezbollah. A new Arab state would build a runway and Iranian military transports would land and unload weapons nearly every day. Hamas is already trying to take over the Arab West Bank, and the Iranian “Corridor to the Sea” is moving Hezbollah closer day by day. So Hezbollah, the Iranian “Foreign Legion”, would also be active in the Palestinian State, perhaps as active as in Lebanon.

    A war between Israel and Iran is on the horizon. I expect Iran to try to widen their corridor at the expense of Jordan. This would bring Hezbollah closer to Israel.

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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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