Changing Opinions among American Jews

My knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pretty limited and peripheral, but I tend to sympathize more with the goals of the newish group J Street than I do with AIPAC.  As an American Jew I’m conflicted in many ways, given that we are told, as a group, over and over again, that unwavering support for Israel is part of our duty to our heritage and our people.

I think Hendrik Hertzberg and Matt Yglesias –by way of this column in the Washington Post by Harold Meyerson — all do a pretty good job of summing up my feelings on the issue and I wanted to link to them all here.

Meyerson:

These numbers [stopping the settlements, a two-state solution] reflect changes in American Jewish life and thought that have been building for decades. At a broad level, the intense identification of American Jews with Israel has been waning for many years. More narrowly, the past couple of decades have brought the rise of American Jewish groups that try to pressure the U.S. government to push for a two-state solution — a clear counterweight to more established organizations such as AIPAC that generally try to pressure the U.S. government to do whatever the Israeli government would like it to do. The J Street PAC, an organization that’s just three years old, raises funds for members of Congress who back policies leading to a two-state solution, much as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) encourages its backers to donate to candidates who toe a more hawkish line.

But why the waning of American Jewish identification with Israel over the past few decades? At its birth, and for several decades thereafter, Israel commanded virtually consensual support among American Jews. But for the past 42 of its 61 years, Israel has ruled over Palestinians who are citizens neither of Israel nor of a Palestinian state. They are — a condition that should be familiar to Jews — stateless. The blame for their statelessness is surely their own as well as the Israelis’, but in time, the Israeli role in the Palestinian disaster has eroded American Jewish identification with Israel.

No analysis from me, just opinion.  I think that’s right.  Meyerson goes on to say that American Jews are a liberal people, and the way Israel has conducted itself toward the Palestinians has not hewed to liberalism’s core tenets (at least as we view liberalism today) of humanitarianism and peace.  Yglesias tells an LBJ anecdote:

I was talking to a student of US foreign policy recently who was telling me that Lyndon Johnson used to complain about Jewish groups’ take on foreign policy. Basically, he characterized them as wanting him to send the 6th Fleet to the Gulf of Aqaba while refusing to send as much as a screwdriver to Vietnam. To Johnson that was incoherent, but it was basically just “Jews are liberal” plus parochial ethnic politics—Israel is full of Jews.

The AIPAC policy toward Israel isn’t in line with that point-of-view. Yglesias again:

What’s emerged in more recent years is a view of what “pro-Israel” politics are that makes more logical sense, but is, in practice, less appealing. But neoconservative intellectuals—many of them Jewish, and several of them hailing from Canada where Jews are traditionally on the political right—helped articulate a coherent worldview in which American support for an aggressive Israel was of a piece with a generally imperial view of America’s role in the world.

With neoconservativism so badly damaged (but of course that could change) and with what is shaping up to be a more favorable policy from the Obama administration, it should be interesting to see where this goes from here.  All I know is that when I was a kid working at Jewish camp, I met my fair share of Israeli exchange counselors, who came to work at the camp for the summer — all of whom felt none of the antipathy toward Palestinians (or Islam in general) that we are made to believe in the news.  And, they said, there was room for a lot more diversity of opinion on the subject than we allowed for in the United States.  Which seems about right to me — so it’s good to see some progress on this front.

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