Mosaic magazine has been running a fascinating series about why American Jews are drifting away from Israel. All the contributors (correctly) ascribed this drift primarily to the dilution of American Jewish identity through a combination of rampant intermarriage and attempts “to universalize every aspect of Judaism,” as one contributor, Jack Wertheimer, put it. But among the secondary factors contributing to this development, one has been oddly overlooked: the difference in lived experience between Israeli Jews, still surrounded by enemies who truly want to kill them, and American Jews, currently enjoying an era of (possibly short-lived) safety almost unprecedented in Diaspora Jewish experience. To understand just how significant this experience of safety is, it’s worth comparing American Jewish attitudes with those of Jewish communities in Europe.
Haaretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer, who covers European Jewish communities extensively for his paper, once summarized attitudes toward Israel as follows: “the further east you go, all the way to the Caucasus, Jews become steadily more right-wing, more stridently pro-Israel, and less prepared to countenance any form of concessions or compromise towards Israel’s enemies and rivals.” Nor is the reason hard to find: In places where anti-Semitism and persecution are lived experiences or fairly recent memories, Jews consider a strong Israel an asset.
Pfeffer said Russian and Ukrainian Jews have told him that “When Israel bombs Gaza and kills Palestinians, our neighbors here fear and respect us.” But there’s a simpler reason why Jews who feel threatened want Israel to be strong: A strong Israel is one that will still be around to welcome them if the day comes when they need someplace to flee. And many European Jews consider this a real possibility.
Daniel Ben-Simon, who wrote a book about French Jews’ response to anti-Semitism, estimated back in 2012 that “almost one in two French Jews maintains a residence in Israel. It’s a sort of insurance policy, just in case the situation in France gets even worse.” Today, some of those Jews have started moving: Immigration to Israel hit a 15-year high last year, and French Jews led the pack, with 7,900 immigrants, an all-time peak.
Not far behind, however, were Ukraine and Russia (7,000 and 6,000, respectively), where Jews were fleeing political instability, economic turmoil and conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is particularly noteworthy because intermarriage rates in Ukraine and Russia are even higher than in America, and many immigrants from those countries are either intermarried themselves or the children or grandchildren of intermarriages. In other words, the drift away from Israel caused by intermarriage in America hasn’t been replicated in Eastern Europe, for the simple reason that there, unlike in America, intermarried Jews and their children can still imagine needing the refuge Israel provides.
The anomaly of American Jews’ feelings of safety is also reflected in voting patterns. Not long ago, Jews in other Western countries supported left-leaning parties as reliably as American Jews did. But today, they are increasingly shifting their support to center-right parties; in Britain, France, Canada and Australia, for instance, most Jews now vote conservative. This isn’t because they’ve become less economically or socially liberal than their American peers; it’s because the specter of anti-Semitism (initially masquerading as anti-Zionism) has suddenly risen from its very shallow grave and is concentrated mainly in two communities: Muslims and the hard left. A prime example is the recent spate of anti-Semitism scandals in Britain’s Labour party, which prompted former BBC director Danny Cohen to declare last weekend that he couldn’t imagine any Jew voting Labour today: “it would be like being a Muslim and voting for Donald Trump, how could you do it?” Thus outside America, Jews have increasingly reverted to the age-old practice of voting for the party they think will protect them.
And this brings us to a third reason why Jews who feel less secure are more likely to sympathize with Israel: Anyone who has experienced insecurity understands that sometimes it leaves you with no good choices; only a choice between two evils. How, for instance, is a British Jew to vote if he loathes the Tories’ economic and social policies but also abhors Labour’s increasingly open anti-Semitism? For him, both choices are bad; he can only try to pick the lesser evil.
And having faced that situation, he’s more likely to understand that Israel, too, faces unpalatable choices in dealing with very real threats. The status quo in the West Bank clearly isn’t ideal, but withdrawing would likely make the situation worse, as it did in Gaza. Bombing Gaza in response to Hamas rockets isn’t ideal, but letting Hamas bombard southern Israel with impunity would be worse.
American Jews never experienced as much anti-Semitism as their European counterparts did, but even for them, fear of persecution was at least a living memory until recently. They had parents or grandparents who fled persecution in Europe, or who had experienced the genteel anti-Semitism of the “gentleman’s agreement,” whereby Jews were quietly excluded from many American companies, hotels, clubs and even colleges.
Thus, those American Jews could still imagine needing Israel as a refuge – if not for themselves, then at least for their brethren in Europe. They could still feel, like Ukrainian and Russian Jews today, that Israel’s military victories made them more respected by their neighbors (it’s no accident that American Jews’ affection for Israel soared after its stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War). And they could still understand that Israel, confronted by enemies who genuinely want to destroy it, has no ideal solutions available; instead, it must choose among multiple evils.
Given what is happening on American campuses nowadays, I’m not convinced those bad old days won’t return. But for now, basking in the safety America has provided, too many American Jews have forgotten the lessons of millennia of Jewish history. And in the process, they have also forgotten one of the key universal values they so pride themselves on upholding, that of compassion for those not blessed with similar safety – all the Jews who may yet need the refuge Israel provides, and the Jews busy ensuring that refuge will still exist when it’s needed.
Originally published in Commentary on April 20, 2016