When I was still too young to vote but old enough to have an interest in politics, the conversation at many Shabbat tables was dominated by discord about a polarizing candidate for the presidency of the United States. Large parts of the Jewish community, at least among my New York cohorts, was riven on generational lines. Young people argued against the candidate’s domestic and foreign policies. Parents agreed to some extent, but argued that he would be good for Israel.
The candidate was Richard Nixon, who was elected but later compelled to resign in disgrace. Young people, at least in my circles, opposed him out of a mixture of idealism and fear. They supported candidates who were more committed to expanding civil rights and social equality, and feared (especially the young men) his party’s embrace of the war in Vietnam and the drafting of university-aged men to serve there. But there was pushback in the Jewish community, with Nixon supporters warning that the Democrats would let Israel down, deeply and perhaps fatally.
I remember young Jewish high school and university students preparing material for distribution in our communities. Much of this material took on the Israel argument. One flyer began, “All presidents have supported Israel. What makes Nixon so special?”
I’ve been thinking lately about that decades-old presidential campaign – the way that anxieties about Israel became a political weapon in U.S. politics, a tool for politicians to play the Jewish community. Young people understood, perhaps in that era better than their elders, that no single party should be allowed to “own” the Israel card. And Israel’s leadership, for its part, understood the need to act independently and in its own interest – and at the same time to maintain good relations with both major American parties.
As they say in French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they remain the same. While the political lay of the land is different today, American politicians still stoke fears about Israel to solidify their own power base. I won’t rehash the recent case of U.S. congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s on-again-off-again trip, which was approved, denied and approved again by Israel. By now, it has received ample coverage and analysis. Suffice it to say that Israel did not handle it well. It took sides in U.S President Donald Trump’s partisan push against the Democratic party.
Handing Israel over to any single party – whether in the United States or here in Canada – is a mistake. And identifying Israel too closely with the current U.S. president will cost the Jewish state in the long run. The major Jewish organizations in the United States – and many, many individual Jews – have come to that realization.
In the United States, the presidency and control of Congress swing back and forth between the two major political parties. But during the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to bypass the Democratic administration and ally with the Republicans. That dynamic has become even more pronounced during the current administration – so much so that even Democrats who are generally favourable toward Israel have expressed reservations.
Here in Canada, too, control of the federal government oscillates between the two major parties. And here, too, no party “owns” Israel. For Canadian supporters of Israel, the dynamics south of the border should serve as a cautionary tale.
While some Jewish-Americans support Trump due to his perceived support for Israel, many others oppose him for his countenancing of white supremacist groups, anti-immigration policies, racially charged rhetoric and sexism. As for American voters with no investment in Israel and no special knowledge of the Middle East, the close relationship between Trump, Republicans and Israel may cause them to associate the Jewish state with the values they repudiate when the political pendulum inevitably swings.