There is an old joke: Find me two Jews, and you’ll hear three opinions. Argument is in the Jewish DNA; it frames our religious discourse, infuses our culture and politics, and contributes to our astonishing vitality.
But most Jews in America are still comfortable with one opinion on Israel. Whenever the optical gap between Washington and Jerusalem grows, we here get anxious, worried that we will have to choose between our allegiance as (mostly liberal) Americans and our desire to see Israel safe and secure.
This is one of those anxious moments. The debacle began with a political maneuver by House Speaker John Boehner, who did not notify the White House before inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak about Iran before a joint meeting of Congress next month -- just two weeks before the Israeli elections. Both the snub and the timing have divided Jewish leadership and seriously frayed the Israeli government's diplomatic relationship with its closest ally.
When even Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., says the speech was a “cynical political move” that could “hurt our attempts to act against Iran” -- well, you know there is a problem.
This isn’t the first time the Israeli leader has put American Jews in an uncomfortable position: In 2012, Netanyahu overtly endorsed Mitt Romney for president, and in 2013 replaced then-Ambassador Oren with Ron Dermer, a former GOP political operative.
"By so closely aligning himself with the Republican Party and openly defying the president, Netanyahu is effectively asking Jews — and others — to make an unpalatable choice."'
Now with the Congress controlled by Republicans, the planned March 3 speech seems to have formalized a partisan split, exacerbating the friction between Obama and Netanyahu, and by extension, between the liberal impulses of most American Jews and the hardline call for action against Iran coming from the Israeli government.
By so closely aligning himself with the Republican Party and openly defying the president, Netanyahu is effectively asking Jews -- and others -- to make an unpalatable choice.
Some will choose his perspective on Iran over all else. Many others will remain conflicted. Conflict begets anxiety. And anxiety on Israel often leads would-be supporters to shrug and walk away.
For the American Jewish community, apathy on Israel is far more dangerous in the long-term than a few angry college kids protesting the occupation of Palestinian territory. For all his political savvy, Netanyahu and whoever is advising him are showing themselves particularly inept at reading and reaching the majority of American Jews.
Just look at the numbers. Jews remain the most staunchly liberal voting bloc in presidential elections after African-Americans, and even if Obama received fewer Jewish votes in 2012, that statement still stands. Moreover, there’s evidence that Jews are more supportive of his approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions than the nation as a whole.
In the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of American Jews, 52% approved of Obama’s handling of Iran, compared with 41% of the public as a whole. (The Jewish support was consistent throughout the age groups, and only differed according to religious denominations, with self-defined Orthodox Jews less supportive than their more liberal counterparts.)
Since then, other surveys have shown even more Americans favoring a diplomatic approach to Iran. A study conducted last year by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland found that 61% of the American public favored a deal that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. “Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents all think that compromise makes more sense than yet another round of sanctions,” said Nancy Gallagher, the center’s research director. Never mind an all-out war.
With public sentiment like this, you cannot blame the Obama administration for pursuing the diplomatic approach. And you can’t expect that a great many American Jews are going to sharply depart from the prevailing national attitudes.
Especially because Netanyahu is asking them to embrace a political party whose stands on other issues defy their own values. Boehner’s GOP opposes immigration reform, serious governmental responses to climate change, the Affordable Care Act, a raise in the minimum wage, the right to an abortion, and the legalization of same-sex marriage -- all domestic priorities for many Jews.
"For all his political savvy, Netanyahu and his advisers are showing themselves particularly inept at reading and reaching the majority of American Jews."'
It doesn’t help that Netanyahu has picked up the moniker “the Republican Senator from Israel.”
Will this irreparably damage the Israel-U.S. strategic alliance? Probably not. The testy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been aggravated by both sides for years, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from supporting Israel militarily and politically, and from Israel being a trustworthy island of stability in a region torn by war, revolution and intolerance.
Still, for decades, Jewish activists have strived to keep support for Israel a bipartisan endeavor, something shared by Democrats and Republicans alike -- whether their bond is shared values or shared adversaries. Iran is a common enemy, and the Western nations involved in negotiations must not allow this dangerous nation to acquire nuclear weapons.
I can understand how Israel must feel frustrated when it can’t directly confront a challenge to its very existence. But that’s all the more reason why its political leadership needs to remain close and supportive of the one country -- the United States -- that can do the most to keep Iran in check. Splitting the Congress, and by extension the Jewish community, is not the way to go.
Jane Eisner is editor-in-chief of The Forward.