As we enter the new decade, the time is right to ask how Israel can amend ties with the mostly liberal American Jewish community, while safeguarding strong relations with the White House. This is especially urgent in light of the recent killing of Qasem Soleimani and its reverberating impact across the globe and region.
Israel’s alliance with the U.S. will continue to be a central pillar for Israel’s national security. Accordingly, ensuring bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. is a key interest, and any Israeli government must avoid becoming a politically divisive issue between the two major American parties.
Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community is a central part of its history. The American Jewish community played a pivotal role in the days leading up to the establishment of the Jewish state and has continued to support Israel during times of hardship and prosperity. Israel would not be the success it is today without the love, commitment, and the efforts of American Jewry – most of whom are predominantly liberal in religious practice and political leaning. At the same time, it is safe to say that the future wellbeing of American Jews, and their political strength, is more reliant on Israel than ever before.
In recent years, unfortunately, growing cracks have emerged between the Israeli government, parts of Israeli society, and the American liberal Jewish community.
There are multiple longstanding explanations for these divides. Some tie to Israel’s policies on matters of religion and state, which are heavily influenced by the political power of Haredi parties. Others stem from varying perspectives on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. Adding to these historical sources of tension, is the major gap in perception regarding the alliance between Trump and Netanyahu.
It is important to acknowledge that President Trump – unlike past presidents – has delivered significant U.S. policy changes in support of Israel. Trump’s policy accomplishments include American recognition of Jerusalem as the national capital as well as Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Furthermore, the U.S. has positioned itself unequivocally on Israel’s side in the United Nations and other international forums.
On the downside, the political and personal alliance between Netanyahu and Trump has cast a shadow on America’s future special relations with Israel by potentially making Israel a partisan issue within American politics. Warning signs are already going off in the form of positions taken by some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates regarding Israel. These highly critical and vocal members of Congress may be the indication of a bigger trend to come.
The U.S., like Israel, is a polarized society. At least half of the nation is strongly critical of Trump’s foreign or domestic policies. This opposition to Trump is sweeping, and as a result, puts Israel at risk of falling into the American political chasm, which would threaten its future interests.
Polarization regarding Trump is also affecting the U.S. Jewish community. The liberal majority votes for the Democratic Party and vehemently opposes Trump. The remainder, many of whom are Haredi or Orthodox, see Trump as a hero.
These new tensions come atop a preexisting divide between the Israeli government and American liberal Jews regarding the separation of religion and state, recognition of progressive Judaism, control of the Western Wall, and conversion. All issues currently under the tight grip of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel due to the close alliance between the Likud, Haredi, and national-religious parties.
Against this complex background, Israel faces the dilemma of finding a way to safeguard its special bond with American Jews, while simultaneously maintaining its unparalleled political ties with the Trump Administration.
IMPROVING DIASPORA TIES FROM WITHIN ISRAEL
The upcoming Israeli elections could present a change in the status quo. If the elections produce a center-left or national unity government, political influence of the religious parties will diminish. As a result, new possibilities will emerge to mend the rift through changes in language and action from the government on issues important to liberal Diaspora Jews.
That may not seem like a lot to be optimistic about, but so long as Trump and Netanyahu are in power, no one can realistically expect improvements in relations between Jerusalem and the liberal Diaspora community.
In the long term, Israel must go back to investing more heavily in the establishment of commitment and support from liberal Jews. At the same time, liberal American Jews should become more involved in Israeli society and make an effort to improve awareness among Israelis of their community life and political clout. This is significant since most Israelis today are unaware of the importance of their support.
Furthermore, the liberal Jewish community’s answer to the cold shoulder they received from the Netanyahu government should not be to return a cold shoulder, but rather, to boost their involvement in Israel. This would be taking a lesson from Orthodox American Jewry, most of whom are right-leaning, and, irrespective of who is in government in Israel, remain keen observers and activists in Israel’s politics. This is important since Israel is not static and new significant streams within Israeli society are emerging that are committed to open and liberal concepts.
Ultimately, tightening bonds between the two main Jewish population centers will benefit Israel’s interests and help secure the future of American Jews. Both communities should think and plan for the post-Trump and Netanyahu eras.
Edited By Eden Ellis