Where To Now For Jewish America?


During the "Salute to Israel" parade in New York in May, over 100,000 Jews marched in solidarity with the Jewish state. It was an awesome sight of organisation, dedication and passion. But something was missing: Arabs and Palestinians were near invisible. There was no room for that 20 per cent of Israel’s population or for the millions in the West Bank and Gaza. There was, however, a handful of protesting Arabs, dissident Jews and ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta.

Last Sunday’s Tel Aviv beach event in New York’s Central Park — a massive amount of sand was flown from Israel to re-create the "fun" of the country’s biggest city — was equally devoid of Arabs or Palestinians. As one protester’s sign at that event read, "When do we Jews notice that Israel is insane?"

Both events are symptomatic of the challenges facing the world’s largest Jewish Diaspora community.

I’ve been in the US for the last month speaking to a range of individuals about the shifting relationship between Israel and Washington (see Tony Judt’s piece this week in the New York Times). Something is afoot and it’s worrying the establishment.

Executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, said recently that the US President’s "strongest supporters among Jewish leaders are deeply troubled by his recent Middle East initiatives, and some are questioning what he really believes." He was horrified that any US leader would demand Israel cease settlement building or even empathise with Palestinian suffering. Hoenlein offered no alternative solutions, presumably endorsing indefinite continuation of the status-quo: Israel ruling over millions of Palestinians.

The extremes of the debate remain alive but the voices of realists are getting an increasing amount of air-time. Tony Judt, commemorating Israeli journalist Amos Elon in the New York Review of Books, argues that Zionism has "been corrupted into an uncompromising ethno-religious real estate pact with a partisan God, a pact that justifies any and all actions against real or imagined threats, critics, and enemies". Jewish-led pogroms in the West Bank are just one indication that Judt is right.

Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky told me in Boston last week that he doubted America’s relationship with Israel would fundamentally change (a point he made directly after Obama’s speech in Cairo). His cause for pessimism was the separation of rhetoric from reality. "What Israel and America will likely continue to do is what [former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert]called ‘convergence’; take over what they want, take over everything inside the separation wall and let everybody else rot." This week’s announcement of more illegal West Bank settlements supports this theory.

Chomsky challenged me on my description of the situation in Palestine as apartheid. He claimed that the bad days of South Africa are not a good analogy because "the situation there was far more humane. In South Africa, the government and population relied on black labour, so they kept the Bantustans up and developed them to an extent because they were crucial. Just like how slave owners fed their slaves. In Palestine, the situation is different. They [the Israelis]don’t want the Palestinians, nor do they care about them. They don’t really rely on them anymore and they don’t need them for labour. They get cheap labour from Thailand or Romania. That’s what’s taking place."

Chomsky told me that it was likely that the occupation would continue indefinitely, "as much as you can predict anything in foreign affairs".

It is a view echoed by a leading American intellectual from a completely different school of thought. John Mearsheimer, American professor of political science at the University of Chicago, wrote the following in the American Conservative magazine in May:

"The United States and Israel fundamentally disagree about the need to establish a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel. President Obama is committed to a two-state solution, while Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is opposed and has been for many years. To avoid a direct confrontation with Washington, Netanyahu will probably change his rhetoric and talk favourably about two states. But that will not affect Israel’s actions. The never-ending peace process will go on, Israel will continue building settlements, and the Palestinians will remain locked up in a handful of impoverished enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza. Anticipating this outcome, Obama has told Congress to expect a clash with Israel."

Mearsheimer told me this month that his thesis remains accurate. "At a rhetorical level, Obama has introduced change that no-one really anticipated, including me", he said. "He’s been very tough on the Israelis rhetorically, but the proof of the pudding is in policy. What matters are facts on the ground. Is he willing to get tough with the Israelis when they’re expanding the settlements? Will he get tough on the Israelis when they’re not serious about creating a viable, Palestinian state? My guess is that Obama will back off and the Israelis will prevail. And in large part the [Zionist] lobby will make it impossible for Obama to put serious pressure on Israel."

We discussed at great length the likely trajectory of the Middle East conflict and Mearsheimer said that he believed "apartheid" was the right word to describe the situation, "a position I share with Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. Both of them have said in the last year that if there is no two-state solution, Israel will end up in a South African-style situation. I think one could make an argument that Israel is already an apartheid state. This would be a disaster for Israel and I don’t understand for the life of me why Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish allies in Israel and the US don’t understand that the two-state solution is the best outcome for Israel."

But a change in American Jewish thinking is equally important. "It is essential that the Nakba narrative be acknowledged", writes Jewish blogger Phil Weiss. "We know how vital it was to Jewish liberation in America in my generation to have the Holocaust recognised." The Palestinians are rightly waiting for a similar moment.

Yet something is stirring. Jewish writer Eric Alterman wrote on The Daily Beast after Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University that the Israeli Prime Minister’s address ignored the disastrous reality Israel is facing: "Either expel millions of Palestinians from their lands to preserve the state’s Jewish character or give up on democratic rule entirely, embracing a nightmare future much like that in South Africa under apartheid."

My sense of the overall feeling in the American Jewish community is one of inertia, anger and impotence. Jews are overwhelmingly pro-Democrat and voted for Obama, but many seem reluctant to seriously pressure Israel to end its disastrous occupation. Meanwhile in Israel, according to a new poll, only 6 per cent of Jewish Israelis now regard Obama as pro-Israel.

Despite the inspiring nature of recent events in Iran, they have also highlighted, depressingly, how much less vibrant Israel’s dissenting community is compared to that now making itself felt in the Islamic Republic.

But for some in the insulated Zionist community, that’s a simple "win-win". A headline this week on America’s leading Jewish news network, JTA read: "Iran turmoil likely to benefit Israel".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.