President Obama’s departure from office has brought to an end, one hopes, the parlor game that has so consumed American Jews for eight years: the ferocious, take-no-prisoners argument over whether his administration was “good” for Israel or “bad” for Israel. There was always merit on both sides of the argument.
As the president pointed out, on military and intelligence matters, his administration’s support for and coordination with Israel were extraordinary. Israeli officials who were often deeply disappointed with Obama confirm this. And there were plenty of instances in which his administration stepped in to help Israel when it counted a great deal: providing badly-needed help in stopping uncontrollable fires near Haifa, getting endangered Israeli diplomats in Cairo out of harm’s way, and, yes, speaking out against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, for example.
At the same time, the Obama team took office in 2009 serving notice that it would treat Israeli settlements as the primary cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, openly uninterested in the set of inarguable facts demonstrating that this was manifestly not so. In looking the other way at the Palestinian rejectionism that is in fact the conflict’s primary cause, and in taking a powder on the Palestinian incitement that fuels that rejectionism, the Obama administration encouraged the Palestinians to believe that they could continue as they have in the past, without consequences. In the process, Obama’s White House helped legitimize the very delegitimization of Israel that it professed so solemnly to deplore.
This debate does not matter anymore. The pro-Israel community has much more urgent business than reproaching one another over the past. It has a problem that, if not confronted with all of the resources, energy and smarts that it can muster, poses a real threat to American support for Israel and, therefore, to Israel itself, and no amount of hubris or gloating over the election of Donald Trump can mask it.
The problem is this: Americans who place themselves somewhere between center and left of center on the political spectrum are abandoning Israel in droves. The constituencies that constitute the Democratic party and Democratic-leaning independents have been speed-walking toward the exits when it comes to Israel in recent years. The warm embrace of Israel by President Trump that has Jerusalem and some in our community kvelling with satisfaction looks a great deal like a poison kiss, as Americans of color, young people, women and liberals who overwhelmingly loathe Trump watch that embrace with horror as mere speed-walking toward the exits on Israel becomes a race.
There is a fierce battle raging over the issue of Israel on the most important battlefield of all: American public opinion. Israel’s enemies are waging it with vigor, often out-hustling Israel’s supporters. They can see the steady progress they are making in diluting and eroding support for Israel among virtually every demographic other than Americans over 60 and Christian conservatives, and they know that at this rate it will only be a matter of time before support for Israel will be the exclusive domain of rock-ribbed Republicans.
This would be fine if the American electorate consisted principally of Sheldon Adelson’s family members, but — spoiler alert: that is not the direction in which the new America is headed.
A recent Pew poll illustrated the point. Democrats are now equally split between sympathizing with Israel and the Palestinians. While 16 years ago, liberal Democrats favored Israel by 30 points, they now favor Palestinians by 12. This is hardly the only poll that highlights the danger if Israel and those who care about it do not rouse themselves from the state of self-satisfied torpor in which they presently reside. During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, Americans under the age of 30 told pollsters by a 2-1 margin that Israel, rather than Hamas, was to blame for that war.
The evidence has passed out of the anecdotal into the undeniable. Without American support for Israel, Israel is gravely imperiled, and without support from the constituencies that make up the Democratic party, America’s support is in real jeopardy. It is perfectly possible for public opinion to be upended in a short period of time — think American attitudes toward gay marriage, for instance — and we face the possibility of waking up any day and seeing support for Israel among young people, people of color, progressives and women gone.
Stopping the hemorrhaging, and clawing back support among Americans who do not identify with the Republican party and never will, needs to be a priority of the pro-Israel community. The same-old same-old will not do. Nor will the traditional complacency to which we have fallen victim. If those who care about Israel want others to care about it as well, they are going to have to get to work, and fast.
Jeffrey Robbins is an attorney in Boston with a specialty in complex civil litigation. He served as Chairman of the New England Board of the Anti-Defamation League from 2012 to 2014, and as President of the World Affairs Council of Boston (World Boston) between 2001 and 2004.