Jewish Politics & Power is published every other week. Sign up for our newsletter for updates.
1. Tough Times Help Forge New Coalitions
It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks in Israel, and in Israeli-American relations. Well, that’s probably an understatement. Israel reached what seems to be the apex of its internal battle over the future of the nation, with tens of thousands spontaneously pouring into the streets last week following Benjamin Netanyahu’s abrupt firing of his defense minister Yoav Gallant. Meanwhile in the United States, President Biden did away with niceties and diplomatic decorum, telling Netanyahu that he better change course if he ever wants to see the inside of the White House again.
Mounting pressure led Netanyahu to announce a temporary suspension of his judicial overhaul legislation, and he agree to enter talks with opposition leaders under the auspices of Israeli president Isaac Herzog. Back in Washington, official administration spokespersons toned down their rhetoric a notch and tried to emphasize positive aspects of U.S.-Israel relations.
This process has just begun and any judgment of recent weeks’ developments would be premature.
But there is one point already worth looking at–the way these unprecedented events in Israel are changing American Jews’ perspective on Israel and how it is driving them to forge new coalitions and partnerships.
2. Bibi’s Outrageousness Drives Middle-of-the-Road Jews to Speak Out
Israelis have many misperceptions about American Jews. And vice versa. One of the main gripes Israelis have about their overseas brethren is that they are quick to judge and are too comfortable criticizing Israelis and their government’s policies. (Who hasn’t heard the line: “when their children go to the army and when they pay taxes here, then they’ll have the right to criticize us”?) The truth of the matter is that Jewish Americans are extra cautious when speaking out against Israel, many of them believing that criticism should remain behind closed doors.
But this may be changing.
The crowds of American Jews showing up to protests in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, San Francisco, and many other cities, are no longer made up solely of old-time liberal activists and peaceniks. In a recent DC rally outside the Israeli embassy, a protester came up to me and said: “I’m an AIPAC guy, I never thought I’d be here.” Others are making their voices heard in synagogues, on online petitions, and in communal gatherings.
Dirty laundry is now being aired in public.
A growing number of American Jews are feeling compelled to speak out. They want Netanyahu to know that his judicial overhaul initiative runs counter to everything they believe in; they want protesters in Israel to know that American Jews have their back; and perhaps some want America to know that being Jewish has never been synonymous with supporting the ruling Israeli government and is definitely not the case these days.
3. Building Coalitions is Never Easy
Israeli expats living in America and American Jews opposing Netanyahu are natural allies in this battle. The Israeli-American community has been the driving force behind protests across the country, bringing with them a whiff of the enthusiasm and persistence that has dominated the streets of Tel Aviv for the past 13 weeks. Members of the Jewish community bring to the table their organizing skills, their networks, and mainly the ability to spread their dislike of Netanyahu’s policies through Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues.
At times, Israeli ex-pats and Jewish Americans meet at rallies, and in rare cases, in synagogue. The urgent need they feel for saving Israel’s democracy serves as a uniting force, as does their disgust with extremists who have taken hold in positions of power and their genuine fear that Israel’s character is about to change forever.
But the past few months also helped highlight an obstacle that prevents this ad hoc coalition from becoming a full partnership. It has become obvious that while American Jews feel strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have fear for the future of a two-state solution, and watch in dread how certain elements within the new government seek to make irreversible changes on the ground while driving Palestinians to despair and Israelis to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Israeli-Americans want nothing to do with this issue.
For Israeli expats, the Palestinian issue is viewed as too divisive. Like centrist Israelis back home, they’ve grown to accept the fact that whatever goes on behind the separation wall is too explosive to touch. They feel Israelis are uniting behind the battle for democracy and an independent judiciary system, so why ruin it all by talking about the plight of Palestinians and about Israeli occupation of the West Bank?
This is not a gap that can be breached, nor does it have to be right now: Israeli protests are important, fighting for separation of powers in Israel is a critical issue, and pushing back against Netanyahu is a great cause, too. Working together in a coalition doesn’t mean agreeing on all issues. But for American liberals, these past weeks have also been a wake-up call: at the end of the day, when it comes to saving what they see as Israel’s moral future, they’re all alone.
4. Not All is Rosy on the Left-Wing Front
It wouldn’t be a Jewish campaign without some friendly fire inside the camp. And this case is no different.
Last week, the fissure within the American Jewish liberal camp became apparent, when a letter authored by New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders began circulating in Congress. The letter, which garnered support from far-left and progressive corners of the Democratic Party, carries a harsh tone. It details actions and statements of the new Netanyahu government regarding the Palestinians, lists cases of IDF and settler violence in the West Bank, and warns about Israel’s “anti-democratic policies.” But the letter stands out for trying to turn this rage into a U.S. government policy, by demanding that the Biden administration basically condition future military aid to Israel on ensuring it is not used “in support of gross violations of human rights.”
And this is where the liberal Jews split.
Progressive groups on the far left feel at ease with this language, and groups such as Americans for Peace Now threw its support behind the letter. But for J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, this was a step too far. The group, while refraining from actively lobbying against the letter, told its supporters it will not back it because the letter “is not framed as being supportive of Israel or of conflict resolution as the goal of American policy.”
5. But Things Aren’t Easy for the Right-Wing Either
These should have been great days for Jewish Americans who support right-wing policies in America and view Netanyahu and his Likud Party as a welcome reflection of their worldview. After all, a right-wing coalition in Israel has set out to achieve many of the goals that Jewish conservatives in the U.S. have been advocating for: a tough stance toward the Palestinians and an open heart to settlers; legislative and budgetary priorities that help Orthodox Jews; and a judicial reform plan that addresses much of the complaints conservatives in America have regarding their own judicial system—that it’s too powerful, too broad in its scope, and is dominated by liberal judges.
But look, for example, at statements made by the Republican Jewish Coalition in recent months: sure, they liked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s expression of support for Bibi, but otherwise, the group seemed to prefer focusing on energy, Palestinian funding of terror, and calling out Squad Democrats. They avoided getting into a fight for Bibi’s judicial overhaul.
This is also true for many others in the Jewish conservative camp. They’ve largely been absent from the debate.
The reason could have to do with the overall unease felt even by conservatives over Netanyahu’s push to weaken Israel’s judiciary. It goes further than what American conservatives usually ask for, not to mention the rushed pace at which it is being advanced, which does not fit well with Jewish Republicans who value public discourse and allowing the opposition to be heard.
It could also have to do with the fact that Netanyahu’s proposed reforms are backed by a small sliver within the American Jewish conservative world, that of the Kohelet forum and a handful of libertarian-leaning donors and thinkers, who are not part of the Jewish right-wing mainstream.
Either way, standing up for Netanyahu’s reforms right now is seen as bad politics, and bad optics, even for many of his American supporters.