Demonstrators show support for Israel outside the United Nations in New York / Martyna Starosta
American Jews stand with Israel. At times of war and crisis, that’s the way it has always been, and this time is no different. Despite gruesome pictures of civilian casualties in Gaza, media coverage that is frequently critical of the Jewish State, and shrill and accusatory statements about Israel from U.N. officials and foreign diplomats, American Jewish support has been unwavering.
It is not only the Jews who support Israel, of course. According to the most recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans believe that Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified. But while there is some measurable slippage in Israel’s favorable ratings among the American people, American Jewish support remains firm. I have seen no poll data on American Jews to prove my thesis, but it is what I conclude from innumerable conversations and a review of both the Jewish press and Jewish organizational statements.
I offer a few observations on American Jewish attitudes on the current conflict with Gaza.
Jewish support for Israel comes from across the religious and political spectrum. It is not unanimous, of course; American Jews are too diverse for that. But we are as close to united as we get. Apart from fringe elements such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, which abandoned the last shred of its dignity when its rabbinic co-chair presented Hamas as a force for reason, American Jews of all persuasions back Israel’s position.
The best way to predict how American Jews will react to any issue relating to Israel is to see how Israeli Jews react. The rule of thumb is that when Israeli Jews are more or less of one mind, American Jews will be united too; when Israeli Jews are divided, American Jews will be divided as well. While differences exist in how each country defines its ideological categories, both have Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, liberals and conservatives, rightists and leftists, and hawks and doves. What we see this time is that most Jews in Israel, whatever their political orientation or religious outlook, despise Hamas and support the war that their government is waging; and not surprisingly, most American Jews agree with them.
American Jews are more or less happy with their political leaders. President Obama could have demonstrated a bit more emotional engagement in Israel’s plight, and Secretary of State Kerry often seems more frenetic than focused. But what is most important is their message that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas attacks, and that—by implication, at least—Israel must be given the time needed to strike at the Hamas network of tunnels and rockets. Despite the frantic exchange of proposals, the real American strategy appears to be that a ceasefire must come—but not too soon. And this is the right strategy.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has won the respect and admiration of American Jews in ways that he had not before. At this point in his tenure, Netanyahu is a beleaguered and controversial political figure in Israel; it is not clear where he stands with his traditional allies and enemies, or what his political future may be. And although such matters are primarily the business of Israelis, there is no denying that the prime minister also generates strong feelings, pro and con, among American Jewish activists as well. But on both the American Jewish right and left, Netanyahu has been seen here as conducting the war with wisdom and courage, and a combination of toughness and restraint.
Jewish leaders, speaking off-the-record, have expressed more horror, dread, and dismay about Israel’s situation than they have publicly acknowledged. They admit privately that they are deeply worried. Despite what they read about how the capacities of Hamas have been dealt a severe blow, they see what is happening: A murderous terrorist regime that cares not at all about its own people’s suffering has extended the range of its rockets to Israel’s major cities, closed Israel’s airport, damaged Israel’s economy, and struck a blow to Israeli morale. Are American Jews repelled by all the killing? Of course. But they are more hawkish than not; they want the fighting to end on terms that will disarm Hamas and not simply pave the way to another round of rockets and terror.
The unity of purpose in American Jewish ranks encourages and inspires but, as is always the case, will not last forever. When a lasting ceasefire is eventually accepted and the fighting in Gaza stops, Israel will go back—as it should—to the healthy give-and-take of normal political life, and the division between the two major political camps will reassert itself. Some Israelis will insist that the latest war with Hamas means that territorial compromise of any sort must be ruled out now and forever, and others will assert that in order to repel Hamas, compromise must be sought with more moderate elements of Palestinian society and the Arab world. And when Israel returns to normal politics, American Jews will choose up sides, identifying mostly with one camp or the other.
But that is for later. Now the war still rages, the fanatics of Hamas seek Israel’s destruction, and the great debates must wait. Now, Israel needs American Jewish support, no questions asked. “We are one” is our slogan, and also our reality.
Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.