Is The Rift Between Israel And U.S. Jews About To Get Far Worse?


If Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu manages to emerge victorious from this week’s election and form a coalition government prepared to protect him from criminal indictment, the result will be disastrous for Israel and diaspora Jewry.

That was the opinion of both Tom Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times, and Daniel Gordis, the popular Israel-based academic and author, who agreed more than they differed during a spirited Jewish Week Forum Monday evening co-sponsored by UJA-Federation and the host synagogue, Temple Emanu-El.

There was a full house of more than 1,000 people for the discussion, skillfully moderated by writer Abigail Pogrebin, as the two Mideast experts discussed “American Jews and Israel: Can the Relationship Be Saved?” The conclusion was that the bond is in crisis mode, with each side needing far more understanding — and a dose of humility — in initiating a painful but necessary dialogue or risk an irreparable split.

Asserting that the relationship has been rocky for most of the last seven decades, in large part because “we’ve never really talked about what separates us,” Gordis said: “We desperately need each other because the Jewish people don’t have the luxury of saying about the other: ‘The hell with them, I don’t care.’” He noted that “no diaspora community has lasted forever” and that the same can be said for a Jewish state in Israel.

His latest book, “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel,” published this week by HarperCollins, describes the difference between America’s liberal democracy and Israel’s ethnic democracy, and urges American Jews to note the important distinctions.

America was founded on the principle of being open to all immigrants, Gordis said, citing Emma Lazarus’ words etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He said that Israel, by contrast, was founded by Jews seeking, in the words of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, “a national home for the Jewish people,” a safe haven for a people who had endured anti-Semitism in various parts of the world for centuries.

Gordis said it was not fair for American Jews to expect Israel’s form of democracy, with its emphasis on having a state where Jews are the majority and can defend themselves, to be the same as “American democracy with falafel.”

Gordis, considered a moderate conservative, said that if he and Friedman disagree, “it’s on how we talk to young people,” asserting that Israel’s “extraordinary” presence as a democracy made up of immigrants from non-democratic countries and living in a region of repressive societies is too often ignored or taken for granted. He noted that this week’s election, whatever the results, will be peaceful and freely held. And with a jab at recent U.S. elections, he added: “And the one with the most votes will be declared the winner.”

“Our responsibility is to show young people that Israel is not as safe as they think and that most of the Palestinians’ troubles are not Israel’s fault,” he said.

‘We desperately need each other [American and Israeli Jews] because the Jewish people don’t have the luxury of saying about the other, ‘The hell with them, I don’t care’’

— Daniel Gordis

Could Israel Become ‘A Banana Republic’?

Gordis and Friedman had differing points of view on the U.S. decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Friedman said it was a mistake for the U.S. to give Israel a major diplomatic favor with nothing in return to promote peace talks; Gordis said every sovereign country has a right to decide its capitol, adding that whatever President Trump’s motive was, “he was right on this one.”

That may have been the only positive remark about the president all evening. Friedman, who recently wrote that any Jew who votes for Trump is “a damn fool,” said the president “doesn’t care about the Jewish people; he cares about being elected.” Further, he warned that the president will endanger Israel’s future by permitting more settlement growth on the West Bank and could easily “turn against Israel if his election is at stake.”

Friedman also warned that if Netanyahu prevails and makes good on his pledges: to annex the Jordan Valley, which he said would be “the last nail in the coffin” in the effort to create two states;  and to convince a new coalition to pass a law protecting him from indictment — he is charged with fraud in three cases — Israel “will be in the camp of a banana republic. And if you think it’s hard to defend Israel on BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the Jewish state), try rejecting the one-man-one-vote” argument the Palestinians will make.

The results “will terrify every synagogue and Jewish institution” in America and deeply divide the Jewish community, Friedman said, forcing the question: “Are you with that kind of Jewish state or not?”

In response, Gordis said he shares Friedman’s “dread” about the possible election results, but said Friedman was describing “the worst-case scenario.” While the split in diaspora relations would be painful for Israel, Gordis added, far worse would be the end of “the dream” Israelis have for the state “we are working to build. It would be heartbreaking to us.”

Among the other highlights of the 90-minute forum …

On banning Rep. Ilhan Omar from visiting Israel: Though he criticized Netanyahu’s ban of the anti-Israel congresswoman from Minnesota, Gordis sought to explain the move by saying the prime minister “has one policy: don’t get on the wrong side” of President Trump, for whom he had a litany of negative adjectives, beginning with “ignorant and egotistical.”

Friedman cited a column he wrote criticizing Omar, who happens to represent the district Friedman grew up in and which today has a large concentration of Jews and Somalis. “She was supposed to be a bridge builder and instead is a bridge destroyer,” he said, as the crowd applauded. But he said it was a “bonehead” move on Netanyahu’s part to ban her. “What are we afraid of?” he asked rhetorically.

Whether it is Arabs or Israelis, ‘if you’re for inclusiveness and pluralism, I’m your friend. That’s what I believe in.’

— Tom Friedman

Friedman emphasizing his Jewish credentials: Asked by Pogrebin whether he worries about being perceived by a vocal segment of American Jews as overly critical of Israel, Friedman replied: “God bless, but the Jews think I work for them,” evoking laughter. He pointed out that he has “a big following in the Arab/Muslim world” and that though his focus is often on the Mideast, he writes about global issues from hi-tech to the economy.

Prior to the program, in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week, Friedman offered his key to understanding Israel, a point he made during the forum as well. He said it is difficult but necessary to hold three contradictory images in mind at the same time: “Israel is amazing, it sometimes does bad stuff, and Israelis live in a crazy neighborhood.

“I always keep those three thoughts in my mind, and I try to reflect that in my writing,” he said, adding that many people hold on to only one of those three concepts.

Friedman said there is a “through line” of consistency in his decades of writing about the Middle East and other world affairs. While Arab and Jewish readers may perceive hidden biases on his part, “I’m hiding in plain sight,” he said. “Are you for ideologies or inclusivity? If you’re for inclusiveness and pluralism, I’m your friend. That’s what I believe in.”

Friedman said the Arab world will “go over a cliff” if it doesn’t address pluralism in gender, religion, education and politics. And while “there is no excuse for the feckless Palestinian leadership,” Israel has “the power to shape its future” by being more proactive on the peace front.

“You can make a point or you can make a difference,” said Friedman. “The question is ‘now what?’”

“Until my last column and my last breath, I’ll be pitching for two states for two peoples as the best way to secure Israel’s future, and Israel needs to test and re-test the Palestinians until they find a partner.”

During the forum, Friedman seemed eager to mention his Jewish and Israel-related bona fides. He noted that his sister is Chabad and that he once met the Lubavitcher Rebbe; that Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the ADL, who was in the audience, was his counselor at a Zionist camp in the Midwest when he was a teenager; and that his allegiance with the Jewish state is solid, despite his criticisms.

“Israel had me at Hello,” he said, since first visiting the country, and “I know where I’ll be when Israel is under threat.” He said he has “no illusions” about the brutal behavior of Arab leaders, having lived in Beirut for five years and reported from there during the 1982 Lebanon war.

In his closing remarks, Friedman said that while visiting China last week for a conference, he saw an El Al plane landing at Beijing airport and thought, “what an amazing time to be a Jew. I still get a buzz out of that.” And he wondered aloud whether “the next foreign correspondent” at The Times “will get that buzz.”

Gordis on challenges to U.S. and Israeli Jews: Both communities are “recovering from the 20th century,” the author said, noting that together they represent about 86 percent of world Jewry.

“Israel hasn’t been able to decide what to do with the territories” conquered in the Six-Day War of 1967, and American Jewry is facing the dangers of Jewish illiteracy, he said.

Noting the criticism from liberal American Jews that Israel does not recognize non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, Gordis said he broke the law several weeks ago by officiating (he is a Conservative rabbi) at the wedding of his son and daughter-in-law in Israel. “Someone has to stand up to these people,” he said, referring to the Chief Rabbinate.

When it comes to religious pluralism, he described Israel’s record as “bad but getting better,” naming a number of pluralistic educational and religious institutions in Jerusalem.

In the end, Gordis called for caution and vigilance, noting that anti-Semitic currents are strong in Europe and that there are members of the U.S. House of Representatives who openly condemn Israel. “No one knows where this is going,” he said. “We need to understand each other better and begin the conversation.”