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The already ‘messy break-up’ of American Jews over Israel is getting messier

March 25, 2021 at 9:28 am

Head of Israel’s Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party Itamar Ben Gvir (R) talks to supporters through Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on March 19, 2021 [EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images]

An alliance of far-right groups including Jewish Power, a party so extreme that even unflinching supporters of the pro-Israel lobby in the US cannot stomach, are poised to enter Israel’s parliament, if exit polls for the latest General Election are to be believed. Ideological heirs of Meir Kahane, who openly advocated expelling all Palestinians from historic Palestine between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – what he called “the Land of Israel” — are likely to be in a position for a ministerial spot in a potential coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has called Jewish Power, a party of ultranationalist extremists, “racist and reprehensible”. The alliance leader, Bezalel Smotrich, once suggested segregated maternity wards in hospitals so that Jewish Israeli women would not have to give birth next to Palestinian Israeli women.

Should the election result be as predicted, it will place a further wedge between an Israeli society which mainstreams the Jewish supremacist ideology of “Kahanism” and progressive American Jews who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Zionist state and question the wisdom of unconditional support for Israel. This growing tension is what the deputy editor of the New York Times described as the “messy break-up” between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The break-up looks to be getting messier.

The signs of this schism are there for all to see. Take Donald Trump approval ratings, for example. Israelis loved the former US president more than any other people; 70 per cent backed him. “Look at Trump and you’ll see the Israelis,” said Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy while pointing out that the rest of the world was fed up with the 74 year old, the only US president to be impeached twice.

“The explanation for Trump’s rising popularity in Israel goes much deeper,” Levy explained as he dismissed the notion that Israeli Jews loved Trump because of his many gifts to the Zionist state. “Its roots are much more disturbing. Israel admires Trump not despite his many repellent shortcomings but because of them. Trump is the embodiment of everything that’s bad and ugly about Israel while normalising and whitewashing them for us. Look at him and you’ll see ourselves. This is who we are, or who we’d like to be.”

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Seventy per cent also applies roughly to American Jews who voted against the disgraced former president. The level of support or opposition to Trump wasn’t, of course, the main way in which the “messy break-up” started to play out. The schism goes much deeper, with overwhelmingly liberal Jewish Americans weighing up their progressive values against Israel’s policies and practices. This reflection has pitted organisations that are part of the mainstream Jewish American establishment against Jewish thinkers who were once the pride of their community.

Not long ago, prominent columnist and author Peter Beinart was able to speak at a university without a word of protest from members of the Jewish community of which he is part. The 50 year old describes himself as a Zionist, and was not someone who staunch advocates of Israel felt needed to be prevented from speaking on public platforms. His views on Zionism and Israel in general were part of a long Jewish tradition that prioritised universal values over the self-interest of whichever tribe you happen to belong to. Of late, though, it seems that the depth of the split over Israel is such that sections of the Jewish community are unwilling to brook any criticism of the occupation state from within their own ranks.

That, at least, is how it appeared in the latest attempt to suppress free speech about Israel at America’s Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Beinart was slated to speak there on Tuesday about his 2013 book The Crisis of Zionism. The event was the 35th Brown-Lyons Lecture, an annual collaboration between VCU’s Centre for Judaic Studies and the university’s libraries. The lecture, which would normally pass without comment, became another battleground over free speech on campuses stemming from the growing fissures among American Jews over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House on 28 January 2020 in Washington, DC. [Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images]

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House on 28 January 2020 in Washington, DC. [Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images]

According to the Washington Post, the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond — the central fund-raising, community planning, leadership development and outreach arm of the local Jewish community — raised concerns about Beinart following pressure from donors. Beinart’s “crime” was to write an article July for Jewish Currents, in which he made “a Jewish case for equality in Israel-Palestine”, and a second piece in the New York Times declaring that he “longer believe[s] in a Jewish State.” Arguing for a single state in historic Palestine that treats all citizens equally, Beinart explained that for decades he held the view that it was possible to separate Palestinians and Israelis into two different states but, “Now I can imagine a Jewish home in an equal state.”

For some Zionist Jews, Beinart had gone beyond the pale and his new-found political view triggered a wave of hysterical denunciations. He was described as “a traitor” and “fundamentally immoral” as critics said that his views were nothing short of a “betrayal of the Jewish people”.

Moreover, he has been uninvited as a speaker by Jewish organisations and faced criticism from Jewish leaders and other political commentators on Israeli policy due to his support for settlement boycotts. This is something that he has propounded since 2012 when, in a New York Times op-ed, he said, “To save Israel, boycott the settlements.”

Commenting on the efforts being made to silence him, Beinart explained that, “You have an organised communal leadership that often wants to limit the acceptable terms of discussion in Jewish spaces in ways that a growing number of American Jews, and particularly younger American Jews, are not comfortable with because it limits their ability to ask the questions they want to ask, and it limits their ability to follow their consciences and their understanding of Jewish tradition.”

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Despite the hostility, Beinart’s view are said to be gaining traction. The Washington Post cited national surveys which show that Beinart’s opposition to the current Israeli government, illegal settlements and the non-viability of the two-state solution, are becoming increasingly popular among both Jewish Americans and other US citizens, especially young adults. For example, a March 2020 national survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll, found that 63 per cent of respondents said that if the two-state solution was no longer possible, they would support a single democratic state where Arabs and Jews are equal, even if that means Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. The equivalent figure in 2018 was 42 per cent.

Beinart has also had his say about the controversy triggered by his lecture in Richmond, Virginia. “I’m sorry (though not surprised) this happened,” he tweeted on Monday. “It’s because the American Jewish establishment is an oligarchy run largely by its (often right-wing) donors. But I hope people who disagree with me come to my talk tomorrow at VCU. Ask me difficult questions.”

The director of Temple University’s Feinstein Centre for American Jewish History, Lila Corwin Berman, appeared to agree with Beinart. The consternation over his speech, she said, “doesn’t necessarily mean that the totality of the Richmond Jewish community is up in arms.” Arguing that it was “a few prominent wealthy people” who were outraged she went on to explain that, “The wealthiest donors to Jewish communal life tend to fall more to the right than the bulk of American Jews and tend to be interested in funding activities that have to do with pro-Israel activism, and especially have to do with vigilance against what they see as anti-Israel activism on campuses.”

It seems to be the case that Israel is embracing the Kahanist creed of Jewish supremacy. In response, America’s Jewish community should look to Beinart not as a pariah, but as a visionary brave enough to find a way to extricate Zionism from decades of occupation, ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.