It is difficult to be an American Jewish organization advocating support for Israel today. On the one hand, there is the staunch belief that Israel must be defended at all costs, and that any division will expose a weakness in the united Jewish front. On the other, American Jews traditionally advocate progressive policies in domestic and global affairs, which seemingly contradict their hard-line stances in support of an Israeli government that is apt to reject such liberalism. At a time when Israel is led by a government that is steering it toward unending conflict, and whose actions are threatening Israel's Jewish and democratic nature, much of the American Jewish community today is merely echoing the Netanyahu government's talking points. While unity has kept the Jewish world strong throughout the Diaspora, if it is perpetuated through blind support of misguided policies, it could severely undermine Israel's national security in the name of misplaced sense of unity.
The instinct to unify is one that is ingrained in Jews the world over. This heritage of unity goes back not only generations, but millennia. Divisions among the early Israelites are cited as key factors leading to the destruction of the First and Second Temples of ancient Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Hebrews from the Holy Land, and their dispersal throughout the Middle East and Europe, provided the impetus for the elevated importance of Jewish community for centuries. Whether by choice or by force, Jewish communities banded together to survive the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, of course, the Holocaust and the eventual creation of the Yishuv in what would become the State of Israel. Jewish holidays like Hanukkah and Purim celebrate the success of the Jewish people being saved from the threat of destruction, others like Tisha B'av and Yom Ha'shoah commemorate those periods when Jews failed to do so.
The psyche of a people with a history under almost constant siege has served as the key unifying agent between Israel and the American Jewish community. The narrative of the Jewish people surrounded by hostile enemies, and needing the constant support and vigilance of its brethren to survive, is indeed a powerful one. Today, when faced with the threat of a nuclear Iran, Israeli and American Jewish leaders are often quick to compare the current period to 1939 in an effort to demonstrate the urgent need to safeguard a Jewish people under the threat of annihilation.
Of course, the State of Israel was supposed to change all this. The Zionist ideology was about Jews not cowering in fear of those who would threaten them, but rather about binding together in strength to create a great nation that would proactively serve to protect and defend the Jewish people. And build a great nation they did. Nearly 63 years after the creation of the modern Jewish state, Israel enjoys one of the world's greatest militaries, strong economy despite the worldwide downturn, most advanced technologically and an unprecedented partnership with the global superpower, the United States. In short, today the Jewish people may be more secure, and better off, than ever before.
But the sense of vulnerability within Israel, and among Jews worldwide, has become so deeply engrained that it is hard to recover. Even dissent against Israeli policies which threaten to upend its remarkable accomplishments is intolerable. Those that do so have often been shunted, sidelined and all but discredited completely within their communities. Rather than face such 'excommunication,' many Jews choose therefore to be silent when it comes to Israel -- but their silence is in turn interpreted as acquiescence and even support. This cycle has, at times, become so out-of-hand that Jewish advocates of Israel have surpassed even Israeli hardliners in their defense of the Jewish state and their support for misguided policies. In the past decade, American Jews have contributed over $200 million to West Bank settlements whose more than 500,000 inhabitants -- many with American passports -- serve as central obstacles to a two-state solution that would secure Israel's democracy as a Jewish state. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is known to have questioned whether he would obtain support from American Jewish leaders in launching the Oslo peace process in 1993. In the midst of pursuing a peace process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was met with a proposition by the World Jewish Congress demanding that any negotiations on Jerusalem be approved by the Diaspora Jewish community. And, while American Jews do have a measure of influence in Congress, advocates of the Jewish state vociferously deny the often-inflated extent of their influence, while at the same time using the specter of such power to advance their agenda.
This strategy is backfiring against Israel and the United States. Take the recent United States veto of the United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. Israel and the Jewish community have considered the veto a major victory for Israel, and for the U.S.-Israel relationship. But in truth, it is a defeat. Had Prime Minster Netanyahu been truly committed to a two-states solution, he could have used the resolution as cover to press forward a new peace agenda, with the support of the United States. Or, American Jews could have promoted that the United States support the resolution but ensure that it would serve to oversee its implementation as step toward jumpstarting the dormant peace process. Instead, Israel -- and the United States -- is even more isolated than it was before, and the mediation and influence of the United States, Israel's most critical benefactor and ally, is being questioned as never before. Even more, as a result of the veto, the notions of Jewish power and conspiracy have again reached a fever pitch, providing fuel to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.
In truth, the U.S. decided to veto the resolution for its own reasons. The Obama Administration recognizes that an Israel on the defensive is one that is unlikely to take courageous steps toward peace. It is also true that the United States vetoed the resolution with an eye toward domestic politics. However, those who point to a supposedly all-powerful Jewish lobby as the key source of the Administration's concerns are mistaken. In a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans indicted that they sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians, the highest ratings of support for Israel since 1991. American Jews make up only 2.2 percent of the United States -- support for Israel is an American interest, certainly not strictly a Jewish one.
Even so, American Jews have an important voice, and they are failing to use it effectively. To be sure, while a united Jewish people is important, and even critical for the continued survival and growth of global Jewry and its relationship with Israel, this relationship should be based on a shared vision of the future, not on the vulnerability and fears that have characterized the past. American Jews should use their voice today to communicate a different path for the future of Israel's relations with the United States and the Diaspora -- and there is no better time to start than now.
With the Arabs of the Middle East rising up against their corrupt dictators and demanding freedom and opportunity, the Arab world will be increasingly more confident and forward-looking than ever. Israel's neighbors clearly will continue to lag behind the Jewish state for the foreseeable future, but as they regain their footing, they will eventually look again to the continued conflict with Israel. That is why Israel, and its brethren in the Diaspora, should not be caught obsessively preparing for the challenges of the past when it could be grasping the opportunity being presented today by the changes occurring in its neighborhood.
American Jews must open their eyes -- and help Israel to do the same -- to witness the unpleasant realities of the region and the state, and to recognize that they will not disappear simply because they are wished away. Israel and world Jewry today are acting like a reckless gambler, unnecessarily risking the future even though Israel already has the chips it needs to realize all its dreams -- if both sides could only open their eyes and grasp them.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 3/18/2011.
Follow Alon Ben-Meir on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlonBenMeir