The partisan divide over Israel has never been greater (as Pew documented this week). Republicans love Israel, while Democrats are ambivalent. The difference represents a fundamental political divide: Democratic liberals know about the occupation and they don’t like it, and that’s driving them to have far greater solidarity with Palestinians than Israelis, by nearly two to one.
You might think that the liberal Democratic shift would hearten liberal Zionists who are trying to end the occupation. Finally, U.S. politicians will criticize Israel, and force change. But no; there is panic among liberal Zionists writing in the Forward. More than they hate the occupation, they hate the possibility of Israel turning into a political football. For that could lead to Israel ultimately losing its protection by the U.S. from all international criticism.
They warn that Jews must stick together, because that is how we exercise power, by speaking in one voice to the U.S. establishment.
Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward, wrote last week, “Trump Has Handed The Israel Lobby To Evangelicals. That’s Terrifying.” What’s terrifying to Eisner is the possibility that a powerful institution Jews built, the lobby, will be undermined: “as ‘pro-Israel’ becomes synonymous with conservative Republicans, American Jews — still largely identified with the Democratic party — will move away,” she says.
Eisner urges American Jews to stay true to the lobby. “[T]here are many ways to love and support Israel,” she says, even if you don’t like Netanyahu; and she tells Jews there’s an organization for them: AIPAC.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee remains the largest, richest and dominant Israel lobby in Washington, and its “big tent” approach still defines support for Israel in Congress and beyond. AIPAC prides itself on being bipartisan, and its annual convention attracts scores and scores of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. While the number of yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jews attending that convention has increased over the years, AIPAC still finds support in all Jewish religious denominations, and has actively courted other faith groups into its fold.
But after Trump’s unlikely victory, AIPAC is now directly challenged by Christians United for Israel, an evangelical lobby with a more hard-line and partisan approach that aligns with those setting the agenda in the White House.
AIPAC has long supported settlements and occupation and discrimination– whatever the Israeli government wants. But if AIPAC loses Democratic Jews, then Israel will become politicized; and Israel could come under a lot of pressure. Eisner is endorsing the idea that the lobby is an institution of Jewish influence, on the Democratic side anyway (and she downplays Sheldon Adelson’s influence on the right).
Yehuda Kurtzer, a Zionist speaker who appears at J Street gatherings, issued a very similar warning in the Forward this week: “The biggest threat to the Jews? The Partisan divide.”
Kurtzer says “Jewish power” derives from Jews sticking together.
People don’t like talking about Jewish power out loud because, despite good intentions, it either sounds anti-Semitic itself or gives fodder for anti-Semites. But Jewish power in America has been essential to Jewish thriving in America, and it has required instruments of solidarity — and specifically, the technique of presenting to the rest of the world an image, even if a facade, of communal unity.
That is an astute analysis. But as Kurtzer concedes, Jews now feel secure enough in the U.S. that they don’t need to huddle in a Jewish collective. And this loss of collective identity concerns him:
I fear that the foundations of Jewish power in America, which in turn allow individuals to thrive in American politics, depend more heavily on this group identity than its critics like to admit.
Israel is obviously near the root of Kurtzer’s concern. When Jews don’t collectivize as Jews, some of them make coalitions with “anti-Semites on the left.” Those coalitions, he says, “give a pass to violence against Jews in the name of anti-Zionism, and… otherwise discredit the Jewish national rights that are accorded to all other ethnic groups.”
That’s pretty much the same thing centrist and rightwing Zionists say about anti-Zionists. Kurtzer is angered by Jewish Voice for Peace, for delegitimizing Israeli democracy.
Both Kurtzer and Eisner are nostalgic for the age when Jews lobbied together and suppressed their differences. Americans for Peace Now would seem to have a similar rationale, I presume: that being a member of the Conference of Presidents, and therefore on the board of AIPAC, is justified because Jews will only have influence if they speak with one voice. Though AIPAC and the Conference have supported the settlement project that APN has so vigorously documented and opposed.
The next generation of Jews doesn’t place the Jewish collective over liberal coalitions. Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow both demonstrate against AIPAC and the Jewish establishment. These young people have chosen solidarity with Palestinians over solidarity with Zionists; and it seems to be moving the Democratic base.
Eisner and Kurtzner’s panic is in the end an expression of the crisis of Zionism. After 50 years of occupation, you’re either with Netanyahu/Trump or against them. The middle ground is disappearing.