By Phil Cohen
My first reaction to Jonathan Weisman’s “American Jews and Israeli Jews are Headed for a Messy Breakup,” (Jan. 4, 2019) was, if this were handed to me as a paper in an undergraduate college class it would receive, at best, a C-. Its argument is so filled with holes, inconsistencies, and at least one major error, that, well, a C- would be a gift.
American and Israeli Jews may be heading for some kind of breakup (though this seems to me way too strong a term), but this is not the article that shows the way.
The first part of Weisman’s article is taken up with differing perceptions of President Trump by Israelis and Americans. This newsflash has long faded into the dust, but Weisman feels compelled to rehearse it once again.
Israelis appreciate Trump’s moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and his abrogating the Iran agreement. Most American Jews support the Iran agreement (though hardly monolithically), and are mixed on the embassy, many wishing, as I’ve read, that the move had been accompanied by some grand peace gesture toward the Palestinians.
Note that the reverse obtained when Barak Obama was president; Israeli Jews felt uncomfortable with Obama, while American Jews supported him, certainly on the matter of the Iran agreement, as well as other actions by our last president that did not sit well with Israelis. I don’t recall hearing the sounds of funeral bells then.
It’s difficult to understand how the two Jewish communities will rise or fall on the basis of support or not for Donald Trump. He’s a temporary phenomenon, in office for a maximum of six more years. It’s difficult to see how conflicting perceptions of Trump form the harbinger of a breakup.
His next argument concerns discomfort with Netanyahu’s growing relationship with certain world leaders, such as Hungary’s Victor Orban. The reasoning goes that in Israel’s developing relationships with countries whose governments are not shining examples of democracy, we can see, somehow, a diminution of democracy in Israel, an unsavory mix that somehow will impact Israel badly, something with which American Jews disapprove, because, of course, we American Jews never have to deal directly in the messy world of international diplomacy.
By this reasoning, world leaders ought only develop relationships with governments that are pristine as a spring water, right? This foolishness is so dumb that I cringe every time I hear the argument. America, for example, should have no relations with China (Nixon should have never gone there), or Saudi Arabia, or Poland, or Cuba, or (for that matter) Hungary. Yet America has such relationships, with embassies and everything.
Israel should develop diplomatic relations with most any country wanting to have relations with Israel (maybe not North Korea), such as, lately, Oman and (possibly) Iraq. Any American Jew upset with Bibi in Hungary, he or she ought to shout to the rooftops the same discomfort with what the US does. But it’s what nations do. (Weisman fails to mention an interesting developing united relationship between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, perhaps because those two other countries are democracies.)
His next argument has to do with the upcoming Israeli elections, which, “if past is prologues, his election campaign will again challenge American Jewry’s values.” He cites Bibi’s unfortunate statement in the 2015 elections that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves…”
Now let’s agree that Bibi’s statement, which received more than ample press, constituted a healthy bit of fear-mongering. We must also agree, however, that it did not have an effect on the elections. More, the statement in question does not appear to form a continuing Netanyahu trope—some version of that statement did not form a continuing presence in the 2015 election. Once may have been enough, but one statement does not a racist or a racist government make. How an unfortunate statement in 2015 will “challenge American Jewry’s values” in this election is far from clear.
Then he makes the curious statement that BDS is growing stronger on campus, and new voices from within the Democratic party are “speaking openly about Palestinian rights.” Well, okay, perhaps (though I’m unaware of BDS growth on campus). But what do these facts have to do with American Jews and the supposed growing rift that is the focus of the article? Nothing.
Then out of nowhere and at some length, he cites the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 (!). “American Jewish leaders gathered in Pittsburgh to produce what is known at the Pittsburgh Platform, a new theology for an American Judaism, less focused on a Messianic return to the land of Israel and more on fixing a broken world, the concept of Tikkun Olam, Jews, the rabbi behind the platform urged, must achieve God’s purpose by “living and working in and with the world.””
Well, the nonsense here flies high and wide. Never mind that the term Tikkun Olam appears nowhere in the document, or that in any intelligent sense that a platform of nine planks forms a theology. He fails to mention that there were only thirteen American Jewish leaders present at this conference, and that they were all Reform rabbis. This conference intended to define Reform Judaism in America in the face of millions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, whose Judaism would be more traditional, not create a great statement about a new Diaspora Judaism.
The author cites the Pittsburgh Platform as though it was authoritative at the time and continues resonating throughout America 133 years later, failing to mention that four other Reform platforms came after this one.
For the author, the Pittsburgh Platform lays the groundwork for a Judaism that is universalist and innately hostile to Israel as a particular Jewish state, that because of the influence of a nineteenth century document, American Jews “now accepted as a tenet of their religion: building a better, more equal, more tolerant world now, where they live.”
Then he cites a quote from Rabbi Daniel Zemel’s Kol Nidre sermon. Israeli Yaniv Sagee says, “For the first time in my life I feel a genuine threat to my life in Israel. This is not an external threat. It is an internal threat from nationalists and racists.” He goes on to say that Rabbi Zemel (who must be shepping great nachas, having that same sermon also cited by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post) “implored his congregation to act before it is too late, to save Israel from itself.”
Gottenu! This Yaniv Sagee lives in fear for his life. Where does this Sagee live? Who’s going to beat him up, or, God forbid, kill him? Is the rule of law in Israel gone so totally awry? How can American Jews save Israel from itself? As a side issue, by the way, if we are to task ourselves with saving Israel from itself, then it stands to reason that the gap between us and them can’t exist, for if it does, how in the world are we going to save them from themselves?
This article’s a rubbish can full of arguments that neither make sense in themselves, much less do they cohere as an arsenal of arguments that lead to any serious conclusion that the Eschaton has arrived, that the long goodbye is upon us.
As I said at the beginning, there are issues between American and Israeli Jews, but this piece, by a respected NY Times journalist no less, is not the case upon which the wall are going to rise.
Mr. Weisman’s article can be seen here: