Jews Is News II
Published on: November 8, 2013
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  • Larry, San Francisco

    Adam, I would really like your take on the current US and Iranian negotiations which have ticked off both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Do you think these negotiations have any chance of working?

  • WigWag

    Adam, your article in the “Tablet” was thought provoking and distressing. I’m not surprised that you find the topic enervating to write about,it’s also enervating to read about and contemplate the subject. If you truly do retire from commenting on the subject matter (a possibility I find hard to believe), you can move on to other things with the knowledge that you have not only provided your readers with thoughtful commentary, but also that you have done your best to sound the alarm bells about what could be an alarming future.

    With that said, I think you may be overstating the case somewhat. Your triangle metaphor leaves the reader with the impression that American support for Israel is threatened because the vitality of all three sides of the metaphorical triangle are experiencing diminished vitality that could eventually lead the whole thing to collapse.

    I think that there is a better metaphor; I believe that American support for Israel is more like a strong and stately tree. The trunk might sway in a storm and the winds may rip off limbs and branches which fall to the ground, but because its roots are so deep, the tree always outlives the storm.

    By way of example, I would cite several points. Perhaps most importantly, if there is any diminution in support for Israel by Americans, we haven’t seen it yet. All of the polling for the past several years indicates that America’s support for Israel is at or near record levels. There are many reasons for this, but I think that one reason pointed out by Aaron David Miller in a current post at his FP blog is particularly important; Israel’s behavior is not viewed in isolation, its viewed in comparison to the neighborhood in which it is situated. While approval rates for Israel are in the high sixties, approval rates for the Palestinian Authority approach those of Iran in the low single figures.

    It’s simple really; the worse Israel’s neighborhood looks the more sympathy Americans have for Israel. Given how unlikely it is that the Middle East will become a more tranquil neighborhood any time soon, Israel is likely to look good to Americans well into the future.

    An important part of your thesis is encapsulated in this paragraph from your “Tablet” essay,

    “As with Harry Truman—and Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush after him—large numbers of Americans, from the very beginning of the European settlement of North America, came from a branch of Anglo-Protestant stock that made them sensitive to the narrative of Jewish election and the unique, divinely ordained role of the Jews in history…But this, too, is gradually but ineluctably changing. Just as the affinity between Jews and typical Americans will decline as American Jewry’s public face becomes more religious, so that affinity will lessen from the other direction as American society becomes less Anglo, less avowedly religious, and especially less Protestant. Both non-Christians and non-Protestant Christians lack traditions of Judeophilia comparable to that of most Protestants, whose Abrahamic, Scripturalist focus makes them more familiar with the Hebrew Bible and more sympathetic with the rhythms and lessons of Jewish history.”

    It’s not that anything you’ve said there is wrong, its that there are important countervailing points that you don’t take into account. I think that your theory that as the Jewish community becomes more devout it is likely to be less warmly embraced by Americans in general is nothing but speculation. In addition, you emphasize that a more secular America will be an America less supportive of Israel. The problem with this is your assumption that the recent trend towards secularity will be long lasting. I’m not sure that you’re right; periods of intense piety in the United States tend to be cyclical; a new religious awakening could happen at any moment and could easily arrive long before you think.

    While the Anglo Protestant tradition (along with Dispensationalism which you didn’t mention) may be waning and while this may result in less American philosemitism, I think that Walter Russell Mead gets it right when he points out that support for Israel is deeply engrained in American Judeo-Christian consciousness. Here’s how Mead put it in a blog post that he published on May 25, 2011 entitled, “The Dreamer Goes Down for the Count.”

    “…Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America…It means more. The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

    Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America and don’t ‘get’ God.”

    If Mead is right, this is pretty powerful stuff that might have implications that are more resonant than whether America is currently in a more or less secular phase or whether the number of Anglo Protestants or Dispensationalists is growing or falling.

    But there’s another factor that Professor Mead has written about many times; the pertinence of Israel not merely to American Christianity but also to America’s civic religion; it’s a factor not taken into account by your triangle metaphor.

    Here’s Mead again, this time from a blog post dated November 18, 2012 (“America, Israel, Gaza and the World). The point he is making is that Americans support Israel because they like the way that Israel takes on its enemies. Millions of citizens, Mead argues, want the United States to act more like Israel. This particular blog post was written in the aftermath of one of Israel’s periodic skirmishes with Hamas,

    “Americans look at war through a distinctive cultural lens…from the perspective of the most widespread of them, the Jacksonians, what Israel is doing… makes perfect sense. Not only are many Jacksonians completely untroubled by Israel’s response to the rocket attacks in Gaza, many genuinely don’t understand why the rest of the world is so steamed about Israel—and so angry with the United States.

    Americans as a people have never much believed in fighting by “the rules.” The Minutemen who fought the British regulars at Lexington and Concord in 1776 thought that there was nothing stupider in the world than to stand in even ranks and brightly colored uniforms waiting to shoot and be shot like gentlemen. They hid behind stone walls and trees, wearing clothes that blended in with their surroundings, and took potshots at the British wherever they could. George Washington saved the Revolution by a surprise attack on British forces the night before Christmas; far from being ashamed of an attack no European general of the day would have countenanced, Americans turned a painting of the attack (“Washington Crossing the Delaware”) into a patriotic icon. In America, war is not a sport.”

    Mead goes on to say,

    “The proportionality concept never went over that big here. Many Americans are instinctive Clausewitzians; Clausewitz argued that efforts to make war less cruel end up making it worse, and a lot of Americans agree. Many Americans consider the classic concept of proportionality — that the violence used must be proportional to the end sought — as meaningless when responding to attacks on the lives of citizens because the protection of citizens from armed and planned attacks is of enough importance to justify any steps taken to ensure that the attacks end…From this perspective, in which war is an elemental struggle between peoples rather than a kind of knightly duel between courtly elites, the concept of proportionality seems much less compelling.

    Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets in the United States, the American people would demand that their President use all necessary force without stint or limit until the resistance had been completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed. Those Americans who share this view of war might feel sorrow at the loss of innocent life, of the children and non-combatants killed when overwhelming American power was used to take the terrorists out, but they would feel no moral guilt. The guilt would be on the shoulders of those who started the whole thing by launching the missiles.

    Thus when television cameras show the bodies of children killed in an Israeli air raid, Jacksonian Americans are sorry about the loss of life, but it inspires them to hate and loathe Hamas more, rather than to be mad at Israel. They blame the irresponsible dolts who started the war for all the consequences of the war and they admire Israel’s strength and its resolve for dealing with the appalling blood lust of the unhinged loons who start a war they can’t win, and then cower behind the corpses of the children their foolishness has killed. The whole situation strengthens the widespread American belief that Palestinian hate rather than Israeli intransigence is the fundamental reason for the Middle East impasse.”

    While all the points you made in your essay
    are true, I think there are other factors, especially the ones cited by Professor Mead that suggest that the roots of American support for Israel run deeper than you think.

    Who knows; the “special relationship” might even outlive the Obama presidency.

    • Again, I think you should start your own blog. You’re never at a loss for words, and that really helps.

      As for the comment substantively, I am trying to point to the future. Walter is right about the past and the present, and so is Aaron, whom I’ve known well for a long, long time. said the same thing too, more or less, in Jewcentricity. I am talking about a shift in underlying trends projected a generation ahead. I thought I made that pretty clear. Look at the current Administration: There is no special warmth for Israel there, and there is no Jacksoninanism playing out in policy, is there? Well, get used to it, folks, because this is the sort of Administration–and its base is the sort of base–we’ll be seeing a lot of for a long time to come. Indeed, I will venture to say that compared to the views of a Democratic administration 10 and more so 20 years from now, the Obama Administration will look very very friendly toward Israel by comparison. And again, all the stuff Walter is pointing to is connected to the Anglo-Protestant core of the country’s historic political culture, and as the country becomes less Anglo/”white” and less Protestant, those attitudes are going to become less powerful generally. There is no point arguing about the future; we just need to live long enough to see what happens. I’d be prepared to bet, however, that my predictions turn out to be accurate.

      • WigWag

        “Look at the current Administration: There is no special warmth for Israel there…” (Adam Garfinkle)

        There’s no question that you’re right about that, but I have to admit that I find it somewhat puzzling. There are plenty of Jews employed in John Kerry’s inner circle. Robert Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland is Jewish; I’d love to be a fly on the wall listening to them talk about the latest fiasco with the Iranians in Geneva. The lead U.S. negotiator in Geneva, Wendy Ruth Sherman certainly has a Jewish sounding name. I have also read that John Kerry’s paternal grandparents were Jewish and Secretary of the Treasury, Jacob Lew is Jewish. I just find it surprising that amongst this group of high Obama Administration officials it is so hard to find any “warmth” for Israel. Perhaps this is evidence that things really are deteriorating quickly.

        It’s not only the direction of the Democratic Party that is so troublesome; the increasing profile of Rand Paul oriented isolationists in the GOP is also troubling for those of us who worry about Israel. But the problem is deeper than that.

        There’s no question that if allowed to pursue its natural tendencies, the Democratic Party would move far to the left and be taken over by those drunk on a multicultural agenda. These leftists have a idiosyncratic view of what it means to be opressed and an obsessive sympathy for the Palestinisns is as natural to them as taking a deep breath.

        The Democratic march to the left has always been held in check by a need to compete with a GOP that was more than capable of nominating electable candidates.

        As the GOP brand is sullied by Tea Party extremists and as disgust for the GOP grows by leaps and bounds, it becomes increasingly difficult for the GOP to nominate candidates who can win, at least at the Presidential level. Even when they do nominate relatively acceptable candidates like McCain and Romney, to win the nomination, they have to espouse positions that are so far to the right that they are damaged goods by the time the General election comes around.

        Without a competitive GOP, the Democrats have license to move further and further to the left and still seem more reasonable to the average voter than the Republicans.

        In the long run, this is very bad for Israel. It is far better for Israel (and for the United States) when American politics are played within the forty yard lines.

        Unfortunately the more extreme elements of both political parties are becoming more and more mainstream. Eventually this could be as damaging for American political support for Israel as the other factors that are mentioned in the “Tablet” article.

        • There is only so much one can say in less than 4000 words; your point here is one of many I had to leave on the cutting room floor. Of course a healthy tension between the major parties stops either one from going of the rails, on any subject. That’s right.

          I agree further that the natural inclinations of the changing base of the Democratic Party is heading ever further leftward. A lot is made of GOP extremism, but little is ever said in MSM of the other side of the equation. The main reason is that the old distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome is blurring, and government is seen as the way to even everything out. So instead of merit we get quotas as the filtering mean.

          As for the Jews in the Administration, you need to understand how decisive the President’s view is on all things he decides to care about. So it doesn’t matter that John Kerry had some Jewish forebears or that Wendy Sherman is Jewish. None of this matters much, even when Wendy Sherman becomes chief negotiator with Iran. (Incidentally, usually the Undersecretary for Political Affairs is the highest ranking FSO, and thus provides a key point of coordination between schedule Cs and the rest of the bureaucracy. but not in this case: She is a pure politico, and always has been.

          Finally, you might want to look closer at the Pew data about American Jews. In the latest polls, nearly a third say they have no particular close feelings for Israel, and the numbers among Reform Jews are about triple that. The political types high in an Administration like this one tend to be “liberal”–their word–Jews and Democrats. Hence the fact that there are lots of Jews in the Administration is doubly irrelevant. Jack Lew is an exception and potentially an important one; he belongs to an Orthodox shul. I know because I used to belong to the same one and I saw him there every shabbas and Yom Tov.

  • danberg

    It’s been a month since we out here in blogosphere have heard a peep. Just as journalists are far more interesting in bars than in their columns, I’m quite sure editors are far more interesting in their blogs than their rare studious re-written polished accomplishments. Let your hair down, old friend, splash around and pontificate on every annoyance or absurdity. This will certainly not make your life any easier, but who wants that?

    • I’m flattered, really. I have been pretty quiet lately, it’s true. I’ve been busy, also traveling, and became recently (Oct. 7) a grandfather the second time over. I’ll try to let my hair down more, but it’s not my training or style to just go off half-cocked about everything under the sun. Please be patient with me.

      • WigWag

        A grandfather for the second time; Mazel tov!

  • Micha

    It’s probably better to stick to something simple like the Middle East

  • Very interesting and provocative. I’m not as pessimistic about the future basics of the relationship between Israel and the US. But that’s because I view Obama as an aberration. He’s already a clear failure as a president, the worst since Jimmy Carter. It’s only the lack of serious alternatives, and the media’s abject flunky relationship to him, that distract many from this reality.

    What’s far more likely is that the US, under Obama and any putative future Obama-like politicians, will suffer from a large decline in influence in the Middle East — heck, that’s already happening now — and end up fairly isolated internationally. That isolation will partly be an unintended consequence of very bad policy, but also a result of the strongly semi-isolationist mood of the US public. I say “semi,” because the isolationism is less like the 1930s, and more like the 1920s or the 1970s — wary and weary, not active dislike of the outside world as such.

    It all matters less and less to Israel every year. Its dependence on the US peaked in the 70s and early 80s. Every year, Israel moves further away from the conditions that produced that dependency.

    Unforunately, US withdrawal from the region — that is what we are witnessing — has already led to, and will lead to more, regional anarchy and heightened prospects for war. Same goes in Asia, BTW, in case you were wondering about that mythical “pivot to Asia” — not as dramatic or violent, but very real nonetheless. No external superpower to balance various regional powers off one another, and you get rising arms races and tension.

    • Obama may be an aberration insofar as juke-and-jive process incompetence in foreign/security policy, but not, I think, in likely future attitudes toward the ME. And I am not even sure about the former. When you read of the many breathtaking screw-ups of the past, including in administrations that have since come to have much better reputations than Obama’s has now, you see how relatively common this is. The Korean War furnishes many, many examples–for example.

      As to the rest of the comment, about how the absence of US attention fosters instability, arms races, small or not-so-wall wars and so on–well yes. But the larger question, as always, is so what? Which of these messes really attach to vital US interests and which do not? Which might lead to the emergence of a potentially dangerous hegemon, and which not? As George Shultz once said, we can’t catch every sparrow that falls from the nest. And I would add explicitly that we shouldn’t try. So what criteria should guide various forms of applying US influence and intervention? I tried to answer this question in an old 1999 SAIS Review essay, in a cluster about NSC-68. I still stick to that analysis.

  • Habbgun

    I read your piece in Tablet and I was very distressed. I don’t like that Jews lean left but you put it in very stark terms how destructive the worldview is. American Jews are sitting comfortably in the morass of Americans with no commitment to what let them succeed in the first place. In fact they are self consciously hostile Protestant America was more than a group or culture it was the foundation of a system which allowed non-Protestants and Protestants to succeed. That was a great and human accomplishment. The Jewish population is not only hostile to Israel but hostile to that. We don’t seem to have just changing demographics but a form of hate on their behalf that they don’t mind exercising to the detriment of others and themselves. This administration is full of such people and why the white American Jew should be so bitter is beyond me. They can sit happily with an Islamofascist but they can’t stand a benign Protestant businessman.

    • I think this is too broad brushed and extreme a characterization. There are people like the ones you describe, to be sure, but they do not encompass the entire community even by a long shot. Not yet, anyway.

      • Habbgun

        I understand that perfectly. What bothers me is that these people have always been masters at manipulating institutions like universities and the media which have no vested interest in educating anyone what real Judaism is. They have always successfully exaggerated their numbers and been allowed to do so. I do think we are seeing that pretended demographic coming to life. The only Jews who self-identify as Jews outside of the Orthodox are hostiles who have no use to anyone beyond antisemites and corrupt politicians who find them convenient as cover. This can’t be good.

        • Oh I just don’t agree that all, or even most, non-orthodox Jews are “hostiles.” I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on, but “hostility” either toward Jews in general or Israel or Protestants or America? I think that’s a wild exaggeration.

          • Habbgun

            It is always hard to not sound overwrought in comments and to take anecdote (especially political anecdote as having some meaning) but what happened at the Democratic convention on the Israel vote was a turning point. When they interviewed that Jewish Democratic official who screamed into the mic on national television that evangelicals are a bigger threat than terrorism to Israel and I found that Jews in NYC felt he knew of what he spoke when in years past they would have been embarrassed by that I knew we turned a corner. They don’t believe that. They are just comfortable with extreme partisanship. Can we at least be a little ashamed of where organized non-religious Jews have headed?

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