I am not writing this letter to the people who will most likely read it: Ashkenazi liberals, Tel Avivians and a handful of Anglo-born, National Religious folks who enjoy getting angry with leftists. I am writing to the largest sectors of Israeli society: Mizrahim, the middle class, those who are Masorti (traditional) but perhaps not Dati Leumi (national religious). In other words, the people Americans Jews have the least connection with, and the ones who actually decide Israeli elections.
I know it’s a bit of a pipe dream to think you’ll ever read this. But I’m writing it anyway, because I want you to know what Americans actually think about Israel, and why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies have made things so much worse here.
You see, the Americans you hear from are not representative of actual Americans. Sheldon Adelson runs a whole newspaper (Israel Hayom) to push his point of view. Ninety percent of Netanyahu’s primary election funding comes from Americans. And, of course, you see plenty of silly American tourists in Israel, with their shorts and hats.
But this is just one fringe of American society. The Jews you see and hear from are the most Zionist, patriotic ones. Like me, they were raised on a diet of pro-Israel hasbara; I bought trees to plant in Israel, I learned about the founding of the state, I believed that Zionism brought a people without a land to a land without people.
Many of these people still believe that. I admire their ahavat yisrael, their love of Israel, but they are only a sliver of America.
And if you really care about the future of your state, you need to understand how the rest of us — the vast majority of Americans — think before you cast your ballot.
I know this election, for you, is a lot about the Iranian threat, and whether Netanyahu’s tough policies are better than the alternative. You know that Netanyahu has alienated the Obama administration; the question is whether it’s worth it, because only this strong policy can deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
No one in America wants Iran to get a nuclear weapon either (well, almost no one). But over two-thirds of Americans believe that negotiations are the best way to do that. What’s the alternative? Start another war? No one here wants to do that. Not because we’re weak — but because this would be terrible for everyone, costly and ultimately pointless.
Moreover, the world has changed. Iran’s Shiite militias are now America’s allies in the fight against the Islamic State. (American Jews sometimes say that all Muslims are the same — this is just pure stupidity.) This doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the threat. But it does mean we want negotiations, not bluster.
To most of us, Netanyahu doesn’t look strong, he looks weak. There is an expression in America, coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” That is real strength.
You should know, though, that although Iran and Netanyahu are the main issues for you, the rest of the world still defines Israel by its conflict with the Palestinians.
Once again, Netanyahu’s bluster looks weak, not strong. He’s caving into the far-right fringe: the settlers in Israel, the Jewish Home party and the funders in America who have a Disney World view of Israel, all holy places and the Promised Land. They don’t want a normal state with normal borders; they want Greater Israel, Judea and Samaria, the whole thing.
If these factions were really security hawks, that would be one thing. But as you well know, all the real security hawks are against this crazy idea that the occupation can go on forever. The nationalist factions aren’t hawks; they are ostriches, burying their heads in the sand.
In Israel, nationalists can seem very smart. The left is so naive, they say, so stupid. But you’re living in a bubble. Outside Israel, the nationalists look very stupid. How long do you think the United States can continue to defend Israel against Europe, Russia and the rest of the world? We are Israel’s best, and practically only, friend at the United Nations. And Netanyahu is alienating us, turning Israel into a U.S. partisan issue.
Worse, since about 80% of American Jews are Democrats, he’s on the wrong side of the Jewish vote, too. Sure, the American Jewish establishment lines up behind the AIPAC, and AIPAC lines up behind Netanyahu. But the establishment and the population are two different things.
If Israel becomes a Republican issue, some Jews will become Republicans. But far more Jews will question their support of Israel’s policies.
Now, Netanyahu will say, “We can’t let other countries decide our security for us.” Of course, that is correct. But no country is an island. Every nation in the world — the United States included — makes decisions based on its own interests, and on realpolitik: what is reasonable, possible and feasible. For a small state like Israel, surrounded by enemies, and created, let’s not forget, in part by the United Nations, this isn’t “letting other countries decide” — it’s the way the world works.
The nationalist camp is playing on old Jewish fears — the whole world is against us — to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin led Israel, the whole world was with you. But sure, if you tell the whole world to go to hell, then, yes, everyone will turn against you.
Please don’t take this the wrong way, but Israel is starting to look like South Africa — not in its racist policies, but in its overconfidence. The white South African government looked pretty secure in the early 1980s. No one could imagine that it would soon be dismantled, in part due to outside pressure.
I am telling you, as someone who sincerely cares about Israel and lived there for three years, that the same thing will happen to Israel. You must fix the situation with the Palestinians, or sooner or later the world will fix it for you.
No one is calling for an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank. We all understand that the region is too unstable, the leadership too uncertain and the example of Gaza too tragic.
But the vast majority of the world thinks the occupation, and especially the settlements, is illegal and immoral. Americans, not just on college campuses but everywhere, too, do not accept that a country that receives $3 billion in aid from the U.S. should occupy 3 million people. No other country in the world does this.
Who will lead Israel is your decision, not mine. But I hope this letter can serve as a reality check. Your right wing — funded by Americans — may look tough and smart at home, and in the Jewish institutional community. But here they look crazy, or deluded or stupid. Supported by messianic Christians and far-right nationalists, they have gone off the deep end — on Iran, on Palestine and on domestic issues.
Make no mistake: If you vote for them, you are voting to turn Israel into the next pariah state.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.