We should be wary of leaders who tell us they know the Jews’ best interests….
when they don’t.
Just prior to Israel’s April 9 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his intention to apply Israeli law to Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. This was a controversial move that critics claim makes a Palestinian state impossible and impedes progress toward peace.
In response, on April 12, nine major American Jewish groups wrote a public letter to President Trump. The letter urged Trump to oppose Netanyahu’s plan. The letter’s signatories represented a cross section of the American Jewish community and included both the Reform and Conservative movements. Joining as signatory was the Anti-Defamation League, the leading Jewish civil rights group in the US. Other signatories were: the Israel Policy Forum, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the liberal Zionist group, Ameinu.
In short, the letter was signed by a major segment of the “we-know-what- is- best-for- Israel” crowd. In its report, the Times of Israel noted, “The letter is unusual, if not unprecedented, in mainstream Jewish groups pleading with a US president to take steps to restrain an Israeli prime minister.”
The letter stated,
We believe that it [Netanyahu’s intention to annex the settlements]will lead to greater conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, severely undermine, if not entirely eradicate, the successful security coordination between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and galvanize efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that are intended to isolate and delegitimize Israel….It will create intense divisions in the United States and make unwavering support for Israel and its security far more difficult to maintain.
The letter went on to say,
We respectfully request that you affirm long-standing bipartisan consensus that the two-state solution is the essential path to an Israel existing alongside a future state of Palestine in peace and security and that you declare that the United States will not support any Israeli proposals to annex the West Bank, in whole or in part.
We’ve Been Here Before
One does not have to go far back in history to find another instance in which American Jewish leaders decided they knew what was best for Jews overseas. The results were disastrous.
Shortly after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, it became clear that the Jews of Germany were imperiled. As World War II drew closer, Germany’s Jews were subjected to the horrors of deportations and a massive government-sponsored pogrom called Kristallnacht. After Germany’s invasion of Poland, and later, most of Europe, roundups and killings of Jews began. By the early 1940s, Germany instituted its planned program to annihilate the Jews of Europe and North Africa.
Most of the western press minimized its reporting of the genocide. Still, as early as December 1942, news reports emerged about the enormous scale of mass killings of European Jews.1
In the 1930s and 1940s, Rabbi Stephen Wise was the most prominent leader of the American Jewish community. He served as president of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Congress. In the 1920s he was active in garnering public support for a Jewish state. He openly advocated for creation of a Jewish state, even at a time when his Jewish Reform movement opposed Zionism. He was active in the international Second Zionist Congress. He lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to endorse the Balfour Declaration, a policy paper by the British government that later laid the legal basis for a Jewish state in Palestine. He helped to found a pro-Zionist group in the US.
Everything in Wise’s biography predicted that he would become an ardent defender against the genocide of European Jewry. Tragically, he has gone down in history as the opposite.
An Unwise Betrayal
During the Holocaust years, Wise was a personal confidant of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt was one of the few world leaders who might have been able to slow the killing of Europe’s Jews. But instead of pressuring Roosevelt to act, Wise worked consistently to quash Jewish voices that cried out for help during the Holocaust.
In 1943, when four hundred Orthodox rabbis marched in Washington to call attention to the Holocaust, Wise advised Roosevelt not to meet with the group. He made many efforts to restrain Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration, and that meant keeping quiet about the Holocaust. When Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky called for the evacuation of a million Jews from Eastern Europe, Wise called him a traitor. When Jewish leader Peter Bergson worked to raise awareness of the Holocaust, Wise opposed him.
American Rabbi David Kestenbaum worked to save European Jews. In a telling incident, Wise phoned Kestenbaum and told him to stop putting so much pressure on the American government to save European Jews. Purportedly, Wise told Kestenbaum’s son, “Tell your father that he has to be an American and not fight so hard for Jews in Europe. You have to be an American first.” Wise made several such calls to Kestenbaum.
Tragically, Wise used his leadership of the Jewish community, and his influence with President Roosevelt, to oppose American efforts to save European Jewry. Wise believed that Jewish advocacy for Europe’s dying Jews would increase anti-Semitism in the US. And he was unwilling to risk his own influence with American political leaders by standing up for his fellow Jews.
The Letter to Trump
The letter sent by American Jewish leaders to President Trump this month, with its attempt to restrain Israeli policy, is an ominous echo of the tragic failure of American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust.
Perhaps the Jews of Israel today face less danger than their parents and grandparents did during the Holocaust. Even so, Israel faces existential dangers from powerful enemies. Just like European Jews of the 1930s, Israel’s continued existence is not guaranteed.
In any case, the letter’s authors can bask in the assurance that the perilous territorial concessions they advocate will not endanger their safety in the US. It will be other people’s children—-Israeli children—-who will die.
That makes it all the more important to call out self-important Jews, like the authors of the letter to Trump, who purport to know what is best for Israel.
The letter to Trump bears the marks of its authors’ willful blindness to reality. There are many reasons that Israeli territorial concessions will not lead to peace:
- Israeli annexation of settlements will not imperil peace negotiations leading to a two state solution. That is because there are no peace negotiations. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate for several years. They have never abandoned their maximalist demands, such as the “return” to Israel of five million refugees, a policy that would end the Jewish state.
Making peace with Israel would be disastrous for the current Palestinian leadership because it would lead to elections, the sacking of their octogenarian leaders, and the end of their extortion game in which they grow wealthy from foreign aid by promising to tamp down the violence. Why would they make peace—-settlements or no settlements?
And if attempts at negotiation have failed for the last thirty years, why would they succeed now? Doing the same thing again and again without results, is the essence of willful blindness.
- The conflict is not about territory. It is about a religiously-based Arab narrative that rejects any Jewish sovereignty in “former Muslim lands.” Every Israeli territorial concession has resulted in more, not less, Arab aggression.
- The BDS movement will in no way be slowed by Israel’s agreement not to annex the settlements. BDS leaders have made it clear that their goal is to end the Jewish state. Territorial concessions will only whet their appetite for blood and encourage their boycott efforts.
- As long as the corrupt Palestinian Authority is around they will never abandon security cooperation with Israel. They have shown this with their frequent threats to do so, threats they never carry out. That is because, without Israeli security cooperation, PA leaders would be instantly ousted from their positions by Hamas. They would then be forced to flee their homes and maintain themselves on the meager millions they have illicitly stashed away in European banks—-instead of continuing to funnel cash, from western aid, into their pockets.
- Annexation of settlements would not impede a Palestinian state—-if one were possible. The settlements take up only a tiny fraction of land. Most land in the West Bank is undeveloped. There are lots of countries smaller than what a state of Palestine would be if it excluded Jewish settlements.
- Finally, it is not clear that annexation will intensify divisions among Jews in American society. Those divisions have intensified because of increasing polarization within American society for reasons that have little to do with Israel. Died-in-the-wool liberals will always support the underdog regardless of the facts. Reality-dazed graduates of liberal universities will cling to their misinformation about Israel because that is what their professors taught them and they are too lazy to think for themselves. And the Evangelicals—-God bless them—-will support Israel for their own religious motives.
For all the tortured soul-searching about damaged Israel-Diaspora relations, those of us who love Israel would do well to accept a simple truth: A goodly portion of American Jews have been lost to Israel—-forever. Instead of courting them, we should focus on the many American Jews we know we can count on.
And, above all, we should be wary of leaders like Stephen Wise and the authors of the letter to Trump, who tell us they know the Jews’ best interests….when they don’t.
- Kelly, H. The Article that Told the World about the Holocaust. The New Republic. July 22, 2014. Retrieved April 16, 2019 from:
On December 22, 1942 the New Republic published an article entitled “The Massacre of the Jews:”
There is starvation: Jews all over Europe are kept on rations often only one-third or one-fourth what is allowed to non-Jews. Slow death is the inevitable consequence. There is deportation: Jews by the hundreds of thousands have been packed into cattle cars, without food, water or sanitary conveniences of any sort, and shipped the whole breadth of Europe. When the cars arrive at their destination, about a third of the passengers are already dead. There are the extermination centers, where Jews are destroyed by poison gas or electricity. There are specially constructed trucks, in which Jews are asphyxiated by carbon monoxide from the exhausts, on their way to burial trenches. There are the mines, in which they are worked to death, or poisoned by fumes of metals. There is burning alive, in crematoria, or buildings deliberately set on fire. There is the method of injecting air-bubbles into the blood stream: it is cheap, clean and efficient, producing clots, embolisms and death within a few hours. And there is the good old-fashioned system of standing the victims up, very often naked, and machine-gunning them, preferably beside the graves they themselves have been forced to dig. It saves time, labor and transportation.