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How American Jews Can (and Can’t) Influence Israeli Voters

Though it rambles across much farmed-over terrain and takes care to mention all the caveats, such as Palestinian maximalism and gridlock1, Roger Cohen’s latest New York Times column is notable for the slightly more novel point that it is partly up to American Jewish groups to push Israel away from its disastrous, growing, and nearly half-century-long occupation of the West Bank.

But this raises an extremely sticky problem, one that Cohen at best hints at in his tone, but one that sooner or later comes to bedevil every single well-intentioned American Jew who cares about Israel, no matter his or her political leanings. Namely: American Jews are not Israelis. One of Zionism’s frustrating paradoxes (frustrating, that is, for Zionists) is that the Jewish state is not the state of all Jews, meaning that diaspora Jews who feel a real attachment to Israel—an attachment only enhanced by the knowledge that, thanks to the Law of Return, they could become Israeli citizens—must constantly endeavor to shape the country’s trajectory while according it the respect they would accord any other democracy, which is that in democracies, only the voters get to decide the composition of their governments. 

And whom Israeli voters prefer to decide upon is clear. Cohen may hate that Naftali Bennett, a vehement supporter of the occupation, is a top minister in the government (I know I hate it), but Bennett is there partly because his party received more than nine percent of the vote in the elections a few months ago. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud got nearly a quarter of the vote (in a field with many parties, and from an electorate that is roughly 20 percent Arab). By contrast, Meretz, the plucky left-wing party that Cohen would probably support and whose base is north Tel Aviv—Israel’s latte-liberal redoubt, its Upper West Side and Park Slope—received less than five percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, Israeli voters say in a new poll that they don’t want to hear from American Jews: 31.9 percent believe Israeli leaders should not account for their views at all; another 33.6 percent believe they should only to a small extent. My guess is that this sentiment comes from both sides: left-wing Israelis decry right-wing American Jews’ massive financial support for settlements; right-wing Israelis tried to pass laws restricting foreign funding to non-governmental organizations, targeting liberal groups like the New Israel Fund.

Before condemning such stubbornness, consider how defensive Americans get when they suspect foreign money is influencing their politics. (As to the argument that the United States ought to have greater say in Israeli policies due to the billions of dollars in aid they give it each year, that is an extremely problematic line of reasoning that anyway, if accepted, would need to be exercised via the U.S. government, and so isn’t germane to Cohen’s point.)

There are ways to influence discourses not your own that are both effective and valid. For example: Few will get angry at Roger Cohen for suggesting how American Jews ought to act despite the fact that he is not an American Jew. (Cohen is not Jewish. Just kidding, of course he is. But he’s from London.)

I think one of the reasons this column feels helpful and inoffensive is that, unlike many liberal American Jewish groups and writers—that is, those who share Cohen’s views on how Israel should resolve its conflict with the Palestinians—he does not make the argument from self-interest. He does not say that a two-state solution is the only correct “pro-Israel” position, because things like demographic trends and world opinion will spell the end of Israel if the Palestinians remain stateless for too long. The problem with making that argument from the outside (even though it contains a probably accurate prediction) is it smacks of condescension—it is literally to say, “We know what’s best for you,” and nobody wants to hear that, especially when it is true.

Cohen’s tack is different. The damaging consequence of Israel’s “maximalist territorial temptation” that he cites is not that it spells the end of Israel, but that it “inflicts on disenfranchised Palestinians the very exclusion Jews lived over centuries.” Appeal to people’s interests, and they will try to tell you why you are wrong. But perhaps Israeli voters who stubbornly continue to elect leaders who if anything worsen the occupation will be even more stubborn if their decision is cast as something else: an abandonment of Jewish values. 

Follow @marcatracy.

  1. And the column was surely filed before the Palestinian Authority prime minister offered to resign after just two weeks on the job.