November 16, 2018

Can American Jews threaten Israel?

The question presented in the headline has a short answer and a long one. The short answer is yes, they can. In fact, in the past week many of them have. Some leaders warned – an implied threat, no doubt – that philanthropy is going to dry down. If Israel does not change its policy, it will no longer get the billions that it used to get from American philanthropists and activists. If Israel does not change its policy, it will no longer benefit from the political support of American Jews. So, factually, American Jews can make a threat, and in the last couple of days some of their leaders have, much more than they did in the past.

That’s the short answer.

The long answer is really an answer to a different question: Do American Jews have a better chance of getting their way, of achieving their goals, by making threats or implied threats (“it’s not a threat, it’s a warning”)?

To that question there is no simple, short, definitive answer. I suspect that many of the implied threats made in recent days – some quite awkward – were more an expression of anger over Israel’s two decisions concerning conversion and the Kotel compromise than a well-planed and well-executed move to alter Israel’s behavior. And, of course, most of the anger is justified. The government of Israel decided to renege on an agreed compromise, and to change the status quo on conversion. Still, anger is not a plan. Anger can be channeled to become a planning process. And the planning process ought to include the question: will threats make it more likely that Israel’s policy will change?

Here are some things to consider when trying to answer this question:

1. Israelis have interest in Diaspora Jews if they feel that there is a partnership and an unconditional bond between all Jews. Threats could suggest that the bond is conditional and make Israelis more suspicious of US Jews.

2. Israelis are stiff necked and dislike threats. They have been threatened by many forces in the past, some of which were more dangerous and deadly than US Jews – and threats usually makes them less inclined to compromise, not more so.

3. Israel is a powerful country. It can probably manage without the support of other Jews (or not – but Israelis believe that they can).

4. Threats will split the camp of angered Jews, because some will feel uncomfortable with them, and some will go overboard in making them. A generally unified call for Israel to be more considerate of Diaspora Jews could become yet another intra-Jewish battle.

5. Threats carry the risk of escalation. Unless one wants Israel-Diaspora relations to deteriorate even further, one has to take this into account.

“But what can we do if we can’t even warn the Israeli government and public that the actions they take have consequences?” – that’s the question I was asked by a senior Jewish leader two days ago. I have to admit: I do not have a very good answer to this question. Clearly, the Israeli cabinet did not treat the danger of the consequences of its recent decisions very seriously. Without proper threats, how can US Jews make Israeli Jews internalize the dilemma facing them and the penalties they might have to endure if US Jews distance themselves from the country?

A partial answer would be: make sure you have a real plan when you make threats – or voice concerns and warnings. Use threats cautiously, sparsely. Be attuned to the reaction of Israelis to statements that sound like threats to the Israeli ear. Do not rush to escalate. Try to use back channels and quiet communication with policy makers – rather than making public statements. Yes, put pressure on Israel. No, don’t make it sound like threats. Yes, use available toolboxes to have an impact. No, don’t make Israelis think that you are out to get them and make them surrender. Yes, show Israel that you care about its character. No, don’t sound as if its current character might make you reconsider your support for the state.

A long answer – and not quite satisfying. Unfortunately, it’s the only one I got.