September 18, 2018

The Stick Shtick

American Jewish support is essential for Israel’s survival. This has been the tune we all have been singing for a long time, without much stopping to think, well, is this really the case?

Relations with Israel are essential for Diaspora Jewish survival. We’ve been singing this tune, too, but is it true?

Maybe stopping to think about these questions is too dangerous. What happens if we suddenly realize that Israel can do without Jews in the United States? What happens if U.S. Jews suddenly realize that Israel is a nuisance they can do without? What happens if this process of thinking ends up in miscalculation — “we” believe that we can do without “them,” when we can’t, or “you” believe that you can do without “us,” when you can’t?

On the other hand, maybe stopping to think about these questions could clarify some things.

For example, that Israel needs the support of U.S. Jews — but not as much if “support” means disruption and delegitimization.

For example, that U.S. Jews need the connection with Israel — but not as much if such connection means having to contend with insult and disrespect.

Understanding that the essentiality of connection holds true only if by connection we refer to a positive connection, is in itself an essentiality. As forgetting this seemingly obvious fact — we want to be friends, not “friends” — leads people to conclusions that are way off. It leads them to believe that they hold a stick that isn’t a stick. It leads them to believe that they can wave this stick and expect a result. Wave a Natalie Portman snub and get rid of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Wave an Anti-Defamation League protest letter and alter Israel’s immigration policy. Wave a Peter Beinart critique and Israel will change its Gaza modus operandi.

Israel is used to getting advice from U.S. Jews, sometimes reasonable, sometimes puzzling.

Consider this: Realistic people do not expect to see all of their preferences materialize. I am displeased with China’s record on human rights. Yet I understand that my disavowal matters little to the leaders of that great nation. I am not happy with trends in the classical music world — but I know that my power to alter these trends is limited (especially so since I rarely go to a concert). It could make me dissatisfied, but never angry. I cannot be angry at China for not taking my advice.

Israel is used to getting advice from U.S. Jews, sometimes reasonable, sometimes puzzling (you must resume the peace process, American Jewish columnists scold us, as if Israel neglects to do this because of mere forgetfulness). Advice can be helpful, and even criticism has its place in a healthy relations. Israel would be wise to invite advice and criticism, and would be wise to occasionally listen to advice and seriously consider criticism. Still, the fact that many Jews in the U.S. get angry when Israel doesn’t heed their advice stems from simple confusion: These Jews assume that they have power to sway Israel when they don’t. Not more so than I have the power to sway China or the masters of classical music.

Israelis are not immune from making similar mistakes. They wrongly assume, for example, that their political preferences ought to convince U.S. Jews to vote for a Donald Trump rather than a Barack Obama. When the next round of election proves them wrong — and it will prove them wrong even if the Democratic opponent is highly problematic in the eyes of Israelis (anyone for Bernie?) — they will get angry. Why? Because they assume a clout that they do not have over American Jewish political preferences.

Mutual anger is never good for any relations, and it is even worse when the core reason for anger is misapprehension of the nature of the relations. If you assume that to have good relations “we” need to follow “your” advice — and if “we” have no intention whatsoever to follow “your” advice — both of us are stuck. And this is true whether by “we” you mean we Israelis or we Americans, whether by “you” you mean you Israelis or you Americans.

Ask any marriage counselor and you will hear this: Reasonable mutual expectations are vital for keeping a healthy marriage. And you will be told that respect for the preferences of others is vital for keeping a healthy marriage. And ultimately, you will be advised that anger will not get you very far. That is, if you want a happy marriage.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.