2021 Annual Assessment

The Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People

PROJECT HEAD: Shmuel Rosner

Dan Feferman, Shlomo Fischer, Shuki Friedman, Avi Gil, Inbal Hakman, Michael Herzog, Gitit Levy-Paz, Dov Maimon, Steven Popper, Uzi Rebhun, John Ruskay, Noah Slepkov, Adar Schieber, Yedidia Stern, Shalom Salomon Wald

Barry Geltman

2021 Annual Assessment

Within the triangular Jerusalem-Washington-US Jewry relationship – a strategic resource and a critical force multiplier for the strength of Israel and the Jewish people – there are trends that threaten to weaken its resilience. These trends are of paramount importance as the United States, home to a thriving community that amounts to between a third and a half of the Jewish people, is the sole power on which Israel can rely. President Biden’s desire to fortify the liberal dimension of the present world order could reveal tensions in the Jewish world: a flourishing Diaspora Jewry depends on the values of the liberal-democratic system. A society that is not committed to those values will tend to generate greater hostility toward its Jewish minority and be less likely to mobilize in its defense. By contrast, Israeli Jews, who are a majority in their country, tend to place greater emphasis on majority rights.

These gaps were evident in the run-up to the US elections in late 2020. While most Israeli Jews wanted Trump to be reelected, a majority of American Jewish voters (about 70%) wished to see him defeated. A large swath of American Jewish public expresses dissatisfaction with major elements of Israeli policy – a situation aggravated by US ideological polarization, which makes it increasingly difficult to maintain bipartisan sympathy for Israel. This constitutes a strategic risk for Israel and for the Jewish people (which is accompanied by a significant escalation in antisemitism – see page 71 for further discussion).

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, President Biden reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself, and acted within the Security Council to give the IDF the time it needed to complete its mission. But one must not ignore the increasingly critical atmosphere toward Israel in the Congress (including, in some cases, anti-Israel statements), or the pressure exerted by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to harden the stance on Israel and change policy toward it. Severe criticism of Israel is also highly prevalent in American academia.

The remarks of the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, reflect a significant different spirit from that of the Trump era: “We urge all parties to avoid actions that undermine a peaceful future. This includes avoiding incitement, violent attacks, and terrorist acts, as well as evictions – including in East Jerusalem – demolitions, and settlement construction east of the 1967 lines. And critically, all parties need to uphold and respect the historic status quo at the holy sites.” Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the most prominent among the left wing of the Democratic Party (and a Jew) referred to the Netanyahu government as “racist” and has called for a halt to weapons sales to Israel if used in a manner that violates human rights. His declaration that “Palestinian Lives Matter” is a coinage that is becoming accepted in progressive circles, according to which there is a parallel between the fate of Palestinians and the fate of blacks in the United States.

A substantial number of elected Democratic politicians feel that there has been a significant shift in party’s electorate with regard to Israel: a tendency toward an increasingly anti-Israel orientation in parallel to increased support for the Palestinians. The criticism voiced by Senator Bob Menendez regarding Israeli conduct during the recent confrontation with Hamas is particularly significant in this context, as Menendez is known to be a loyal supporter of Israel. The main concern of Israel’s supporters in Washington is that the anti-Israel trend in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – which is still a minority, albeit a vocal and assertive one – will seep into the mainstream. The danger is illustrated by the controversial decision by the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company to stop selling its products in the settlements (the firm’s Jewish founders, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, claimed, in a New York Times op-ed, that “this act can and should be seen as advancing the concepts of justice and human rights, core tenets of Judaism”).

Many American Jews who support the Democratic Party felt that the Netanyahu government “gave up” on them. Netanyahu’s right-hand man in the US, former Ambassador Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s right hand in the US Former Ambassador Ron Drummer did indeed claim that ” The backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the Christian evangelicals … you have to spend a lot more time appealing to evangelical Christians than to Jews, who felt rejected, may find themselves in a tense dilemma between their support for President Biden and their concern for Israel’s well-being. An American Jewish Committee survey found that 55% of US Jews support the president’s policy on Iran, while 32% oppose it. Former Israel Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon (Likud) addressed this dilemma bluntly: “The American Jewish leadership will have to choose between their support for the agreement with Iran or their support for Israel’s position.”

A similar dilemma will also arise regarding the Palestinian issue, if and when a dispute emerges between Jerusalem and Washington. A recent Pew Research Center survey indicates that only a third of US Jews feel that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort toward peace with the Palestinians. Among Jews who support the ruling Democratic Party, only 20% share this view. The Bennett-Lapid government has declared its intention to repair the rifts between Israel and American Jewry, to work to restore bipartisan support for Israel, and to manage any disputes with the Biden administration in a quiet, respectful way, not defiantly. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid addressed these issues on his first day in office. Noting the importance of bipartisan US support for Israel, he said that “the outgoing government took a terrible gamble, reckless and dangerous, to focus exclusively on the Republican Party and abandon Israel’s bipartisan standing.” Lapid also affirmed his commitment to changing the discourse with Diaspora Jewry: “The support of Christian evangelicals and other groups is important and heart-warming, but the Jewish people are more than allies, they are family. Jews from all streams, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, are our family. And family is always the most important relationship, and the one that needs to be worked on more than any other.”

The coming months will reveal the extent to which these theoretical positions will be translated into action. The most significant test in the geopolitical sphere involves division on fundamental issues, chief among them the Iranian threat and the Palestinian question.