Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Future of the "Special Relationship" Between American Jews and Israel

I was invited to write a short piece for a microsymposium on the future of the special relationship between American Jews and America (namely, the idea that America has been historically "exceptional" as being relatively free from antisemitism, and whether that status remains solid going forward).

Look forward to that piece coming out in a few days. Unfortunately, I was in a hurry when I read the prompt, and before I knew it I had written 175 words on the special relationship between American Jews and Israel. Weirdly, I had (mis)read the prompt in considerable detail: I recall being asked about the nature of the "special relationship" between Israel and American Jews, what its future is, whether it's under permanent threat and whether there might be a permanent rupture between the two communities.

None of this was germane to what I was actually asked to write -- so I had to go back to the drawing board. But why waste perfectly good verbiage when I have a blog that let's me publish whatever I want? So here's what I wrote (expanded -- another virtue of the blog is I'm not limited to 175 words) for the ghost symposium -- it's carrying forward themes I wrote about here about the Israeli government not caring what American Jews think.

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The watchword for the American Jewish/Israeli relationship over the next few years will be “reciprocity”. Charles De Gaulle said that “Nations don’t have friends—only interests,” but a “special relationship” is supposed to be more than transactional in nature. For years, American Jews and American Jewish organizations have spent much time, money, and political capital going to bat for Israel and a strong Israel-American alliance. They've done this in even tough or inconvenient environments (one good example: the virtually wall-to-wall Jewish organizational opposition to the Iran Deal, which pitted these groups against a President wildly popular amongst American Jews and which occurred even though polling suggested most American Jews backed the agreement).

Much of the emerging tension in our relationship stems from the realization that the Israeli government feels no corresponding obligation to expend any effort on American Jewish priorities if it requires even a modicum of inconvenience. The “relationship” is entirely one-way.

This comes up with respect to the occupation, but it is even more evident in matters of religious pluralism. Nothing demonstrated Israel’s complete dismissal of American Jewish priorities (even when security issues are not at stake) than the collapse of the Kotel deal. More recently, the Netanyahu government’s response to Pittsburgh—seemingly focused more on propping Trump up than comforting Jews—was similarly self-centered on Israeli, not American Jewish, concerns. And yes, we noticed.

This asymmetry isn't sustainable, and the question is what will break first. On a purely transactional basis, it probably is true that Evangelical Christians can offer a superior deal to Israel than American Jews ever can.  It wasn't an oversight or a mistake when Netanyahu told a group of American Christians "We have no better friends on earth than you" -- American Christians don't make annoying demands for egalitarian prayer spaces or religious pluralism or preserving Israel's liberal democratic character.

The only reason to maintain a special relationship with American Jews is if we are, indeed, viewed as special -- a group for whom there is a genuine and reciprocal care and concern that goes beyond cold-blooded self-interest. It will require Israel to sometimes -- not all the time, not blindly, but sometimes -- take steps that are hard, or inconvenient, or go beyond nakedly political calculations (for example: standing up against anti-Soros conspiracy theories being used to buttress quasi-fascist authoritarian political movements, even if you don't much like the sorts of political organizations Soros backs in Israel. Yeah, it might not the easiest, most convenient political play for Bibi -- but you know what? Suck it up, buttercup: this is bigger than you).

In short, reciprocity is the future -- or not -- of the special relationship between Israel and American Jews. Either both parties will be willing to invest effort and sacrifice on behalf of the other, or neither will.

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