By Saul Golubcow
Akin to a Pavlonian stimulus, my coming across a Pew Research Center finding on a Jewish matter induces a nervous response even before I have digested the data. My reaction was validated a few months ago when I read a Pew study showing that 79 percent of Republicans but only 27 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, the largest divide between the two parties in 40 years of polling. As recently as two years ago, 43 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians. While decreases in Democrats sympathy can be found among liberal, moderate and conservative elements of the party, the decrease is most marked with liberals, declining from 33 percent to 19 percent.
I found myself astonished and distressed. How is it that the party of Truman — whose support was critical in establishing Israel; of Moynihan, Scoop Jackson and LBJ — whose unwavering support for Israel was manifest at a time when I was establishing my political affiliations; of most of my family members, friends and fellow worshipers has so dramatically turned against Israel? And if we look back at the landmark 2013 Pew study on American Jewry that indicated that 70 percent of Jewish Democrats were emotionally attached to Israel, do other Jewish Democrats also feel my distress? Are they also viewing the results in terms of a national Jewish crisis? Will there be an urgent call for a mobilization to increase support for our Jewish state? Will there be integrated suggestions for how to stem the erosion and bolster support for Israel?
Various reactions from Jewish Democrats have tried to explain the divide by referencing external causes: It’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fault for alienating Democrats by appealing directly to Congress against the Iran deal in 2015. It’s because of Jewish Republicans affiliating with Christian evangelicals who support Israel, causing Jewish Democrats to naturally diminish their support of Israel. Or it’s a result of an associative disdain for President Trump tied to the current Israeli government also being “right wing.”
Each troubled me in terms of an inconstancy and peevishness that made no sense if Jewish Democrats are professing a love for their Jewish homeland stretching back 70 years.
My own take revolves around looking inward to determine how Jewish Democrats view, support and express our feelings about Israel based on our Jewish identities. If 70 percent of us are emotionally attached to Israel, what is gnawing at that attachment to erode the support? Might we look into our hearts to examine any conditionality and attenuation, and put them into perspective? From my observations, here are four key considerations.
Why equivocate when communicating your love of Israel? When saying something nice about Israel, ask yourselves why you apply the disclaimer of: “Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Israel, but I don’t agree with every one of its policies, and if I see something wrong, I certainly speak out.” How credible is professed support when you seed the mind of the listener with doubts and suspicions about Israel? Why the compulsion to be apologetic? There are many forums for discussion of Israeli issues both within and outside of the Jewish community. Let’s discuss, argue and disagree, but when we make affirmative statements about Israel, let’s come across like we mean them.
Don’t hold Trump’s victory against Israel. Yes, I know, Hillary Clinton lost, and I watched in stupefaction as the results came in. But examine your intense disappointment in terms of the helpfulness of the current administration’s policies on Israel and not voice opposition just because it’s the Trump White House. I’ve watched the sullen reaction of many Democrats to Trump’s plans to move our embassy to Jerusalem. I’ve noted an anger with Israel for enthusiastically welcoming the news. Ask yourself, would you feel the same way if Clinton had made the announcement?
Non-existential issues are important but I’ve never stared down the barrel of a gun. Like most Jewish Democrats, I’d like to see egalitarian worship services at the Kotel, and I want the Israeli Rabbinate to loosen its stranglehold on religious practices, but we don’t wake up every morning worrying about 120,000 Hezbollah missiles aimed at us, Iranian forces on the Golan, and Hamas terrorism festering in Gaza. Dig deep inside and ask yourselves if you indulge, even a bit, a patronizing sense that because you support Israel emotionally and financially, you know better how Israelis should feel and act. Draw back a moment and ask if your caring for Israel is being compromised by a visceral peevishness that the “wrong” Israeli party is in office. Do you feel slighted and want to take at least some of your support and walk away? Please consider the consequences of your doing so — for you it’s a matter of virtuous indignation, but for Israelis who need your backing, it’s a matter of life and death.
Resist the notion that Israel is an immoral state. You think Israel is wrong on its settlements policy, its strong security measures, its handling of Bedouin housing or its response to the influx of African immigrants. But you must fight against the insidious infiltration of conflations to “Gestapo,” “ethnic cleansing,” or any other distorted denigration of Israel’s moral posture. If you believe there are comparisons, then look to your soul’s reflections. Do you see jackbooted storm troopers or 18-year-olds gathered at bus junctions on a Sunday morning; killing fields or Syrian refugees being taken in for medical treatment; death camps or medical and research centers dedicated to improving life for all around the world? Are you not proud viewing a democratic nation, your Jewish homeland, under daily threat yet vigorously debating and addressing a host of challenges and remaining decent?
Jewish Democrats are mainstays of the party. The demographics of the party are shifting greatly as non-Jewish constituencies arise who did not grow up with the constructive, no-separation-between, bilateral relationship between Israel and the United States. A Democratic administration will come into office in the future and, as such, Jewish Democrats bear a critical responsibility in conveying a positive message about Israel that will help that administration shape Middle East policy. If we allow personal pique, tangential anger, allegiance to political ideology, or inclination toward au currant purity to degrade how we feel about Israel, then we are agents in subverting Israel.
But we are not just placing Israel in danger. We are also jeopardizing our own spiritual wellbeing as American Jews. Imagine the horror if the enemies of Israel succeed and, like the Jews of the Babylonian exile, we sit on the banks of the Potomac and weep, also contemplating our own blame.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.