Opinion: Israelis need better understanding of American Jews

Israel does not exist in a vacuum. A deeper understanding is required of what Jews face outside of Israel.

By Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, BESA Center

While Israelis have embraced American pop culture and like to build economic and cultural bridges, American history and politics are lost on most, especially when it comes to understanding American political trends.

For example, during the last presidential election, few Israelis had heard of Donald Trump but recognized Clinton’s name as a result of the Oslo years. As such, they assumed Hillary would be better for Israel.

This gap goes back to the early days after the establishment of the state when David Ben-Gurion himself got into a battle with Jacob Blaustein, a past president of the American Jewish Committee.

Ben-Gurion stated that American Jews needed to move to Israel, which generated a series of exchanges between the two as to the character and nature of the young state. Blaustein argued that if Israelis wanted the support of American Jews, it behooved the state to be democratic.

It is ironic and sad that most Israelis still do not fully appreciate the American side of the Zionist enterprise, going back to the days of Col. David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus and Eddie Jacobson, whose contributions are still visible in Israel today.

Israel’s most prolific diplomat, British-born Abba Eban, was also the most unappreciated in Israeli circles. When Eban died, the most poignant tribute to him and his legacy came from then-Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau. “When I heard on the phone that Abba Eban had died,” he said, “I had to say sorry. We never appreciated him as much as we should have.’”

Eban is still considered to be the gold standard of Israeli diplomacy. While Israel has evolved over time, diplomacy and tact are still needed but not always found, a sad reality we saw during the just-completed Knesset election campaign

Israeli statesmen have represented the Jewish state to the global community, highlighting the quandaries in which civil servants often find themselves. Israeli ambassadors to the U.S., for example, are required to negotiate with the Washington Beltway — as well as the American Jewish community — as representatives of the State of Israel, not as commanders or even policymakers.

Yitzhak Rabin, for example, was revered as IDF chief of staff and later as the prime minister who dared embark on the Oslo peace process. But although Rabin understood the need to make a case for Israel in the U.S., as ambassador to the U.S. in 1968 he was not savvy enough to know what methods might backfire.

In the eyes of polished diplomats like Eban, Rabin did not seem suited to the role. Eban often complained to Menachem Begin and other members of the Israeli parliament about Rabin’s vocal support for Richard Nixon, jumping into what Eban argued should be a non-issue in US-Israeli relations.

By 1992, when Rabin was elected prime minister for the second time, he had learned from his mistakes. Managing to find just the right combination of toughness and flexibility, he charmed Washington – especially President Bill Clinton, who considered him a seasoned diplomat and warrior.

Similar confrontations have emerged in recent years, including during the term of former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren – an American-born, Princeton-trained Middle East historian who understood the ins and outs of Washington and American Jewry.

Oren clashed with his boss, then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a brash, Russian-born politician who at times acted in a manner more befitting The Sopranos than the head of Israel’s diplomatic corps.

Historically, Golda Meir stands apart, as she was the only American to date to gain the premiership and was part of Ben-Gurion’s inner circle. Her U.S. immigrant story resonated both within and without Israel and was useful to the furthering of U.S.-Israeli relations, especially after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Today, long after Eban and Meir, American Jews and Israelis are called upon to exhibit “moral fiber” by using their very Jewish identity as a vehicle to question Israel and its legitimacy.

More perverse are the uses of Jewishness to passionately make pleas for the Palestinian cause and the assertion that Jewishness is somehow based on pro-Palestinian beliefs as a “progressive” value.

For American Jews on the far Left, as for Arab Palestinians, the events of 1948 are the “original sin.”

Israel does not exist in a vacuum. A deeper understanding is required of what Jews face outside of Israel. The State faces many challenges regarding American bipartisan support for Israel. Just as Israelis don’t want American Jews to make Israel a partisan issue, Israeli leaders should not push American Jews away.