December 13, 2011
Can Israel survive without the backing of American Jewry?
There’s an interesting conversation that’s been going on between Jeff Goldberg and Spencer Ackerman on whether Israel can or can’t survive without the support of American Jewry. Interesting - mainly because it has so very little basis in any reality. These two gifted writes engage in a serious conversation over a topic that doesn’t exist.
And I’ll give you just a handful of examples.
Goldberg started by arguing that “we’re only a few years away, at most, from a total South-Africanization” of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Maybe he’s right, maybe not. I’m not sure what “few years” might mean – Israel is occupying the West Bank for more than forty years. Can “few” be another forty? Another twenty? Another three? (I’d ask the same question on Ackerman’s contention that “there is very little time left on Israel’s demographic clock before Zionism faces a full-blown crisis”). And what exactly is “total South-Africanization”? Israelis do not disenfranchise Palestinian on the basis of race. In fact, they do not disenfranchise Palestinians at all if these Palestinians are the citizens of Israel. Israel is an occupier of territory in which people reside who aren’t citizens of Israel and will never be (not even if American Jews decide that they should – which I don’t think is about to happen, well, not for a “few years” anyway). And Israel does prevent those Palestinians from becoming an independent nation for many reasons – chief among them the reasonable claim that such a nation will pose a security threat to Israel (such as the one Israel now faces from Gaza).
Goldberg also writes that Israel has to “find a way to reverse the settlement process and bring about the conditions necessary to see the birth of a Palestinian state”. This sentence is problematic as it ties together two arguments – one probably valid, the other one not valid – as if they were one. Yes, Israel should be stricter about enforcing a settlement policy that is reality-based, namely, keep building in the “blocs” it intends to keep and halt investment in other places.
However, the claim that Israel has to “bring about the conditions necessary to see the birth of a Palestinian state” is absurd, but very common. It is the claim that confuses the roles of the two peoples and the obligations of the two governments. Palestinians - if they wish to have a state - are the ones who need to “bring about the conditions” for such a state. Israel – or the Israeli government – needs to take care of, well, Israeli interests. I’m sure that in Goldberg’s mind, a Palestinian state might be an Israeli interest, but the fact of the matter is this: While many Israeli governments had seen the light and accepted that a Palestinian state should eventually emerge, no Israeli government thus far thought conditions for such a state could be met. Is it because Israelis in their heart of hearts are all “South African” racists? Is it because Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres, Barak and Olmert, are no different than Shamir and Netanyahu and Sharon? I don’t think it is – I think it is because all of them understood that their first priority is Israel’s security, and that a Palestinian state is first and foremost a Palestinian priority.
On the basis of this flawed discussion about what Ackerman bluntly describes as “apartheid Israel” the two writers move to debate the question of American Jewish and American Christian support for Israel. Again, an interesting theoretical debate with very little basis in reality.
Ackerman writes: “Israel, I am sad to say, needs its American benefactor pushing it to divest itself of Palestine through a negotiated settlement. But Post-Jewish Zionism sees the Israeli divestment of Palestine as an undesirable outcome.” Again, the trick is to mix a true claim and false claim as if they were one. Yes, American Christian Zionists aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of “Israeli divestment of Palestine”. But no, Israel doesn’t need its “American benefactor” to push it to “divest itself of Palestine”. When Ariel Sharon decided to leave Gaza he was doing it because of internal dynamics within Israel. When Ehud Barak decided to withdraw the IDF forces from Southern Lebanon it was for similar reasons (and also because he believed that such a maneuver would help him facilitate peace with Assad’s Syria). When Israelis say in survey after survey that they’d be willing to give West Bank land for real peace they don’t do it because they worry about the “American benefactor”. If fact, time and again it was proved that Israel tends to give more when it feels it has the total backing of the US, and tends to be more paranoid and less inclined to compromise when it doesn’t feel it has the total backing of the US.
In other words: An Israel that has to rely on the American Ackermans would be less inclined to compromise for peace than an Israel that relies on the American Hagees.
This leads me to the final point, where I agree with Goldberg that “If the bottom falls out of American Jewish support for Israel, I don’t think evangelical Christians would fill the gap”, but I would have to say that I do not agree with his other claim, “that Israel will not survive for very long without the active support of American Jewry” (again, one should ask: how long exactly is “a very long time”).
By saying this, I’m not trying to minimize the importance of American Jewish support for Israel. Such support is crucial. And I am not trying to minimize the impact of such a devastating reality on the state of Judaism. The connection between the two largest and most important Jewish communities of the era is dear to my heart. And I’m not trying to argue that Israel would not suffer if it loses Jewish American support – because it will. I do argue, though, that Goldberg’s and others’ trigger-happy tendency to question the long term survival of Israel says more about their apprehensions than about Israel’s chances for survival (Goldberg notably did it three years ago with his “Will Israel Live to 100” Atlantic cover piece).
Obviously, Israel would rather survive with the support of US Jewry and not without it (by the way, the only real evidence pointing at declining US Jewish support for Israel is the writings of some prominent columnists - so maybe it is not the support for Israel that is declining but rather the influence of such writers on American Jewry. Just a thought). Israel would improve its chances for survival by having the backing of US Jewry. Israel should diligently work to keep having the backing of US Jewry.
But will Israel not survive without the support of US Jewry? – I think there’s a strong case to be made that it’s the other way around: If American Jews cease from supporting Israel, it is American Judaism that might not survive.
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