In January of this year, Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times published an interesting article detailing what he described as the “Great Schism” — a sharp ideological divide rapidly forming between American and Israeli Jews over Israel’s ideology. Now, schisms don’t just magically appear — they stem from intense polarization regarding an issue. In this situation, American and Israeli Jews disagree over Israel’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has taken a more aggressive stance against Palestinians, seemingly shifting from a diplomatic approach to a military one. Last year, Netanyahu said he did not think a Palestinian state should ever have control of its own security measures, a sentiment which was reflected in decreasing support for a two-state solution among Israeli citizens, which dropped from 47 percent in 2017 to 43 percent in 2018. Israel’s changing stance regarding Palestine brings up a simple question: Why? The parameters of the dispute itself haven’t changed in recent years, and the number of fatalities on both sides has actually been decreasing.
In reality, Israel’s increased antipathy stems from decisions the United States has made. The U.S. has continuously supported Israel financially ever since its creation in 1948. Originally, this was a necessary step for protecting a U.S. ally that needed aid. However, U.S. financial assistance toward Israel has since spiraled into unconditional, consequence-free support for the Middle Eastern nation, allowing it to do as it pleases with nearly no repercussions. Every year since 1978, the U.S. has given Israel at least a billion dollars in aid, and every year since 1983 it has been at least $2.4 billion. For the U.S., unconditional aid to this degree, especially military aid, is largely unique to Israel. The only two countries the U.S. gave more aid to last year were Afghanistan and Iraq, both countries where there are active troops.
Fundamentally, I believe in the idea of a Jewish state. However, it is important to distinguish between believing something should exist and supporting it unconditionally with billions of dollars, especially if it might violate human rights. It is hardly surprising that Israel has taken a more militant stance towards Palestine recently considering the U.S. has given Israel the green light to do what it pleases. Since 2000, there have been a total of 7,065 Palestinians killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict, compared to only 1,101 Israelis, meaning 88 percent of the deaths have been Palestinians. Additionally, numerous reports have come out alleging Israel has used institutional torture against Palestinians. While these abuses are overly aggressive and unacceptable, the U.S. continues to simply give Israel billions of dollars in military aid. Without so much as a verbal condemnation, let alone a financial threat, there is no incentive for Israel to change its ways. Those who encourage protests against Israel are often accused of holding Israel to a higher standard than other countries, but holding Israel to a higher standard is seemingly fair: The U.S. contributes far more money to Israel than to nearly any other country, so it is reasonable to have higher expectations for it.
This brings us to our final question: Why such staunch support for Israel? The United States has never been particularly concerned with ethics or human rights when making foreign policy decisions in the past (see Iran, Nicaragua, Chile or many other countries), instead prioritizing things like cheaper access to resources like oil. With Israel, it would be logical to assume this support would come from Jews — Israel is a Jewish state, after all. Surprisingly, however, this is far from the case.
Backing for Israel is not solely based on collegial support from Jews, but can also be partially attributed to Islamophobia from white, conservative Americans, particularly evangelical Christians, many of whom see support for Israel as a way of opposing Muslims and Muslim states. When asked to rate Muslims on a “feeling thermometer,” Jews (who skew heavily Democratic) rated them a 51 out of 100, slightly above the overall average of a 48 ranked by U.S. adults overall. On the other hand, white evangelicals rated Muslims a 37, lower than any other surveyed group. The disdain for Muslims among conservative voters, in particular white evangelicals, subsequently leads to strong support from Americans. In the 2018 midterms, 75 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republican candidates in elections for the House of Representatives. Both the Republican Party as a whole and white evangelicals are strongly supportive of Israel, with 79 percent of Republicans saying they sympathized with Israel (versus only 27 percent of Democrats). Most tellingly, 46 percent of white evangelicals said the U.S. was not doing enough to help Israel, while only 31 percent of Jews and 25 percent of the general public felt the same.
Lastly, perhaps even more worrying than the evangelical right’s ideological support of Israel is how willing everyone else is to go along with it. Over the course of the past year, there has been support from members of both the Democratic and Republican parties for passing a bill to make it illegal for companies to boycott Israel, a blatant violation of the First Amendment. The bill, literally titled the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act,” would allow the government to fine organizations up to $1 million for boycotting Israel and other nations the U.S. has not officially sanctioned a boycott against.
As a Jew myself, writing this piece was a difficult and upsetting endeavor. I support a Jewish state in theory, and I want to be able to fully support one in reality as well. I understand the political climate makes Israel a tough place to govern.
However, it still saddens me to see a Jewish state operating on many values I, as a fellow Jew, do not agree with. I want to see an Israel that is governed on hope and a willingness to compromise, not on entrenched views of xenophobia. Here in the United States, I want an Israel that is supported not because we fear or dislike Muslims, but rather because we are tolerant, loving and accepting. As it is said in Leviticus 19:34, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Zack Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org