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Israel and American Jewry: a Yom Haatzmaut Reflection

I was ten years old in 1967 — too young to experience the angst that overwhelmed American Jews as they watched the threat to Israel’s continued existence at the hands of three surrounding Arab armies, but old enough to share in the euphoria that followed Israel’s overwhelming victory in what we now call the Six Day War.  Even at my young age, I found the combination of relief and pride to be palpable.  

Only later did I come to understand the extent to which the 1967 war not only enhanced Israel’s self-confidence and standing in the world but also fundamentally altered American Jews’ attitude toward it, and toward themselves. The post-1967 euphoria didn’t last, of course. Six years later, Israelis and American Jews alike were shaken by the surprise two-front attack that began the Yom Kippur War. Israel recovered and prevailed, but it lost, at least for a while, some of its post-1967 swagger. American Jews had to recognize both Israel’s vulnerability and its resilience. A fundraising slogan of the period summed it up well: “For Israel, every test is a final.”

But while 1973 affected American Jews’ attitude to Israel, it didn’t reverse the change that 1967 had brought; Israel’s recovery from the surprise attack, and its ultimate victory, was still a source of pride. If anything, 1973 reinforced American Jewry’s determination to support Israel, its sense of responsibility for Israel’s well-being. That determination has had its ups and downs over the years as events have followed each other with sometimes dizzying speed: the UN’s infamous Zionism-is-racism resolution in 1975, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the Lebanon War in 1982, the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians beginning in 1993, Yasir Arafat’s abrupt departure from Camp David and fomenting the second intifada in 2000, and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, to name just a few. Some American Jews have disagreed with Israel’s actions in one or another of these events, but for most support for Israel remained a fundamental pillar of American Jewish identity.

Somewhere along the line, however, that pillar has become shakier. As I watched from afar during last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist group that has ruled Gaza since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, I could not help but be struck by the weakening support for Israel within American Jewry. While the Jewish organizational establishment has remained steadfast in its support, many ordinary Jews, especially younger ones, seemed to be wavering.  

In part that’s a result of gradual weakening of Jewish identity overall, combined with the typically American ignorance of history. Most Jewish adults today know the Holocaust and the story of Israel’s birth, at best as something they read about in history books, The wars of 1967 and 1973 are at most vague memories.  Many see Israel not as a historic achievement, the culmination of centuries of Jewish dreams, but simply as a fact — a sometimes troublesome fact — of international life. Outside the Orthodox community, and particularly among younger Jews, reflexive support of Israel is no longer the sine qua non of American Jewish loyalty.

Another cause of this weakening support is the fact that young Jews disproportionately identify with the perspective of the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and many progressives have become violently hostile to Israel.  That’s nothing new, of course, but the news reports of casualties from Gaza (usually devoid of context) appeared to awaken the latent hostility of the progressive camp.  

That hostility has only grown since the last Gaza conflict. Some progressives even opposed the supplemental funding to restore Israel’s defensive Iron Dome missile defense system, which prevented Israel from suffering massive civilian casualties during that conflict. To many progressives, the fact that Iron Dome saved Israeli lives seemingly counted for nothing

I have become particularly sensitive to the anti-Israel slant of the progressive left because I frequently watch (via YouTube) the Young Turks (TYT), which is the premier on-line network of the Bernie Sanders-supporting left. During the Gaza conflict, they were particularly hostile – blaming Israel for starting the conflict (although Hamas had first fired rockets at Israeli civilian targets), accusing Israel of war crimes (ignoring Hamas’s habit of using civilians to shield their fire) and claiming that Israel was guilty of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” because the Israeli courts had ruled in favor of Jewish landowners over Palestinian squatters in a land dispute in East Jerusalem.

The TYT hosts’ seething hatred of Israel is expressed frequently, sometimes in contexts only peripherally related to the Middle East.  For example , incessant complaints about the influence of big money in political campaigns frequently spills over into criticism of AIPAC (which does not contribute to political campaigns).  Discussions of human rights violations in countries distant from the Middle East often manage to include some mention of Israel’s alleged “war crimes.”  Discussions about the hypocrisy behind the right’s complaints about “cancel culture” manage to include condemnation of pro-Israel advocacy. Even the current Russian war on Ukraine has managed to inspire comparison’s to Israel’s supposed war crimes.

None of the regular hosts on TYT is Jewish, but they seek to insulate themselves from accusations of anti–Semitism by pointing out when anti-Israel positions are taken by identified Jews. Some of these are long familiar figures, like Noam Chomsky or Bernie Sanders. But others are younger, less known progressives, who seem to have swallowed the progressive anti-Zionist perspective uncritically.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no shortage of progressive Jews who fit this description

Some pro-Zionist Jews have reacted to progressive anti-Zionism by moving right politically. Many of us, however, find such a reaction unpalatable. The increasing polarization of American politics, Donald Trump’s domination of the Republican party and the anti-democratic refusal to accept the result of the 2020 election are but a few of the factors that make a turn to the right untenable. 

It would not be in Israel’s interest, moreover, to allow support for it to become a partisan wedge issue. From 1967 on, and through all the vagaries of its history, Israel has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. It would be an exaggeration to depict the current era as marking the end of that support, but something feels different.  While the Biden administration has remained supportive, the Democratic Party appears split.  Some – though not all – in its progressive wing have been openly hostile to Israel for some time. During the Gaza conflict, however, even some members of Congress and media personalities who have been supportive of Israel in the past were at best lukewarm in their support.  

Some in the Jewish community are fighting back, but more effort is needed. It’s especially important that those Jews who are committed Democrats, particularly those otherwise sympathetic to the policies of its progressive wing, use every opportunity to advocate on Israel’s behalf, to counter the anti-Israel progressives. If Jewish Democrats don’t do it, who will?

As Yom Ha’atzmaut approaches, marking seventy-four years since Israel’s creation, the Jewish State is both stronger and weaker than it has been in decades past. Its achievements – military, economic, technological and diplomatic – have been remarkable. Yet in a dangerous neighborhood in an unstable world, Israel is dependent on the support of the United States, the world’s preeminent superpower.  American Jews must remain a critical foundation of that support.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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