The recognition by the United Nations in 1947 that a Jewish state, along with an Arab state, should be created out of the British Mandate, and its formal establishment by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 as a democratic Jewish state on the same land to which the Bible tells us Moses led the Jews from bondage in Egypt, and from which Jews had twice been expelled, is nothing short of a historical miracle.
Jews had been scattered to the four corners of the earth for two millennia yet kept the dream of returning to the Jewish homeland through extensive periods of unendurable oppression. We prayed each Passover at seders throughout the Diaspora, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and it happened in our lifetime. And my family and I have been deeply engaged in the life of the State.
I have marveled at how the modern state has fulfilled the biblical mandate that Israel would be a land of milk and honey and would make the desert bloom through drip technology. Israel’s rise as one of the high-tech leaders and military powers in the world has been astonishing, including converting salt water from the Mediterranean Sea into drinking water.
As an American Jew and Zionist, I saw Israel through the lens of a senior US government official, whose first loyalty was to the United States, but who tried to synthesize policy in ways that strengthened the United States-Israel relationship. But I also became more keenly aware of problems with Israeli government policy. I never felt a conflict of interest. As President Jimmy Carter’s Chief White House Domestic Policy Adviser, I was an official Carter administration back-channel to the Israeli Embassy during the Middle East peace process and negotiated the energy security provisions of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty to provide US energy in the event of an Egyptian cut-off of crude oil from the Sinai. But I also recognized how difficult, though ultimately courageous, a negotiating partner Prime Minister Menachem Begin was and how little was done to implement Israel’s commitment to “full autonomy” for the Palestinians, guaranteed in the Camp David Accords and the Treaty. I also developed with President Carter a special visa program that allowed Iranian Jews who were in the US to be exempted from the president’s deportation order following the taking of US hostages from our embassy in Tehran, allowing 50,000 Iranian Jews, Christians, and Bahai’s to emigrate to the United States, some of whom eventually emigrated to Israel.
During the Clinton administration, I again had several responsibilities in dealing with Israel. I negotiated with Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman the phase-out of US economic assistance to Israel, at its request, and the increase in defense support in return. More broadly, while my JPPI co-chair Ambassador Dennis Ross led the political aspects of the peace process, I was responsible for the economic dimensions as Under Secretary of Commerce, Under Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.
I negotiated numerous times between 1997-2000 with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and worked with the Israeli government to improve the lives and livelihoods of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which I saw firsthand. A number of initiatives done in cooperation with the Israeli government were successful: the Gaza Industrial Estate became a Qualifying Industrial Zone employing 1,200 Gazans with only an unarmed Israeli soldier in the plants and with a second phase under construction; tens of thousands of Palestinian day workers were allowed into Israel; the Gaza Airport was constructed, allowing the international export of Palestinian goods. And I also saw it all collapse with the Second Intifada.
One million unused visas
But it was my work on Holocaust justice and memory that gave me a special perspective on Israel. In 1968, after a year on the White House staff of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a meeting I had with Arthur Morse, while we both worked on the 1968 Vice President Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, was transformative. Morse had just published his path-breaking book While Six Million Died, which described how President Roosevelt and his administration failed to act on what they knew about the genocide of the Jews of Europe.
There had been a joke that at the time American Jews believed in three things: Diese Velt (this world), Jennavelt (the next world), and Roosevelt. This was a profound shock and changed my life. At the tender age of 25, I pledged that if I ever held a senior position in an American administration, I would do all I could to remove this cloud from the otherwise brilliant record of the United States in leading the fight against Nazi Germany. That impelled me to recommend to President Carter the creation of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by Eli Wiesel, which recommended the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which, life coming full circle, I now chair from an appointment by President Biden).
In the Clinton administration, I led the negotiations for over $8 billion in compensation for Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims from Swiss and French banks, German and Austrian slave and forced labor companies, European insurers, and restitution for Nazi plundered art and property. Since 2009, I have served as the chief negotiator for the Jewish Claims Conference with Germany, negotiating another $7 billion for survivors. In both the Clinton administration and for the Claims Conference, Israeli Holocaust survivors have been the major beneficiaries, because more live in the Jewish State than anywhere else in the world.
But my experience with the Holocaust also made me appreciate that had there been a Jewish state during the early years of the Nazi regime, to which they could have fled, the dimensions of the destruction of two-thirds of European Jewry could have been substantially mitigated, as the doors of the US and other Western countries were largely closed to Jewish refugees. At a recent speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Secretary of State Antony Blinken poignantly noted that even with the rigid immigration quotas under US law during World War II, there were one million unused visas due to the State Department’s refusal to allow eligible European Jews to enter the US. As chairman of the Museum, I have been in touch with Dani Dayan, Chairman of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, to pledge our continued cooperation.
Israel as a partisan issue
For all of Israel’s remarkable accomplishments, the Jewish State of Israel often does not see itself as the state of the Jews writ large. The Jewish Diaspora is at best an afterthought. This has several dimensions. I am a strong supporter of Israeli actions to defend itself against its enemies across the board. But I find it concerning that Israel too often does not incorporate the Jewish and biblical value of treating the stranger as you would yourself (an admonition repeated more times than any other in the Bible) in its policies toward the Palestinians. I am not naïve about the danger of Palestinian terrorism, which must be combatted forcefully. But many of the restrictive policies toward the Palestinians, the aggressive seizure of land on which they live and the establishment of outposts, some of which are illegal even under Israeli law, have created a wedge with significant parts of the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, and opened-up Israel to false and exaggerated charges.
This has spurred a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which is particularly worrisome on America’s college campuses. Surveys show little support for it among the American public (5% according to a July 2022 Pew Research Center poll), with the vast majority having heard little or nothing about it (84%).
For the first time in its young history Israel has become a partisan issue among the American electorate. The good news is that around three quarters of Americans feel that relations with Israel are good, viewed almost equally by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (74%) and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (76%), and two thirds of Americans have a favorable view of the Israeli people (67%). But only 55% of Americans have a favorable view of Israel, while 41% have an unfavorable view.
These attitudes diverge markedly by political affiliation and by age. While 69% of Americans ages 65 and older have positive views of Israel, less than half (49%) of those 30 to 49 and around four-in-ten of those under 30 have a positive view of Israel (41%). A strong majority (71%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have a favorable view of Israel, but only a minority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (44%) feel that way.
While there remains bipartisan support for Israel in the US Congress, the negative views of the progressive/left wing of the party are gaining traction. For example, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, recently said on the floor of the House (September 2022) that no one can hold progressive views and support what she called Israel’s “apartheid government.” While this was condemned by many House Democrats and by the Anti-Defamation League, it unfortunately amplifies similar attacks by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Israel cannot adjust its positions simply because of outside criticism, but as it becomes a more conservative/right wing country, it runs counter to the moderate/liberal views of a majority of American Jews, particularly young liberal American Jews on college campuses, which have become battlegrounds for disputes over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
More important, it seems to me that it is in Israel’s best interest to assure it remains a majority Jewish state, with stronger guarantees of equality for the 20% of the population that is Israeli Arab, and with maximum economic and political efforts, consistent with Israel’s security, to provide a better life and better treatment for the Palestinians in the West Bank under its control. A two-state solution, which would be the best outcome, seems highly unlikely given political views in Israel and the weak and divided Palestinian leadership. But interim steps should be taken to make the occupation as benign as possible. The burden for rejecting peace should be clearly placed on the shoulders of the Palestinians, not on Israel’s. At the outset of the first intifada, my wife Fran and I had a dinner with Yitzhak and Leah Rabin and Itamar and Efrat Rabinovich (he later became Israeli Ambassador to the US under a Rabin government). I asked him why the Palestinians were violently demonstrating. Between puffs of his cigarette, the laconic but incisive Rabin said simply, “Because they don’t like us to occupy them.” Long-term occupation with no economic or political resolution can have a corrosive impact on Israel’s democratic values, which are critical to its own strength and to support among the American public.
This essay appears in the soon-to-be-published book: A Jewish State — 75 Perspectives (Academic Studies Press). Conceived by the Jewish People Policy Institute, the volume includes 75 essays on the question of Jewish-Israeli identity by some of today’s best thinkers — Jews and non-Jews, from Israel and around the world.