Archive for category Sandbox
This article will appear the July/August 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, and may be previewed online.
Was the feud between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first over settlements and then over Iran, a watershed? Netanyahu, it is claimed, turned U.S. support of Israel into a partisan issue. Liberals, including many American Jews, are said to be fed up with Israel’s “occupation,” which will mark its 50th anniversary next year. The weakening of Israel’s democratic ethos is supposedly undercutting the “shared values” argument for the relationship. Some say Israel’s dogged adherence to an “unsustainable” status quo in the West Bank has made it a liability in a region in the throes of change. Israel, it is claimed, is slipping into pariah status, imposed by the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Biblical-style lamentations over Israel’s final corruption have been a staple of the state’s critics and die-hard anti-Zionists for 70 years. Never have they been so detached from reality. Of course, Israel has changed—decidedly for the better….
Read the rest here.
Yesterday was the 100th birthday of Bernard Lewis, preeminent historian of the Middle East and Islam. Today, Mosaic Magazine has published my essay for the occasion. I take as my point of departure an article Lewis wrote for the January 1976 issue of Commentary, entitled “The Return of Islam.” That article defied conventional wisdom and heralded the advent of a new era in the history of the Middle East. Lewis was pilloried for writing it, but subsequent events, from the Iranian revolution to 9/11, utterly vindicated him. Mine is the monthly essay at Mosaic Magazine, which means that responses will be published there throughout June, and I’ll have the final word at the end of the month.
The latest manifestation of “the return of Islam” is the Islamic State, and one wonders what Lewis would write about it were he still an active scholar. The Islamic State, with its deliberate attempts to mimic the early Islamic conquests, would provide a rich lode. It isn’t hard to imagine the themes Lewis would elucidate: the jihad mode of warfare, the meaning of the caliphate, the restoration of slavery, the symbolism of beheading and other forms of execution in Islamic history, the Islamic concept of the apocalypse, and on and on.
It would be the sort of exercise he accomplished in 1967, when he published a lively and lightly erudite book on the medieval Assassins, a group whose violence became so infamous that it gave us our word for murderous treachery. The Assassins sold more briskly, in many editions and translations, than just about any work on early Islamic history, and for an obvious reason: the back jacket of one new edition described it as “particularly insightful in light of the rise of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. and in Israel.”
In the original book, Lewis drew no comparisons, but he added a preface to later editions, in which he cautiously did just that, pointing to “interesting resemblances and contrasts.” Most of these related to Iran and its Shi’ite extensions, an obvious parallel. (The Assassins were an offshoot of Isma’ili Shi’ism, with bases in Iran and Syria.) But no resemblance appears closer than that between the Assassins and the Islamic State today.
“Of all the lessons to be learnt from the Assassins,” Lewis concluded,
perhaps the most important is their final and total failure. They did not overthrow the existing order; they did not even succeed in holding a single city of any size. Even their castle domains became no more than petty principalities, which in time were overwhelmed by conquest.
If that’s the main lesson, then it’s sobering to realize that the Islamic State, entrenched for the last two years in the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, has already achieved more than the medieval Assassins, against a much more formidable alliance than the Assassins ever faced. While the Obama administration has vowed to defeat the Islamic State, most analysts are busy explaining why inflicting “final and total failure” on the Islamic State is impossible, at least for now.
The Assassins didn’t peter out. Their enemies decided to extirpate them. That the Islamic State has managed to carve out its own principality on such a scale, and hold it for so long, doesn’t speak well of the resolve of its enemies. At some point, it will probably suffer a blow from which it won’t recover (although one doubts that its leftovers will become “small and peaceful communities of peasants and merchants,” as was the case with the Isma’ili descendants of the Assassins). But by that time, it may well have metastasized to many other places.
All of which is to emphasize, if any emphasis were needed, that the writings of Bernard Lewis remain a useful stimulus for thinking and lesson-learning about the Middle East, still in the throes of the “return of Islam.” Events will prompt readers to consult his works again and again.
Happy birthday, Bernard! To 120, and then some.
This essay appeared at the website of The American Interest on May 19. It is based on a presentation made to the conference on “100 Years Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, May 18, 2016.
Many people presume that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which partitioned the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, advanced the Zionist project in Palestine. The Zionist movement celebrated Sir Mark Sykes as one of its own, so many have assumed that he must have designed the agreement to serve the Zionist interest. In the words of a Palestinian professor of history at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, “Sykes-Picot was a carefully-designed plan and prelude to the Balfour Declaration. The creation of Israel on Palestinian land would not have been possible without the Sykes-Picot agreement.” A former Israeli Ambassador has written that the Sykes-Picot agreement “politically and materially contribut[ed] to the realization of the Zionist vision.” He has even suggested that its anniversary belongs on the same Zionist calendar with the anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition resolution of 1947, as “milestones on the path to Jewish statehood.”
This is exactly wrong. In his memoirs, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who midwifed the Balfour Declaration, wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “fatal to us…. The Sykes-Picot arrangement was not a full treaty; but it was sufficiently official to create the greatest single obstacle to our progress.” Sykes-Picot wasn’t a prelude to the Balfour Declaration, but an obstacle that had to be cleared to reach the Balfour Declaration. To understand that, all one has to do is look carefully at the map.
But before that, a word on the purpose of Sykes-Picot. It was the Arab activist George Antonius who famously wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “the product of greed at its worst.” But it was a product of fear as much as of greed, if not more so. The fear was that in the aftermath of war, Britain and France, old rivals, would clash disastrously over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot had the same logic as Yalta thirty years later: It proposed an orderly partition to keep wartime allies from plunging into a new conflict after victory. And a good case can be made that when it came to preventing clashes between two rivals, Sykes-Picot was much more effective than Yalta. Preserving the balance of power was its primary objective, and in that respect, Sykes-Picot achieved its purpose.
This fear of clashing allies is most manifest on the Sykes-Picot map in its treatment of Palestine. Sykes and Picot divided the Arab provinces of the empire by an east-west “line in the sand” across the Syrian desert. North of that line, there would be a “blue” zone of exclusive French control (including Beirut and Tripoli), and an Arab state (or states) under French protection (including Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Mosul). South of it, there would be a “red” zone of direct British control (including Basra and Baghdad), and an Arab state (or states) under British protection (mostly desert).
The first thing one notices is that Palestine doesn’t fit neatly within the dualistic rubric of the French and British zones. This corner of the map is, in fact, divided five ways.
- A wedge in the north of the country, including the tributaries of the Jordan above the Sea of Galilee and part of the northern shore of the lake, are solid blue, that is, under direct French control.
- The eastern shore of the lake and the Golan are marked off as part of the Arab state under French protection.
- The bulk of the country, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Gaza, is colored brown. According to the agreement, “In the brown area there shall be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other Allies [the reference is to Italy], and the representatives of the Shereef of Mecca.” (In an earlier joint memo in January 1916, Sykes and Picot wrote that “the chief of the Arabian confederation should have an equal voice in the administration of Palestine.”) The notion was that this would be an Anglo-French condominium, with a yet-undetermined measure of input from other allies.
- The ports of Haifa and Acre, and the plain between them, are red, under direct British administration. Britain wanted this as an end point for a railroad from Baghdad to the Mediterranean.
- Last but not least, the south of the country, including Hebron and Beer Sheba, as well as Transjordan, are to be part of the independent Arab state or confederation of states under British protection.
The Sykes-Picot map thus constitutes the first partition plan for Palestine, into no fewer than five zones. Why so many pieces? Again, balance of power. Sykes had hoped to create a British-controlled land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, but other Allied claims stood in the way. So the agreement regarding Palestine made concessions to the interests of almost every stakeholder: Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the Sharif of Mecca.
Almost everyone: missing from the list were the Zionists. Twenty years later, George Antonius would call Sykes-Picot a “shocking document.” It certainly shocked the Zionists in London in April 1917. That is when the British Zionist activist Harry Sacher got wind of it from a friendly journalist who picked up news of it from France. Sacher informed Chaim Weizmann, who was distressed to find that the agreement displayed not a single trace of consideration for Zionist aims. At this very time, Zionist leaders had been deep in discussion about Palestine with sympathetic British officials, including Sykes. Sachar wrote to Weizmann in disgust: “We have been lied to and deceived all along.”
Weizmann was stunned by two aspects of the agreement. First, the Sykes-Picot partition thoroughly divided the Yishuv. Many of the most veteran Zionist settlements—Metullah, Rosh Pina, Yesod Hama’alah, Mishmar Hayarden—would be in the exclusively French zone, as would Safed. The internationalized brown zone would include Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Tiberias, as well as newer settlements such as Tel Aviv, Petah Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, and Zichron Yaakov. Weizmann called this division a “Solomon’s judgment of the worst character, the child is cut in two and both halves mutilated.” Were Sykes-Picot implemented, he protested, “the Jewish colonizing effort of some thirty years [would be] annihilated.”
Second, the agreement gave France a dominant role as far as the Jews were concerned. France would have full control of the Galilee settlements, and would be on equal par with Britain in Judaea and the coastal plain. Weizmann regarded France as wholly unsympathetic to Zionism; far from facilitating Zionist colonization, France would block it.
So what was he to do? Weizmann’s immediate move was to show up at the Foreign Office and protest to Lord Robert Cecil, acting Foreign Secretary. Weizmann’s report of that meeting is the most thorough Zionist critique of Sykes-Picot. Weizmann denounced the proposed division between the Galilee and Judaea in emphatic terms. “We would always consider [this] as an unjust partition,” and the Galilee “would certainly constitute a Jewish irredenta…. There is little doubt that the suggested division of Palestine would raise an outcry which will ring through from one end of the world to the other.” As for international or dual control, in the brown area, “it would be fraught with gravest dangers….. Any enterprise in the country would have to be sanctioned by both governments and would lead constantly to jealousies.” According to Cecil, Weizmann even warned that “the Zionists throughout the world would regard a French administration in Palestine as… ‘a third destruction of the Temple.'”
From April 1917, Weizmann devoted himself and his movement to overturning Sykes-Picot. The Zionists had one aim: to swap the Sykes-Picot partition plan for an exclusively British protectorate over the whole of Palestine. Only under a British protectorate, Weizmann rightly concluded, could the Jewish home project take root and flourish.
And Weizmann succeeded: in regard to Palestine, he managed to overturn Sykes-Picot entirely. Or was it really his success? In fact, he had plenty of powerful partners. By the time Weizmann learned of Sykes-Picot, many British officials wanted to shred it. They thought Sykes had given away far too much to the French. In particular, they didn’t trust the French on the flank of the Suez canal, which was the imperial lifeline to India. And if the British and the ANZACs were going to do all the fighting and dying to liberate Palestine, why should Britain share it with anyone? As Lloyd George later wrote of the armies under Allenby: “The redemption of Palestine from the withering aggression of the Turk became like a pillar of flame to lead them on. The Sykes-Picot Agreement perished in its fire. It was not worth fighting for Canaan in order to condemn it to the fate of Agag and hew it in pieces before the Lord. Palestine, if recaptured, must be one and indivisible to renew its greatness as a living entity.”
Sykes himself backtracked from the agreement, tried to get Picot to modify it, and helped formulate the Balfour Declaration. In 1919, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov wrote: “From the standpoint of Zionist interests in Palestine, [Sykes-Picot] justly met with severe criticism; but it was Sykes himself who criticized it most sharply and who with the change of circumstances dissociated himself from it entirely.”
The Balfour Declaration was the crucial step in the unraveling the Palestine corner of the Sykes-Picot map. British military administration came next. The last nail in the coffin came in December 1918, when Lloyd George met Clemenceau in London. “Tell me what you want,” said Clemenceau. “I want Mosul,” said Lloyd George. “You shall have it. Anything else?” “Yes, I want Jerusalem too.” “You shall have it.” Exit France. Sykes-Picot formally and finally came undone when Britain received the exclusive mandate for all of Palestine. It is this exclusive British protectorate that eventually made Israel possible. Israel probably would never have been born, if the Sykes-Picot map had been implemented.
So Sykes-Picot became a dead letter as regards Palestine no later than 1918, if not earlier. Has it left any legacy at all? The Sykes-Picot map proclaimed that no one actor could unilaterally determine the fate of the country. There were too many conflicting interests. During the mandate years, Britain had enough power to call the shots alone. But only twenty years after Sykes-Picot, partition again became the solution to solving clashing interests in Palestine. So it has been from the Peel plan of 1937, to the UN partition plan of 1947, and ever since. The idea of agreed partition is the lasting legacy of Sykes-Picot. Even Israel’s fifty-year control of the entire country from the Mediterranean sea to the Jordan river since 1967 hasn’t undone it. Other aspects of Sykes-Picot disappeared completely. The idea of an agreed partition of Palestine, proposed in 1916 but never realized, is likely to remain with us for some time to come.
This article appeared at Mosaic Magazine on May 18. It is based on remarks delivered at a conference on “U.S.-Israel Relations” held on May 6 at the Center for International Security Studies, Princeton University.
On Israel’s Independence Day, it is customary for the Central Bureau of Statistics to summarize some of the basic facts about the transformation of Israeli demography and living standards since the state’s founding in 1948. This is always an encouraging read. Israel’s Jewish population, for instance, has grown nearly tenfold in the intervening years, from 700,000 to almost 6.4 million. When independence was declared in 1948, Israel’s Jews constituted a mere 6 percent of the world Jewish population; today they are at 43 percent. Moreover, 75 percent of Israel’s Jewish population is native-born, more than twice the percentage in 1948. Back then, there were only 34,000 vehicles on the roads; today there are three million. And so forth.
Israel has indeed grown dramatically—in population, wealth, and military prowess. These are all grounds for celebration. But has Israel seen a comparable growth in its independence? That is, has there been a comparable expansion of its ability to take the independent action it must take if it is to protect its interests and survive as a Jewish state? Or is it possible that in these respects Israel was actually more independent in its early years and that it has grown less so over time, especially with the deepening of its relationship with its principal ally the United States?
Let me explore this latter possibility with a quick trip through history. Israel’s security and sovereignty as a Jewish state rest on three events to which precise dates may be assigned: 1948, 1958, and 1967.
- In 1948, Israel declared independence. Just as important, the way it waged war, and the way the Arabs waged war, resulted in the flight of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs and determined that the new state would have a decisive Jewish majority. 1948 gave birth not only to a legally but also to a demographically Jewish state.
- In 1958, still subject to Arab threats to eliminate it, Israel commenced construction of a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev. Subsequent progress secured Israel’s existence against any conceivable threat of destruction by Arab states.
- Finally, in 1967 Israel broke through the narrow borders in which the Jewish state had found itself after the 1948 war, giving it exclusive military control of the land mass from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley—a control Israel is determined to preserve in any peace scenario. Israel’s victory also finally persuaded many Arabs that they would never defeat it outright, thus creating the incentive for later peace treaties.
These three actions laid the foundation of Israel’s secure existence as a sovereign Jewish state—demographically, militarily, geographically, and politically. But here is an often-overlooked fact: the United States vigorously warned Israel against all three of these actions, and threatened that taking them would leave Israel on its own and “alone.”
Let’s begin again with 1948. Britain had turned over its mandate for Palestine to the United Nations, which in November 1947 voted to partition the territory into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Initially the Truman administration supported partition, but then began to backtrack in favor of a UN trusteeship over the whole. As Palestinian Jews contemplated whether to declare independence, Secretary of State George Marshall issued the first U.S. “alone” warning to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), the foreign-minister-in-waiting. “I told Mr. Shertok,” Marshall reported to President Harry Truman,
that they were taking a gamble. If the tide [of Arab hostility] did turn adversely and they came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice now that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk which they were running.
This admonition so shook Sharett’s confidence that David Ben-Gurion practically had to quarantine him on his return.
It was, then, in defiance of an American warning that Ben-Gurion declared independence on May 14, 1948. Of course, it is true that Truman immediately recognized Israel, much to Marshall’s chagrin. But the United States also imposed an arms embargo on both Israel and the Arabs. Since Arab states had access to British arms, this effectively left Israel to scramble for weaponry, ultimately provided by the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia.
Had the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community, been dependent on the United States in 1948, its leaders might have decided against pressing for independence. Alternatively, had the new state been dependent on the United States, the 1948 war might have ended in an early ceasefire, leaving Israel a “Jewish state” governed by a bare and dwindling Jewish majority—something like the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.
Next, 1958. With French assistance, Israel began construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor. The CIA immediately suspected the reactor’s purpose, but would underestimate Israel’s rate of progress. In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy wrote to Ben-Gurion, demanding that American inspectors be given access to the site: “We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear-weapons capability by Israel.” Possession of such a weapon, Kennedy continued, would spur the Arabs to seek a similar capability from the Soviets, and others would follow suit.
Then came a presidential threat: the U.S. commitment to Israel, Kennedy wrote,
would be seriously jeopardized in the public opinion in this country and in the West as a whole if it should be thought that this government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s efforts in the nuclear field.
Translation: you will be alone. Israel didn’t ignore JFK’s warning, but it also wasn’t alone, since it still had the cooperation of the French. In the following years it proceeded to stonewall and conceal its actions until, by 1968, the CIA concluded that, in defiance of the United States, Israel had indeed acquired a nuclear weapon.
Had Jerusalem been dependent on Washington at the time, and had the U.S. already been a major supplier of its conventional weaponry, Israel probably would never have developed a nuclear program.
Finally, 1967. In the spring, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea, blockading Israel’s southern port of Eilat. It also evicted UN troops that had been in the Sinai since 1957. Israel then asked the Lyndon Johnson administration to uphold an Eisenhower-era American commitment to keep the straits open.
President Johnson not only balked; he warned Israel not to act. The U.S. position, as he formulated it verbally to Israel’s ambassador Abba Eban and in a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, was this:
I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.
Once again in defiance of the United States, Israel did make this decision. In a preemptive act of self-defense, it flew French fighter aircraft on its way to ultimate victory, thus utterly transforming its overall strategic situation. When Jordan and Syria joined the fray, Israel swept through the West Bank and Golan Heights. Had Israel already then been dependent on the United States for its hardware, the events of that June might have unfolded very differently, leaving Israel in its narrow borders opposite emboldened foes still bent on its destruction.
It’s important to stress that none of the three decisions taken by Israel in the face of U.S. opposition was arrived at lightly or insouciantly. If anything, the warning that, if Israel did act, it would find itself “alone” sounded even weightier at the time than it might today. Only recently, after all, the United States had left the Jews very much alone. It had done so in the 1930s when it closed its gates to the Jews of Europe desperate to escape Hitler’s vise, going so far in 1939 as to turn away a refugee ship that had managed to reach American shores. During the Holocaust itself, Europe’s Jews were once again left alone as the United States conspicuously refrained from initiating any rescue program.
Marshall, Kennedy, and Johnson had lived through these events. They could well have thought that warning the Israelis they would be alone would touch deep apprehensions and effectively deter them from acting.
But it didn’t work, and for an obvious reason: in 1948, 1958, and 1967, Israel was not very reliant on the United States. Washington still believed in an “even-handed” approach as between Israel and the Arabs, and, though it huffed and puffed at Jerusalem, it also kept its distance. It lacked the leverage to make its “you’ll-be-alone” warnings decisive.
Things changed after 1967, as successive administrations finally concluded that leverage could be achieved only by drawing Israel into the American orbit. The first step was to sell it Phantom fighter jets, and the rest followed. Over time, in the race to maintain its “military edge,” Israel has been given access to the world’s best military hardware and (for the most part) enjoyed the political backing of the world’s greatest power. The tradeoff, however, is that in becoming ever more reliant on the United States it has sacrificed some measure of its freedom of action and thereby eroded its independence.
The erosion was evident as early as October 1973, when, deferring to U.S. pressure, Israel desisted from preempting an imminent Arab attack. To this day it remains a matter of dispute whether preemption was even possible by the point at which it was considered. Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state at the time, has argued that it was not, but Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister, later testified to the contrary. “My heart was drawn to a preemptive strike,” she told the Agranat commission that investigated the war, “but I was scared…. 1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive assistance when we have the need for it.”
In other words, the fear was that, by preempting, Israel would be alone—and that that would be disastrous. In the event, the enemy struck first, the fighting was desperate, and only a massive, last-minute resupply of American weaponry enabled Israel to emerge the winner in a war that cost it thousands of dead.
This has been the general pattern ever since: Israel is expected to show “restraint,” if not to make concessions, in return for hardware and diplomatic backing. The earlier approach of ineffectual “you-will-be-alone” warnings was superseded by a “carrot-and-stick” approach, the carrot being the large military-assistance package.
The method’s effectiveness was on display in 1979, a fourth crucial date, when the United States helped add yet another pillar to Israel’s security as a sovereign state by mediating the peace with Egypt. This would render conventional Arab wars against Israel obsolete—no small benefit, although it is still an open question whether the peace concluded in 1979 was as fundamental to Israel’s security as the achievements Israel made on its own in 1948, 1958, and 1967. Indeed, the peace with Egypt (as well as later with Jordan) rests no less firmly, and maybe more firmly, on those earlier achievements.
One Israeli understood the price of his country’s growing dependence on the United States. In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and bombed a PLO headquarters in Beirut, surprising and angering Washington. True to the carrot-and-stick approach, the Reagan administration proceeded to suspend delivery of fighter jets. Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, a man with an acute sense of national pride, rose in righteous indignation in a remarkable statement:
Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we youths of fourteen who, if they don’t behave properly, are slapped across the fingers? Let me tell you who this [Israeli] government is composed of. It is composed of people whose lives were spent in resistance, in fighting and in suffering. You will not frighten us with “punishments.” He who threatens us will find us deaf to his threats. We are only prepared to listen to rational arguments.
Such words from an Israeli prime minister would be unthinkable today, when Israelis have become accustomed to a degree of dependence on the United States that Begin’s generation could never have imagined. The self-sufficient Zionist and Israeli “resistance” to which Begin alluded is a thing of the distant past. Today, it is hard for most Israelis to remember life outside the Pax Americana, before the era of the “unshakable bond” between the two countries.
But this is why, as Israel celebrates its nearly seven decades of independence, it is worth recalling that things were not always like this—and that during its first two decades, when it didn’t depend on the United States, Israel’s very lack of dependence served it well. Despite Washington’s disapproval and admonitions, Israel achieved a number of crucial goals that still form the bedrock of its national security as a viable sovereign state. Had it instead become an American client earlier in its history, it would likely be a far weaker state today.
In this perspective, the Iran deal concluded by the Obama administration last year, and vigorously but futilely opposed by Jerusalem, leaves one wondering whether a scenario might yet arise, possibly sooner than the deal’s expiration, in which Israel will wish it still possessed the freedom of action it enjoyed in its earliest years. Without the tools afforded by its American alliance, Israel would have very few options against Iran. But that very alliance may well foreclose even those options.
Israel declared independence 68 years ago, but being independent is a process, not a moment. That process is still unfolding, and it is still incomplete.
Illustration: Signing Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948. On left: Ben-Gurion; on right, Sharett. Government Press Office.
This post first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on April 14, as a response to an essay by Elliott Abrams.
Elliott Abrams put his finger on the main cause of American Jewish “distancing” from Israel, and the answer is discouraging. He picks up on this passage from one of the two books he surveys, Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel:
Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples…. Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel.
Abrams rightly calls this the “crux of the matter,” and the evidence he musters from surveys is unequivocal. With a 50-to-60 percent rate of intermarriage, Jewish communal solidarity in America is steadily eroding, with regard both to religious practice and to engagement with Israel. The children of intermarriage are less in touch with everything Jewish; their “sheer indifference” to Israel, in Abrams’ phrase, has nothing to do with the “occupation.”
But let me introduce two additional demographic explanations for the “distancing,” even among American Jews who do remain affiliated and committed. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, there were six million American Jews and 700,000 Israelis: a proportion of nine to one. Israelis were those feisty little cousins, and while American Jews admired their grit, they didn’t let Israelis forget who had the numbers (and the money). When American Jewish leaders talked, Israeli leaders listened—and when the two parties disagreed, the burden of proof fell on the Israelis.
What a difference 70 years have made! Over that time, the number of American Jews has hardly budged, due to low fertility and intermarriage. In Israel, by contrast, the number of Jews has increased almost tenfold through immigration and high fertility. The result is that today, the ratio of American to Israeli Jews is one-to-one—about six million in each country. In another twenty years, there will be well over eight million Jews in Israel, and probably fewer than six million in America. And these Israelis are economically prosperous and militarily powerful in ways no one could have foretold in 1948.
American Jews are rightly proud of the important role they played in Israel’s transformation, and Israelis are grateful for it. But as Abrams admits, American Jewry “is in significant ways growing weaker.” Demographic stagnation and geographic dispersion aren’t just taking their toll within the community; they are eroding Jewish political clout more broadly.
So it is hardly surprising that, from the prime minister down, Israelis entrusted with the exercise of sovereign power are less attentive to what American Jews think Israel should do. Israeli Jews have worked out a successful survival strategy, and while it’s not perfect, the numbers don’t lie. The American Jewish survival strategy is struggling. As Abrams concludes, the day won’t be long in coming when the Jewish state will have to assume the direct burden of sustaining Jewish communal identity in America, “for Israel’s sake and for ours.”
Old patterns in relationships die hard. It’s not easy for many American Jews to recognize the stupendous shift in the balance, and when they don’t, this is often expressed in disappointment, disillusionment, and even dissociation from Israel. These are the discontents of gradual decline. Israelis should empathize with the deeper dilemma of American Jewry, but it should surprise no one that they discount some of its symptoms, and certainly don’t intend to change their own national priorities in a futile attempt to alleviate them.
There is another demographic reason for “distancing.” In 1948, American and Israeli Jews were landslayt. They or their parents had come out of the same cities, towns, and shtetls of Europe. American Jews looked at Israeli Jews like family, and often they were: almost everyone in Israel had some (allegedly rich) uncle or cousin in America. True, other Jews began to arrive in the 1950s, as refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. But they were mostly out of sight in immigrant refugee camps and development towns. As for the political leaders, most were born in Russia or Poland—from David Ben-Gurion through Golda Meir, Menachem Begin through Yitzḥak Shamir. Levi Eshkol could hardly refrain from slipping into Yiddish in cabinet meetings. They all hailed from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers.”
All that has changed. Today, over half of all Israeli Jews identify themselves as being of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent; less than half, of European or American descent. (Were it not for the immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Ashkenazi share would be closer to a third.) Israelis today just don’t look as much like family to American Jews, 90 percent of whom are of Ashkenazi descent.
Because Israeli Jews are drawn from a wider spectrum of cultures, everything else about them is more diverse. Jewish religious practice, despite the formal monopoly of Orthodox, is more varied in Israel than in the United States. Nor are the historical legacies that inform politics limited to the Holocaust, so central to American Jewish identity. The forced Jewish flight from Arab and Muslim lands is just as relevant, and explains much of the present skew of Israeli politics with regard to the Palestinian Arabs.
On top of this, about 70 percent of Israeli Jews are Israeli-born. Israel is no longer primarily a nation of immigrants. The hybrid Hebrew-language culture nourished by native-born Jewish Israelis isn’t easy to pin down in a sentence, but it’s a lot edgier than the dominant culture of the blue-state suburbs where most of American Jewry resides.
One reason is that those suburbs are more peaceful and stable than any environment in the history of humankind since Adam. Israel, in contrast, sits on the crust of the world’s most active geopolitical fault line. It isn’t that American Jews are from Venus and Israeli Jews are from Mars. It’s that they reside on opposite ends of planet Earth, one nearing perpetual peace, the other leaning toward perpetual war.
So an American Jew, disembarked at Ben-Gurion airport for the first time, might have to stretch his or her imagination quite a bit to see Israelis as “my people” and Israel as “my homeland.” For some significant number of American Jews, indeed, this is precisely what makes contemporary Israel so exhilarating. If there is any meaning to ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, it is solidarity not with Jews who look and think like you, but precisely with those who don’t.
But other American Jews, seeing shifts in Israel that suggest to them the neighborhood may be changing, begin, as it were, to move out. Israel has become too this or too that, things seem more black than white, the people there sound too uncouth. The next thing you know, “progressive” American Jews are moving their Jewish identity elsewhere—to some place where they never have to rub elbows with people whose “Jewish values” differ from their own.
It’s not tragic: Israel will make good the loss elsewhere, through its own spectacular growth and the forging of new friendships. But it’s sad that there are Jews in America, however few or many, who do not stand in pure wonder that they live in a time when there exists a Jewish sovereign state. They would like a different one.
They must have millennia to spare.
Photo credit: Golani reconnaissance unit graduation, 2014, IDF Spokesman.