Israel’s biggest public relations problem in the United States today is its weakening grip on the loyalty of the liberal mainstream of Jewish America. And that’s bad news for a country that claims to speak and act on behalf of all Jews – and on that basis to claim immunity from reproach over its treatment of Palestinians.
The latest evidence of that mounting crisis comes in the form of a University of California Board of Regents ruling last week linking opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism. That may sound like a victory for the Israeli side, but lobbying to limit criticism of Israel reflects a growing panic in the pro-Israel establishment.
The international effort to use boycott tactics to pressure Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territories is gaining traction on American campuses – where some of its most fervent and active advocates are left-wing Jewish students.
As Peter Beinart, perhaps the most eloquent and thoughtful spokesman for a younger generation of liberal Zionists, recently noted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “To the degree that establishment Jewish leaders acknowledge this rising Jewish anti-Zionism, they chalk it up to self-hatred. But when you talk to Jewish students in the BDS movement ... you quickly discover that being Jewish is precious to them.” What the ferment among liberal Jews on US campuses tells us is that the intra-Jewish debate about Israel and Zionism has resumed.
I say resumed, because anti-Zionism began as a Jewish political current, long before the dispossession, displacement and disenfranchisement of Palestinians by Israel. When it first emerged as a nationalist political movement among European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century, Zionism was supported only by a minority of the community it claimed to represent. It was dwarfed by the Yiddishe Arbeiter Bund, a socialist Jewish organisation fiercely opposed to Zionism, which it deemed a dangerous capitulation to anti-Semitism, which also sought to remove Jews from Europe.
The Nazi Holocaust, combined with the anti-Semitic immigration quotas still enforced by the main western powers at the end of the war, left most survivors with little option but to settle in Palestine. And for decades after, a majority of Jews world wide supported Israel as a state of Holocaust survivors, deeming it a vital refuge from anti-Semitic persecution – and preferring to ignore the cost its creation had imposed on Palestinians.
Times have changed. Anti-Semitism has receded from the western political mainstream, while Israel’s dispossession and occupation of Palestinians has deepened. That’s created a sharp generational divide among Jewish Americans: A 2007 survey found that less than half of Jewish Americans aged under 35 would deem it a “personal tragedy” if Israel ceased to exist.
The majority of Jewish Americans today are proudly American and predominantly liberal, and don’t see being Jewish as making them part of a separate nation. More than two-thirds of non-Orthodox Jews are married to a partner who is not Jewish.
No surprise, then, that the Iran nuclear deal was supported by a strong majority of Jewish Americans despite the Israeli leadership’s urgent calls for US politicians to stop the agreement.
Liberal Zionism has for years traded on a fantasy version of Israel, portrayed as the embodiment of the progressive values of the Jewish-American liberal mainstream, “the only democracy in the Middle East” at war only because it is besieged by Arab extremists. The question of Palestinian rights simply doesn’t feature in this fantasy world. It’s simply no longer possible to suppress the often brutal truths of what Israeli security forces and settlers do every day – in the name of all Jewish people.
Where the pro-Israel establishment had proven adept over the years at pressuring mainstream US outlets to limit critical coverage of Israel, that capability is of diminishing use today because a dwindling number of people under 35 still rely on the New York Times for news. Videos streaming across social media platforms of the incontrovertible reality of the occupation reveal a candid picture of Israel in which many Jewish Americans are unable to identity with those claiming to act in their name. Raised in a liberal Jewish ethical tradition, they are taught to side with the victims of persecution, the underdog, the oppressed, those being bullied by the powerful.
And it’s rather difficult to present Israelis as any kind of underdog in the occupied territories.
Commenting on moves like the lobbying of the UC Regents, Beinart warned, “The American Jewish establishment does not want to rebut anti-Zionist arguments. It would rather call them anti-Semitic and thus shut the entire discussion down. But … the debate is coming, not only within the United States at large, but within American Jewry. It’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Yet the longer American Jewish leaders evade it, the more likely they’ll ultimately lose.”
They’ve probably lost already. Some 60 per cent of the world’s Jews live outside Israel, and each new generation is less convinced than its predecessor was of the state’s claims to represent all Jews. That alienation is likely to deepen as the pro-Israel establishment – fearful of losing its claim to represent all Jews, and the immunity it demands as a result – tries to reverse the tide by silencing American critics, many of them Jewish. Freedom of speech, after all, is a fundamental American value.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York