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In ‘The Nation,’ Birnbaum says Netanyahu has exposed Jews to dual loyalty charge (and Dennis Ross is an Israeli agent)

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There has been more pushback against Netanyahu from Jewish Democrats. Barney Frank and Henry Waxman are appalled by his intervention in our political process.

Netanyahu’s error was exposing American Jews to a dual loyalty charge. American Jews don’t want that suspicion; but Netanyahu’s appeals to Jewish voters created it.

There is a fascinating piece up at The Nation in which Norman Birnbaum, sociologist and Georgetown University prof emeritus, accuses Netanyahu of recklessness in exposing American Jews to such charges. Birnbaum lays out the basis for the concern: Zionism is a transnational ideology, dependent on a foreign power, and therefore on Diaspora Jews. And though Birnbaum is obviously troubled by the Israel lobby’s role in U.S. politics, he chooses his words carefully, as if people are about to be accused. He says the lobby is hardly representative of American Jewry; it calls on the most “ethnocentric” of Jews. He says that Protestants are a “pillar” of the lobby, but also that Protestants are about to walk away. 

The exciting bits are at the end of my excerpts. First, Birnbaum’s biopsy of American Jewish attitudes:


Unconditional support for Israel among American Jews is a substitute for the faith of our fathers. Generally, that support is strongest among those who live in a predominantly Jewish milieu. Those who are out and about in American society tend to have more differentiated views….

That debate has moved from the margins to near the center of American Jewish consciousness. The fervid supporters of Israel continue to embarrass the rest of us, as in the attempt to ban criticism of Israel in our colleges and universities as ipso facto “anti-Semitic.” Opinion polling, and every other sort of inquiry, suggest that a majority of American Jews are so rooted in this country that Israel’s fate does not determine or dominate their entire being, including their politics….

Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, among others, have certainly bought attention by throwing their money around, but no amount of money can erase the grossness of their ethnocentrism…

Groups and individuals espousing critical views of Israel’s policies have always been part of the American Jewish landscape. In Israel’s early years, the American Jewish Committee and any number of publicists, rabbis and scholars insisted that their primary loyalty was to the United States, and they warned the Israelis not to seek total support from American Jewry or to interfere in American affairs. At present, J Street is the most audible of American Jewish groups critical of Israel’s policies, but it limps behind events. It espouses a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a solution that is blocked by Jewish settlements. Indeed, few in the Jewish community are prepared to acknowledge the obvious: Unless some hundreds of thousands of Jewish inhabitants of Palestine move back to Israel, the two peoples, Arab and Jewish, will remain joined—but not forever. 

….Even some of the more critical American Jewish supporters of Israel are reluctant to examine these problematic aspects of Israel’s future.

…The leaders of the American Jewish organizations understand American public life as a system of group bargaining. What will they do when more and more of their gentile interlocutors (a movement already well advanced in some of the mainline Protestant churches) declare that American values require criticism of Israel? No amount of funding of not exceptionally gifted legislators (think of Senators Jon Kyl and Mark Kirk) can replace dealing with fundamental conflicts of political value. ….

Uncritical support for Israel among the more ethnocentric segments of the Jewish community and among the most culturally closed groups in gentile America is no compensation for the increasing readiness of much of American Protestantism to take its distance. 

Now here’s his analysis of how Netanyahu has exposed the Jewish community in ways that it will find extremely uncomfortable. He’s too careful here; but he knows that Americans who have had their careers destroyed for criticizing Israel are angry about it, and he believes they might have the last word. Note his acknowledgment that the Israel lobby has been guilty of dual loyalty, and his warning to Jews about avoiding that trap. “It ill becomes us to devalue [our contributions to American life] by assigning priority to agreement with Israel’s agenda, formed in a society not ours.”

Netanyahu’s exceedingly undiplomatic diplomacy will strengthen those in the [U.S.] permanent government [he means gentiles, mostly] who have long been angered by the supporters of Israel. Some have paid for their dissent from total alignment of US policy with that of Israel with difficulties in their careers. Those who have chosen discretion are not, on that account, devoid of resentment. The historically reflective among them argue that a general re-evaluation of our policy in the Middle East cannot be effective without a serious reconsideration of the alliance. They favor not its termination but the gradual development of distance. That would require refusing Israel a free hand in the occupied territories. The supporters of Israel themselves, in their frenetic demand that there be “no daylight” between US and Israeli policies, seem to think the possibility of alteration real enough….

The retirement of Dennis Ross, who served as Middle East adviser under several presidents, Democratic and Republican, is evidence for the loss of influence of the more egregious of Israel’s American agents. Netanyahu appears to have ignored the significance of his departure. It was tactless of Netanyahu to use Romney’s visit to Israel to ask—yet again—for the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of espionage in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison for passing secrets to Israel while serving as a US intelligence analyst. ..

By raising the matter of Pollard, Netanyahu has also raised the question of double loyalties—not a simple matter for American Jewry, but one that is inevitably entailed in any serious discussion of the relations of the Diaspora to Israel. What would our lives be like if every Jewish applicant for a post in government, or in the academy or media, was suspected of considering it an obligation to serve Israel? 

…The Jewish Americans most committed to assisting Israel argue that it is unfair to charge them with a conflict of loyalties…

Impelled by a diverse set of motives, including recollections of the inability of the American Jewish community to come to the assistance of European Jewry in the years 1933–45, the American supporters of Israel have used their cultural and economic success to pursue Israel’s interests in the United States. It is for the Israelis to say whether in the long run military and political dependence upon the United States is the most effective path to their national security. What will they do if Washington should decide, in the coming decades, that present engagements in the Middle East are too expensive and politically risky to be maintained? Israel may not be the first advanced position to be evacuated, but the evacuation will take place: ask Mubarak and the descendants of the Shah of Iran.

Insofar as American Jewry wishes to continue to live in the United States, we are obliged to consider where our true interests lie. They cannot be found in the false prophecy of Benjamin Netanyahu, with his grotesque interpretation of Jewish history. American Jews have achieved security and the respect of our fellow citizens because of the openness of our national institutions and the contributions we have made to national life. It ill becomes us to devalue these by assigning priority to agreement with Israel’s agenda, formed in a society not ours. We will find, shortly, that we have little choice in the matter. An increasing number of our fellow citizens, especially in the more influential segments of the nation, are reconsidering America’s alignment with Israel. As Jews and Americans, we have something to contribute to the discussion—but we do not require advice from an Israeli politician increasingly distrusted by significant parts of his own citizenry. Should the reckless arrogance that Netanyahu reflects actually endanger the existence of Israel, we might wish to have some credit established with our fellow American citizens, the better to assist the Israelis. That is not, unfortunately, as remote a situation as some might think.

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“Netanyahu’s error was exposing American Jews to a dual loyalty charge”

Good morning……. well before that, it was not exposed…..

“The leaders of the American Jewish organizations understand American public life as a system of group bargaining.”

And those groups that are not allowed to participate or are ostracized (white Europeans) will therefore lose by default. Thus we get special preferences and privileges for others, and legal discrimination against white Europeans.

Youve got a much larger insurrection from the resented status quo looming, Mr. Weiss.

Zionism has exposed Jews to a lot worse than dual loyalty.

He’s reading this right. Some have paid for their dissent from total alignment of US policy with that of Israel with difficulties in their careers. Those who have chosen discretion are not, on that account, devoid of resentment. Already happening. Reread quote above. What would our lives be like if every Jewish applicant for a post in government, or in the academy or media, was suspected of considering it an obligation to serve Israel? They… Read more »

I would ask Professor Birnbaum one question. Will Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons make the world a more or less safe place?

BTW. I’ve found a great deal more political wisdom by listening to working class people who live paycheck to paycheck than by listening to tenured academics.