It is no longer a secret that Israel and much of the American Jewish community are moving in different directions. Leftist American commentators like Peter Beinart and Roger Cohen, and the Jewish organizations that keep them on perpetual speaking tours insist that Israel no longer merits American Jewish support.
Aside from their pique at Israel’s refusal to equalize the positions of the Reform and Conservative movements to that of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and their refusal to recognize that so long as the Reform and Conservative movements have next to no following in Israel they cannot expect to receive the same consideration as Orthodox religious authorities, the main source of American Jewish antagonism toward Israel is divergent views on the Palestinians.
Specifically, Israel’s political leadership and the public that voted them into office rejects the American Jewish leadership’s positions on the Palestinian conflict with Israel. Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay’s statements last week proclaiming that he doesn’t support destroying Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria in the framework of a peace deal with the Palestinians made clear that it isn’t just the Israeli Right that rejects the position of the majority of the American Jewish community. The head of the leftist Labor Party also rejects their position that Israel should expel hundreds of thousands of its citizens from their homes in the framework of a peace deal and discriminate against them for as long as no deal has been reached.
Facing the likes of Cohen and Beinart and their supporters are Israel’s defenders who argue that the primary reason for the increased estrangement between Israel and the American Jewish community is the radicalization of the American Left, and the Left’s concomitant embrace of anti-Israel positions.
Since the 1920s, the American Jewish community has identified with the political Left. So long as the Left – and particularly the Soviet Union – supported the Jewish national liberation movement, Zionism and the Jewish state, the American Jewish Left was happy to be both leftist and Zionist.
The American Jewish movement away from Israel began after the Soviet Union cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967. The cleavage grew wider in successive decades as Western Europe incrementally aligned its policies on Israel with those of the Soviets and after the Cold War, replaced the Soviet Union as the epicenter of anti-Israel political rhetoric.
Today, anti-Israel activists are the rising force in the Democratic Party. Progressive politics have been so thoroughly suffused with anti-Zionism and its concomitant rejection of the civil rights of American Jewish Zionists that Democratic presidential hopefuls like senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker are abandoning their previously pro-Israel positions to ingratiate themselves with their party base.
While there is little doubt that the American Jewish Left’s increasing hostility toward Israel is a function of its membership’s abiding allegiance to their ideological camp, there is also something else at play.
In an article published this week in the American Jewish online magazine Tablet titled, “Why do American Jews Idealize Communism?” Prof. Ruth Wisse recalled the prominent role that American Jews played in the American Communist Party in the 1930s. Wisse cites the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia Archive which notes that according to Communist Party historians, “almost half of the [Communist] party’s membership was Jewish in the 1930s and 1940s.”
This isn’t to say that almost half of American Jews were Communist. There were a mere 83,000 Jews in the Communist Party in 1943, while there were 4.7 million Jews in the US. But those 83,000 Jews – and their even more numerous fellow travelers – played a definitive role in dictating the terms of the political and social discourse in the US during those years.
Wisse quotes then Commentary magazine editor Robert Worshaw who wrote in 1947 that during the 1930s, “If you were not somewhere within the [Communist] party’s wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition…. It was the Communist Party that ultimately determined what you were to think about and in what terms.”
In other words, there was no way to set a public policy agenda or cultural agenda independently of the Communist Party. If the Communists determined that the public should be focused on subjugation of African Americans and should ignore the Soviet gulag, for instance, and if you felt that the gulag should be discussed, then you could find yourself accused of racism for speaking of the gulag rather than Jim Crow. If you wished to discuss neo-Classical rather than cubist art, then you were considered a throwback with no sense of art. And so on and so forth.
The only party with the power to determine what Americans would speak about, what “right thinking” Americans would think and what subjects were either irrelevant or beyond the pale, was the Communist Party.
And again, a portion of the American Jewish community played an outsized role in the Communist Party.
In her article, Wisse remonstrates with the American Jewish community for failing to conduct a moral reckoning with its historical affiliation with a party and a movement that murdered 30 million of its own citizens and was responsible for the spread of war and misery worldwide, through its totalitarian, inhuman ideology.
In her words, “We Americans and Jews ask nations that once succumbed to fascism and practiced genocide in its name to acknowledge their past evils. We do so not to perpetuate guilt, but because self-awareness alone prevents repetition of the same behavior. How then can Americans and particularly the Jews among them perpetuate the romance – or the innocence – of the Bolshevik regime?” Wisse continues, “We are… obliged to take seriously that many Jews supported one of the most murderous regimes in history and to see how and why and to what extent they went wrong.”
Wisse does not draw a connection between the American Jewish community’s growing antagonism towards Israel today and its avoidance of a moral reckoning with its Communist-supporting past. But it is important to connect the dots.
Earlier this month, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria struck a “unity” deal with Hamas. Under the deal, Fatah agrees to support the Hamas regime in Gaza and take responsibility for the general functioning of governing structures in Gaza. Hamas, for its part, will continue to wage war against Israel and act as an autonomous governing authority, just like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hamas insists that it has not tempered its view of Israel. It remains committed to the annihilation of the Jewish state.
The deal paves the way for Hamas to join the PLO, and so replace Fatah as the largest faction of the PLO. Hamas’s leader Khaled Mashaal apparently views the deal as a vehicle for him to eventually replace Fatah and PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president.
In the face of this unity deal, there is no way to pretend that support for the Palestinians is anything other than support for terrorists who seek to annihilate the Jewish state. There is no way to pretend that support for Israeli land giveaways to the Palestinians constitute anything other than support for the empowerment of terrorists at Israel’s peril.
In other words, the Palestinian unity deal makes it impossible for Israel’s American Jewish antagonists to credibly claim that their disaffection with Israel owes to their commitment to peace and justice rather than moral sanctimony and self-righteousness.
It is difficult to avoid the sense that the American Jewish community’s decreasing support for Israel and increasing support for Palestinian terrorists is a natural extension of its past support for totalitarian Communism. It is equally difficult to avoid the conclusion that so long as the American Jewish community avoids a moral reckoning with that past, it will be incapable of reconsidering its present course.