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Usaid Siddiqui

Trump exposes divide between pro-Israel groups and American Jews

Orthodox Jews defend the rights of Palestinians in New Jersey, USA [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 November, 2016

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Comment: As attachment to Israel among American Jews declines, support for the Palestinian cause and advocacy for the end of the occupation has increased over the years, writes Usaid Siddiqui

Days after being elected, President-elect Donald Trump had selected his campaign chairman Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist, a coveted position that gives the former CEO of Breitbart News and alleged white nationalist, immense influence over the Trumps' decisions in all areas.

Not surprisingly, civil rights organisations of all religious backgrounds and political leanings are incensed at Bannon's appointment. Under his leadership, Breitbart News, an alternative right website, has produced some of the most racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic and anti-Semitic content since its inception in 2010.

Some groups are however choosing to reserve judgment over his appointment, most notably pro-Israel organisations such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. The powerful lobby group that has been supportive of the president-elect - an avowed supporter of Israel - has reportedly been "apoplectic" about Bannon’s selection - yet has refused to condemn him.

Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart writes, "America's most influential Jewish leaders have decided that in order to keep Jews safe, they will ignore Donald Trump's assault on America's most vulnerable communities".

AIPAC's embrace of Trump in fact adds to the growing schism between pro-Israel groups and the American Jewish population over the former's feverish support of Israel, while American Jews become more disillusioned with the Jewish State and its continued occupation of the Palestinians.

American Jews and Israel

For decades, support for Israel amongst American Jews has remained strong. Even today, according to a Gallup poll published in October 2013, nearly 7 in 10 Jewish Americans said they were "very emotionally" or "somewhat emotionally" attached to Israel.

However, a closer look at the American Jewish opinion on Israel reveals a more nuanced view, especially around Israel's policies in the Middle East. Support for Israel is far stronger amongst persons over 50, people who were alive during the horrors of the Holocaust or grew up during Israel's formative years. Yet the same conclusions do not hold up for younger Jews.

The Pew poll reveals that among Jews in the age group 18-49, 61 percent were "very attached" or "somewhat attached" to Israel, compared to 77 percent of Jews over 50.

AIPAC's embrace of Trump in fact adds to the growing schism between pro-Israel groups and the American Jewish population

Another area of divide arises surrounding the question of settlements. Young Jews are less likely to support the idea that Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank make it more secure, with 11 percent of Jews between ages 18-29 saying it was helpful, compared to 21 percent of Jews over 50.

"Those born after 1974 draw upon memories and impressions less likely to cast Israel in a positive, let alone heroic light," write Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, professors at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, and University of California Davis respectively.  According to Cohen and Kelman:

"The First Lebanon War in 1982, the First Intifada, the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War are all perceived as far more morally and politically complex than the wars Israel fought between 1948 and 1974, casting Israel in a more troubling light."

In the Democratic Party, one that American Jews overwhelmingly support, disillusionment with Israel is evident as well. 

Findings from a survey conducted by American political consultant Frank Luntz showed amongst highly educated democrats, 76 percent stated that Israel had "too much influence" on US foreign policy. When questioned if Israel was a racist country, 47 percent of democrats believed that to be the case, with only 13 percent disagreeing.

"American Jews are liberal", says Norman Finkelstein, a renowned scholar of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and author of the book Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End.

"They have consistently supported the Democratic Party since Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal", he adds. "Because so much more is now known about the Israel-Palestine conflict, it has become impossible for American Jews to reconcile their liberal beliefs with Israeli conduct".

Advocating for Palestine

As attachment to Israel amongst American Jews declines, support for the Palestinian cause and advocacy for the end of the occupation has increased over the years. Most notably, on college and University campuses, young Jews have become markedly vocal in criticising Israel's actions and while displaying solidarity and working with Palestinian groups such as the Students For Justice In Palestine (SJP). 

In a profile of pro-Palestine American Jews by Haaretz, one interview named Eitan Peled, an undergrad at UCLA, serves on the board of the University's SJP. Peled claims his visits to the West Bank "fueled" his activism. 

"The imbalance was striking to me," Peled told Haaretz. "There were no swimming pools or parks there like there were in Tel Aviv, and my Palestinian friends had never even been to a beach because they weren't allowed to go", he added.

Support for Israel is far stronger amongst persons over 50, people who were alive during the horrors of the Holocaust

Another interviewee Kelsey Waxman of UC Berkeley said she became involved in pro-Palestine activism after learning about the other side of the conflict from Palestinian friends at school. Today she has founded the Berkeley chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) - a pro-Palestine organisation whose chief mission includes "an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians."  

The JVP has seen its membership surge in the past few years. The group had 9,000 paid members in 2015, up from 600 in 2011.  

In identifying itself as a Jewish group, groups like JVP challenge the orthodox position of groups like AIPAC that have often sought to speak on behalf of all American Jews. Furthermore, it makes it harder for ardent supporters of Israel to label any criticism against Israeli state actions as inherently anti-Semitic - a charge pro-Palestinian activists have faced for years from the likes of AIPAC.

Last year JVP endorsed the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a call by Palestinian civil society for a full boycott of Israel until it meets its international obligations in ending the occupation. The BDS movement has seen increasing success over the past few years, leading many pro-Israel groups to challenge its legitimacy.

However, it would be ill advised to underestimate the strength of organisations like AIPAC. The one-sided support for Israel professed by all presidential nominees at its annual policy conference this past March was evidence enough that they remain the leading voice on American-Israeli affairs in Washington.

Nevertheless, when AIPAC ends up defending personalities like Bannon, based simply on their pro-Israel stance, it will further drive a wedge between them and the larger American Jewish populace – a group increasingly disenchanted with the illiberal actions of the Israeli state.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.



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