Five Issues To Watch In ’17


If President-elect Donald Trump makes good on a campaign promise to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, will a violent intifada ensue?

If the Israeli Knesset votes to retroactively legalize settlements in the West Bank, will American Jews — especially millennials — distance themselves even further from Israel?

And if Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison becomes head of the Democratic National Committee, will centrist Jews bolt the party as it moves left on Israel?

These are just some of the high-stakes questions that will likely animate 2017. Given a bitterly divided Jewish community, one question, perhaps, provides a frame for many of the others: Will Trump’s oft-mentioned “friendship” with Israel — supporters say it will free Israel’s hand regarding the Palestinians; critics say it will empower forces in the country not fully committed to democratic values — drive a wedge between Israel and the vast majority of American Jews?

Here, then, are five key questions (and the issues that flow from them) as the Trump administration gets set to take the reins of power in Washington:

Will Trump Move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem?

The location of this country’s embassy in the Jewish state has assumed both symbolic and practical value since the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine declared the country’s independence as a Jewish state in 1948 and the administration of President Harry Truman was the first country to recognize Israel’s independence. The U.S. Embassy was located since then in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem, the nation’s capital.

While some countries’ embassies are in Jerusalem, many are in Tel Aviv, to avoid drawing Arab ire or making a political statement about the status of Jerusalem.

A series of presidential candidates in the intervening years have pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem (the U.S. Consulate is in heavily Arab east Jerusalem, formerly part of Jordan) but subsequently withdrew from that pledge; the embassy’s move to a city whose Israeli sovereignty is disputed — by Arabs and Muslims and their supporters who believe that the eastern part of the city would, if peace were achieved, become the capital of a Palestinian state — has proven to be a political third rail. And some have speculated that Palestinian violence could follow such a move.

“The U.S. and other embassies belong in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital,” said Steven Bayme, director of the contemporary Jewish life department at the American Jewish Committee. “But there are consequences, and successive U.S. presidents, including those that promised to move the Embassy, have waived the requirement that it be moved so as to prevent potential danger to U.S. personnel in the region. The Trump administration will face the same dilemma and consequently a difficult decision.”

Even so, Trump has repeatedly promised to move the embassy. And if he is looking for a quick strike that would show his hand and send a strong signal about his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moving the embassy would be it.


Will Jews Bolt the Democratic Party?

Since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who surrounded himself with a bevy of Jewish advisers, Jewish support for the Democratic Party and the party’s concern for Jewish issues have been a mutual article of faith.

This may be changing — though Jewish Republicans have been predicting a Jewish exodus from Democratic ranks for years now. The 2016 presidential election, and the subsequent transition period, made clear the schism between the parties over the issue that many Jewish voters consider of pre-eminent importance — support for Israel.

While Hillary Clinton, who gave a full-throated defense of Israel in the Barclays Center debate with Bernie Sanders in the run-up to the New York Primary, garnered 71 percent of the Jewish vote to Donald Trump’s 24 percent, that is down from the numbers Barack Obama drew in his two elections. And with Sanders appointing critics of Israel to his party’s platform committee, along with dissatisfaction from some centrist Democrats over President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s stewardship of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Republican candidates and legislators see an opening. During the GOP primaries, for instance, candidates competed with each other in their declarations of fealty to Israel — among them, Trump.

Since his election, Trump has maintained his statements of support for Israel, even tweeting “Stay strong Israel,” after Kerry’s speech last week condemning continued Israeli settlement building.

The Democratic Party, now without a clear leader, and considering appointing Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim with a record of repeated criticism of Israel, as head of the Democratic National Committee, could be in a position to lose more Jewish support.

Will American Jews’ natural affinity for the party of FDR outweigh their support for Israel in the era of President Trump? The vast majority of Jews do not consider themselves single-issue (Israel, that is) voters, though conventional wisdom has it that that calculus changes when they believe Israel is threatened.

“As the wing of the Democratic Party that is critical of Israel — [Bernie] Sanders, [Elizabeth] Warren, [Keith] Ellison, [President] Obama, [John] Kerry etc. — gains ascendancy, Jews for whom Israel is critical will likely move to the Republicans (parallel to what happened in England, Canada, Australia as liberals turned against Israel),” said Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University history professor and a close watcher of the Jewish community. “Jews for whom liberal domestic policies are more important than Israel will remain Democrats. My guess is that the Jewish vote will be more balanced between the two parties in the years ahead. Remember that at one point Jews were 90-10 in favor of Democrats. Now the community is more 75-25. In 20 years, it may well be 60-40.”

That could be wishful thinking, especially if, during a Trump administration, an assault is made on overturning Roe v. Wade and the president-elect revives talk of a deportation force to round up illegal immigrants.

Will Millennials Move Away from Israel?

This is a corollary of the above question.

Support for Israel – no matter who is in charge in Israel, or what the country’s specific policies are – has been a unifying factor in most of the U.S. Jewish community since 1948. But for millennials, the cohort that came of age around 2000, this seems to be changing.

For many members of this generation, for whom a Jewish state is an established fact; who grew up with reports of Israel as Goliath instead of David, as an occupying majority instead of a besieged minority; who attend universities where Zionism is largely anathema, Palestinians, rather than Israelis, often are objects of sympathy. Hence the urgency of programs like Birthright Israel that bring young American Jews to Israel on free 10-day trips to see the facts, and reality, on the ground.

If the Trump administration, as promised, gives Israel a virtual carte blanche to expand its settlements on disputed West Bank territory and to continue policies that critics of Israel consider human rights violations, millennial sympathy for Israel is sure to further wither.

“Assimilation is real, and its effects cannot be ignored. Distancing from matters Jewish entails by definition distancing from Israel,” Bayme said. “Abetting the distancing are Israeli policies with which many millennials rightly disagree — the absence of equality in Israel for non-Orthodox rabbis (and even some Orthodox ones) runs directly counter to the ethos of egalitarianism millennials cherish. But the primary cause of distancing is assimilation, which endangers the American Jewish future and its attachment to Israel.”

Whether it’s caused by assimilation or realpolitik, that attachment is likely to strain still further if Israel begins annexing West Bank settlements, if its culture minister, Miri Regev, continues her crackdown on artistic expression, if non-Orthodox Jews can’t pray at the Western Wall and if ultra-Orthodox rabbis continue to compare Reform Jews to Nazis; even young American Jews sympathetic to Israel might conclude that the values they hold dear are under attack in the Jewish state.

Will Growing Jewish-Muslim Bond Face a Backlash?

Members of the two monotheistic faiths, often at odds in recent generations because of contentious events in the Middle East, have begun to find common cause in recent years in this country as prejudice has targeted both — especially in the run-up to the election and the weeks after Trump’s election.

Many Jewish and interfaith organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, have sponsored a series of joint initiatives that emphasize the religions’ shared values and practices, and have lobbied for more open borders.

This unity may be challenged in 2017, with a growing public debate over the advisability of opening the doors of this country to thousands of refugees from war-torn Syria.

The natural Jewish sympathy for refugees will find itself in conflict with a natural Jewish instinct for self-preservation — the Syrian refugees, Arabs, are Muslims, natives of a nation historically at war with Israel, seeped in anti-Semitic images, the very people suspected of already committing acts of terrorism, some of it tinged with anti-Semitism, in Europe.

Muslim groups in this country, naturally, favor a liberalized emigration policy, and so does a wide swath of the non-Orthodox Jewish community. (ADL leader Jonathan Greenblatt even said at a recent conference that if Trump went ahead with a registry of Muslims in America, he would register as a Muslim.) But some of that support in the Jewish community would likely be tested by a terrorist attack linked to a Syrian immigrant.

“What if the stranger, the orphan, or the widow” — traditional recipients of Jewish sympathy — “hates you?” asked an op-ed essay in Tablet. “It’s not farfetched to speculate that perhaps 80 percent of Syrians harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.”

“Syrian immigrants pose a grave danger to all Americans – and especially to American Jews and homosexuals,” Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, is quoted as saying in the article.

This kind of sentiment is likely to continue, and rightly so, but Syrians resettled in cities like Elizabeth, N.J., and Pittsburgh, with the help of the Jewish community, speak of their thankfulness to those that reached out a hand to a stranger.

Will Egalitarian Prayer Ever Come to the Kotel?

The Western Wall, which for generations was a source of unity for most Jews as Judaism’s holiest site, is increasingly a venue of division.

The Women of the Wall, comprised of Modern Orthodox women and non-Orthodox, has for years fought – in Israeli courts; and at the Kotel itself, against hostile men and women, and against the police – to hold monthly Rosh Chodesh worship services. Non-Orthodox denominations have lobbied to conduct egalitarian services at the main part of the wall or at a nearby, more-secluded extension.

Accommodations seem at hand, with the cooperation of the government and the Jewish Agency, only to eventually collapse, usually because of pressure from charedi members of the government coalition.

While the issue is of concern to many Jewish organizations in the U.S., it hardly registers on the radar screen of most Israelis.

“It’s not the end of the world if American Jews get offended” by Israeli action, or inaction, David Ansalem, head of the Knesset Interior Committee, said last year. “With all due respect to the Americans and American Jews, they cannot be influencing what goes on here. Let them get insulted if they want. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re not doing us any favors.”

“Permitting only Orthodox services at the Kotel offends the mass base of American Jews, 90 percent of whom are non-Orthodox,” Bayme said. “The collapse of the Kotel compromise, previously agreed to by most relevant parties, expresses the refusal of charedi leaders to reach a social contract inclusive of all Jews and all expressions of Judaism within the state of the Jewish people; that is tragic for Israel and for its relationship with world Jewry.”

With the current makeup of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, it would seem a longshot — even given the pressure mounted by Reform and Conservative Jews here — that a deal on egalitarian prayer at the Kotel would stick.