Why are American Jewish organizations predominantly silent on Israeli illiberalism? This is the question posed and answered by J.J. Goldberg in a much-discussed piece this week on Martin Luther King Day tying the American Jewish organizational voice on Israel to the breakdown of the black-Jewish partnership on civil rights. Goldberg’s theory quickly summed up – and you should really read the piece in its entirety if you haven’t yet – is that the biggest factor in how American Jewish organizations relate to Israel today is the collapse fifty years ago of the alliance between blacks and Jews on civil rights. As black activists increasingly called for blacks to fight for their civil rights by themselves, and as Jews got to a point where their own equality seemed secure, Jewish organizations that were built to fight for civil rights needed another battleground. This coincided with the Six Day War, which imparted the lesson that Israel was living in a neighborhood where its neighbors wanted it gone and could be wiped out at any time, and American Jewish organizations thus pivoted to devoting their time to supporting Israel as their primary mission. Despite the liberal bent of American Jews, they are passive on the Israel issue because they learned to live without a collective voice that was connected to group self-interest.
There is a lot to mull over in Goldberg’s piece and many typically keen insights. He makes a strong historical argument, but as strong as that argument is, I am not sure that the fracture in the civil rights movement is what is primarily driving today’s dynamic. To begin with, Goldberg rightly points out a number of organizations that do not fit into this picture of checking their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel, and their number is not insignificant. Furthermore, the three most prominent Jewish organizations that were involved in the civil rights movement were the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. The American Jewish Congress has all but folded and the ADL is one of the organizations that Goldberg identifies in his piece as not being afraid to speak out on Israel today, so the historical institutionalist argument that he sketches doesn’t appear to apply in scale to the organizations operating today. In addition, the organization that most people would point to as driving the American Jewish organizational stance on Israel is AIPAC, which does not fit into Goldberg’s theory.
I would instead point to two other variables that I believe are causing the dissonance between a very liberal American Jewry and a far less liberal American Jewish organizational stance toward Israel. The first fits into the structure of Goldberg’s overall argument about a crisis in mission leading to a new focus on Israel, but rather than point to civil rights, I would point to the decline of Judaism itself. As traditional religious observance waned over the course of the 20th century, Israel was elevated into a religious cause that became for many American Jews their primary way of expressing their Judaism as a religion, as opposed to their embrace of Judaism as an ethnicity or a culture. Support for the Jewish state became de rigeur at synagogues of all denominations, prayers for the Israeli government and the IDF were adopted into the Shabbat morning liturgy, and Israel itself became intertwined with Judaism so that it became a focal point of the American Jewish religious tradition. Support for Israel was the equivalent of fasting on Yom Kippur or holding a Passover seder; even if your religious observance was minimal, Israel was a part of it. For many American Jews, Israel was what bound them to Judaism, rather than the religious practices of their parents and grandparents. For Jewish organizations that needed to stay relevant, pivoting to supporting Israel was an obvious move, and naturally any organization devoted to advocating for something is going to be reluctant to be overly critical, even when there are things taking place that are particularly unpalatable.
The second variable is political trends in Israel. In the twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have only once voted a left of center prime minister into office, and Ehud Barak did not last even two years. Going back even further to the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, which marked a revolutionary shift in the Israeli political landscape, Rabin’s election in 1992 was the only other time since then that Israelis have voted a Labor prime minister into office (Shimon Peres’s first term in 1984 was part of a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir and Likud). In other words, for nearly four decades Israelis have displayed a clear rightwing preference when it comes to their leaders. Is it any surprise then that American Jewish organizations, both those that deal primarily with Israel issues and those that don’t, take those cues and reflect what is taking place in Israel itself?
This is not, incidentally, applicable only when a rightwing government is in power in Israel. When Rabin began the Oslo process, AIPAC did in fact support it, even if begrudgingly. The major American Jewish organizations that now seemingly fall in lockstep behind the Netanyahu government were not out front challenging the Rabin government on its priorities, even though he represented a major break from the previous fifteen years of Israeli government policy. It would be fascinating to see what American Jewish organizations would look like with regard to Israel policy were Israel to spend an uninterrupted decade under the control of left of center governments; my instinct is that American Jewish organizations are shaped by the structural environment of Israeli politics in a significant way and would presumably change with the times.
There is no question that the priorities of the bulk of American Jews appear out of sync with the priorities of many American Jewish groups. I think that Goldberg is definitely onto something in looking back at historical trends and moments that shape today’s environment, but I would point to a different set than the ones that he has identified.