Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Israel and the American Diaspora: A Troubled Relationship

Israel has long had a troubled relationship with American Jewry. I believe that this is primarily due to three reasons. First, Zionism as an ideology was conceived in late nineteenth-century Europe--a rather hostile environment for Jews. Hence, it conceived of the natural state of the diaspora (a Greek word meaning dispersion or exile) as anti-semitic. So Israel has problems relating to a country that is philo-semitic, that is one that is welcoming of Jews. This has been the case since the American Revolution and is due to America being both a democracy and being Protestant and not Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Second, most affiliated Jews in America are either Reform or Conservative, two denominations that do not receive official recognition as Jewish in Israel. This is because religiously Israel is like Europe before the Reformation or like Islam today. Most of these Reform and Conservative Jews would be secular Jews in Israel with no attachment to a synagogue. In America synagogues function as community centers and rabbis as community leaders. Third, under Labor Zionism the ruling ideology was anti-capitalist and thus opposed in class terms to the most successful Jews in America--the capitalist businessmen. The Labor Zionists were happy to take American money but thought that the Jews who earned it were somehow to be looked down upon.

Traditionally Israel has demanded three things from American Jews. First, that they glorify Israel and thereby promote aliya (immigration to Israel) by its members. Second, that they support a number of welfare projects within Israel through donations. Third, that Jews use their clout politically to vote for American governments that were and are pro-Israel.  They were to do all of this without having any real input into Israeli policies. American Jews were supposed to lobby for Israeli policies like professional diplomats, making no distinction between one government and the next. They were to embrace limited settlement in the occupied territories, then unrestricted settlement, then peace with settlements, and then military repression against the Palestinians.

What was impermissible and beyond the bounds for Breira in the mid-1970s became kosher for Israeli governments in the 1990s. Figures like Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir who were deemed to be terrorists by the Zionist establishment in the 1940s became the establishment in the late 1970s and 1980s. After having seen various Israeli governments fail to make peace with the Arabs, some American Jews became impatient and have now started lobbying for their own American Middle East policy in Washington. The establishment American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) now has competition in the form of J Street, and organization with 40 local chapters and 170,000 supporters after only three years in existence.

American Jewry and the Israeli government are moving in opposite directions. American Jewry is becoming more assertive and the Israeli government is becoming more closed off. Israel is becoming less democratic and American Jews are remaining defiantly Democratic.  Expect fireworks in the near future.

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