T raditionally, American Jews have been broadly liberal in their political outlook; indeed African-Americans are the only ethnic group more likely to vote Democratic in US elections. Over the past half century, however, attitudes on one topic have stood in sharp contrast to this group’s generally progressive stance: support for Israel.
Despite Israel’s record of militarism, illegal settlements and human rights violations, American Jews have, stretching back to the 1960s, remained largely steadfast supporters of the Jewish “homeland.”
But, as Prof. Dr. Norman Finkelstein explains in an elegantly-argued and richly-textured new book, this is now beginning to change.
Reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations, and books by commentators as prominent as President Jimmy Carter and as well-respected in the scholarly community as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Peter Beinart, have increasingly pinpointed the fundamental illiberalism of the Israeli state.
In the light of these exposes, the support of America Jews for Israel has begun to fray. This erosion has been particularly marked among younger members of the community. A 2010 Brandeis University poll found that only about one quarter of Jews aged under 40 today feel “very much” connected to Israel.
In successive chapters that combine Finkelstein’s customary meticulous research with polemical brio, Knowing Too Much sets the work of defenders of Israel such as Jeffrey Goldberg, Michael Oren, Dennis Ross and Benny Morris against the historical record, showing their claims to be increasingly tendentious.
As growing numbers of American Jews come to see the speciousness of the arguments behind such apologias and recognize Israel’s record as simply indefensible, Finkelstein points to the opening of new possibilities for political advancement in a region that for decades has been stuck fast in a gridlock of injustice and suffering.
Knowing Too Much
Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End
Publication May 2012
Paperback, 466 Pages
eBook ISBN 978-1-935928-78-2
Read an Excerpt
Recent surveys strongly suggest that American Jews are “distancing” themselves from Israel. The data do not however yield a single causal factor for this estrangement. Judging by these surveys as well as the historical record, the interplay of a trio of factors—ethnicity, citizenship and ideology—have shaped the contours of the American Jewish relationship with Israel.
One can observe these factors at play in poll findings of Jewish opinion. When asked in a 2009 J Street survey to name “the single biggest reason” they support Israel, the most frequent replies of American Jews divided into the three classes of ethnic belonging (“I am Jewish and Israel is the Jewish homeland”), state loyalty (“Israel is an American ally in the Middle East and strengthens our national security interests”), and ideological affinity (“Israel is a democracy which shares my values”).
Or, when asked whether a notorious anti-Arab politician joining the Israeli cabinet would affect their feelings towards Israel, fully one in three American Jews replied on the basis of ideology that it “weakens my personal connection to Israel because [his] positions go against my core values.”
It is not always clear however which factor is the operative one. Polls show that a decisive majority of American Jews oppose Israeli settlement expansion.
But is this because successive U.S. administrations have been at loggerheads with Israel over the illegal settlements, or because settlement-building violates the liberal precept of respecting international law and resolving conflicts peacefully?
The bedrock of the American Jewish bond with Israel is kinship: the attachment of an ethnic group to “its” ethnic state. Although their support of Israel does not spring automatically from this primal connection, American Jews plainly would not be as supportive in the absence of an ethnic link.
The high rate of intermarriage among American Jews in recent years has diluted the impact of this blood tie and consequently attenuated the connection of many American Jews to Israel.
Both celebrants and critics of the American Jewish romance with Israel typically depict the ethnic factor as the only operative one. Jewish neoconservatives claim that they adopted the neoconservative creed in significant part because its unconditional support for Israel was “good for the Jews,” while in their bestseller, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt take for granted that Jewish neoconservatives support Israel largely because they are Jewish.
But American Jews have been equally protective of their hard-won rights and attendant secular success in the United States. Their support of Israel has consequently fluctuated depending on the state of U.S.-Israeli relations. Fearful of the “dual loyalty” charge that has historically haunted the Jewish people, American Jewry has put Israel at arm’s length whenever relations between Washington and Tel Aviv have been tenuous and drawn closer when official ties have been stronger.
Jewish neoconservatives are a case in point. Liberal Jewish intellectuals who were resolutely indifferent to Israel in their youth mutated into neoconservative lovers of Zion not because of an idealistic devotion to kith and kin but because of an opportunistic devotion to power and privilege.
Like many a sacred awakening, the one Jewish intellectuals experienced after the June 1967 war, when they “discovered” their roots and homeland, also netted them sizable profane benefits, when—coincidentally—Israel became an American strategic asset. Their new love affair with Israel was shot through with as much poignancy as a decision to reunite with an estranged relative after he has won the lottery.
The lineaments of the American Jewish relationship with Israel have also been molded by liberal ideology. A pair of allegiances distinguish American Jews from fellow Americans: their markedly greater support of liberalism and of Israel. Indeed, these commitments have effectively defined what it means to be Jewish in America.
“For many American Jews,” Steven M. Cohen observed in his classic anatomy of the contemporary Jewish scene, “politics—in particular pro-Israel and liberal activity—have come to constitute their principal working definition of Jewishness.” The interaction between these twin commitments, and in particular the tension between them, is the focus of this book.
For a long while “pro-Israel and liberal activity” appeared perfectly compatible. Israel was conceived among enlightened Americans as an offspring of their own nation-building experiment, a place where rugged settlers had also transformed wasteland into a democratic oasis. But in recent years it has proven increasingly difficult to marry support for Israel with liberal values. In an essay published already some 15 years ago, the eminent American Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer vividly captured this budding conflict:
Liberals want to spend money on schools and housing projects rather than arms; but American sophisticated arms may defend Israel. They want to give aid to poor nations; but Israel, not a poor nation, engrosses a huge share of the American aid budget. They want to support democracies, and Israel is a democracy, but one in which the rights of a very large part of the population, Arabs within Israel and the occupied territories, are scarcely models of the rights people expect to have in a democratic society….Liberals in this country support the strict separation of church and state and the equality of religions before the law, but they support a state in which one religion holds primacy and is backed by state power. They are against the conquest of territory by force but support a state that has doubled its size through force and over time has shown less and less inclination to give up its conquests. The measures Israel uses to put down the [first] intifada, when resorted to by other democracies…, raise an outcry among liberals; in the Israeli case, the outcry is muted.
Glazer went on to speculate that in defense of Israeli policies, American Jews would eventually shed their “anachronistic” liberal sensibility. Some poll data lent support to Glazer’s prediction: American Jews have embraced policies such as a strong military that buttressed Israel but contradicted liberalism.
However, the overarching tendency has been the reverse of what Glazer anticipated. The robustness of their liberalism has caused American Jews to loosen their bonds with Israel.
A raft of recent studies has chronicled the incipient breakup of liberal Jewish support for Israel. They spotlight how a sequence of political developments in Israel—the accession to power of right-wing parties and politicians, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the repression of the first Palestinian intifada, the impasses in the “peace process”—have created rifts in the American Jewish community and concomitantly alienated liberal Jewish opinion from Israel.
This book takes a different tack. It traces the gradual shift in perception of the Israel-Palestine conflict, in effect, the knowledge shift from fiction to fact, that has rendered support for Israel on the basis of liberal values increasingly untenable.
A 2011 Gallup poll of American public opinion unsurprisingly found “liberals the least supportive of Israel of any group.” Although more than 60 percent of Americans generally expressed greater sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians, the percentage fell to under 50 percent for liberals.
The perceptual shift that now casts Israel in a harsher light takes multiple forms and is visible in multiple forums. Respected scholars and human rights organizations have confirmed and deepened the findings of prior, mostly maligned critics of Israel. Additionally, the broad consensus in the legal-diplomatic community for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict puts the onus on Israel for the failure to achieve peace.
Whereas Israel’s critics in the past had to rely on marginalized sources, they can now quote unimpeachable authorities to make the case against Israeli policy.
For every apologetic study by a Michael Oren on the history of war and peace in the Middle East, one can now cite a critical Israeli strategic analyst such as Zeev Maoz; for every book and blog entry by a Jeffrey Goldberg whitewashing Israel’s human rights record, one can now cite critical publications by authoritative human rights organizations such as B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; for every legal-diplomatic justification of Israeli intransigence put forth by an Alan Dershowitz or a Dennis Ross, one can now quote the International Court of Justice or a reputable Israeli diplomat such as Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Although reportage will not be directly treated in this book, it might also be noted that for every hackneyed piece by the New York Times’s Ethan Bronner and Thomas Friedman, one can now cite the courageous and deeply informed dispatches of Haaretz reporters Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.
In fact the vast preponderance of mainstream historical scholarship, human rights reporting and legal-diplomatic opinion upholds impressive standards of objectivity. The findings of this body of work, more often than not sharply critical of Israel, have entered the public debate, and willy-nilly these critical conclusions have seeped into the consciousness of American Jews, who are highly educated and tapped into the broad currents of liberal culture. An indication of these compound developments is that American Jews with relatively higher levels of education tend to be more alienated from Israel.
Still, the pages of this book depict an incomplete, on-going process, a trajectory. Many propagandistic works, and outright frauds, still gain wide currency in the United States. Regrettably, even respected university presses and human rights organizations now and again put out studies of dubious value. A significant portion of this book will be devoted to dissecting such misinformation and disinformation, as a practical demonstration of the process described here.
Because Israeli propaganda no longer monopolizes public discourse, and enough of the truth, even if still only a small fraction of it, has become known, Israel can no longer count on the blind support of American Jews. Nowhere is the shift more palpable than on American college campuses. During the past couple of decades this writer has lectured widely across the U.S. on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Confident of their convictions, Israel’s youthful defenders used to pack the audiences and form long queues after the talks to pose hostile questions. But in recent years fewer and fewer of them venture to show up; once boisterous and sure-footed, their presence is now barely audible. Only a handful of diehards are willing to suffer the embarrassment of making the “case for Israel” in public.
Not even the massive proliferation of centers, programs, and endowed chairs devoted to Judaic Studies, Holocaust Studies, Israel Studies, and Anti-Semitism Studies has managed to turn the critical tide of campus opinion. Israel’s supporters allege that anti-Semitic (or self-hating Jewish) professors have hijacked Middle East Studies departments and brainwashed students. In reality it is not the scholarship but the facts that are “biased,” and what is now being taught is what serious research shows. Not for the first time the messenger is being blamed for the bad news.
It is improbable, however, that American Jews will ever become wholly indifferent to Israel’s fate and future. Polls show that regardless of ideological affiliation the primal attachment of American Jewry to Israel stays constant. What differs according to political hue is support for Israeli policies: those American Jews calling themselves liberal refuse to back Israeli initiatives antithetical to liberal values.
True, as Israel moves steadily and inexorably to the right, more American Jews will likely grow alienated from it. A small portion will not shy away from publicly denouncing Israel while a larger portion—not wanting to air dirty laundry in public, but also not wanting to defend the indefensible—will lapse into silence. Indeed, a significant percentage of younger American Jews has already expressed indifference to the prospect of Israel’s destruction. But even among those Jews most alienated from Israel a residual sentiment of blood-belonging persists, just as it did in the past among Jews wedded to assimilation. “A chain holds them fast to Judaism,” the spiritual Zionist Ahad Ha’am famously observed, mocking these Jewish assimilationists. “Try as they will to conceal it, seek as they will for subterfuges to deceive the world and themselves, it lives nonetheless; resist it as they will, it is a force at the center of their being.”
If Israel does, or appears to, confront an existential crisis where its physical existence is literally at stake, American Jewry will almost certainly rally, and should rally, to its defense. The physical destruction of any society is a criminal act and sane people will contemplate such a prospect with horror. Should such an eventuality loom large, the near-totality of American Jews will rise to Israel’s defense because the elemental compulsion of blood—not to mention the fear, however irrational, that they might be next—will make itself felt; because their own liberal values will spur them into action; and because it is hard to conceive that the U.S. government will stand in their way.
The political upshot for the present moment is that if American Jews are to be won over, the terms set forth for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict must be aligned with liberal values. Otherwise, however enlightened their convictions and however estranged they might feel from Israel, most American Jews will not actively speak out against it. In other words, it must be shown to American Jews that the choice between Israel’s survival and Palestinian rights is a false one; that it is in fact Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights and reflexive resort to criminal force that are pushing it toward destruction; that it is possible to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict so that everyone, Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab, can preserve their full human dignity; and that such a settlement has been within reach for decades, but that Israel—with critical U.S. backing, largely because of the Israel lobby—has blocked it.
It must be shown to American Jews that what is being asked of them is not more but also not less than that they be consistent in word and deed when it comes to the people of Palestine. If it can be demonstrated that the enlightened values of truth and justice are on the side of Israel’s critics, then it should be possible—the evidence is already there—to strike a resonant chord among American Jews that goads them into action.
Prof. Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. For many years he taught political theory and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Finkelstein is the author of eight books besides this one, which have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions: What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage (OR Books, 2012); This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion (OR Books, 2010, expanded paperback edition, 2011); Goldstone Recants: Richard Goldstone Renews Israel’s License to Kill (OR Books, 2011), Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (University of California Press, 2005, expanded paperback edition, 2008); The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000, expanded paperback edition, 2003); Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995, expanded paperback edition, 2003); with Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Henry Holt, 1998); and The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years (University of Minnesota, 1996).
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