Israel, American Jewry and democracy imperiled

By Bill Simons 

“After 1967 the Americans looked at Israel with new eyes,” remembered BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowne. “It fell in love with the young sabras who had beaten three Arab armies.”
Its stunning victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War inflated Israeli pride, as it did that of American Jews. Admiration for Israel was nearly universal in America, encompassing Jews and Gentiles, conservatives and liberals, Blacks and whites. Even the deadly Israel air raid in the Mediterranean against the U.S. Liberty off the Gaza Strip did not still American support. The U.S. officially accepted Israel’s formal apology, claim of mistaken identity and reparations. The popular image of Israel’s victory was that good had prevailed over bad: “Never Again” had triumphed over “Drive Them into the Sea.” 

In an America divided by the Vietnam War, race riots and the implosion of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, Israel’s decisive win in the Six-Day War provided compensatory validation of democracy. A popular, faux photo of a Chasid emerging from a phone booth to reveal Hebrew Superman regalia underneath his religious garb announced appreciation of Jewish prowess. Israel Defense Minister General Moshe Dayan, a pirate’s black patch jauntily won over an eye socket permanently damaged in combat, radiated a contagious confidence that epitomized the prevailing mood. From the vantage point of 2023, the euphoria following the Six-Day War seems like a millennium ago. 

Even as assimilation, intermarriage and secularization eroded religious observance, Jewish American identity remained strong, rooted in the generational proximity to the immigrant experience, Holocaust remembrance and identification with Israel. American Jews, overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, saw a reflection of their own values in Israel. Modern Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, declaring commitment to “freedom, justice and peace,” resonated with American Jewry. Although many American Jews balked at the policies of Israel Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, those appeared aberrations. American Jews took pride in an Israel that was both strong and moral, the one democracy in the Mideast. They were confident that Palestinians and Jews would eventually live amidst a just peace. 

On the cusp of the 75th anniversary of the modern state of Israel’s founding, the Irish Jewish politician and intellectual Alan Shatter reflects, “[A] state under siege in 1948 with a Jewish population of 650,000, it has morphed into a nation of over nine million… it is at the cutting edge of development and innovation across a myriad of technological, pharmaceutical, engineering, medical, scientific, military, agricultural, and other fields.” This ought to be a time of unalloyed celebration for Israel and for American Jews, but it is not. For the youngest Jewish Americans, memories of immigrant forebearers and of the Holocaust are less visceral, and their perception of Israel has grown more critical, particularly in recent weeks. Suddenly, more seasoned American Jews also fear that Israel democracy is imperiled, a dread now widespread in Israel itself.

Israel politics, like that of the U.S., is polarized. Neither Donald Trump nor Benjamin Netanyahu created the divisive fissures in their respective nations, but both have exploited and deepened them in pursuit of power and to prevent prosecution for alleged crimes. Since 2019, Israel has conducted five national elections, none producing a mandate. His five terms – the first in 1996 – spread over 15 years, make Netanyahu, now 73, the longest serving prime minster in Israel history. Given the criminal charges he faces – bribery, fraud and breach of trust – his November 2022 comeback election as prime minister is remarkable. 

In the past, Netanyahu, albeit a conservative and security hawk, governed from the center, attuned to national sentiment and the need for coalition partners in the Knesset, Israel’s national legislature. However, centrist parties will no longer form coalitions with Netanyahu’s Likud party if he is its head. Thus, to cobble together a fragile majority in the Knesset to form his current government, Netanyahu turned to haredi Orthodox and right-wing extremist factions. These aggrieved groups joined Netanyahu at a steep price. 

Accommodating his new partners, Netanyahu appointed zealots, formerly on the fringes of Israel politics, to the cabinet, notably National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, from the Religious Zionist faction. In his youth, Ben Gvir was barred from the military for advocating abrogation of Israeli-Arab citizenship. Bezalel Smotrich sought the destruction of the Palestinian village of Huwara. Smotrich and Ben Gvir aim to transform the inclusive, tolerant, democratic state of Israel into a fundamentalist autocracy. With their support, Netanyahu proposed enervating the powerful liberal Supreme Court by ensuring the incumbent government a majority on the court and empowering the Knesset to overrule its decisions. This would pave the way for the Netanyahu government to enact the reactionary measures of his zealot partners. In addition, these measures would preclude the conviction and possible imprisonment of Netanyahu for his alleged crimes. 

Netanyahu had not anticipated that his proposals would trigger massive protests, the largest in Israeli history. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of oppositionists – including unionists, military reservists, students amd former government officials – rallied, blocking highways and airport runways. A general strike brought economic chaos. 

In the U.S., Israel’s strongest ally, the Biden administration, by rhetoric and protocol, and Jewish Americans, by staging large protests, made clear that the dismantling of Israeli democracy is unacceptable. U.S. economic and military aid is essential to Israel, as is the fund-raising and advocacy of American Jews. 

Confronted by unprecedented domestic and international opposition, concerns about national security, and President Isaac Herzog’s warning of possible civil war, Netanyahu paused the judicial restructuring proposals – at least for now. But elements in the Netanyahu government still covet a reactionary agenda: aggressive West Bank settlement, subjugation of Palestinians, retrenchment of women’s rights, revising the Law of Return to recognize only Orthodox conversions and creation of a militia reporting directly to Ben Gvir. Thus, protests continue. 
Resistance to Trumpism is compatible with American patriotism. Likewise, opposition to Netanyahu is consistent with implacable support for Israel. Carrying the Israeli flag, anti-Netanyahu protesters are peaceful, so far. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.