Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Israel this week can only be described as a love fest. From the moment he stepped off the military plane that ferried him from Amman to Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, Pence was showered with adoration from Israelis, and Pence reciprocated in kind. Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to him as a “true friend” while Israeli columnists noted their appreciation for Pence’s unconditional support of Israel, even while registering their discomfort with his boss President Trump and even for policies that Pence himself promotes. Pence was no less gracious in returning the compliment, associating Israel with right, good, and liberty in his Knesset speech and waxing poetic that “Israel is like a tree that has grown deep roots in the soil of your forefathers, yet as it grows, it reaches ever closer to the heavens.” It is no exaggeration to say that if Israelis could unilaterally choose anyone in the world to be president of the United States, Pence would be on their short list.
Pence represents something for Israelis that even Trump does not. Despite the obsequious fawning of Israeli ministers and politicians over Trump, there is a hint of uncomfortable self-awareness amidst the pageantry. Israeli government officials give off the impression that they understand precisely what makes Trump tick, and that Trump’s views on any subject are directly related and proportionate to the amount of flattery he receives from said subject’s champions. While the Israeli government is understandably thrilled at what they have seen from Trump so far, from the Jerusalem recognition to Trump’s hands-off approach to new settlement construction, the uncomfortable fact remains that Trump has no prior relationship with Israel that gives him bonafides to pass the infamous “kishkes” test. Trump’s volatility and unpredictability means that he could turn on Israel or Netanyahu at the drop of a hat, even if Israel loves what it has seen so far. With Pence, however, there are no such concerns.
Israelis view Pence’s love and appreciation for Israel as absolute and with no strings attached, and with good cause. Pence has visited Israel multiple times, has a history of supporting Israel in Congress, and most importantly is a devoted evangelical Zionist; all things that do not apply to Trump. Pence’s support is neither transactional nor illusory, and thus Israelis wave off things that might give them pause with other politicians, such as Pence’s deliberate ambiguity this week over whether or not the Western Wall is in Israel. For many Israelis, Pence is the ideal American supporter of Israel.
It is this fact that makes Pence a nightmarish figure for people concerned about the split between American and Israeli Jews. Israelis look at Pence and see someone who has Israel’s back in any circumstance. They see a deeply religious man whose values they respect and with whom they identify. They see a politician so devoted to Israel that he travels to the country for no particular reason other than to affirm the U.S.-Israel bond and has no other apparent policy agenda while there; does not meet with any Palestinians, opposition leaders, civil society activists, or even visit any Christian or Muslim sites; and makes it clear how happy he is to be in Israel after spending minimal time filled with awkward encounters in Jordan and Egypt. Israelis do not understand for a moment why American Jews would have any issues with Pence at all, or why they would not shower him with plaudits for his Jerusalem excursion.
Many American Jews look at the same set of facts and come to a different conclusion. They see an extremely social conservative and nationalist politician going to Israel for no other reason than to give a political boost to a nationalist Israeli politician whose policies they largely disagree with. They see an American vice president whose trip not only demonstrated support for Israel, but also demonstrated just what a mess his administration has made of the peace process in one short year, as evidenced by Palestinian officials refusing to meet with Pence and this deeply and genuinely religious man being told that he is not welcome in Jesus’s birthplace. They see Pence extolling the virtues of an Israeli government that makes the overwhelming majority of American Jews feel as if they are insufficiently Jewish, and they see him allowing the Israeli government to mistreat female reporters covering his visit under the dubious guise of religious practice. American Jews cannot abide the fact that Pence, who represents the polar opposite of American Jewish values, is treated by Israelis as a hero and great defender of the Jews.
Pence is in many ways the ultimate embodiment of the split between Israeli and American Jewry. He reveals just how gaping the chasm is between American Jewish and Israeli Jewish worldviews and priorities. The fact that he evokes such strong feelings on both sides is important, and it is incumbent on both sides to understand why that is. If Israelis cannot understand why this unwavering friend of Israel is disliked by many American Jews, they will never understand what makes American Jews tick. If American Jews cannot understand why a politician with almost satirically conservative views on gender and religion is treated with the utmost respect and devotion by Israelis, they will never understand why so many Israelis – both government officials and ordinary people on the street – sneer at American Jews for having their priorities upside down. The fact that Pence evokes such strong emotions on both sides makes empathizing with the other side a rather difficult task, but it also contributes to its urgency. The American Jewish and Israeli Jewish communities are not so much drifting apart as running from each other at full speed, and some basic consideration for each side’s views will go a long way toward bridging the divide.