In conversations with my friends and family, it is obvious American Jews, especially young ones who wish to engage, increasingly face challenges regarding their relationship with the traditional views of communal organizations as well as with how others around them view Israel. To me, Batya Ungar-Sargon’s recent piece in The Forward, Seeking To Help Israel, American Jewish Institutions Sold Us Out, does a good service of voicing those thoughts. However, she also raises a number of problematic arguments which must be addressed.
Three points stand out above the rest as worthy of a response. First, the growing gap between American Jews and American Jewish institutions; second, the assertion every step taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu is inherently bad for Israel; and finally, the apparent lack of understanding about the relationship between Israel’s strength and the wellbeing of world Jewry.
Ungar-Sargon starts by saying there is a divide “between American Jews and their institutions,” and then names Netanyahu’s worldview and politics the primary cause. While I agree with her observation, I cannot but disagree with her reasoning. The main reason for the growing gap between traditional Jewish organizations and the young, millennial, Liberal Jews represented by Ungar-Sargon’s article has little if anything to do with Israel. There is a gap because these groups hardly represent the constituents they claim to represent.
Jay Ruderman put this simply in an op-ed last year: “When it comes to major American Jewish organizations, everyone follows the Golden Rule: Whoever has the most gold, rules.” These groups are usually run by affluent men in their 50s or older. It is hard to find women, young people, Jews of Israeli or Russian backgrounds, Sefaradi Jews, converts or people with disabilities in leadership positions. Sometimes, they can’t be found at all.
So before we look at Israel and its leadership, before we even talk about one policy or another, let us ask ourselves: Do these organizations represent US Jewry? American Jews would be wise to fight for more democratic communal groups, which would, in turn, provide more adequate representation.
The second problematic claim is an assertion every step taken by Israel is “realpolitik that prioritizes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow, protectionist view of what’s good for Israel over the wellbeing of Jews.” I too have many critiques of Netanyahu. However, there is a difference between critiquing policy and saying Netanyahu can do no good. Whether one supports Israel’s current government or not, it would be wrong to assume Israel’s coalition government, with its own system of checks and balances, operates solely at the whim of one prime minister or another.
In fact, through the two examples she cites, Ungar-Sargon undermines the need for a state to take practical, pragmatic steps — which she downplays through the word “realpolitik” — in order to secure its needs. With over 200 million citizens, Brazil is one of the world’s top 10 economies, and it is growing. Israel cannot simply choose not to do business with Brazil — or India, to name another country with whom Netanyahu led the strengthening of ties, just as every American understands the need to do business with China, despite its track record in the fields of democracy and human rights.
However, Ungar-Sargon’s use of below the surface ties with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman is an even better example. Since none of the Arab countries in Israel’s region are liberal democracies, claiming Israel needs to distance itself from them means giving up the chance for normalization between it and the Arab world, not to mention giving up on the prospect for peace with the Palestinians. If the (just) struggle for LGTBQ rights or lack of torture are the measuring sticks, then talking with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is, simply put, not an option.
Of course, it is important to remind our leaders that morals need to matter — but it is absurd to think states should disregard realpolitik considerations.
Finally, Ungar-Sargon writes that Jewish power today in both Israel and the US is something unseen for centuries. According to her, Israel has “the 15th strongest army” and is “the 7th largest arms exporter” in the world. However, she fails to mention that such a military strength, as well as Israel’s economic strength and the political force of the American Jewish community, were obtained by pursuing realpolitik opportunities — the likes of which she spent most of her article arguing against. For instance, had it not been for Israel’s diplomatic shrewdness, it would have been unable to purchase arms for its War of Independence in 1948. When the US and Europe refused to sell the young Jewish state munitions, it was saved because its leaders purchased weapons from the USSR via Czechoslovakia.
Another example of Israel and American Jewish organizations prioritizing “realpolitik” over abstract morals is the American Jewish community’s willingness to pay Ethiopian dictator Mengistu over $30 million (USD) in order to get the Beta Israel community out of the country in the midst of a civil war. This enabled Operation Solomon — the airlifting of over 14,400 people, using 30 planes, in only 34 hours.
True, there are big differences between Israel and the American Jewish community. However, it is wrong to think that just because we view a decision as “realpolitik” makes it wrong or immoral. And, more importantly, it would be a mistake to think a change of Israeli leadership will solve the tensions between the two sides — or that it would fix the internal problems and heal the rifts within the American Jewish community.