Insights from my American journey

The following is a combination of my personal story and the many insights which I gathered during my long journey as an Israeli tourist, student, and diplomat in the United States. The bleak trends which I observe below in US – Israel relations are concerning, but not irreversible. Through the pursuit of peace, justice and democracy, the US – Israel relationship can be revived as a powerful force for good.

I arrived in the United States for the first time in 1986 after 10 months of backpacking in South America. I fell in love immediately with New York City and understood why the US was considered by Jews to be the “Goldene Medina.” As a kibbutznik with a socialist education and 5 years in the military, the US was my first introduction to the concepts of individualism and free enterprise. I was exposed to Libertarianism by the books of Ayn Rand and America’s ubiquitous culture of capitalism, it was a shocking contrast to everything I had known in Israel (spoiler – I didn’t become a Libertarian). I worked hard as a mover trying to save money, knowing well that I would not be returning to the Kibbutz and will have to pay for my higher education on my own. When I wasn’t working, I traversed the cultural centers of the city to learn more about America.

My second time in the US was in 1990, when my wife Ronit began a master’s degree in dance education at Columbia University. I was so happy to have another chance to live in New York. We used every minute of free time to consume American culture. We explored it in New York’s Jazz clubs – Blue Note, Sweet Basil, Fat Tuesdays, Village Vanguard and so many more. We read it in the Village Voice. We listened to it in Carnegie Hall and at the Metropolitan Opera with standing room tickets. We watched it in some of the country’s best modern dance companies as volunteer ushers in the Joyce Theatre. We explored it in the city’s incredible museums and galleries. When our daughter Maya was born as an American citizen, we slowed down a bit but still enjoyed the city as much as we could.

My passion for the sports was always an especially effective tool for connecting with people. I was already an NBA fanatic in Israel and connected immediately with football when I arrived to the US, but I did not have a strong grasp on baseball. The frequent baseball metaphors I heard from American politicians made understanding the game somewhat of a necessity in order to better access American culture.

In 1997, I arrived for the third time in the US for my first post abroad as a diplomat stationed at the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC. I was constantly exposed to American politics and diplomacy, absorbing so much every day. I was amazed by the possibilities for Israel to promote its interests as an ally of the world’s most influential nation. The power wielded by Pro-Israel organizations and the access that Israeli diplomats had to Congress and the administration astonished me. At my first AIPAC conference, I saw how diplomats from other embassies enviously watched American officials compete to demonstrate their close friendships with Israel.

In my attempt back then to understand the basic elements of the unique relationship between Israel and the US which I was witnessing firsthand, I organized them in mind around three main components that I liked to dub “VIP”– Values, Interests, Politics

The values underpinning the Israel-US relationship: The Protestant Puritans who first reached Plymouth Rock in 1620 regarded themselves as the architects of the New Jerusalem envisioned by the Hebrew biblical prophets. This ethos was adopted by America’s founding fathers and immortalized in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. Over a century later, the spirit of the American revolution and principles of the Constitution would inspire the leaders of the Zionist movement. Many Americans regard Israel as a “sister” state that is, like them, peopled by immigrants who established a just, democratic, liberal society after the successful resistance of English control.

The shared interests: Since President Truman’s recognition of Israel 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its independence, Israeli leaders have aspired to close ties with the leader of the free world. Energy deposits in the Arab/Persian Gulf, critical to the American and global economy, turned the Middle East into a strategic focus of US foreign policy. Israel was a reliable US partner in the Cold War and in its War on Terror. This often enabled the US to avoid deploying “boots on the ground,” as they had in defending South Korea or West Germany. The depth and breadth of the current US-Israel relationship is a consequence of closely intertwined pasts sustained by urgent mutual interests.

Israel’s political influence: Israel enjoyed bipartisan US support for years, with Democrats and Republicans both treating it as a relationship transcending the political divide. Israeli diplomats and Jewish organizations sought to maintain the US-Israel relationship as a bipartisan one, despite most Jews being Democrats. The pro-Israel forces were, and still are, well organized and deeply involved in US politics and the media. The American Jewish community constitutes only 2 percent of the population (a bit more in crucial swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan), but it has an impact that extends massively in donations and political influence: close to half of donations made to the Democratic Party and a quarter of those made to the Republican Party are by Jews. Since its founding in 1963, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee has become the most powerful and effective foreign policy lobbying group in the US. As for Israel’s Christian evangelical supporters, they are almost all Republican voters. Their large numbers, some 80 million, and organizational capacities are impressive, to say the least. For them, support for Israel is a religious imperative that will bring about the resurrection of Christ.

While a diplomat in DC, my baseball education became more important to me. Because DC lacked a baseball team at the time, I often went to see the Baltimore Orioles play in Camden Yard. Though I had learned much during my time in the US, baseball remained a confusing and foreign sport, but I was captivated by the value of baseball as a fundamental piece of American culture.

When I returned to Israel, I quickly realized how relevant my American experience made me to any discussion about Israel’s foreign policy. Every decision reflected, to some degree, the careful consideration of an important and ever-present American dimension. As I continued following American politics, foreign policy, culture and sports, it became clear that my expertise on the US provided me with a valuable comparative advantage in Israel.

In 2003, I began a master’s degree in public administration as a Wexner Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was not an easy transition for my family, but their own close relationships with America helped the adjustment (my wife and my two daughters were born in the US, my son was born in Jerusalem, but eventually became an American citizen as well after so many years in the US).

My time at the Kennedy School was another welcome opportunity to learn about the US. While a student, I became a Red Sox fan right in time to witness their 2004 World Series victory, a historic moment for the team which put an end to the 86 year “Curse of the Bambino.” The close connection I had developed with baseball would prove invaluable upon my later return to Boston as the Consul General of Israel to New England.

In Boston, I began to realize that Israel’s special relationship with the US was not always used in our best interest. I also started to feel a concerning disconnect between the “grass roots” of the American Jewish community and mainstream Jewish organizations like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

In my year as a Wexner Fellow, the Jewish community of Boston embraced us with amazing hospitality. This was one of my first times living as an immersed member in a Jewish community. As a Kibbutznik, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Jewish. As a diplomat in Washington, I had only seen American Jews as a political instrument to influence foreign policy. It was in Boston where I first understood the concept of Jewish Peoplehood and lived as a member of our extended family.

I started to understand more deeply the political culture of American Jews and began to explore why their political attitudes were so much more liberal than those of most Israeli Jews.

The progressive perspective of American Jews can be attributed to the community’s unique history, demographics, values, and faith. Conservatives in the United States and in Israel encounter difficulty trying to understand the connection between the American Jewish community and the Democratic party. Jewish American sociographer Milton Himmelfarb coined the phrase “Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Indeed, more than 70% of American Jews consistently vote Democrat. This is a puzzle for those who believe that, given their socioeconomic status, American Jews would prefer to vote for a party that supports tax cuts and opposes government involvement in the economy.

In general, secular Jews or members of the Reform, Conservative and reconstructionist denominations have a propensity to vote Democrat, while Orthodox Jews mostly vote Republican. Israeli Americans and Jews who immigrated to the US in recent decades from the former USSR – who tend to be more conservative – are mostly the exception to this rule.

The connection between the non-Orthodox American Jewish community and the progressive values also stems from their focus on the value of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for healing the world), which comes in stark contrast to conservativisms tendency to preserve the status quo. Tikkun Olam also means supporting social justice and the rights of minorities and immigrants. Many American Jews still perceive themselves as descendants of an immigrant minority and therefore feel solidarity towards those who have not succeeded as they have.

Contrary to popular belief in Israel, most American Jews see anti-Semitism as a phenomenon that originates more from the racist right and less from the critical left.

They have watched for years as the white supremacy movement attacked them for their support of the civil rights movement, and they draw pride from the famous picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and the renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together in lockstep in Selma, Alabama.

For the most part, American Jews support the separation of religion and state. The religious right’s attempt to preserve the United States as a Christian country is offensive to them. They feel solidarity with the American Muslim community and other minorities in this regard, just as they historically united with immigrants from Poland, Italy and Ireland who were discriminated against because of their Catholicism. Jewish support for religious tolerance in America is critical to understanding why American Jews are offended that Israel, the State of the Jewish people, discriminates against non-Orthodox denominations in Judaism, treating them as second-class Jews. The monopoly of the rabbinate in Israel and the influence of ultra-orthodox parties on Israeli politics is a major factor in the distancing of liberal Jews from Israel. Liberal Jews also reject the religious right due to the assertion of their so-called “family values” when it comes to social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a proud Jewish woman and strong advocate of gender equality, labor rights, and the separation of religion and state, became an icon to many American liberals. Current Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, both Jewish, are also considered leaders of American liberalism, and have often defended social issues which resonate with American Jews.

The tension between Muslims and Jews that is a familiar sight in Europe and influences trends of conservatism (a case in point being the Jews of France), is much less noticeable in the United States. Most Muslims in the United States are not Arabs and many of the Arabs are not Muslims, so the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as significant part of these communities as in Europe. Many American Muslims are also integrated into society and the economy; in contrast to their European counterparts, who mostly live-in poor ghettos and see wealthy Jews as both a class enemy and a nationalist foe.

My family and I returned to Israel after my year at Harvard. After a subsequent two years in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, we decided to pursue another diplomatic tour abroad. The deep personal and professional connection I had developed with the US made returning there an easy choice. Ronit wanted us to return to a place that we already knew well, and between New York, Washington, and Boston, only in Boston would I be able to serve as the head of the Israeli mission, a role reserved for professional diplomats rather than political appointees.

Eventually, I accepted the position of Consul General to New England and arrived at the Consulate in Boston and our home in Brookline in the summer of 2006, right when the second Lebanon War had ended. My jurisdiction included Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. This position was an immense honor, and I served with great pride as Consul General to the Red Sox Nation. My acquired love of baseball eventually culminated in an offer to throw the first pitch at Fenway Park, a moment I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

During my time as Consul General, I increasingly realized the ways my government and mainstream Jewish organizations were using their influence on American politics in a destructive manner. I watched with concern as young Jews distanced themselves from Israel while feeling overlooked and unaccounted for by the Jewish establishment.

I kept on going to the AIPAC conferences in Washington, and I remember looking out on a crowd which no longer represented the Jewish community I had come to know; instead, the American Jewish community I saw there was disproportionally conservative and Orthodox. I remember my shock during one conference when an overwhelming majority of attendees reported their main resource for foreign policy information as FOX News. After that conference, I confronted the unsettling reality that AIPAC no longer broadly represented the American Jewish community. The majority of American Jews lacked institutional representation in American politics, and there was a vital need to advocate for their liberal voices.

While representing the Israeli government in Boston, a change of governments occurred in Israel, Netanyahu had replaced Olmert as Prime Minister. Zipi Livni, the Foreign Minister that had sent me to Boston, was replaced by Avigdor Liberman. My work as a representative of my country became much more challenging. I saw how the new government destroyed Israel’s conventional bipartisan approach to American politics. Further, the Netanyahu government began to prioritize relations with Evangelical Christians over the Jewish community because they were a powerful force to assure US support for the new government’s policies.

I felt the change in all 3 VIP components of the special relations between Israel and the US.

Values: In the US, the percentage of minorities embracing progressive values is growing. The US is no longer dominated by “WASPs” (White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants). In the American Supreme Court, there is not even one Protestant (7 Catholics and 2 Jews). In Israel, demographic changes have proven to trend in the opposite direction. The high ultra-Orthodox birthright, among other factors, are pulling the country to the political right.

Interests: The US is losing interest in the Middle East, and with good reason. The US no longer relies solely on energy resources from the Arab/Persian Gulf, and it has turned into an energy exporter itself. All the major interventions in the Middle East have proven to be failures – going all the way in Iraq, “Leading from behind” in Libya, and staying on the sidelines in Syria. The “pivot to Asia” was not a baseless shift, but a real change in the US strategic posture due to superpower competition with China and the importance of Asian economies. For Israel, this change in the American strategic priority is cause for great concern. We can already watch the new order in Syria being shaped by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. When the US is not influential, Israel holds much less leverage regionally. At the same time, Israel is becoming a victim of the US-China competition for global dominance and must choose between the two, against its interests, while trying to maintain commercial relations with both. Valuable Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure and technology projects, for example, have made the US administration especially unhappy.

Politics: Israel has become a partisan wedge issue in US politics. The sentiment among large swathes of the Democratic Party is that Israel has tied its destiny to the Republicans (a perception that is very much based on the reality contrived during the Netanyahu era). The distancing of progressive liberals from Israel is beginning to manifest itself in Congress. Unprecedented criticism of Israel and calls to condition US aid on Israeli policies have also emerged in Democratic presidential campaigns. The Israeli over-reaction to BDS, including the promotion of legislation that curbs free speech, is distancing progressives even further.

I was amazed how quickly the Netanyahu government deserted the bipartisanship that we always tried to preserve. I remember how I repeatedly refused as Consul General to attend fundraising events for candidates. When the then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama arrived in Boston, a close mutual friend Alan Salomont arranged for me to meet him, and I insisted that the meeting be held outside the event. When I was asked by Senator John McCain to meet him in New Hampshire when he was campaigning as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, I insisted that our meeting would not be used for any campaign purposes. I did attach great professional importance to and even had a great personal interest in getting to know all the candidates from both parties, but I always knew that we couldn’t take sides.

In 2008 while serving in Boston, I was introduced to J Street, a new organization that was more of a political startup, by their New England director, Janette Hillis Jaffe. Their ambition to compete with well-established Jewish organizations impressed me, though I was highly skeptical. I sent a memo to our embassy in Washington and to the North American Department headquartered in Jerusalem describing the new organization as a great opportunity for Israel. I saw J Street as a vital platform for liberal Jews ambivalent about Israel due to the policies of the right-wing government and the continuing occupation of Palestine. I knew many Jews who cared deeply about Israel, though they felt an ideological disconnect with its government. To them, Jewish organizations’ blind support for Israel was frustrating and limiting; their connection with Israel was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. As they watched Israel’s actions betray their values, many felt they could not convince their children to love it as they had. The reaction of the Embassy and headquarters was very negative. They felt that J Street would hurt the monopoly of AIPAC, which they perceived as a critical element of Israel’s national security.

As I watched US-Israel relations deteriorate, it became difficult for me to represent the government’s new foreign policy agenda. In an attempt to influence the system from within, I sent a controversial internal memo criticizing the way our government was engaging with the Obama administration. When the memo was leaked to the Israeli media, I was recalled to Jerusalem and reprimanded by the Foreign Minister.

After fulfilling the rest of my term as Consul General, I prepared to leave many friends and memories behind. The Jewish federation of Boston CJP hosted a farewell event for me, and I asked that the event include all the organizations that I worked with.

After hearing of resistance to the event’s inclusion of J Street and the New Israel Fund, I made it clear that I would not attend if they refused to include this important aspect of my work. The event thankfully went forward with organizations across the political spectrum.

I returned to Israel quite depressed, knowing that there would be no plum position waiting for me at the Foreign Ministry after my visible conflict with the Foreign Minister. I was also starting to internalize that I could not in good conscious continue working as an obedient civil servant for a government that was, in my opinion, leading Israel in the wrong direction.

I returned to the Policy Planning unit in the Foreign Ministry. After a short period of trying to enact change from within, I realized that no one was listening. But then my life changed; I was offered the role of Foreign Policy Adviser to President Peres. I had known the president in the beginning of my career as a diplomat when he was Foreign Minister. Back in an influential role, I helped Peres repair some of the damage that Netanyahu had wrought to Israel’s relationship with the US.

I participated in many meetings between Peres and President Obama, whose intellect impressed me. I felt that though he was a great friend of Israel, it was hard for Israelis to   be convinced of his friendship because of his race and middle name, ‘Hussein.’ He was also very academic, and this was not always effective in connecting with Israelis who expected a more emotional embrace by American presidents. In both Israel and the US, he was viciously attacked by the right as an enemy of Israel for political purposes. Peres tried to keep relations with the Obama Administration constructive, being sure to incorporate the Democratic Party and the non-Orthodox Jewish community which Netanyahu deserted.

A water shed moment in this regard was when Netanyahu decided to attack the Obama administration’s main national security priority by accepting an invitation from the Republican leadership in Congress to speak in a joint session against the JCPOA. My assessment of the JCPOA was that, though it was imperfect, it was the best available alternative to prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction by Iran. Regardless of my assessment, I felt that publicly opposing the President would be a huge mistake and a reckless way to manage a disagreement with your most important ally.

I told my friends in AIPAC and the Jewish Federation of Boston that this incident would mark a low point in the history of Israel’s relations with the US. When Trump was elected, Netanyahu had a partner in the White House to dismantle bipartisanship. The symbiosis between them has done immense damage to Israel-US relations.

Most Jews saw Trump as the antithesis of everything they believe in. The instances of his contempt for women, immigrants, and people with disabilities is intolerable in Jewish liberalism. Most of the American Jewish community expects their president to help end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, not inflame it. Trump’s support of Israel has also not been perceived as genuine. Many American Jews see the alliance between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – as well as their alliances with other right-wing, populist leaders such as Hungary’s Victor Urban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte – as a connection that stems from xenophobia and a mutual desire to harm liberal institutions in their countries. They do not recognize this as legitimate support for Israel.

The Trump Presidency helped me understand that the relationship between Israel and the US that I had worked hard to nourish was not a worthy goal in itself, especially when it generates harm to Israel, the US, and humanity. It became clear to me that the strategy of leaving “no daylight” between Israel and the US had become a mechanism to prevent the US from leading any serious initiative to solve the Israel – Palestine conflict, which I see as the gravest threat to Israel’s future.

This is not because the Palestinians are a serious military threat, but because without a Palestinian State, Israel will be unable to maintain its democratic and Jewish identities simultaneously; this identity crisis could easily deteriorate Israel’s moral values as a state. I realized that too many self-proclaimed advocates for Israel in the US were instead working hard to end the same dream of Zionism articulated by its founders as they described it in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

In January 2021, Joe Biden became President of the US. Shortly after, a change coalition replaced the Netanyahu Government. This new leadership is showing promising signs for a new era in the US-Israel relationship. The new Israeli government is trying to rehabilitate relations with the Democratic Party as well as the American Jewish Community. However, as refreshing as this new attitude is, the two administrations are not showing any sense of urgency to solve the Israel – Palestine conflict and end the toxic status quo of occupation.

This realization led me to accept an offer to join J Street as the Executive Director of J Street Israel. No longer the startup I was introduced to in 2007, J Street has become a significant institution in American politics that continues to grow in size and influence. I  feel that in my new role I’m truly helping Israel, my beloved country to be true to the vision of our founders, but there remains a great deal of work ahead.

As a diehard Zionist, I feel that the two main priorities for Zionism today are to promote the realization of Two States for Two Peoples solution to the Israel – Palestine conflict and to grow the connection between Israel and the American Jews who hope for peace and a homeland for the Jewish People that exists as a model for justice. Only if we achieve these two goals will the US – Israel special relationship be able to secure its important role as a positive force for both nations.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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