Dana Milbank, an American author and political op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, has horrified me by his latest article for his newspaper: “America’s Jews are watching Israel in horror” (washingtonpost.com 9/21/18) There’s been much talk about American Jews pulling away from Israel, which has undeniably occurred as Israel has become a partisan issue, with Jews consistently voting Democratic by a 3:1 ratio.
In 1978, Republicans and Democrats were roughly equal in supporting Israel against the Palestinian Arabs. But since then, long before Donald Trump became president, Democrats have trended towards sympathizing equally with the Palestinians as they are with Israel. Now, support for the Jewish state among Republicans is nearly three times higher than among Democrats, according to a Pew Research poll released this past January. (timesofisrael.com)
This fact became painfully apparent to me during the 2012 Democratic Convention (I saw it on TV in real time). There, Convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa took three roll call votes (vocal yeas and nays) before falsely declaring that the two amendments had passed; he was booed when he did so. The amendments intentionally left out were: faith in God and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Both of these had been included in previous Democratic platforms. It was shockingly obvious to me that the Democrats attending the Convention mostly shouted “nay,” an unfortunate harbinger of things to come. (boston.com 9/5/12)
I am upset by “America’s Jews are watching Israel in horror” and herein offer my rebuttal. First of all, Milbank approvingly quoted his rabbi, Danny Zemel, who sermonized at Temple Micah in Washington DC during Yom Kippur. According to the temple website, Rabbi Zemel’s dream is that, “the community of Temple Micah be a carrier and creator of an inspiring message about God, faith, humanity and the Jewish People.”
Yet the rabbi’s sermon, given at the time of the year when his temple is probably its most crowded, is that Israel’s current government is anti-Zionist! Zemel preached that Benjamin Netanyahu, the most popular prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, has fostered “ultranationalism tied to religious extremism … The current government in Israel has, like Esau, sold its birthright.” Not an inspiring message in my opinion.
Milbank says that similarly anguished sentiments can be heard in synagogues and in Jewish homes throughout America. It’s hard for me to believe that. Mentioning 70 years of American Jews’ support for Israel, Milbank opined, “Now we watch in horror as Netanyahu, with President Trump’s encouragement, leads Israel on a path to estrangement and destruction.”
Milbank must know that Netanyahu has been elected three times to lead Israel. In next year’s election, his Likud Party will almost surely win because of the electorate’s belief that Netanyahu is the best qualified leader by far to head the government. The common mistake that the author and his rabbi make is that Jewish American ideals and needs and Israeli ones are the same. But the ideals and needs aren’t necessarily congruent, because of the vastly different environments each group resides in.
It is Netanyahu, Milbank opines, who, “is dissolving America’s bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in favor of an unstable alliance of end-times Christians, [O]rthodox Jews and wealthy conservatives such as Sheldon Adelson.” He then states that Netanyahu shares President Trumps “usual result: division.” The truth is that Israel is not divided almost equally into “left” and “right” factions, as America appears to be. Most Israelis approve of their government, even if it almost always includes a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) component. Because there is no majority party in Israeli politics, every government has been a coalition of assorted parties which have their own constituencies and their own “musts.”
Milbank then avers that the Trump/Netanyahu duo, “…have split American Jews from Israelis, and America’s minority of politically conservative Jews from the rest of American Jews.” American Jews should know better than to conflate disapproval of their president with positive, wildly appreciated actions of this administration in the UN and in Israel. Milbank then gives poll results to support his position:
The June poll for the American Jewish Committee found that, “77 percent of Israeli Jews approve of Trump’s handling of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, [while] only 34 percent of American Jews approve. Although Trump is popular in Israel, only 26 percent of American Jews approve of him. Most Jews feel less secure in the United States than they did a year ago.” And most Israeli Jews feel more secure with Netanyahu as prime minister.
Milbank notes that just a month before the AJC poll, Israel passed a law to give Jews more rights than other citizens [sic], “betraying the country’s 70-year democratic tradition.” As I have expressed in more than one recent article, the Nation State Basic Law does no such thing. What I surmise Milbank means is that the Democratic Party feels betrayed because Israelis are very happy with the support the current American administration has shown for Israel, in stark contrast to the previous administration, which declined to veto a UN Security Council resolution basically undermining Israel’s legality and denying it Judaism’s most holy sites in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. (jcpa.org)
Milbank then approvingly quotes Hebrew University sociologist Eva Illouz’s recent article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper (the small-circulation ultra left paper regularly quoted by Western papers for its anti-government stance) which states that Netanyahu has undertaken a “profound shift in the state’s identity as a representative of the Jewish people to a state that aims to advance its own expansion through seizure of land, violation of international law, exclusion and discrimination.” Milbank evidently agrees with Illouz that Israel “will be able to count only on the support of a handful of billionaires and the ultra-Orthodox” in America.
Has Netanyahu moved toward authoritarianism and away from negotiated peace as Milbank states? For sure, Netanyahu and the great majority of Israelis strongly doubt that “peace” can be negotiated with the Fatah or Hamas parties, who rule the Palestinian Authority and Gaza respectively. This is hard for American Jews to accept, but it is unfortunately realistic. The Palestinian Arabs and other Islamists show no desire for peace, as evidenced by the PA’s refusal to accept even the most generous offers that two former Israeli prime ministers proffered, instead continuously glorifying terrorism against Jews and even giving monetary support for families of terrorists.
Milbank concludes, “American Jews can’t appreciate the daily threat Israelis face from Hamas and Hezbollah. [true] But if the answer is an ultranationalist apartheid state [not true], American Jews have a duty to tell Israelis that support cannot be sustained here — nor should it be.”
Misinforming American Jews about Israeli society is inexcusable. It’s journalists like Milbank (perhaps well-meaning but badly mistaken) who help drive a wedge between Jewish Americans and Israelis. Naturally Israelis more militant than American Jews, because we face severe threats from the north (Hezbollah), from the east (Syria), further east (Iran), and south (Hamas).
Expecting Israelis to act against their own interests to appeal to distant American Jewish sensibilities is unreasonable. Dana Milbank’s Yom Kippur column exacerbates the rift between the two Jewish communities, rather than promoting understanding between them.