UA symposium delves into U.S.-Israel ties

Middle East experts from the East Coast to the West Coast landed in Tucson to air their views at a “Symposium on the U.S.-Israel Relationship: On the Verge of a Paradigmatic Shift?” on Nov. 9, sponsored by the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona.

(L-R) Itamar Rabinovich, Alon Pinkas, Beth Nakhai (symposium organizer and associate professor, Arizona Center for Judaic Studies), David Makovsky, Gil Riback, Steven Spiegel and Peter Beinart at the University of Arizona’s “Symposium on the U.S.-Israel Relationship” Nov. 9. (Farzad Nakhai)

“There’s a wide cultural distance between young and older American Jews about Israel,” declared Peter Beinart, a City University of New York professor, speaking to around 250 attendees at the UA Student Union Memorial Center.

Gil Ribak, the Schusterman postdoctoral fellow at the UA Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, was paired with Beinart on the first of three panels, and agreed that “American Jews have gradually distanced themselves from the Jewish state.”

American Jewish alienation has “had little to do with Israeli policies per se,” said Ribak. For young American Jews who feel disconnected from Israel, “it’s not Israel, it’s Jewishness itself. They have no connection to the Jewish people. They’re not connected to Jewish history, to Jewish culture. For some American Jews of the liberal persuasion their only connection to Judaism is [verbally] attacking Israel.”

“Secular tribalism among American Jews is in collapse,” said Beinart in his talk, “The Past and Present of American Zionism.”

“There’s some connection to Jewish identity and the vulnerability of the Jewish people,” he explained, but an alternative form of Jewish commitment stems more from social activism than religion. Gone are the days when young American Jews often were beat up and called “Christ Killer.” They’ve been assimilated and unconditional loyalty to Israel may not take precedence in their array of causes.

Why have younger American Jews strayed from their heritage? Beinart cited studies showing that having one parent who wasn’t born in the United States increases the chance of offspring being involved in Jewish organizations. Members of the younger set — those under 50 — are not as frequently first-generation.

“The number of American Jews who self-identify as Orthodox is rapidly rising,” comprising about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, said Beinart. “The American Israel Public Affairs Committee wasn’t always serving kosher food at its conferences in the mid-’90s. Observant Jews often weren’t allowed to leave work early for Shabbat. That’s unheard of today.”

The tipping point in current American politics is that “three-quarters of Jewish Republicans are Orthodox and are comfortable among Evangelical Christians, and three-quarters of the rest of American Jews are Democrats,” said Beinart. “It’s more difficult for AIPAC to hold the center; gradually, that’s becoming harder.

“Young people conflate the Israeli government, the war in Iraq and a more aggressive Iran with an age of loathing equivalent to Cheney, Rumsfeld and George W. Bush,” he asserted. “And they all sound the same, and like Netanyahu, there’s always this apocalyptic view of the world.

“As young non-Orthodox Jews become less tribal they draw a sharp line when it comes to Israel. Everything gets blended. I can’t think of a single Jewish blogger under 40 that puts Israel in a separate box. They’re dovish on everything,” asserts Beinart. “Wealthier American Jews are more hawkish on Israel.”

Where do young American Jews stand on Zionism? They may also be Zionist, he said, “but they don’t see that [that] requires a Jewish state.”

Ribak found different reasons for the rift in his talk, “Interdependence or Growing Alienation: The Ambivalent Relationship between Israel and American Jews.” His latest book “Gentile New York: The Images of Non-Jews among Jewish Immigrants,” will be published in 2012.

Ribak referred to “baby boomers who remember the euphoria that swept Jews after the Six Day War in 1967. Support of Israel was not just about money. ‘I have no money but here are my sons,’” some American parents said. “Not being religious was forgivable, but the depth of commitment depended on support of Israel,” said Ribak.

Today, some American Jews may fear they’re perceived as “disloyal to the United States” if they support Israel, he said, but he sees the rivalry as demographic. “All hell broke loose a few years ago when Israel declared it had more Jews than America.”

On the other hand, “Israel hasn’t made life easy for Diaspora Jews,” said Ribak, noting a common Israeli view that Jews should only live in Israel and speak Hebrew. In 2006, Benjamin Netanyahu, as the opposition leader in the Knesset and chairman of the Likud Party, proclaimed that there is no future for Jews of the Diaspora because of intermarriage.

From 1949 to 1967, when there was no Israeli occupation, “Israel hardly preoccupied American Jews at all. It was still viewed as David rather than Goliath prior to the 1967 war,” said Ribak.

Now, while Israel is a much more contentious issue for the United States, “I like to think of Jewish people as an extended family — there’s the weird uncle or second cousin you never get to see — but the relationship is ongoing,” he said. “Israeli and American Jews need each other to survive. If anti-Semitism raises its ugly head in the land of the free, which could happen in bad economic times, what would the situation be for American Jews?

“Both Israel and America should stop competing with each other,” said Ribak, who recognized problems that American Jews have with Israeli policies relating to conversion, women being able to pray at the Kotel, and parity between Orthodox and other branches of Judaism. Still, it’s the commonality of the Jewish people that matters most, he said. “Interdependence is a much more viable paradigm than alienation.”

Following a lively Q & A session, including an exchange about whether Birthright Israel and Jewish federation trips should take participants to the West Bank, the second panel, with Steven Spiegel and Itamar Rabinovich, addressed foreign and domestic policies of Israel and the United States.

A shift in U.S.-Israel relations is due to “much more change in the American political system,” said Spiegel, professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA, in his talk, “Change in the U.S.-Israeli Relationship: It Ain’t Paradigmatic and It Ain’t What You Think Either.”

“It’s no longer a conversation about who’s pro-Arab or pro-Israel,” said Spiegel. American presidents have responded in different ways but they’re all pro-Israel, from George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state James A. Baker, who strove to move forward with a peace plan; to Bill “I can feel your pain” Clinton, who some say was preoccupied with Israel; to Barack Obama. “When it comes to security issues, it’s very hard to make a case for a stronger U.S.-Israel relationship than President Obama,” said Spiegel, but added that “it’s been very frustrating to people who thought Obama would move forward” with peace initiatives.

But it’s not just Obama, he said. “Everybody’s fighting, saying the other side isn’t doing enough.” One of the political changes has been in Republicans’ support for Israel, which, according to a Gallup Poll, rose to 85 percent in 2010, with 60 percent support among Independents and 57 percent among Democrats, said Spiegel. “Since 1994, Israel gives the Republicans a foreign policy issue that’s deeply rooted in religious attitudes.”

Overall American support of Israel is higher than ever before, at 63 percent, he noted. “But never has a U.S. president been so vilified about his relationship with Israel,” he said, adding that no American president has gotten along with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In his view, said Spiegel, “the main problem with Obama is that he himself has become a convert to the linkage theory” that presumes all Middle East conflict is based on the Israel-Palestine issue. “That’s a myth that should be laid to rest. I think this is nasty, simply wrong,” he said.

“Tell me, what would bother you more if you were an Iraqi — U.S. support of Israel or that the U.S. occupied your country?” Israel should not be an occupier on its own account, said Spiegel. Consider former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was right to put aside his role as “the right-wing father of settlements” by halting all settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2004.

“Sharon underwent a huge transformation and had to think about history, his legacy,” said Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, in his talk, “The Peace Process as a Determinant in U.S.-Israel Relations.”

The complexity of peace negotiations is clear to the former ambassador. “The Arab position is always to have an escape clause,” he said, such as leaving the Arab right of return unsettled, which is not what Israelis want. “They want finality.”

Rabinovich continued, “You make peace based on the present, not the past, otherwise there will never be an end to it. And there’s a stronger right wing in Israel today. Netanyahu is a prisoner of his own right-wing coalition.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the only complex foreign policy issue in the Middle East. “Since 2006, it’s been Iran, Iran, Iran. The major problem both the U.S. and Israel face is Iran. The U.S. assessment that they’re not building nuclear weapons has finally been proven wrong,” he said, citing the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report suggesting that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Still, said Rabinovich, “I’m of the school that [Israel] should not attack Iran.” In his view, the United States should impose real sanctions on Iran, and “it doesn’t need the [U.N.] Security Council to bring Tehran to its knees.” But if the United States isn’t successful with sanctions against Iran, he warned, there could be an oil problem added to world economic troubles.

David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, spoke of future trends in U.S.-Israel relations. In his talk, “The Impact of the Arab Spring on U.S.-Israeli Relations: A Preliminary Assessment,” Makovsky said that most U.S. decision-making (and loss of life and limb) in the Middle East relates to oil interests and not to the unsuccessful peace process.

Makovsky, an award-winning journalist and a former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, said that Arab countries make decisions based on their own interests, not on the basis of Israeli-Palestinian issues.

It’s too early to know what the Arab Spring will bring, and to what extent the democratic process will be a factor, said Makovsky. Syria and Jordan are wild cards; how long will they last?

Israel shares some convergence with Arab nations, since none want a strong and nuclear Iran, he said. In the past, Israel’s strongest relationship among Arab nations has been with the strong-arm nations, but now those dynamics are changing.

Alon Pinkas, president of the U.S.-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv and former consul general of Israel to New York (2000-2004), who joined Makovsky on the final panel, suggested that Israel has never been the strategic asset it thought it was to the United States – but nor has it been a liability. There’s no doubt that Israel’s relationship with the United States is vital for Israeli security, said Pinkas, who’s also a foreign affairs analyst for Fox Television, in his talk, “The Interplay of Foreign Policy Interests and Domestic Determinants.”

It’s clear what an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would look like — a two-state solution and Jerusalem kept whole — but, he said, currently, there isn’t the resolve to make it happen.