I spent last Friday night at the Brooklyn apartment of a veteran Jewish journalist, a man whose values used to be considered pretty much standard for Jewish Democrats who grew up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He loves Israel but he's conflicted over the occupation. His dinner table has been the site of pitched battles on these topics and others; his kids regularly complain about it. Before the blessings, we talked about the old Brooklyn Eagle, which he'd grown up worshipping; after that we started to talk about politics.
"What did you think of Netanyahu's speech?" the host asked me and another guest, a dentist and fellow congregant at the host's Orthodox synagogue whose politics I took to be more conservative. Then the host thought better of it. The question turned into a mumble and he quickly changed the subject to something safer and more local. I never really found out the dentist's views because he, too, was visibly relieved not to talk politics.
When Jews don't want to argue about something over dinner, you know — to borrow a phrase from Middle East peace negotiations — the gaps are wide. And Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election campaign has left a deep cultural mark among the Americans who are still trying to have what amount to family arguments about the Middle East — Jews, Democrats, and Jewish Democrats most of all. The campaign itself could hardly have been better calculated to alienate members of those overlapping groups. It was run as much against Barack Obama as the Israeli left. It featured a garbled, short-lived apparent abandonment of the two-state idea. And it ended in strident ethnic nationalism, warnings about Arabs voting that repelled, most of all, Americans who venerate the civil rights movement, and those who see themselves as its beneficiaries or successors.
Among those Americans is President Barack Obama. And in the wake of Netanyahu's victory, the American president offered Democrats an alternative path from the party's half century of automatic alliance with the Jewish state. Mainstream American politics had, until last week, no real space for harsh criticism of Israel. Now the 21st century's most important Democrat has authorized one: the warning that Netanyahu's open campaigning against Arab citizens and Palestinian noncitizens will "erode the meaning of democracy in the country."
"This is one of those big stories that doesn't break, but just seeps into being," Richard Ben Cramer wrote in 2004 of how (in his view) Israel had lost "her birthright of loyalty from the West." He was really writing about the country's support from Westerners like him: liberal American Jews who, when push came to shove, would put democratic values ahead of tribal loyalty, but were relieved to that point to (in their view) not have been obliged to choose.
Now it is clear how the breach plays out. The liberal goal — the "two-state solution" — has been under assault from Israel's most fervent supporters and its bitterest enemies, a kind of unspoken tactical alliance that has produced some of America's strangest bedfellows. (Brief, insidery troll: Noah Pollak, meet Ali Abunimah.) On one side of this odd alliance is the idea that Israel's current position — a small, heavily armed state and a buffer zone of disenfranchised Palestinians — is the best things are going to get. On the other is the view that global public opinion will at some point view Israel as South Africa, force it to let those Palestinians vote, and produce an Arab-led state with, they promise, strong protections for the Jewish minority.
Both sides of this argument would like to see a more neat partisan divide on Israel, with Republicans the pro-Israel party and Democrats the anti-Israel party. To the deep discomfort of the establishmentarians at American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish community organizations, committed Republicans have fought to establish that the Republican Party is the only one that backs Israel. They've had quite a bit of success: When Ted Cruz spoke at Liberty University, his backing for Netanyahu was his strongest applause line. And the intense partisanship in American politics means that when one party embraces a cause, the other tends to reject it. Netanyahu's own decision to ally openly with the GOP has made it even harder for Democrats to stay on side. John Kerry raised eyebrows when he warned of a coming "apartheid," and quickly walked it back. Now Barack Obama's very open breach with him has sent a signal to his party that he's no longer competing for that mantle.
The remaining question is how this plays out. Exactly nothing is happening on Capitol Hill on this front. The Gaza war prompted some Democrats to break ranks — more than 50 signed a letter calling for an end to the "unabated suffering of Gazan civilians" — but more recent, similar efforts have drawn only a small handful of signatures. Newly visible campus organizing has yet to force the divestment of a single endowment. Even the Park Slope Food Coop rejected a divestment resolution a couple of years ago. Public opinion polling has found support for Israel is broad and durable. Obama's likely Democratic successor, Hillary Clinton, has occasionally toyed with a more confrontational public line on Israel, but typically stepped back from that line.
But the foundation of that conversation has now changed — from the White House to my friend's Brooklyn apartment. What has been lost is the sense of common set of facts to argue about.
There have been many reasons for Americans who support Israel — indeed, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC has always made a specialty of having a kind of menu of them. The most powerful and unifying one — and the one that is now under real threat — is the straightforward appeal to small-d democratic values in a region of autocrats. But you can also like its strategic significance, or believe in a civilizational clash. You can feel a tribal allegiance to fellow Jews, or an orientalist connection to fellow Europeans. A belief that Israel is the answer to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, or a return to God-given land. You can even think Israel is helping to bring on the apocalypse. All are welcome.
American Jews, until recently, were able to consume most of that menu. (Only the last item truly isn't kosher.) And this had been handy because American Jews run the cultural and political gamut — devout and secular, socialist and libertarian — though the balance is shifting toward the devout.
Netanyahu gave away the last argument that held Democrats — the appeal to democratic values. And Obama is not throwing him a rope. And among liberals and Democrats, the conversation has lost its feeling of common ground, of a family argument over dinner on Friday.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at email@example.com.
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