The Big Idea


Why Israel and liberal American Jews are drifting apart.

Right after it happened, Israel’s ambassador to the United States described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “insult” to Vice President Joe Biden as the worst crisis to hit relations between the two countries in three decades. A week later, the blowup had largely blown over. Both sides realized what they usually realize when irritated with each other, which is that it serves the interests of neither to quarrel in public. Netanyahu, who is no fool, would be a big one if he antagonized his country’s most powerful ally, especially while calling for a posse to hunt down Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama, who was already unpopular in Israel, needs Jewish support to win re-election. All parties regret expressing their true feelings.

But even as the incident of the Mistimed Zoning Announcement fades, it points to an ongoing shift with large political implications in both countries. Relations haven’t ruptured, but Israel and its historic allies in the Democratic Party have drifted away from each other. Simply stated, the instinctive solidarity that American liberals, many of them Jews, have long felt with Israel is on the decline. The frustration vented by various members of the Obama administration over Netanyahu’s intransigence is an illustration of this fissure, not the cause of it. The more everyone says that nothing’s changed in the relationship, the more you know it has.

If you want numbers, various polls document the disenchantment. Shmuel Rosner, an astute Israeli journalist who blogs for the Jerusalem Post and writes for Slate pays a lot of attention to the partisan gap in support for Israel. It has jumped dramatically of late, with 80 percent of Republicans expressing favorable view of Israel, according to Gallup, as compared with only 53 percent of Democrats. One recent study found that only 54 percent of Jews under 35 who aren’t Orthodox are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state” (as compared to more than 80 percent of those over 65). Among younger Jews, only 20 percent rated as “highly attached” to Israel in another poll. If you want examples of the shift in sentiment, read just about any Jewish columnist for a major newspaper. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times spent last week arguing that Biden under-reacted to Israel’s announcement about the new housing units in East Jerusalem, comparing Israel’s policies to drunken driving. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post is writing a book arguing that the founding of Israel was a well-intentioned mistake.

One might well fill a book with all the possible explanations for rising liberal, and in particular Jewish liberal, qualms about Israel. But the blame has to start with Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and its settlements policy. Israel never meant to take over the West Bank and Gaza—it got stuck with them after the 1967 war. But decades of harsh occupation have made dispossessed Palestinians, the majority of whom have long favored a two-state solution, the sympathetic victims in the conflict. Revisionist Zionism—the Biblically based claim that Israel has a right to the territories—has wrought tremendous damage to the Israel’s moral standing. Encouraging religious and political extremists to settle in those territories set a wedge between Israel and its liberal supporters, who see annexation as both impractical and immoral.

But if the stupidity of the settlements is obvious to most American Jews, it is not to the majority of Israelis, who have chosen a prime minister who represents the rejection of a two-state solution. At the same time, American liberals have recoiled from the pattern of miscalculation and inhumanity—there is no other word for it—in Israel’s attempts to protect itself from Hezbollah and Hamas. Last week, I saw the journalist Lawrence Wright perform a moving and disturbing monologue entitled “The Human Scale,” based on his time reporting in Gaza. Whether or not one accepts the judgment of the Goldstone Report that Israel’s bombing and reinvasion of the strip involved war crimes, Wright’s piece (at New York’s Public Theater this weekend) is a persuasive case that it constituted a wildly disproportionate response. Like the second invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the reoccupation was immensely destructive and counterproductive, sowing new seeds of hatred that will bloom for generations.

Barring a breakthrough in the peace process or a change in the Israeli government, I’d predict the drift to continue to continue, with Likud-Republican-religious-AIPAC supporters settling into one camp and Kadima-Democratic-secular- J-Street supporters coalescing into another. It’s hard to see this as good news for either Israel or Democrats. American liberals are an external part of Israel’s conscience, and when it disdains them, it becomes a harder and more isolated place. The support that Israel has gained from millenarian American conservatives is no substitute, in part because such allies aren’t persuasive global advocates for Israel.

For Democrats, the fracturing of Jewish support, which is crucial both in terms of money and swing votes in a few key states, hardly bodes well. Those who undertook the “great schlep“- to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama may be getting an earful from them now. Obama won nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. I doubt he will get as much of it in 2012.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.