I’ve been reading Amos Oz’s books since his death, and one of the feelings he leaves me with is: Self-contempt. Many of Oz’s characters look on American Jews with disdain. “To be without power is, in my eyes, both a sin and a catastrophe. It’s the sin of exile, and Diaspora,” says one. Another says that Diaspora Jews “shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of… life.”
The message is clear. Jews in the west are half-made because they never had to fight. They haven’t served in the Israeli army, at the front line of reborn Jewish sovereignty. But those exiled Jews derive pride and strength from the armed Jewish nation; Israel has given them international prestige. Because once Jews went like sheep to slaughter, we formed lines to get on the cattle cars. Now we are a proud nation.
But those exiled Jews have no skin in the game. They are living comfortable idle existences. Getting up like me this morning and going to my desk.
This is the core truth of the Israel lobby. The American Jews feel guilty that they are not on the front lines. They are lesser; the Hebrew language even describes Jews who leave Israel as such: yordim, lower. So they must do everything they can for the higher, fighting Jews of Israel. Raise money for Israel, buy off politicians, make sure that the U.S. government sticks by Israel through thick and thin and every massacre too.
It’s no wonder the first thing anyone tells you about the Israel lobby group J Street is that its executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami’s late father fought with the Irgun, the militia that committed terrorist acts to end British control of Palestine. Jeremy Ben-Ami is Zionist royalty.
And Tzipi Livni a supposed Israeli liberal got the main stage at J Street to lie about Israeli soldiers’ accountability for war crimes, and all the older Americans murmur to one another with reverence, Her parents were in the Irgun. Tzipi Livni is Zionist royalty.
It’s been this way for a long time. American Jews may be peaceniks here but they can’t criticize Israel beyond the mild demurral.
Back in 1967, Lyndon Johnson said that rabbis who were lobbying him to move the Sixth Fleet to the Gulf of Aqaba for Israel wouldn’t give him a screwdriver to send to Vietnam. The poet Robert Lowell saw his New York intellectual friends making the same somersault: “We had a great wave of New York Jewish nationalism, all the doves turning into hawks.”
Ten years later Jimmy Carter made the mistake of thinking that because American Jews were liberals they would side with him against Israel’s new rightwing prime minister Menachem Begin when Carter was challenging Begin over settlements. Carter was wrong. The religious ethnic national tie was stronger.
Israel had made American Jews proud, they were in for a dime or a million dollars. “We Are One!” wrote the historian Melvin Urofsky.
Philip Roth heard it from his father. “’Now they’ll think twice before they pull our beards!’ Militant, triumphant Israel was to his aging circle of Jewish friends their avenger for the centuries and centuries of humiliating oppression.”
Then Americans elected a rightwing nationalist president with fascist tendencies and some liberals thought the big American Jewish organizations would work against Donald Trump. No. They stuck with Trump so he would stick with Israel.
It’s my “Jewish duty” to be friendly with the Trump administration, explained David Harris of the American Jewish Committee— so that we keep Trump’s ear when we push Israel.
AIPAC says the same thing: There must never be daylight between the White House and the Israeli government. So that means holding both sides in a tight embrace.
The American guilt trip never ends. At Any and Every Israel lobby event someone is sure to cut off criticism by leaning into a microphone and saying, We don’t live over there. Our sons and daughters don’t go into the army, it’s a tough neighborhood, and we can’t really judge the decisions that Israel makes about her security.
Even liberal Zionists honor that code. A progressive NY synagogue gives neoconservatives the stage to tell American liberals to STFU. “Look, it’s easy to sit here on West 86th street.” It’s “cavalier” to “second-guess” Israel. “I believe that as Americans what we can do… is above all stand with Israel against existential threats, terror threats.”
And if the liberals forget to STFU, an Israeli politician is sure to remind them. We live soft lives in the U.S.
Asked in an English-language television interview about criticism of Israeli policies by some U.S. Jews, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely questioned whether “people that never send their children to fight for their country” could understand the “complexity” of the Middle east.
The heroes in the Amos Oz books are the brawny tanned Israeli warriors, who don’t think twice about blowing up “enemy” villages. They go on courageous “reprisal raids” against faceless enemies at night. Arthur Koestler said 80 years ago that European Jews were a “sick race”: because they don’t know how to wield arms and till the soil.
The Jews of the Israel lobby believe this. They think that Israel has figured out the right relationship to the Arab world and we are never to question it. We might suggest some minor changes in the p.r. campaign, but we’re going to hold the bag for you forever.
Massacre all the Palestinians you think it’s necessary to massacre and when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says it’s a massacre, even liberal Zionists will go after her and say she’s not being nuanced enough.
But when Tzipi Livni goes to J Street and says that Any Israeli soldier who did anything ethically wrong on the Gaza border will be prosecuted, she is a hero.
And as for the famous Jewish love of argument—STFU. The Jews who are against Israel must be squashed. They are non Jews or self-hating Jews. You’ll never see an anti-Zionist Jew at J Street except by mistake; and AIPAC doesn’t let anti-Zionist Jews in even to cover their hootenanny.
Because if American Jews divide over Israel it is a signal to American politicians that they can divide over Israel, too. We’re the gatekeepers. Everyone takes their cue from us. “The perception that AIPAC represents a consensus among American Jews has always been a key to its political influence, which explains the group’s sometimes seemingly outsized opposition to Jewish dissent from its line,” writes Doug Rossinow, whose piece on the dark roots of AIPAC in the Washington Post is one of the rare slams of the Israel lobby ever to appear in our papers.
Barney Frank’s sister worked for AIPAC and he shut up about settlements even when he saw them ending the beloved two-state solution. Bari Weiss’s father is an AIPAC hero, and she says all American Jews welcomed Israeli officials to Pittsburgh after the massacre because “we are all one, Am Yisrael.” The people of Israel, the old Zionist slogan!
Now the old hocus-pocus isn’t working. Jews are dividing. There is a new bloc of Jews who will not accept the Book of Nietzsche arguments about Israel’s use of force. They don’t have Philip Roth’s memories of the Holocaust, they don’t think that Jews need to show military prowess to be impressive Jews.
They don’t mind being called effete pencil-neck desk Jews, and they are taking on the Jewish establishment. Look at the numbers in the new Independent Jewish Voices poll from Canada: secular and progressive Jews have overwhelmingly negative feelings about the Israeli government.
Those Jews are giving Ilhan Omar permission. The Jewish divide is the reason there is a debate. People defer to Jews on this issue, because they’ve been indoctrinated to think Jewish survival depends on Israel’s existence, and we are all Zionists, just as Bari Weiss said. Now we are giving them permission to wonder. Peter Feld is on MSNBC saying some Jews welcome Ilhan Omar.
It’s like a lot of other family secrets that go on two or three generations then the young people blow it up. But we need help. We need outside scrutiny to take on the Vatican. We need you, Ilhan Omar. The biggest guilt trip in the world is coming to an end.
H/t Todd Pierce.
I changed the definition of yordim in the 4th paragraph to reflect corrections passed to me by Ira Glunts and Jonathan Ofir.