There’s an old Jewish saying about what happens when you get three
rabbis in a room. You get four opinions… at least. This truism is a useful
guide to the complex way in which the interests of American Jews is
reflected – if at all
– in U.S. foreign policy.
At a time when the degree of U.S. commitment to the Middle East is
increasingly seen as determining what chance
– if any
– there is of peace in the region,
every nuance of U.S. foreign policy is under scrutiny. And one aspect of
that policy – albeit a much smaller
portion than is often believed –
reflects the beliefs of American Jews.
But the most interesting point is that current U.S. foreign policy
reflects the views of only a small proportion of American Jews. That is,
like any other group, American Jews are far from homogenous.
What the world – and American
Jews themselves – doesn’t know
about the roughly six million Jewish Diaspora in the U.S. has helped
contribute to many missed opportunities for problem solving in the Middle
While the political clout of American Jews is often exaggerated, it is
true that Washington policy makers often take the views of some U.S.-based
Jews – those whose views coincide
with the beliefs of the administration of the day
– very seriously. And it is true
that Washington, in turn, works to exert influence on Jerusalem.
So, to the extent that it is possible to draw up such generalizations,
how does American Jewry broadly divide? There are four major groups of
American Jews, each with different political as well as theological views.
The first, Orthodox Jews, are politically close to the right wing in
Israeli politics. They see Israel as their God-given homeland, including the
lands known biblically as Judea and Samaria
– Jerusalem and the West Bank.
At the other end of the scale are secular Jews, who call themselves
‘culturally Jewish’ but never enter a synagogue. This group is arguably the
most open to political discourse and pragmatic problem solving.
Between these two extremes are two other substantial groups: Reform Jews
who take a more contemporary and flexible approach to both Judaic theology
and Israeli politics; and Conservative Jews, who have made important
modifications to traditional practice, but who ordinarily tend to side with
The combined effects of demographics and the current U.S. political
climate have established the Reform and secular blocs as the fastest growing
groups of American Jewry. But, like any group united by race, nationality,
religion, or any other identity, there is no unanimity of opinion among
American Jews as a whole, and there never has been.
Some have an unwavering, unquestioning support for Israel. Others are
more nuanced in their views, believing in Israel’s right to exist but
frequently questioning the policies of its leaders. And now, more than ever,
many American Jews are focused on a debate over how best to help the Israeli
government resolve its seemingly intractable standoff with the Palestinian
An overwhelming majority of American Jews
– 73 percent
– describe themselves as moderate
or liberal, with 23 percent calling themselves conservative. But while
American Jews have traditionally allied themselves with the Democrats
– only 19 percent voted for Bush in
the 2000 elections – there are
indications that Jewish support for the Republican Party is on the rise.
So while most American Jews support President Bush’s road map, many
criticize him for not giving it the attention they feel it deserves.
Indeed, while a majority of American Jewry is concerned at Israel’s lack
of progress in meeting the demands of the Palestinians, one of its fiercest
debates concerns the freedom to debate the issue of Israel itself
– to believe in Israel’s right to
exist in peace, but to mount aggressive opposition to the policies of its
The Diaspora’s organized political leadership goes to great lengths to
present an appearance of unity. But this distorts the reality of Jewish
diversity, generates acrimonious and counter-productive bickering, and
– worst of all
– hides the genuine and strong
convictions of many American Jews that Israel is not in the right in its
current handling of the Palestinians.
“The dualism is stark. To be for one side is to be against the other ...
to speak on behalf of Palestinians is to desire the annihilation of the
state of Israel,” wrote Marc Ellis in the Christian Century.
Another Jewish commentator said: “Jews who argue openly for the freedom
of Palestinians are branded as self-haters and traitors. Such pressure to
conform to an uncritically pro-Israel position spells the demise of a
value-oriented and ethically concerned tradition.”
Yet despite these deep divisions, American Jewry’s most influential
lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),
has dropped its long-standing opposition to the creation of a Palestinian
state. Moreover, in the 2002 annual survey of American Jewish opinion by the
American Jewish Committee, Jews were asked: “As part of a permanent
settlement with the Palestinians, should Israel be willing to dismantle all,
some, or none of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank?”
Ten percent answered “all,” 55 percent said “some,” and 34 percent
thought that none of the settlements should go (2 percent were not sure).
That means that 65 percent of American Jews would be comfortable with
dismantling all or some of the West Bank settlements.
American Jews have a substantial reservoir of good will for Palestinian
statehood and Palestinian aspirations. Of course, this position is in the
interests of Israel’s security as much as the Palestinian cause, but its
effect would be the same. If the Diaspora can get its act together to
advocate pragmatically for a secular reality in the Middle East, the
Palestinians will have a powerful and influential friend in Washington.