Having just finished Hanukkah, a holiday focused on our connection as Jews to the larger culture, I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an American Jew and how non-Jews perceive us. I believe that in America, Jews have found the most comfortable and successful home outside of Israel in our history. And yet, in 2018 there are cracks in that sense of wellbeing.
From the right we see a growing movement of neo-Nazis and white supremacism; from the left we see an intense form of anti-Zionism that often becomes anti-Semitic. At first glance these two forces, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, seem disconnected, but they actually are linked.
What unites both forms of anti-Jewish sentiment is Israel and American Jews’ relationship to the Jewish state. Most Jews in this country are liberal, pluralistic and in favor of multi-ethnic democracy, but on the left, Israel is singled out for condemnation as an example of an ethno-nation state that oppresses its Palestinian minority.
Of course this was not always the case. When Israel was a young, struggling, underdog nation it was the darling of the socialist world. It built an egalitarian society whose most beloved institution was the collectivist kibbutz. Years of capitalism and rule by the right-of-center Likud party have eroded Israel’s socialist bone fides.
While Israel is no longer a beacon of the left, it has become a model for the alt-right. Some white nationalists admire Israel precisely for its success as an ethno-nation state. They see it as a blueprint for an American future where white Europeans once again dominate (and by the way, they say, it would be fine if all the Jews in the country left for Israel).
Of course Israel-loving white nationalists have no sense of the ethnic diversity of Israel, and I am sure they don’t really care about reality. All they are interested in is the fantasy of a nation purged of any undesirables. One startling example of this embrace of Israel by the right is the response to anti-Semitism.
When Steve King, a congressman from Iowa who endorsed an anti-Semite in a race for Toronto mayor, was confronted with his association with white nationalists who have espoused anti-Jewish behavior, he responded with indignance. How dare anyone accuse me of anti-Semitism, he said. His defense was not that he done anything for American Jews, only that he has always strongly supported Israel. The president gave a similar answer when questioned about what he could do to combat anti-Semitism.
As the alt-right has shown, it is possible to love Israel and hate the Jews (some in the far left hate both). In America, the Jewish community has always steadfastly supported Israel, but there are other issues that are of grave concern to us. When we worry about the xenophobic language used by politicians that inflames anti-Semitism, the response from our government cannot only be a defense of Israel. While we want to see Israel protected, we also expect protection for the Jewish community here in this country.
Most American Jews are in a precarious position today. We support liberal, multi-ethnic democracy here and in Israel, but we see those principles being eroded in both countries. Such a position can leave us on the outs from most of the political spectrum, but maybe that is only natural. After all, even in the best of times the Jews have always stood somewhat apart from general society.