The Changing Politics of Israel

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Harold Meyerson has an excellent column in today’s Washington Post about Barack Obama’s drive for a two-state solution and the growing gaps between Jewish American public opinion and the policies of the Israeli government. He observes that “American Jews remain intensely committed to liberalism and to universal and minority rights,” ideas that used to accord strongly with support for Israel—a bastion of liberalism, born out of the Holocaust and surrounded by seemingly powerful states bent on its destruction. More recently, however, “42 years of occupation have rendered Israel a state that tests those values more than it affirms them.”

I think this is all correct, as are the things Meyerson says about J Street and everything Henrick Hertzberg says here. But I do think there’s one other dynamic that often gets missed here, namely the extent to which the mainstream “pro-Israel” organizations in the United States found themselves becoming more ideological—and more fundamentally right-wing—in recent years.

I was talking to a student of US foreign policy recently who was telling me that Lyndon Johnson used to complain about Jewish groups’ take on foreign policy. Basically, he characterized them as wanting him to send the 6th Fleet to the Gulf of Aqaba while refusing to send as much as a screwdriver to Vietnam. To Johnson that was incoherent, but it was basically just “Jews are liberal” plus parochial ethnic politics—Israel is full of Jews. What’s emerged in more recent years is a view of what “pro-Israel” politics are that makes more logical sense, but is, in practice, less appealing. But neoconservative intellectuals—many of them Jewish, and several of them hailing from Canada where Jews are traditionally on the political right—helped articulate a coherent worldview in which American support for an aggressive Israel was of a piece with a generally imperial view of America’s role in the world. Bill Kristol, David Frum, and Charles Krauthammer want to send the 6th Fleet to the Gulf of Aqaba and basically always want to send some fleet somewhere to bomb someone. Especially when, post-9/11, issues related to the entire “greater middle east” moved closer to the center of what Americans argue about, this tended to increasingly encourage everyone to adopt a more coherent view of the overall situation. Liberals, Jewish or otherwise, tend to generally take a dovish view of things and as conservatives started to draw explicit links between taking a hawkish view of Israel and a hawkish view of Iraq, North Korea, and all the rest, I think that tended to push liberal Jews toward taking a more skeptical view of Israel hawks’ arguments.