As the AIPAC Policy Conference begins this weekend in DC, I am thinking about a survey that’s creating a buzz in our world.
Last October, the Mellman Group reported that an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters – 92% - identify as “generally pro-Israel” while only a marginal 3% consider themselves “generally not pro-Israel.”
This has come up in recent months as we witness groups identifying as both Jewish and anti-Zionist providing cover for those employing anti-Semitic tropes that go beyond fair criticism of Israel’s government and polices. And when we see and hear some political and interfaith leaders cite those groups as validators (e.g. “but I’ve met with my Jewish partners and they say…”) we can factually point out that: when some on the left say that they are engaging with and listening to the American Jewish community, but they are only talking to fringe anti-Zionist groups, then they aren't really interested in what American Jews think, feel, and experience.
There’s another data-point in this report, of even greater interest to me, regarding the 92%:
“fewer than a third (32%) say that they are also supportive of the current Israeli government’s policies. A majority (59%) say that they are “pro-Israel,” but critical of at least some Israeli government policies, with 24% critical of many of the government’s policies.”
In other words, American Jews have an overwhelming consensus on our commitment to the future of a Jewish state, but we are divided into three fairly significant camps over the direction of the Israeli leadership.
There is however, another layer, one not covered in survey questions; how do we understand our unique role as American Jews in giving voice to our criticisms?
Historically, our community has been organized around the understanding, most memorably articulated in the “Blaustein-Ben-Gurion” agreement of 1950, that “the State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens” and that “the allegiance of American Jews is to America alone, and should put an end to any idea or allegation that there is such a thing as ‘dual loyalty’…” We built a network of institutions, including AIPAC, that acted with an understanding that whatever our diversity of views and our differences with Israel’s leadership, we would mostly – and in particular on matters of security – express those views privately.
For the past 25 years, these norms and understandings have been fraying; both Jewish communities have been increasingly open about challenging each other. When Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, each had public tension with some portions of American Jews who didn’t rally behind their governments. Over the past decade, American Jews have formed institutions – both on the progressive and conservative side, and very much within our 92% consensus of support for a Jewish state – that have openly challenged Israeli security policies with which they disagree. More recently, many of us have been openly frustrated when Israel’s political leaders speak on behalf of all Jews, including us Americans, in ways that effectively absolve our own elected leaders of their role in amplifying antisemitism in our country.
In an era when any fool with a twitter handle can amplify any extreme idea, the norms of a relationship between two Jewish communities built on public comity and solidarity has become increasingly challenged. Legacy institutions, whether it be AIPAC, a JCRC, and others, are navigating these changing norms.
I perceive AIPAC as a coalition across at least some of those differences; a coalition that comes together to support the enduring bonds of the US-Israel relationship. AIPAC works because it relies on the notion that while we may individually be supportive or have critiques of any particular Israeli government, our agency with regard to criticism of Israel is best, and mostly, to be shared privately and always in loving and respectful ways. And while that notion of agency is changing - and others at the JCRC table come down resolutely on the side of public critique - this particular branch, representing large portions of the Jewish community, works because it bridges its internal divides over that critique.
So on Sunday I will arrive, as I do every year, in DC for the AIPAC conference; the single largest annual gathering in DC to advocate for any policy agenda, reflecting the depth and breadth of support for our nation’s connection to Israel.
There will be evangelical Christians, LGBTQ, African-American, Feminist, Latino and Labor leaders all together in one room. But mostly, there will be American Jews, and we Jews will be a diverse bunch. Many will be from among the 32% of us who generally support the policies of Israel’s government, and many of us will be amongst the 59% who are not. But there will be some established understanding amongst those present that, at least in this space, our critiques or lack thereof do not unite us.
Next week we will hear conflicting voices including Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the Israeli opposition leaders - patriots each of them as well. And we’ll be there even in our disagreements about our role in publicly criticizing Israeli policies – including some millennial Zionist leaders who wrote a public letter to the Prime Minister this week.
I believe that Jewish community is best served when we remind ourselves that at the end of the day we’re a small people. We are bonded to each other by our history, our values and what unites us - including the vast consensus we hold as American Jews: to support and work for a Jewish, secure and democratic state of Israel.