American Jews today have little memory of 1967, when Israel was surrounded and could have been destroyed in war. Prof. Jonathan Sarna should know. A fellow at the Israel Institute of Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University and Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, he is one of the foremost experts on American Jewry, and is one of several professors lecturing in the Ruderman Program for American-Jewish studies at the University of Haifa.
“Young American Jews don’t remember the period before there was an Israel when Jews had nowhere to go,” Sarna says. Younger Jews today have a different sense of Zion, but “the future is not pre-ordained, it is in our hands. “Were peace suddenly to be arranged… things would change very rapidly.”
Sarna is optimistic.
The head of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, Prof. Gur Alroey, believes Israel has much to be thankful for when it comes to American Jewry’s aiding Israel in its infancy. “It is doubtful whether the Zionist movement would have accomplished its impressive achievements and succeeded in establishing a State for the Jewish people in Israel, without the help of Diaspora Jews and American Jews in particular,” he says.
In conversations with Sarna, Alroey and two other Ruderman Program lecturers, Prof. Gil Troy and Prof. Zohar Segev, a surprisingly upbeat notion of the American Jewish community and its relations with Israel emerged.
In conversations with Sarna, Alroey and two other Ruderman Program lecturers, Prof. Gil Troy and Prof. Zohar Segev and American Studies program head, Gur Alroey, a surprisingly upbeat notion of the American Jewish community and its relations with Israel emerged.
This comes at an auspicious time. The rise of President Donald Trump in the US has seemed to make the cleavages between the left and right in the US Jewish community grow. At the same time, antisemitism is rising, with the tension relating to fake bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the US.
“Are American Jews turning away from Israel?” was the title of one article in Foreign Policy last year, with others predicting massive American Jewish immigration. “Israelis are for Trump, US Jews are from Venus,” declared Jewish Week. “Israel and liberal Jews are moving apart,” said electronic magazine Slate.
Luckily, a sense of history can put our fears at ease. Segev has a particularly long view – going back to the 1930s – to see how things have changed.
“Not many people will agree with me, but I don’t think antisemitism is an issue in the US. If you look at the historical perspective, antisemitism wasn’t a major factor in the US Jewish community, which is very different from Europe, and that’s still the reality today.”
He argues that attacks today, despite media hype, are “sporadic” and it is not an organized assault on Jews. For perspective, he asks us to look to Europe, where Jews attend synagogue with armed police guards and are afraid to wear kippot in the street.
Troy, in contrast, sees the issue of antisemitism in America as dividing the Jewish Right and Left.
“Left wingers see only Trump-inspired antisemitism and the Right sees it on campus, but it must be non-partisan. We must unite. We need the Left on campus, and the Right should fight right-wing anti-semitism.”
He argues that Trump is not personally antisemitic and draws attention to Trump’s Jewish grandchildren.
“He’s from that world in New York where he dealt with Jews all his life.”
Troy argues that just as people exaggerated Obama’s anti-Israel views and accused him of antisemitism, so now they make the same mistake with Trump. Trump’s problem is he doesn’t know how to use the “bully pulpit.” He’s more comfortable with the “bullying pulpit,” Troy quips.
He doesn’t think there will be waves of aliya due to persecution.
“The very Jews put off by Trump [inspired] antisemitism are precisely those Jews who detest [Prime Minister Benjamin] Bibi [Netanyahu] and see Israel going to hell in a handbasket.”
Sarna adds a third layer of nuance.
“This is a period where a lot of hatreds has been unleashed in America. When you have a president who has not been shy about sharing his own antipathies and prejudices, it’s not surprising that a lot of other people feel unleashed, that they don’t have to be ‘politically correct’ and say what they’ve always believed and act upon it,” he says.
However, he argues, there is no evidence of a rise in antisemitism itself. Those who were already racist “feel licensed to speak out and act.” The world of hi-tech has made it easier for a small number to “do a lot of damage and mischief.” The recent attention to antisemitism has provided a chance for young Jews to feel what past generations suffered “before 9/11 and in the 1950s, and even greater in the 1920s and 1930s. We haven’t seen anything like what existed then.”
What worries Sarna is that Israel may be increasingly a partisan issue in the US. Although 100 senators will come together to condemn antisemitism, when it comes to supporting Israel, the near wall-to-wall support in Congress may be eroding. This seemed to be the case regarding front-runners in the Democratic National Committee. Although Keith Ellison lost to former labor secretary Tom Perez in February, neither candidate seems to have warm feelings for Israel. What happens when Trump, who is seen as very pro-Israel, leaves office?
“Then the other party gets into office and they will take a very different view. We know perfectly well that in the rank-and-file of the Democratic Party there is perhaps even a majority that is really somewhat antagonistic to Israel,” says Sarna.
Troy agrees, saying the transitive dynamic comes into play and people may say, “I hate Trump, and he loves Israel so I hate Israel.”
“We haven’t seen that yet and it is a great danger. It requires great statesmanship and a lot of work to make sure that does not happen,” says Sarna.
Everything must be done now to restore the support for Israel and make sure it is a bipartisan issue.
“One hopes that the government of Israel will be wise enough to see the danger and nip it in the bud. That’s the great fear many of us have.”
Alroey believes this is where Israel can - and should step up to the plate. “The dangers inherent in American Jewry’s distancing from Israeli society are crucially important for Israel’s future,” he says. “The State of Israel makes decisions relating to Diaspora Jews and American Jewry in particular without taking into account their position. Decisions like these create tensions and divisions within the Jewish community, and may alienate American Jews from Israel and Israeli society. This situation harms both American Jewry and Israel.”
Troy, though, points to the last days of the Obama administration when the president refused to veto UN Resolution 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
“The reprehensible speeches by [former secretary of state] John Kerry and [former UN ambassador Samantha] Power, hijacking the legacy of [former president Ronald] Reagan and [former UN ambassador] Jeane Kirkpatrick, set a tone that was a warning sign of the liberal end of the Democratic Party. Its diversity wing might go down a hostile path against Israel,” says Troy.
But he is still “bullish” on the bipartisan relationship. He thinks the fundamentals of free trade and hi-tech and shared values that unite America and Israel are strong. He looks to history to provide perspective.
“Over the past 70 years [the relationship] has grown stronger – militarily, ideologically and diplomatically.”
It’s not as simple as Trump or Obama.
“The dimensions are so deep that the president here or there makes differences but can’t shake the foundations.”
He points to AIPAC as one of those foundations where people speak of shared valued and interests.
“What I’ve seen these days is shared challenges, as Shira Ruderman said in the Knesset. Especially now as Western democracies struggle with the question of the quality of the discourse and nature of the unity and the meaning of democracy in the Internet age and growing social tensions, we have more to learn from each other on what to do and what not to do.”
Troy looks at Gallup polls to provide evidence for this.
“When we talk about American Jewry or the US, when we talk about a trajectory, do we start in 1948, 1967 or 20 years ago? The fundamentals are strong, but I will say that when we talk about young people or Keith Ellison or the Democratic Party, which has been willing to welcome anti-Israel forces into the party in a way they weren’t welcome before, there are warning signs and potential crises. We have to make sure the relationship remains bipartisan.”
Sarna concludes that the US knows that its greatest allies are fellow democracies.
“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and when we look at technological [achievements and] business, it reminds Americans that Israel is like them – a First World free, democratic country. [This] unquestionably distinguishes Israel from its neighbors and the map of Africa, Asia and Third World countries, which often have deep hostility to the US.”
But there are shoals ahead.
“I think the relationship has to be properly managed – as we know perfectly well – because we have seen that whether under Dwight Eisenhower or Barack Obama, when the president is not as sympathetic to Israel as one would like, that will cause a great many problems in geopolitical terms.
“I think America now and in the future will base its foreign policy on firm alliances with democratic states, of which Israel is one.”