Why We Need Birthright in Reverse
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress about Iran has ignited a rancorous debate within the American Jewish community. Some argue that the speech will alienate Democrats and undermine bipartisan support for Israel. Others say that a potential U.S. deal with Iran leaving the mullahs’ nuclear capacity intact so threatens Israel’s security that it justifies the risk of alienating President Obama.
But no matter what side of the debate American Jewish protagonists come down on, they have a clear appreciation for what’s at stake. They know that many American Jews feel caught in between support for Israel’s right to advocate its position on Iran to the world and deference to the president’s prerogative to define American foreign policy. They are well aware that American Jewish support for Israel can be complicated by Israel’s conduct, real and perceived, toward American political leaders.
Most Israelis, by contrast, have little awareness of the complexity of American Jewish support for Israel, according to a poll of Israeli attitudes recently commissioned by our foundation. Such lack of awareness can have severe consequences for Israel’s relationship with the U.S. and, by extension, Israel’s security.
The poll found that almost 35% of Israeli respondents believe that there has been a great/very great deterioration in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel over the past five years. More than 50%, however, indicate that the drop in support has had almost no impact on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
In other words, although Israelis are concerned about rising tensions between Israel and the U.S., they don’t take U.S. support for granted. But most are not overly concerned about American Jewish support for Israel, and may well take such support for granted.
As someone who spent eight years living in Israel working to advance American Jewish-Israeli relations, I’ve been puzzled by the myopic view of Israelis toward American Jews. With the exception of those who have spent extended time in the U.S., Israelis are unlikely to have an appreciation for how interwoven American Jews are in the fabric of American society. Israelis tend to imagine American Jews living in a shtetl, whose interests are perfectly consonant with the State of Israel. Most have little notion that American Jews see themselves as both Jews and Americans, and rarely experience any real tension in balancing these two identities.
Most Israelis would be surprised at how loyal the majority of American Jews are to the Democratic Party. Nearly 70% of American Jews voted for Obama in the last election, despite criticism from some in the community about Israel’s place in Obama’s worldview. More than 75% of American Jews voted against George W. Bush eight years ago, despite his reputation of being a close friend.
Such voting patterns do not suggest that American Jews don’t factor Israel into their political outlook. In a 2013 poll of American Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee, 70% of the respondents agreed that “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” Some percentage of the American Jewish vote is in play in every national election, particularly if a candidate is viewed as overtly hostile to Israel. In 1980, for example, Jewish support for President Jimmy Carter fell by nearly 20% from the level of support he received in the 1976 presidential election, in large part because of his perceived antagonism to Israel.
But judging by the anger of many American Jews toward Netanyahu’s perceived slight of Obama, American Jewish support for the Israeli government is not a blank check. When there are tensions between a U.S. government and Israel, even some of the most ardent pro-Israel Jews can find themselves in a very uncomfortable dilemma. I doubt many Israelis grasp this reality.
Even if Israelis had a better appreciation for the complicated nature of American Jewish support for Israel, many still might support their prime minister’s decision to make a speech about the dangers of a nuclear Iran before the U.S. Congress. Like their prime minister, they might be willing to risk it. But at least they’d be making an enlightened decision with a genuine awareness of the downside risks.
It’s time to double down on educating Israelis about the sensibilities and circumstances of American Jews. The Ruderman Family Foundation has sponsored an annual visit of Knesset members to the U.S. who tour Jewish communities and meet with American Jewish leaders. It’s one of a number of initiatives meant to enhance the understanding of Israeli elites and the Israeli public for the American Jewish community. Programs like these are a step in the right direction, but they’re not enough.
U.S. Jews have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in bringing American Jews to Israel in order to enhance their connection to the Jewish state. These are dollars well spent. But now it’s time to multiply the investment in bringing Israelis to the U.S. so that they can better understand American Jews. Israel’s wellbeing and security depend upon it.
Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JayRuderman