In my last post, I wrote about the AIPAC convention and the protests planned against the speech to be given there by Presidential candidate Donald Trump. That speech took place last week. As I hoped, AIPAC provided a resounding Jewish response to Trump. Unfortunately, the response was not the one I’d hoped for.
Hundreds of AIPAC attendees boycotted Trump’s speech, and walked out of the speech in protest. But thousands remained.
Trump trashed the United Nations. The crowd interrupted him with applause. Trump “cheered” that President Obama was finally leaving office. The crowd laughed and gave Trump a standing ovation that lasted 30 seconds. “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me,” Trump said. “And you know it and you know it better than anybody.” More applause. Trump went on to describe Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as a “total disaster.” More applause, more laughter.
The sight of Trump trashing the current and likely future President of the United States was so sickening to many that AIPAC actually felt compelled to offer an apology the morning after Trump’s speech. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night and for that we are deeply sorry,” said Lillian Pinkus, AIPAC’s new President. “We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.” While some have described AIPAC’s apology as “emotional” and “unprecedented,” I am unimpressed. Pinkus never mentioned Trump by name. When AIPAC invited Trump to speak, they certainly knew what kind of speech Trump would give them. AIPAC repeatedly warned its convention participants not to loudly protest Trump, but evidently thought nothing about loud and obnoxious expressions of support for Trump. Nothing, that is, until it was too late.
But this is a blog about interfaith dialogue, not politics. So, I’ll try to keep my politically partisan nature under control for the moment, and focus on questions of importance to dialogue. In dialogue, it’s important for Jews to communicate who we are to our dialogue partners. It’s just as important for Jews to represent themselves in dialogue, authentically and Jewishly. I imagine that my non-Jewish friends watched the spectacle at AIPAC and asked themselves, what the heck? Is this an accurate picture of American Judaism? I’d like to answer this question with a simple “no,” and simply move on, but that simply isn’t going to work. A more nuanced answer is in order.
Let’s start with the basics. There are roughly 6 million Jews in the United States. We are a diverse lot, as you might expect. But as a group, when it comes to politics, we’re consistent. We support the Democratic Party. Around 2/3 of us identify as Democrats or lean in that direction; only a quarter of us identify or lean Republican. Around 75% of us voted for Obama in 2008; around 70% of us voted for Obama in 2012. We American Jews identify as liberal over conservative by about a 2:1 ratio; this ratio is reversed among the general American public. Among religious groups, only historically black churches and Buddhists are stronger supporters of the Democratic Party, and only Buddhists and Hindus are as liberal.
Polls show that Jews favor big government over small, and strongly support government aid to the poor. 83% of us support legal abortion. 77% of us support same-sex marriage. 71% of us want stricter environmental laws. Jews have supported the Presidency of Barack Obama by about 10% more than Americans in general. At no point has Jewish support of Obama dropped below 52%.
When it comes to support of Israel, American Jews are more moderate than you might expect. Roughly two-thirds of us think that U.S. support of Israel is about right or too supportive. While 31% of Jews think the U.S. government is not supportive enough of Israel, the percentage of Protestants thinking the same thing is actually a little higher! When it comes to white evangelicals, nearly half think the U.S. falls short when it comes to Israel. When asked if G-d gave Israel to the Jewish people, about 60% of the Jews expressing an opinion agreed; the same percentage among Christians is 63%. When asked to cite issues of greatest importance, only 8% of American Jews listed Israel in first or second place; like most Americans, we are concerned first and foremost about jobs, national security, global warming and the other issues at the center of the American political debate.
What about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Here, we need to keep in mind that Israel enjoys broad support in the U.S. About 40% of Americans surveyed refuse to take sides, but another 48% side with Israel and only 12% side with the Palestinians. So, American Jewish support for Israel is probably as much American as it is Jewish. But compared to other Americans, American Jews are more optimistic about the chances for Middle East peace. 61% of American Jews see a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, but only 50% of the overall American population agrees.
Most American Jews support Obama’s approach to Israel. And surprisingly, American Jews are critical of the Israeli government! Only 38% of American Jews think the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to reach a peace settlement, while 48% disagree. A plurality of American Jews (44%) believe that Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank hurts the security of Israel (only 17% say that building settlements helps security, and another 29% says that this building does not affect security).
With this picture of American Jewry in mind, it’s hard to explain AIPAC. Despite the widespread American Jewish concern about Israeli policy, AIPAC strongly and uncritically supports this policy “100% of the time,” according to the critique of rival lobby J Street. AIPAC conducted what was probably their largest campaign ever to oppose the nuclear treaty with Iran; by most polls, 60% of American Jews support this deal. AIPAC’s audience offered a warm welcome not just to Donald Trump, but to Republican Presidential candidates John Kasich and Ted Cruz, as well as Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan; as I noted above, Jews will not be voting for any of these candidates in significant numbers. Increasingly, AIPAC is being seen by liberal American Jews as a right-wing Republican organization that pays lip service to its bipartisan mandate. Or as something even worse. It’s almost impossible to see Jewish liberalism on display at AIPAC.
How, then, can AIPAC continue to claim that it represents American Jews? Well, strictly speaking, it doesn’t. I don’t get a vote on who’s in charge of AIPAC. For all of its self-importance and claimed stance with American Jewry, AIPAC is a private organization. It is run by a board of directors, and it doesn’t disclose a list of who is on its board. Presumably, old board members select new board members. Presumably, board members are selected because they’re prominent in the Jewish community, or because they make large financial contributions to AIPAC. That doesn’t make AIPAC representative of Jews as a whole. It means that AIPAC follows its own perceived wisdom.
Jewish leaders will sometimes say that they represent “knowledgeable” Jews, or “involved” Jews, or “engaged” Jews, who are less critical of Israeli policy. This is nonsense, of course. The polls show that Israel receives more criticism from younger Jews, and less criticism from Orthodox Jews, but there’s nothing in the polls to indicate that greater commitment to Judaism leads to a less critical attitude towards Israel. If anything, I’d argue the reverse: Jews who are critical of Israeli policy are frequently shoved to the Jewish margins. It’s not that Jews will come to agree with AIPAC as they become more involved with Judaism; it’s more that Jews critical of Israel have a more difficult time finding a place in the Jewish community.
But … I SAID I wasn’t going to talk about politics. This is a blog about dialogue. In interfaith dialogue, Israel may be the most difficult topic we have to discuss. I hope that this discussion will help my non-Jewish dialogue partners better understand me (and Jews like me). I even hope that this discussion will help some of my Jewish friends understand me a little better.
AIPAC does not represent me. It does not represent my Rabbis, or most of my Jewish friends.
Please chime in with questions and comments. Per usual.