It was a typical California evening, in the Fall of 2005. I was driving to a friend’s home in north Berkeley. Sporting a Hebrew-language bumper-sticker that read “Sharon has no solution. End the occupation, negotiations now,” aside from being honked at by the occasional Israeli (the Bay Area is home to a growing expat community,) very few people, including Jews, understood what it meant. This night would be an exception.
Waiting at a stop sign, a car pulled up with a middle-aged man inside it, a large Star of David dangling from his rear-view mirror. He was waving and calling to me, so I lowered my window. The first word I heard was a Hebrew invective. I proceeded to pull over, and let him shout at me for a little while before I responded, which revealed to him what I already knew: that we were Americans, not Israelis. Arguing in Hebrew, in the US, about Israeli politics.
We both shouted criticisms of Ariel Sharon at each other. My interlocutor was furious with Israel’s Prime Minister for uprooting Jewish settlers from Gaza. He was similarly unmoved by the fact that a clear majority of Israeli Jews supported the so-called “Disengagement,” the term used by the Israeli government to brand its withdrawal from the southern Palestinian territory.
Ironically, I had just helped organize a Jewish Voice for Peace protest against the Disengagement. JVP’s view was that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would lead to increased misery for Gaza’s Palestinian population, strengthen Hamas, increase attacks on Israeli border towns, and promote the illusion that Sharon wanted to end the occupation, when in fact the withdrawal would strengthen Israel’s hold on the West Bank. We were also unmoved by the fact that a clear majority of Israelis supported the Disengagement.
Sometimes, Americans follow Israel’s lead. Sometimes we don’t. It’s part of a dynamic many Israeli friends of mine, across the political spectrum, have expressed exasperation about: Americans being more “Israeli” than Israelis. It’s a grossly fetishistic exercise, one that says more about projecting American religious-political desires onto Israelis, than it does, necessarily, about what Israelis might want and think, by themselves.
There are some good reasons for this phenomenon, the biggest one being the enormous involvement of the United States in events in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the broader Middle East. But we also see more direct involvement in Israeli politics through the massive funding by radical right-wing figures like Sheldon Adelson (who not only is a major funder of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, but also sinks millions of dollars every month into distributing a free newspaper, Israel Hayom, an extremist tabloid filled with rightwing propaganda,) and Irving Moskowitz a shady operator who diverts substantial amounts of his profits from legal gambling to the settlements, particularly in East Jerusalem.
The left has no similar influence. Progressive US involvement in Israeli and Palestinian politics is almost entirely confined to domestic political activism, and solidarity actions in the Occupied Territories. Though American Jewish opinion on Israeli matters has moved significantly leftwards in recent years, there is still a substantial disconnect with organizing around the Occupation. Leftist activism, though regarded with increasing sympathy, has had little comparable impact on the ground, in Israel.
Nonetheless, beyond the direct involvement of billionaires like Moskowitz and Adelson, the most apparent symptom of Americans being “more right-wing Israeli than the Israeli right” is on Capitol Hill. And it’s struck again.
Despite very clear statements from the Netanyahu government, as well as their cohorts here in the US, from as far to the right as Elliott Abrams (the convicted perjurer and neo-conservative who was well known as the Israeli right’s most powerful advocate within the Bush Administration) that it was not in Israel’s interest to cut financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, the US Congress has done it anyway.
The House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs spokesperson explained: “Members believe that the funding cannot be considered in a vacuum, and that the PA’s activities at the UN, its arrangement with Hamas, and its failure to recognize Israel’s right to exist as Jewish State must all be taken into consideration.”
These would all seem to be Israeli concerns. If Israel doesn’t support this step, it appears odd that Congress would take it. But there we are. Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, “This is an exercise in political opportunism, in which just appearing to be pro-Israeli, as opposed to the reality, is the goal.” It in fact, this goes beyond votes. Here’s how The New York Times reports on the massive cuts in US foreign aid, cuts that affect every part of the budget, except one:
Both (Senate and House of Representatives) versions (of the new foreign aid spending bill) cut spending across the board, and around the world. The House’s plan also reflects longstanding Republican views on matters of policy, for example by prohibiting financing for organizations that perform abortions or provide needle exchanges. It would also cut American contributions to international organizations like the United Nations and its Human Rights Council, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
The Republicans also attach conditions on aid to Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinians, suspending the latter entirely if the Palestinians succeed in winning recognition of statehood at the United Nations. However, one of the largest portions of foreign aid — more than $3 billion for Israel — is left untouched in both the House and Senate versions, showing that, even in times of austerity, some spending is inviolable.
Does anyone believe that most Americans think that the country that is always near the top of the list of recipients of US foreign aid, year after year, which is a regional superpower, has a Western standard of living, which is among the countries least affected by the global downturn, should get the lion’s share of American aid money? What about other deserving countries, in worse economic circumstances than Israel? What about unemployed Americans losing their social assistance benefits?
I can’t imagine that most Americans, Republican, Democrat or self-identified independents, would support such an idea. But, while that man yelling at me in Berkeley may have been more of an Israeli rightist than Israeli right-wingers, we now have a Congress that, due to political opportunism, shows more loyalty to the Israeli right than to the United States. It’s a troubling conundrum to consider, especially for American Jewry. I wonder what that gentleman would have thought.