American Jews have often been bashed for being too Israel-centric. But while there was a great deal to be said for arguments that the organized Jewish world needed to focus more on building up Jewish identity in America rather than live vicariously through Israel’s achievements and struggles, I’m beginning to think such criticism isn’t as valid as it once was.
In the last several weeks, Israelis have endured a massive rocket barrage from Gaza, the discovery of terror tunnels dug under their northern border by Hezbollah terrorists and a spate of deadly shooting attacks on Jewish civilians. Yet while hard-core pro-Israel activists follow these events closely, they haven’t generated much interest—let alone outrage—from the broader Jewish community, especially when compared to concerns about anti-Semitism in America.
There are some obvious explanations for this.
Part of it has to do with a general numbness about such things that 70 years of conflict has engendered among those who observe Israel’s struggles from afar. Shootings, rockets and even the threat of an invasion by Hezbollah—Iran’s terrorist auxiliary in Lebanon—can be viewed as part of a narrative about a “cycle of violence” between Israel and its enemies that breeds a degree of complacence, if not apathy, even about such terrible events.
It’s also true that the policies of the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are generally unpopular among American Jews, even if he still retains broad support among Israelis, who appear likely to re-elect him next year. That has created a dynamic whereby all Israeli security concerns—whether on the strategic level, like the conventional and nuclear threats from Iran, or everyday terrorism from Hamas in Gaza—can be discounted or even to some extent ignored. For some critics of Israel, the strategic threats are seen as exaggerated because they conflicted, as was the case with Iran, with the position of popular U.S. politicians like President Barack Obama. Others see routine Palestinian violence directed at Israeli civilians as understandable, if not justified, because of their opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But it may also be more the result of a breakdown of a sense of Jewish peoplehood and identity due to assimilation than political disagreements. For those American Jews who are raised on universalist values, any sectarian or parochial concern can be seen as inherently racist. If that’s how you look at it, then you’re likely to view Israel’s troubles as either insignificant or illegitimate.
Of course, not all American Jews are apathetic. There are still many for whom support for Israel is the primary or even exclusive focus for their activism and even to some extent their identity. The same applies to some leading Jewish organizations that remain committed to bolstering the U.S.-Israel alliance and supporting the Jewish state in various ways.
Primarily, the idea that American Jews were obsessed about Israel to the exclusion of other concerns was always a myth. The energy and passion of pro-Israel activists often gave politicians the misleading impression that the conflict in the Middle East was the only thing Jews cared about it. But for most Jewish voters, the security of the Jewish state has always ranked rather low on their list of vital issues, if it made the list at all.
Whatever they may think of Israel, after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October, American Jews are concentrating more on anti-Semitism. Though removed as we are from the rising tide of Jew-hatred that has swept from the Middle East and across Europe, there is no escaping the realization that even in a country where Jews are completely accepted, as they are in the United States, anti-Semitism is still present.
It’s understandable that the most deadly attack on American Jews in the history of the nation would concentrate our minds on threats to Jewish life here, whether from extremists on the far-right or from the left. But even as we contemplate that dismal reality—and spar about which form of anti-Semitism is more of a threat—it is vital that we recognize that what happens in the Middle East is an inevitable byproduct of the same hate that generates Jew-hatred on these shores.
There are those who argue that foes of Israel are solely motivated by anger about the creation of a Jewish state in a region dominated by Islam, as well as by the dispossession of those who fled the country in 1948 during the War of Independence. They claim that the Palestinians have a genuine grievance rooted in things Jews did to them, rather than anti-Semitic myths about Jewish conspiracies.
But even a cursory examination of the arguments against Zionism shows that they are part of the same mindset of delegitimization of Jewish rights. That is why the Palestinian Arabs have consistently rejected every offer to share the country from the 1930s to the offers of statehood turned down by the Palestinian Authority in the last two decades. The rhetoric of even the moderate P.A. is just as steeped in the language of demonization of Jews as that of right- or left-wing anti-Semites in Europe or North America.
No matter what you think about Netanyahu or settlements, it’s important to remember that the Jews shot in the West Bank weren’t targeted because of their politics, but because they were Jews. The same is true for the ongoing efforts of Hamas and Hezbollah to threaten the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet.
That’s why stories about rockets, tunnels and especially murderous shootings of Israelis deserve to be treated as more than just routine violence. It should merit attention from Americans. Israeli Jews are just as deserving of the right to live their lives in peace and security as Americans. And their enemies are motivated by the same kind of intolerance for Jewish rights as those who target Jews here. If you can’t work up any outrage about that, then you’re not paying attention to the truth about anti-Semitism.
By Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.