Unholy Land: Young Democrats Are Spurning Israel for Good Reason
“My landscape wasn’t the Negev wilderness, or the Galilean hills, or the coastal plain of ancient Philistia; it was industrial, immigrant America—Newark,” declares Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s alter-ego, in the 1986 fictional masterpiece, “The Counterlife.”
Like Nathan, the American reckoning with his Jewish identity, I have always struggled to hold Israel in the same esteem as the United States and my hometown, Brooklyn, New York. I am a patriot of my neighborhood, Bay Ridge, a New Yorker before anything else, and I have tried intermittently to understand how a nation many thousands of miles away should be my true lodestar. The history and mythology wash over me, but I always stay dry.
Whatever intellectual and emotional efforts I have undertaken to better embrace Zionism will likely come to nothing; Like many liberal secular American Jews under the age of 30, I find Israel’s leadership uninspiring.
And I’m not alone. A study by Philip Gordon and Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “Younger Americans—those born after 1980—are markedly less supportive of Israel than previous generations. This diminished sympathy is likely the result of numerous factors that will deepen over time, including growing historical distance from the Holocaust and Israel’s transformation from a “David” into a “(regional) Goliath.”
President Donald Trump’s rise to power will cement the rightward shift of Israel, a nation that, while a liberal democracy by law, teeters closer to theocracy. In Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump found a strongman soul mate. That was evident during their press conference in Washington. The hard-liners on Netanyahu’s right flank celebrate Trump even more. Whatever the sins of inept Palestinian leadership, many of their people live an impoverished, hellish existence because of Israel, a formidable military power continually propped up by the United States. A dire World Bank release titled “Income Stagnation and Worsening Living Standards Continue For Palestinian Families” reported “persistently high unemployment and stagnation in the average income of Palestinian citizens.”
It’s easier to see how the Republican Party, which has made far less of a show of caring about disenfranchised minority groups, embraces Israel at all costs. Conservative Jews, while a relatively small slice of the Jewish American electorate, are flocking to the GOP.
As the Forward previously reported, “a September 2016 poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that approximately 50% of Orthodox voters favored Trump.” Meanwhile, most Jewish Democrats may question how they’re supposed to continue to swallow their party’s orthodoxy: Israel is always right, and their asymmetrical war with the Palestinians is never to be characterized that way.
“Israel is now associated not with the higher goal of being a light onto the nations and the liberal ideal once part of socialist Zionism, but increasingly associated with right-wing regimes and right-wing politics,” Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College specializing in Jewish life, told me.
The Trump-Netanyahu alliance will further alienate young Democrats from the Jewish state. America’s soon-to-be-confirmed new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, equated liberal American Jews to kapos (though he reportedly will apologize for that verbal atrocity); smeared Barack Obama as an anti-Semite; and proclaimed that Israel should annex the West Bank. Friedman and Trump vow to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move that will hammer another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
What Trump and Netanyahu may do is not just kill off any lingering likelihood of carving out a Palestinian state. To the despair of people like Chuck Schumer, the relentlessly pro-Israel Senate minority leader, Trump will also drive rank-and-file Democratic voters, particularly millennials, away from the defend-Israel-at-all-costs posture that has dominated political discourse for decades.
The numbers bear this out: American Jews, who are overwhelmingly secular Democrats but boast a growing Orthodox contingent, gave Hillary Clinton 71 percent of the vote. That wasn’t surprising. What mattered more was recent Pew survey data, which revealed that while Republicans sympathize more with Israel than Palestinians by a 74-11% margin, Democrats as a whole are about evenly split between sympathizing more with Israel and with the Palestinians, 33-31 percent.
As jarring for the Schumers of the world — and what may determine the course of future Democratic primaries— is that self-identified liberal Democrats favor the Palestinians by 12 points. At the turn of the century, they supported Israel by 30 points.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Israel’s political leadership has no use for the liberal democratic norms that progressive voters, especially those who came of age in the 21st century, cherish. The real question will be when Democratic elected officials recognize that their base no longer has any affinity for a foreign country ruled by an illiberal majority.
“The Democratic leadership will change on Israel and Palestine when they start to perceive that it’s going to hurt them electorally and I do believe that’s going to happen,” said Peter Feld, a longtime political activist and pollster. “It’s not going to be politically possible by 2020 for any Democrat to run for president with the type of pro-Israel platform that Hillary ran on in 2016.”
What will that platform look like? Steve Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College, said the Democratic Party will be explicitly “pro-Israel” for the foreseeable future. (“Pro-Israel will mean to oppose expansionist policies of the Israeli government to save Israel from itself,” Cohen argued.) As the Netanyahu government continues to green-light new settlements in the occupied West Bank, the definition of what it means to support Israel, among elected officials, must evolve.
More Democrats will resemble Bernie Sanders, who shocked many in the establishment when he stood up for Palestinian rights during a televised debate with Clinton last year, arguing forcefully that Israel had used “disproportionate” force to respond to Hamas rocket fire in 2014.
Sanders is a Jew and a Zionist. He has the Kibbutz experience to prove it. But Israel is no longer a socialist paradise and is unlikely to be one again.
In “The Counterlife,” Nathan Zuckerman is an American Jew who has journeyed to Israel. Count me as an American Jew, who lost interest long ago.
Ross Barkan contributes to The Village Voice, The New York Daily News and the Guardian, among other publications.