“Many American Jews have a strange relationship with Israel”

Many American Jews have a strange relationship with Israel. For years they created a myth about a 1950s “egalitarian” Israel that they pretended resembled their own liberal values. The reality was far more complex. 1950s Israel was the one where minorities were kept under curfew and where education was segregated (as it still is), where bedouins were driven from their lands and an ethnocratic nationalist state created. Why did people who supported civil rights in the US have so little interest in civil rights in Israel? Extreme inequalities were created in the nascent Jewish state, Jews from Muslim countries were forcibly settled in “development towns” and extreme racism against them was normal. They were often not permitted to move to rural areas, restricted by “acceptance committees” where race and religious background were determining factors of where one might reside. Of course from a nationalist point of view this was necessary to develop Israel, just as the proletarian revolution in the Soviet Union or Mao’s China was necessary for success. Many had to suffer for the “greater good.”

From the 1950s and its myths spring the Israeli leaders that American Jews have tended to identify most closely with, particularly Shimon Peres. The same voices that lionized My Promised Land found in Peres the symbol of the “good Israel,” and the “moral Israel,” the one that is a “light unto the nations” and does “tikkun olam.” No matter that almost none of these things are true about Peres, the myth needs to be true in order to keep the love affair with Israel alive.

But for many liberal Zionists the relationship with Israel is very political and personal. Such relationships require myths. Such relationships also have a sense of entitlement and abusiveness to them. Sometimes the relationship with Israel feels almost neo-colonial in its discussion. Whether it is Jeffrey Goldberg or Peter Beinart, there is a lot of talk and insinuation about trying to get Obama to pressure Israel and and a feeling that when Israel “misbehaves” or “doesn’t represent our values” then it must be “punished” like a child. Beyond the punishment there is also a constant threat that some American Jews will desert Israel, that they will throw it away like an unwanted toy they have outgrown. Young Jews, we are constantly told, are less connected to Israel. Much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like John Judis, Harvey Pekar, or Sarah Glidden‘s books, there is a feeling that to connect to Israel is predicated on the country adhering to one’s own values. Therefore when it can be shown that Israel has little in common with the values of liberal Jewish Americans, then their conclusion should be that they can’t identify with the country.

Ironically the same Jewish Americans who find it so difficult to identify with Israel, are often the same people who can easily identify with other countries and peoples and disregard the Israel-values litmus test. Rabbi Brant Rosen, for instance, waxed lovingly about a trip to Iran as have many other writers. So when it comes to Iran one can say “I dislike the policies of the government, but the people are wonderful.” But for Israel there is little of that nuance.

The lack of nuance is because of the kinds of myths conjured up by Shavit. The myth of 1950s Israel. The myth of unified Zionism and “good” Zionism. The way in which the myth is said to be falling apart. The picture those like Shavit paint of barbarians at the gate, of cities like Jerusalem overrun by “Arabs and Haredim.” Instead of the constant force-feeding of “Israel was perfect and now it’s not” emblematic of histories like Anita Shapira’s (also one Americans read), why not provide an Israeli history as complex and nuanced as American history is told. The naive, self-centered hucksterism of the title “My Promised Land” was so arrogant it should have been the first turnoff. No country belongs to one man. If anyone deigned to write a book about “my America” and paint a picture of 1950s white man nostalgia ruined by hordes of “backwards” minorities taking over cities and causing “chaos”, it would never be read by a liberal audience. So why was such a simplistic approach accepted for Israel?

Because the relationship with Israel is not a mature relationship. How did a community that is well educated and has an almost seventy-year relationship with a country have so little understanding of it that it needs such a simplistic myth-making book by such a character as Shavit to articulate it for them? If you try to mention just simple details about Israel to many in the US Jewish community, such as discussion anti-Mizrahi racism, one is greeted by eyes that glaze over. For them Israel is not so much more than it is for average Americans: Bibi Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Amos Oz. Often what is added to that by those “in the know” is the “disastrous policy of the occupation,” and the “threat of the Orthodox.” Simple, neat, black and white analysis.

Seth J. Frantzman, “The American Jewish Community and the Myth of Ari Shavit”, Terra Incognita (30 October 2016) [https://sethfrantzman.com/2016/10/30/the-american-jewish-community-and-the-myth-of-ari-shavit/]