There has been a funny dynamic at work lately in the discourse surrounding support for Israel in the U.S. One the one hand, the U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be worry-free – despite the fact that appearances can be deceiving – under President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, with little or no friction over issues like Israeli policy in the West Bank and the Iran deal that plagued relations between the two countries under President Obama. Away from the highest reaches of power, things still look like they are going swimmingly, with the most recent Gallup survey of Americans’ attitudes toward Israel registering near record high levels of support. Leaving aside the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the face of it there should be little cause for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship and American support for Israel.
Yet to listen to the American Jewish establishment paints a different picture that is not as sanguine as one might expect. There are alarm bells going off in many quarters about Israel’s direction and how it will impact American support for the Jewish state going forward, including from some sources not generally associated with alarmist or critical rhetoric toward its government. At AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference, executive director Howard Kohr made a strong case for Palestinian statehood and the importance of the two-state solution, calling the remoteness of the realization of two states for two people tragic. And then earlier this week, longtime Netanyahu supporter, Trump friend, and World Jewish Congress head Ron Lauder – as establishment a Jewish leader as perhaps exists – issued a dire warning in the New York Times, taking the Israeli government to task for its policies toward the Palestinians and its capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox. Lauder explicitly linked these two issues to a distancing of American Jews from Israel that will in turn endanger Israel’s future.
So what gives? There seems to simultaneously be an unusually urgent and genuine alarm over the direction Israel is taking coupled with evidence that Israel’s status in the U.S. and as an American ally has never been more secure. It’s not as if Israel has recently undergone any huge policy shifts or leadership changes, and one would be excused in thinking that the tone in some quarters of the Jewish community is a discordant one.
One important element to understand is that American feelings about Israel writ large are not the same thing as American Jewish feelings about Israel. While Americans across the board have one set of views and concerns, American Jews have a different set of views and concerns that overlap in many ways but diverge from the 98 percent of the country that is not Jewish in others. In addition, the consequences of these different opinions and of support for Israel are different for different groups, which explains why Americans in general are largely worry-free on the question of Israeli policy, while American Jews are not. The fact that a dip in American support for Israel thankfully does not seem forthcoming does not change the fact that when someone like Lauder looks out over the landscape, he sees enormous cause for concern about long-term support for Israel within the Jewish community.
Americans as a group do not have to think about Israeli policies that impact only Jews on conversion or prayer at the Western Wall, and it would be strange if they took those into account when assessing their feelings about Israel as a strategic ally or ideological fellow traveler. American Jews do not have that luxury, and American Jewish leaders understand that such policies undermine support for Israel inside their community. American Jews also feel a lot more strongly than the rest of the country about Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and the two-state solution, whether because they are more liberal politically as a group or because they are more engaged with and consumed by Israel and the character of the state than other American demographics. The ramifications of Israeli policy land differently depending on where you sit, and it thus makes sense that American Jewish leaders see dark clouds on the horizon irrespective of no erosion in support for Israel as measured in the Gallup survey or the messaging coming from the White House.
There is also an issue of organizational leadership that is worrying community leaders, no matter where Americans are more generally. The leaders of mainstream Jewish groups two decades from now will be drawn from the ranks of the same committed and engaged young and emerging leaders who are currently expressing angst about Israeli policies large and small, and that will impact the ways in which these organizations interact with Israel in the future. While the U.S. supports Israel in all sorts of ways that are not driven by the Jewish community, there is no question that the foundation of American support for Israel is built upon American Jews and their institutional voice. Younger American Jews, and not only those who align with protest groups like IfNotNow but those whose engagement with Israel comes through mainstream groups like Jewish Federations, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, and others, are struggling with how to reconcile their support and love for Israel with growing disenchantment from Israeli policies and from a changing Israeli society. Were I an American Jewish communal or organizational leader acutely sensitive to the role that the organizational firmament plays in driving and maintaining strong U.S.-Israel ties, I too would be worried by developments that are not reflected in public opinion polls of Americans or friendly photo ops between Netanyahu and congressional delegations visiting Israel.
Finally, beyond the question of support for Israel, there is a sense that something is broken that does not depend on or even interact with the official U.S.-Israel relationship. It is a set of feelings and concerns that speak to Israel as the Jewish homeland and the stake that non-Israeli Jews have in a Jewish state that is predicated upon national Israeli citizenship but also a larger sense of Jewish belonging and identification. Lauder’s op-ed cannot be understood outside of this context, coming as it does against a backdrop of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, an Israel that is more secure than it has ever been, and an Israel whose narrative in which it has no partner for peace has penetrated the American consciousness deeper than ever before. On the surface, everything looks fine. Underneath, however, there is a churn that is mostly confined to the American Jewish community that has the Jewish establishment worried. If the Israeli government is wise, it will pay attention to this latter development as much as it touts the former.