Events clarify your positions, values, interests, opinions, points of view, and so on. Events.
Before getting to Israel, the subject of this post, let me first cite a preliminary example of how events provide clarity. What could be more clarifying than the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Russia was quiescent for years after the USSR breakup. But then, the invasions of Georgia and Crimea should have been clarifying. Three US administrations ignored them, essentially, out of what? Hope that it was not true, disbelief that Russia was changing, or perhaps better said, reverting? But with the Ukraine invasion, the picture became unavoidably clear – Russian aggression was back. And then, a year later, events have clarified another truth – Russia's conventional military strength is nothing like what was advertised. As these truths have become clear, in response, the US and NATO have changed their policies accordingly. Events clarify.
I think you can say the same thing about Israel, events have been clarifying, even if there has been a delay in recognizing the clarification. When I was a boy in the 1950's, the Israel myth was potent. A long-sought haven in a world that had experienced the Holocaust, which was just the latest and worst manifestation of anti-Semitism in a world long distinguished by its omnipresent existence in word and deed. The restrictions from employment and residence, the national expulsions, the pogroms, Dreyfus, the reluctance of the West to help the victims escape during WW II, the profound injustices against a people. And then, at last, a homeland.
And not just a homeland, a country of liberal Western values carried by Ashkenazi Jews, the only democracy in the Middle East, the industriousness of a people turning desert into farmlands, many educated and English speakers, underdogs, the original people of the book. The sturm und drang of its birth was tossed aside. The terrorism of the fight for existence, the pushing out of Arabs who had lived there, explained by the willingness of the more liberal Jews to live together with them, and explained by the war made by the Arab countries to destroy Israel, their expulsion of Jews who had lived in Arab countries for centuries, the confiscation of their property and goods. All in the throes of birth, we were told, and we accepted it.
And for decades, Israel held fast. Israelis were democratic, they were welcoming, they had a hell of an army and intelligence service, they became prosperous, they were smart. They held their own against outrageous anti-Israeli acts of savagery, like the Munich Olympics and Entebbe. After all, they were modern Jews, Jews at their best.
But then, as Israel matured, it changed. The swing to Likud was at first thought to be the quirk of an election or two, and attempts at peace with the Palestinians were hopeful and often sincere. But the turn to the Right turned out to be permanent, reinforced by the demographics of Russian immigration and increasing Sephardic/Ashkenazi ratio,and the increasing orthodox/secular ratio. Moreover, what immigration doesn't fully provide the religious right, a propensity to large families does. The religious parties and their rabbis show little hesitation in trying to bend all of society to their theological beliefs and practices. The favoritism shown to the ultra religious in policy, at first thought to be simply an artifact of a multiparty parliamentary system where the ultra religious were willing to go to either side simply because of favors granted, now appears to have become a deeply ingrained and accelerating fact of Israeli life. The question of “who is a Jew,” which originally seemed obviously inclusive, with implications of for whom Israel would be a haven of last resort, is at risk of being further narrowed with religious constraints. Israel can no longer be said to be a secular nation. The attitudes of many Israelis toward Arab land and rights, and the connivance of official decisions, are far from the original version. This swing to the theological and the right has proved enduring. The Labor Party is dead, and the Left looks to be a permanent minority.
These are the events. This is not a phase, this is not a test, this is a longstanding trend that is still increasing in its power. In fact, it's clear that the events are accelerating. Abolition of judicial independence (now under serious consideration in the Knesset) is a well-known landmark on the way to illiberal democracy. Truculent and aggressive policies toward Arabs, both citizens and residents of the West Bank and Gaza, are increasing, not decreasing. Only the willfully blind think that all this is temporary. It's true that Arab aggressive extremism and incompetence and corruption in governing have contributed to making peace impossible, but still, by now, the Israeli policies have a momentum of their own.
Assimilated American Jews like me, reflexively supportive of a Jewish homeland, supportive of the important national right to defend yourself, proud of Jewish accomplishments, are put onto the horns of a dilemma by the clarifying events in Israel. How far do you go in defending a country that is becoming less like a Western social democracy, whose government seems on the brink of becoming more similar to Hungary or Turkey, rather than resembling the US?
Being assimilated and secular, I turn to thinking of American national interest. After all, the US is in a dilemma similar to my own. Do you adjust your views in light of clarifying events in Israel? Well, you have to. And as you readjust, you go back to the roots of the basis of your support to date. Why has the US supported Israel so fervently?
Our support is clearly not the result of the so-called Israel Lobby spotlighted by the misbegotten, unsupported, and discredited accusations of “realists” Mearsheimer and Walt 20 years ago. No, there have been firm, self-interested reasons for the US to support Israel.
As a matter of values, Israel is a home to Jews, who need and deserve a home, who have been discriminated and targeted for eons, and were able to achieve a home less than 75 years ago. The US itself bears its share of the guilt of neglect of European Jews as they were slaughtered and neither protected while they were in Europe nor welcomed here.
As a matter of principle, both for morality and for the practical reason of establishing order in the world, the United States supports the sanctity of borders and the preservation of identity of countries.
As a matter of geopolitics, having Israel as an ally in the Middle East is of immense help to the United States for exerting influence in that region.
As a matter of national interest, it is in the interest of the United States to support countries and movements that share the democratic form of government, and the general Western set of values. This has both a moral basis, of wanting all people to have human and political rights, and a self-interested basis, since the more agreement on values we have in the world, the safer are our own values.
As a matter of internal national politics, Jewish Americans and others who wish Jews and Israel well for various reasons, including Christian religious adherents, have formed for many decades a strong source of support for American support of Israel. It is important, valid, and practical for governments to represent the sentiments of significant parts of their population.
So, the question becomes, should the significant changes in Israel make a difference to our preferred policy?
The idea of “Jews should have a homeland” is still a good one, given the historical targeting of Jews, all of this obvious to Westerners. There are many other minorities who lack a homeland – the Kurds, the Rohingas, many others, but they are less visible to Westerners, and none of them have actually achieved the modern establishment of a homeland, so for them it is still a hope to be pursued, while for Jews, a homeland would be a takeaway. There's a difference between defending what is and hoping for what isn't. Don't go backwards.
But, this homeland argument is tarnished by the question, would all Jews be welcomed in this increasingly theological country? Would Jews now in the Diaspora really want to repair to a state that so constricts their freedom to believe and to act? Imagine – would the Iranian-Americans now living in Los Angeles really want to support Iran on the basis that they need a place to decamp to if things got hot for them in the US? It's not a fair argument, Israel is not Iran yet, but that comparison might help to clarify Israel's claim to support as a homeland. Not to mention that, with increasing orthodox power, even conservative and reform Jews could well be excluded from the right of return in the future. Home is where they have to take you in, but sometimes they won't recognize you as part of the family, and sometimes you really can't stomach the prospect yourself.
A more powerful argument for continued US support for Israel are the more prosaic geopolitical issues. Especially with Ukraine as the target of unbridled old-fashioned predation by a stronger power with duplicitous arguments, and as we remember what happened when Kuwait was overrun, we are strongly reminded of the value of recognition of borders for world peace. It is in the interest of international collective security that countries be supported. Israel has a right to exist, not only because it is a refuge for a people, but because it already exists. Israel also has every right to protect itself, and to receive aid from allies to protect itself. (The issue of the occupied territories leaps up at this point, and forms another reason for the US to be wary of undue support of an Israel that makes claims on international support to protect its own borders, yet violates the principle on various practical and Biblical grounds, all fairly bogus.)
Traditional geopolitics also attracts the US to ally itself with Israel. We need allies in the world everywhere, and the Middle East is a crucial area. We have always looked for allies abroad, allying even with states we view with various degrees of distaste. Famously, FDR said about Somoza in Nicaragua, he might be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch. Even in the Middle East itself, few regimes could be more distasteful than that of Saudi Arabia, but here we are. And, what are we going to do about increasingly extreme and recalcitrant Iran, which seeks not only to destroy Israel, but allies itself with Russia and will establish drone production in Russia for their offensive military use? Having a firm ally in the area is a value that speaks for itself.
We were used to supporting Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” the only country there that shares a European-American sensibility. As we see Israel become illiberal in both governance and society, this reason for supporting Israel is increasingly severely attenuated.
Finally, is American sentiment within the country still attuned to supporting Israel? Yes, it seems so, although with the alliance between Netanyahu and the Republican, Trumpist right, liberal and Democratic sentiment has attenuated. Jews at large still support Israel, although many (probably most) would like to see a shift back to the middle in Israel. The BDS-supporting Left is a vocal minority that really hardly counts at present, given the predominant sentiment nationally.
So, as an American and as a very secularized Jew, what do I conclude? I conclude that holding one’s nose as one deals with an ally or votes for a candidate is an ordinary course of action. We make choices among possibilities, not among wishes. I have a sentimental attachment to Israel, although clearly not so strong as many of my more reverent American Jewish friends. But even as my personal ties to Israel attenuate, as an American, I see plenty of reasons to continue to ally with Israel. We will have only limited ability to affect their internal actions, much as with other countries. We can admonish, we can encourage, but our leverage will remain limited. Israel might make some policy alterations as we reduce aid to them considerably, and as we cease protecting them so consistently in the UN Security Council, or they might not. But the US will have to take these and other actions as it distances itself from Israel, according to the distancing that Israel is in the process of establishing with us.
Finally, there is another consideration, which is the widespread existence of anti-Semitism. Internationally and domestically, it's always there, either under the surface as a threat, or even more visible as it is now. Like it or not, Israel and Jews are tied together, and if we encourage anti-Israeli sentiment, we are also pushing the door a little bit open to anti-Semitism. We have to be very measured in our stances, no matter how despicable we find the particular Jews who are becoming predominant in Israel. We can't treat Israel as we would like to treat Hungary or Turkey, as foreign powers with little history of being a target of worldwide hate and repression. We have to be prudent.
So, in the end, we have to let events clarify our thinking. Israel is becoming more theocratic, significantly less liberal and on the brink of becoming an illiberal state, but remains strategically important to the US, and there are vestiges of morality that still accrue to Israel. We need increasingly to hold Israel at a distance, take steps to discourage Israeli alliances with the extreme right wingers in the US, and indicate to Israel that we will help them as a last resort, but the more their values and interests differ from ours, the more removed they will be from our inner circle of friends.
It's an unsatisfying conclusion, but at least it might be based on some clarity.
I am once again indebted to David Levine for excellent suggestions and editing.