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A Changing Relationship: Diaspora Jews and Israel in the Trump/Netanyahu Era

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

Event Overview by Dania Tanur

On Wednesday, September 27th, American University’s Center for Israel Studies hosted journalists and authors Laura Blumenfeld and Samuel G. Freedman for a discussion on the diaspora Jews and Israel in the era of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The event, moderated by director of the Jewish Studies Program, Pamela Nadell, received an eager audience of AU students and visitors alike. While the panel discussed several issues that involve diaspora Jews under the current administrations, the speakers also shed light on the way that sociopolitical tensions and the evolution of the Jewish American-Israeli Relationship have shaped where diaspora Jews and Israel stand on various issues in the era of President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Blumenfeld is an author, Middle East analyst, and senior fellow at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Blumenfeld previously served in the US State Department as the senior policy advisor for the Middle East Peace Process. Additionally, Blumenfeld spent two decades as a reporter for the Washington Post covering the Middle East, national security, and presidential politics.

Samuel G. Freedman is an award-winning author, columnist for The New York Times, and professor at Columbia University. He is the author of eight acclaimed books and is currently at work on his ninth, which will be about Hubert Humphrey, Civil Rights, and the 1948 Democratic convention.

On Sociopolitical Tensions

Professor and Chair of the Center for Israel Studies, Michael Brenner, introduced the speakers, but not before discussing the disappointing event that had occurred on American University’s campus the night before the CIS event, which involved an individual posting several Confederate flag posters with cotton attached to them around campus. Though the incident did not affect this particular event, the discussion involving racial equality and minority inclusion was one that resonated with many students. In spite of the incident’s divisive intentions, Brenner conveyed that this will  “bring the university community together even more,” referencing the ceremony held in the Kay Spiritual Center that day, which invited the AU community to discuss the incident and take steps to move forward as a community.

This discussion acted as a meaningful segway to Blumenfeld and Freedman’s first topic on the national anthem and the NFL, and how Jewish NFL team owners have supported their players’ protests against the oppression of people of color in the United States, such as the ongoing issues with police brutality, and more recently, against Trump’s indifference surrounding these issues. Freedman mentioned Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, as one of the most surprising owners to support his players given his previous support for Trump’s campaign and the current administration. Though Kraft supports his players’ sentiments, Freedman also suspects that Kraft’s change of heart may be more closely related to Trump’s poor response to the white supremacist, neo-Nazi related demonstrations in Charlottesville months prior.

What this comment emphasized was the possible shift in American Jews’ perceptions of and relationship to the Trump Administration. Though Trump has utilized influential public figures, such as Gary Cohn and Jared Kushner within his administration, Freedman still emphasized his concern over Trump’s position on American Jewry. He said, “There’s always a sewer populated by bigots…but there’s a message that’s given by public leadership about what is and isn’t admissible… When you give [the public] the message that that is acceptable, they come out of the sewer, and you have a hard time getting them back in.”

Even prior to the events in Charlottesville, Freedman explained that there had been far too many incidents of hatred, saying that this is something that we have “seen before”, and that this administration, with Trump’s contentious rhetoric, may be the opening that allows these “bigots” to emerge from the “sewer.” Blumenfeld, however, suggested that Trump may actually be more of a Philo-Semite, meaning he may hold somewhat over-referential attitudes towards Jews. Freedman agreed with this assessment, citing Trump’s consistent comments regarding Jews being good with money or better lawyers, but did not necessarily see this position as a positive one, as Trump consistently uses stereotypes to label American Jewry, which can be just as insidious.

Freedman explained that stereotyping has been a trend in Trump’s campaign, especially when discussing Mexicans and Muslims, and that this hateful speech is exactly the type of emotional trigger that rounded up votes from those who felt resentment and grievances towards these groups. This tactic, Freedman added, was applied through language and iconography that appeal to such voters and Trump supporters.

On the Evolution of the Jewish American-Israeli Relationship

Blumenfeld then brought up another point, which is that many American non-Jews tend to be supportive and proud of the underdog, such as the self-doubting Jew like Woody Allen, but they are uncomfortable with Israel, or the “swaggering sabra” (a Jew with a gun). With this presidency, she said, the opposite is true. Trump is actually drawn to Israel because Israel is part of the “winning team.” This was not so much the sentiment, she felt, with Obama’s administration. Freedman agreed that there is a  sense of “liberal anxiety over Israel and its military power,” but suggested that Trump is a “bully-coward,” and a “chicken-hawk” who actually enjoys the vicarious thrill from Israel’s military prowess.

Blumenfeld then asked Freedman to explain his particular concern with Trump and Netanyahu’s relationship, citing one of Freedman’s quotes in Ha’aretz, a popular left-wing American-Israeli news outlet, that called Trump a “political kryptonite”, among other things, and that by aligning himself with Trump, Netanyahu tarnishes Israel’s image. Though Freedman explained that Israel needs a relationship with whoever is the current U.S. president, he also said that Trump’s U.S. and Netanyahu’s Israel doesn’t place Israel in the best spotlight, especially for Jews who didn’t vote for Trump.

Furthermore, Freedman insisted that the relationship between American Jews and Israel has actually been disappearing over time, which has allowed Netanyahu to ignore U.S. Jews because he simply does not need them. He knows he needs U.S. partnership, but not necessarily U.S. Jewish partnership. “There has been a gradual disengagement of secular Jews from Israel overtime,” said Freedman, adding that the blame falls as equally on Netanyahu as on American Jews for slowly distancing themselves from Israel despite very successful programs like Birthright and annual conventions such as AIPAC that works to enhance US-Israeli relations.

Shifting to Israelis’ opinions on Trump, many say that Trump “gets it from his gut… Obama never got it,” as claimed by Freedman. While  Blumenfeld suggested that some Israelis fear Trump will eventually turn on them, Freedman seemed to think that would be unlikely, although he did caution that Trump’s indifference to detail regarding Israel could be dangerous in the future.

Samuel Cousin, History major and Law & Society minor in his senior year, found this point to be interesting as well, noting that he had gotten the impression that many Israelis don’t trust Democrats in the U.S., and that when “push comes to shove, America may not have military guarantee with them in a war with Iran or Russia, a possibility with the escalating issues in Syria.” His suggestion is that the Democrats find a candidate with the “right personality who also supports Israel.”

On a more theoretical level, both speakers presented metaphors that capture their views on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Freedman explained that the American Jewish identity is like a stool with three legs—the memory of the Holocaust, an attachment to Israel, and fighting anti-Semitism—and for him, the stool is smashed, relating back to his point that the American Jewish population has drifted away from its involvement in Israel. Blumenfeld, on the other hand, offered the metaphor of a table that stands on four legs. These legs are the U.S. vision with Israel, U.S. action with Israel, the chemistry between leaders, and American Jewry. Blumenfeld was actually more optimistic, stressing that these four legs may be stronger under Trump’s presidency than under Obama’s, especially the last two legs—chemistry between leaders and American Jewry.

Senior and double major in Political Science and Jewish Studies, Aaron Torop, shared some of his impressions on the discussion, mentioning that he enjoyed how nuanced the conversation between the two scholars was. He noted that the two did a good job of explaining the “ups and downs and unpredictability of the relationship between the US and Israel.”

The two then discussed critical issues such as settlements, the controversy of the occupation, the recognition of the State of Israel, and the difficulty involved in discussing the prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine. What they concluded was that commitment is one of the most important elements of this peace as well as for the  U.S.-Israel relationship. It is no secret that the U.S.-Israel relationship has encountered struggles.

The questions, I think, with which many of us are left from this telling conversation, are: what’s next, who will be the one to reorient the direction of the relationship toward one that is more unified, and will it happen anytime soon?  For me, I think the crux of the answer comes from the analogies both speakers discussed. While Freedman makes a valuable point that there has been a gradual separation between American Jews and Israel, perhaps Blumenfeld’s thoughts regarding the chemistry between leaders explain why. However, I would also offer that the president’s popularity has a great deal to do with how his country views Israel. Both Netanyahu and Trump continue to face political and personal scrutiny, so whether they share a closer relationship than the one with Obama, if they are disliked by the majority, then the majority will most likely attempt to distance themselves even further.

Dania Tanur

Born in Mexico City, MX, and raised in Dallas, TX, Dania has carried her passions for Israeli studies through to all aspects–academic, professional and personal–of her life. Dania is a senior pursuing a major in International Studies with a focus on Peace, Global Security and Conflict Resolution and International Development and a minor in Communication. While at AU, Dania has had several political, non-profit and communications internships in and outside of the D.C. area, including the Embassy of Mexico in D.C., The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv, Israel, and La Trastienda Comunicación in Madrid, Spain.

Member of the Student Israelity Team until graduation in December 2017.

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