The election of Barak Obama brought to surface doubt among some Israelis regarding American Jewry’s identification with, and commitment to the state of the Jews. Within Israel Bush is seen as friend and benefactor. How, the thinking goes, could the US community vote so overwhelmingly against Israel’s perceived interests? But what if the vote did consider Israel’s interests, what if it is Israel, rather than American Jewry, that was wrong about Bush? And what does this election result suggest about how our two communities see the world and the security of the Jewish people as we enter our third millennium of Diaspora? Israel is preoccupied with its “special relationship” with the US, worried about its appeal to, and continuing support by the Diaspora, while American Jewry appears confident and comfortable, secure in its chosen homeland. But is the US Diaspora really the source of Israeli unease, or is the source closer to home? And is American Jewry justified in its self-confidence and ease?
The history of Jewry in the Diaspora is of a nearly continuous disaster, from discrimination to persecution, from mass expulsion to mass murder. Beginning in the 5th century, when the church became de facto government of the Roman Empire, and continuing until the gradual secularization of Europe in the 18th century Jews were serfs, property of local rulers. With Enlightenment’s promise of “emancipation” came expectation of the end to discrimination and prejudice. But emancipation in practice meant assimilation, and even conversion did not end prejudice. The Dreyfus Affair put doubt of the promise to rest and Herzl, the assimilated journalist from Vienna, launched what became the revolution in Jewish identity, the movement of Jewish national liberation, Political Zionism.
The kidnapping and forced conversion of Edgardo Mortara by the Church in Rome and the trumped up conviction of Dreyfus in France; the lynching of Leo Frank by a mob made up of lawyers, judges and other professional elites in the United States; the bloody pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe all these reinforced awareness amongst Jews that the secularization of society not only failed to end discrimination, but continued to subject them to physical danger from their neighbors. And when Germany opted for a Nazi government the pace accelerated towards a final solution to Christendom’s 2000 year long Jewish Problem. How did this continuing and traumatic history of irrational abuse and aggression affect our individual and collective identity in Diaspora; what impact does it continue to impact the psyche and character of the state of the Jews?
We in the United States carry ourselves with confidence, comfortable in our “goldene medina.” But what in our experience justifies our confidence? Antisemitism is as old in the New World as our first immigrants seeking sanctuary in colonial New Amsterdam. Met at the dock by Peter Stuyvesant, the legendary governor, they were informed that the colony is Christian and Jews are not welcome. Following the Civil War General and later president Ulysses Grant issued his infamous order barring Jews from entering newly defeated states of the Confederacy. And, around the time Leo Frank was lynched by that genteel Georgia mob, Congress was busily drafting legislation aimed at halting the immigration of “inferior racial stock.” Twenty years later these restrictive laws would provide legal cover and future deniability for the United States closing heart and border to Jews fleeing the Holocaust; for condemning, with full knowledge, Europe’s Jews to the ovens of Auschwitz.
Is our confidence justified by our security as Americans in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s and so on? It is a fact that antisemitism was as widespread in the US before and during Shoah as it was in Europe. Henry Ford and Charles Lindberg, antisemites and isolationists, represented this national mood, and both considered running, were the choice of the Republican Party for president. Had either decided to run for the office and, as was very possible, won, then it is very possible that such a government would either have remained neutral in the war, assuring a likely German victory; or the US might have actively joined Hitler’s crusade against atheistic Communism. In either case it is unlikely that local antisemitism, inspired by a Nazi Europe, would have been long restrained in expanding the reach of American eugenics to Hitler’s lethal conclusion. And taking into consideration that the US, like Germany, also had concentration camps, these for its Japanese-American citizens, the precedent provides a chilling warning for what nearly was, and is available as precedent for the future.
Following Shoah and motivated by guilt, anticipating that the survivors would be facing yet a second holocaust, the United States reluctantly voted for partition, then stood by in passive complicity. England openly supported and armed Israel’s Arab enemies, Egypt and Jordan. American interest in Israel only awakened when it served US interests, not the Jews. With the withdrawal of England from the Middle East it fell on the US to protect western oil interests. Israel’s “special relationship” arrived with the Soviet-radical Arab threat to the conservative monarchies producing oil. Israel’s “special relationship” with the United States is, for her senior partner, a convenience, important only so long as oil is at risk. Sympathies such as “shared values” may exist in the popular imagination but national interest, not “sympathies,” are what motivate countries to act, the glue that binds. If Israel is insecure about the future of her “special relationship” she has reason to be.
Bush as “friend” of Israel
According to then Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, at the first meeting of the National Security Council just ten days after the 2001 inauguration Bush tasked those present to come up with a plausible reason to invade Iraq. Remember, this was more than two years before 9/11. From his 2003 decision to invade until his infamous 2008 secret letter to Bashar Assad his administration pursued what observers describe, most generously, as a confused and contradictory Middle East policy. At times Israeli interests converged with those of Bush, as with his “war on terror,” and this partly explains Israel’s positive regard for the man. But from a wider and objective perspective, did the eight years of this administration help or harm the state of the Jews?
Until his final year in office Bush almost entirely ignored Arab-Israeli peace. On the rare occasion when he did show interest, as with the Palestinian election of 2006, his intervention proved not only ineffective, but a disaster. Prior to the vote Abbas and Israel anticipated the Hamas victory but were unable to convince Bush, who insisted the elections proceed. Not only did Hamas win Bush’s election but won also new respect and credibility among Palestinians. Within days Bush had second thoughts about his adventure in Palestinian democracy and decided that Hamas had to go. With US funding, training and planning Fateh attempted a coup in Gaza. And again, not only did Hamas route the insurgents, but Hamas prestige among Palestinians soared, this time as a military force. Barely two years later, with Israel one year into negotiations with Assad over peace and the future of the Golan in face of Bush criticism for even talking to that Axis of Evil country, in October, 2008 Bush sent PA president Abbas to Damascus to hand-deliver a personal and secret letter to Assad. Its contents leaked to Arab media, the letter assured Syria that Israel would withdraw from the Golan in exchange for Syria breaking her alliance with Iran. Of course none of this had been discussed with Israel. So whatever his motives, Israeli security was not among his priorities. Should these examples raise questions regarding Bush as “friend” and “benefactor”? Is another example needed? Then consider his use of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to transfer responsibility for dealing with Iran from the US to Israel.
Bush and the “Iranian Bomb”
A fair and not raised question regarding an Iranian bomb is, against which country(ies) might such a weapon pose the greatest threat? Israel, apparently abandoned to her own resources by Bush and Europe, is convinced that she is the primary target. While this may or not be true in a decade, it is not likely today. The ability to build a small nuclear device is not the same as having the technology and resources to create a warhead, to produce a missile capable of accurate warhead delivery. So the immediate threat of a Nuclear Iran is not to produce a high-tech weapon useful in nation-to-nation combat, but a small “dirty bomb” of the suitcase variety, a weapon more suited to hand-delivery by a terrorist. And since Israel likely is most experienced in counter-terror, has the best anti-terror defenses in the world, a softer target, such as Madrid or Chicago would offer the best chance for success. Yet Israeli policy makers appear convinced that the state of the Jews is the primary target, that it is Israel’s responsibility to eliminate the threat, unilaterally if necessary. Certainly Ahmadinejad’s bluster contributes to this perception. But Israel is accustomed to enemy bluster. I suggest that, while naïve and not gifted in diplomacy, when it comes to public relations, to political manipulation, Bush is a master. And Israel was sold hook, line and sinker.
By the facts it should be clear that Israel’s trust in her “special relationship” is a need driven by emotion. It should also be clear that American Jewry’s opposite response, our comfort and trust in our Diaspora home shares the same emotional source. But there identity ends. Because if Israeli angst expresses a subconscious awareness of a danger which an armed and independent state has the ability to confront and defend against when illusion turns real, American Jewry and our entire Diaspora are no more capable of self-defense today than during Shoah, Inquisition or Crusade. Aware as we are at some level of the danger, by ignoring the long-standing and well-documented threat, we in Diaspora are risking the lives of our children in service of our need for the illusion of security in what, for us, are familiar surroundings. Our “confidence,” “ease” and “comfort” are a willful act of Denial. One hundred years ago German Jewry, more assimilated and intermarried than are we today in the United States, described their fatherland as “exceptional,” as do we today.
History may not repeat itself, but it does serve as precedent. It is our responsibility to accept the facts, to recognize our own Denial: to accept the lessons of history. Our children’s lives depend on it.