During her time as Prime Minister, Golda Meir appealed to Henry Kissinger for increased American support. The Prime Minister marshaled many reasons for assisting Israel—the country’s geo-strategic importance, its promotion of democracy, its attitude toward the Soviet Union, etc.—but she also appealed to Kissinger’s identity as a Jew. Unimpressed, Kissinger responded, “I would like to inform you that I’m first an American citizen, second Secretary of State, and third a Jew.” To which Meir replied, “In Israel, we read from right to left.”
Meir won the exchange, but the dilemma of the American Jew (and here I include myself), as referenced by Kissinger, remains unsolved. Where do our allegiances lie when Jewish interests conflict with American interests?
Before I jump into the politics of Israel, let me first recognize that American Jewish interests cannot simply be summarized as concern for the well being of Israel. Our interests are multi-faceted. We are, as a group, passionate about women’s rights, gay rights, meritocracy, economic liberties, racial discrimination, etc. But these issues have never made Jews stand out. Debates about abortion are never announced with headlines that read, “Strong Jewish Group Signals Approbation/Disapproval of Government Policy.” On the topic of Israel, American Jews stand out.
And Israel is important to American Jews. Most polls find that approximately 70 percent of American Jews agree with the statement that, “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” True, not all Jews support Israel or support it to the same degree—as is evidenced by J-Street—but most studies, including those cited in Norman Podhoretz’s new book, show that the majority of American Jews are still strong advocates of Israel in the classic AIPAC sense.
So what happens when America and Israel disagree? How do we reconcile our status as citizens of America with our status as Jews?
The answer will of course differ from Jew to Jew, and it does not have to black and white; the circumstances would undoubtedly matter. If Israel launched an unprovoked nuclear strike on New York City, I’m guessing that most American Jews would side with the United States.
But in less extreme situations, such as the present dispute between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu administration, it becomes more difficult. My knee-jerk reaction is to stand on the side of the United States. But at the same time, I am a staunch supporter and admirer of Israel and, coupled with that, I agree more with Netanyahu’s foreign policy than with President Obama’s.
I don’t have the answer, but there’s an old Texas expression of loyalty that “you dance with them that brung ya.” And considering that the United States has given me the opportunity to eat, read fantasy books, play basketball, and type essays of small-significance on nice Dell computers, I’ll be proudly siding with United States foreign policy in almost every instance.
All the same, it was a lot nicer when we had an American administration that marched side-by-side with Israel. Which of course makes me continue to wonder: why are American Jews almost monolithically liberal?
Stephen is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.