It gave plenty of people giggles when Csanad Szegedi, a high-ranking official in the Hungarian far-right and explicitly anti-Semitic party Jobbik, found out in 2012 that he was Jewish. After some soul searching, he revealed to Israeli newspapers Ma’ariv, and The Jerusalem Post, in the fall of 2016 that he had become a committed Zionist, would relocate to Israel, and enter politics. The light-hearted exchange offered no contrition from Szegedi about Jobbik’s role in fueling the European anti-Semitism Szegedi he said he wanted to confront, as if the seamlessness between European fascism and contemporary Israeli politics was completely normal.
Fast forward to December, when white nationalist figure of the “alt-right” Richard Spencer arrived at Texas A&M. At a public forum, a local rabbi confronted Spencer on the issue of inclusion, to which Spencer asked if the rabbi would support radical inclusion in Israel. After the rabbi couldn’t find the words to respond, Spencer said, “Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles…I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.” Spencer was clear: All he wants is a version of Israel for white gentiles.
Now, cap the year with President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of far-right Zionist David Friedman as the US ambassador to Israel. Let’s leave aside what this means for what’s left of the “peace process” for another time and deal alone with the fact that he’s known for, among other things, comparing left-leaning Jewish Americans to Nazi collaborators. Since nearly two-thirds of Jews in the US vote reliable Democratic, his regard of most of his US-passport holding brethren is low, to say the least.
Leading up to Friedman, the American Jewish groups had been odds with each other since Trump’s election. With his appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon as senior policy advisor, left and liberal Jewish groups came out in protest, while the Zionist Organization of America and Alan Dershowitz, both quick to denounce any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, waved off Bannon’s Jew-hatred. Embedded in their apologia was the notion that whatever personal animus Bannon had toward Jews or his organization’s complicity in stoking white nationalism, Bannon stayed true to the Likudnik position, and that’s all that mattered.
All the while, the pro-Israel Jewish establishment is fretting that it is losing its influence in the United States. A major Pew Research study in 2013 found that only 32 percent of Jewish Americans under 30 support Israel. It also found that Zionism wasn’t the major self-identifier for American Jews. The study said, “What does being Jewish mean in America today? Large majorities of U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust (73%) and leading an ethical life (69%) are essential to their sense of Jewishness. More than half (56%) say that working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them. And about four-in-ten say that caring about Israel (43%) and having a good sense of humor (42%) are essential to their Jewish identity.”
As Israel’s importance among Jews declines so does its ability to remain unassailable. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s parting speech about Middle East peace, he admitted, as the New York Times put it, that “Israel, with a growing Arab population, could not survive as both a Jewish state and a democratic state,” and the same newspaper, not usually known for being sympathetic to the Palestinians, ran an op-ed discussing how a Jewish ethno-state negated any possibility of liberal democracy.
For the American Jewish establishment, programs like Birthright—which provide young Jews with free, guided trips to Israel—and a variety of pro-Israel campus movements have been successful in not only fusing Israel advocacy with Jewishness, but putting forth the idea that criticism of the Israel government’s human rights abuses was the major source of anti-Semitism in the world. It was passé to think about the intolerance of the Moral Majority, or solidarity with other minority groups. Defense of Israel became the only issue.
This is eroding for a number of reasons, but economic inequality, labor precocity, white nationalist organizing and the general fear of a Trump administration are major contributing factors. For a great many assimilated Jews who years ago might have graduated from college with a financial safety net and good job prospects, there didn’t seem to be much to scare a Jew in America other than propaganda that criticism of Israel is a Trojan Horse of anti-Semitism.
But what boomer Zionists may or may not perceive is that for the majority of American Jews, who are to the left of center, there are great many more fears both economic and social that make fretting about United Nations resolutions about Israel rather small. And for secular, left-wing Jews, the Israel-inspired ability to forsake fellow Jews for the wellbeing of a nation-state leads to a particular form of irony that’s hard to shake off. The Jewish state, for right-wing Zionists, is almost God-like, revered above everything else, and criticism of it is akin to blasphemy. It shouldn’t be lost on us that idol worship such as this is Judaism’s highest sin.
Compound that with the re-emergence of neo-Nazi anti-Semitism in support of Trump, as his campaign used a variety of anti-Semitic tropes, and Jewish critics of Trump routinely faced anti-Semitic harassment that even the incoming First Lady passively justified. With right-wing Zionists either not condemning or supporting white nationalism emerging these days, Jews have less reason to sympathize with the pro-Israel message. And Israel’s own political situation does its advocates on this side of the Atlantic Ocean no favors.
Two decades ago, one could sell the idea that Israel was a democracy—it was a state with multiple parties, including Arab ones, and advocating for settlements was a part of the political extreme. Today, settlement expansion is sacrosanct, the Israeli left is all but eradicated and Israel’s political center of gravity has Likud on one side and a variety of far right fringe parties on the other. Hence, why the Times and Obama Administration can work up the muster to call Israel’s ability to be democratic into question.
It doesn’t feel comforting to talk about the silver linings of the Trump Administration, but one bright spot could be the end of Israel’s unfair monopoly on Diaspora Jewish politics. With groups like IfNotNow emerging as a Jewish opposition movement to Trump’s white nationalism, there is hope for a new left and cosmopolitan Jewish politics that has been trying to form in a hostile environment. The rise of Trump and the discrediting of mainstream Zionist organizations is giving that a chance.
Photograph courtesy of Susan Melkisethian. Published under a Creative Commons license.