We all have our personal metrics for the grimness of these times. Heres one of mine: Ive been finding Israeli news soothing.
Debates over whether and when to apply sovereignty over Palestinian territories, reports of covert electronic warfare with Iran, whispers of a possible fourth election within the next year. Ah, normalcy.
Normalcy has been thrown out (and in many cases through) the window here in the United States. Americans continue to gasp for breath in hospitals and choke on tear gas in city streets.
The state of New Jersey alone, which has roughly the same land area and population as Israel, has seen more than 10,000 COVID-19related deaths, about ten times the number of Israelis who lost their lives in the Second Intifada. Many of our largest cities, and even our leafy suburbs, are roiling with racial unrest.
Most American Jews have a clear address for this misery: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. About three-quarters of us voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and, its safe to say, will be reliable supporters for Joe Biden this fall. Yet that leaves around 25% or so of you wavering or still supporting Donald Trump presumably including some of you who live in Florida and thus wield awesome electoral power. If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, many of you think youre showing, to use President Trumps own words, loyalty to Israel.
Im here to say youve got it all wrong.
Before I go any further, let me be clear: Im not about to judge those who think of Israel at the ballot box. As it happens, Im one of you. When I step into the voting booth, I consider a number of issues healthcare reform, fair treatment of immigrants and people of color, and environmental regulation, to name a few but I also want to know where candidates stand on ensuring Israels security and shielding it from disproportionate censure in the international community.
Note my wording, though: I did not say that I pick the candidate who says he or she likes Israel the most, or the one whose views on Israeli politics most closely match my own.
Over the last few decades, American pro-Israel circles have focused almost exclusively on attitudes. We wring our hands over who really gets Israel versus who is just saying the right things.
Barack Obama visits Sderot while campaigning? Not good enough. He doesnt love Israel. Senator Hillary Clinton legislates against incitement in Palestinian schools? OK, but we all remember she kissed Suha Arafat in 1999. Joe Biden calls out anti-Semitism on the left? Well, Trump has the Deal of the Century. Those on the J-street end of the spectrum have their own litmus test, selecting for candidates willing to apply American pressure on Israel to curtail its settlement project.
Yet to focus exclusively on politicians expressions of fealty toward Israel or the particulars of their Middle East policy is to ignore what actually makes the special relationship between the two countries special. To borrow another Trumpism, its that America is great.
Israel benefits from American greatness in many ways. Theres the hard power, namely the billions of dollars in the worlds best weaponry and the implicit promise of military backup. Theres also our soft power: Americas global leadership provides shielding from the biases of the international community and a counterweight to Russian and Iranian influence in its neighborhood; meanwhile, Americas massive economy, which most of the world depends upon in some way or another, protects Israel from boycotts.
Its worth remembering these core benefits have flowed to Israel even at times when the friendship has cooled. President Richard Nixon, an actual anti-Semite , sent weapons and materil during the Yom Kippur war. President Obama, definitely not an anti-Semite yet also not one, Ill admit, who likely cries while watching Paul Newman in Exodus, funded Iron Dome.
What weve never really seen is how the relationship would be impacted by a dramatic decline in American wealth and influence. Even before the latest crises, Trump was wantonly wrecking the infrastructure that has allowed America to be first among equals since the end of the Second World War. He has belittled NATO, distanced himself from western partners, torn up trade deals, and walked away from international agreements.
At times, Trumps lack of concern for the international community has worked in Israels favor. Even some liberal Zionists, including this one, cheered when he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Yet his impetuousness just as easily blows the other way, such as with his sudden abandoning of Kurdish allies in northern Syria and his occasional willingness to meet with (and flatter) authoritarians in North Korea and Iran. The long-term result of these shortsighted shifts will be to force the international community to reduce its reliance on the United States.
At home, Trump has increased the budget deficit by hundreds of billions, most of which went to tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals like himself. Perhaps worst of all, he has, in hundreds of rallies and thousands of tweets, stoked the embers of racial discord in our country to the point that our diverse population presently seems incapable of collective action. A house divided against itself cannot stand; it certainly cannot project power abroad.
Historical precedent tells us that when great powers fall, the consequences are felt more severely by those who live in its outer provinces and protectorates. A pensioner in Englands midlands might bemoan Great Britains loss of Empire, but he still lives in a first-world democracy well defended against any foreign foe whod dare cross the Channel. His counterpart in Hong Kong, a subject of that Empire into the late 1990s, now faces a loss of basic rights. Similarly, even a weaker and poorer America will be able to protect itself and its citizens. But it may not have the will or the leverage to help its friends abroad.
In my unofficial, unpaid, and generally thankless role as Explainer of Israel to my progressive friends, I often rely on the concept of ein brera there is no choice. The countrys right-leaning politics, its asymmetric military operations in Gaza, and its skepticism of internationally-brokered peace agreements must be understood through the prism of being small and surrounded by more populous and more ruthless enemies. Being American (in particular a white American) has, in contrast, always been all about having choices.
Now I say to my conservative friends, ein brera. You and I might disagree on the role of American government in our lives, about who should pay what in taxes, and whether our foreign policy should be in favor of or opposed to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. Yet from both a pro-Israel perspective, this election is about picking a leader of the free world who will ensure that we survive to argue another day.
David Zenlea is a Detroit-based editor with a degree in Jewish Studies from the University of Maryland. Hes written for Haaretz, Detroit Jewish News, Washingtonian magazine, and others.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Conservative Jews: Do you care about Israel? Then vote Trump out - Forward
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