Veteran journalist Jonathan Tobin currently serves as editor-in-chief of JNS.org, the Jewish News Syndicate. A contributor of opinion columns to National Review, the New York Post, Haaretz and other publications both in the United States and Israel, he also served as executive editor of Commentary magazine from 2009-11. Tobin spoke recently at the Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto on why Diaspora Jews have turned away from Israel, and what can be done about it.
First of all, how do you know Diaspora Jews have turned away from Israel?
From every indices of support, whether it’s polling, fundraising or levels of activism. There is clearly much more criticism of Israel and there is a growth of groups within the Jewish community that are not merely critical, but overtly either non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have stolen the thunder from groups like Peace Now and JStreet, which are sort of liberal critics of Israel. They are losing, being outflanked on the left by groups that are anti-Israel. The overtly anti-Israel groups are gaining ground on campuses and within many communities. This is not a marginal phenomenon. Polling speaks to a decline in support among young Jews, so this is a real problem. It’s not going away.
When you say that attachment to Israel is declining, is it a generational thing or something else?
I think most of the studies show that it is at least partly generational. Ties among older Jews, who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, or who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, view Israel very differently. Young Jews who grew up in an era in which Israel is not beleaguered but is considered the Goliath to the Palestinian David, think of it differently and approach these issues differently. They do not have the same reflexes.
I think a lot of the focus is about politics. It’s blaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the peace process, settlements, religious pluralism, battles over the Kotel and who is a Jew. Those are real problems that cause antagonism.
I think that the focus on politics when we speak about declining rates of affiliation and support for Israel is something of a misdirection. It’s true, but it doesn’t really explain the problem.
So if there was a Labour government in Israel and a Democratic government in the United States, support for Israel would still be in decline?
It’s not Netanyahu, or U.S. President Donald Trump that drives many liberal Jews in the United States or Canada.
Even if there was a left-wing government in Israel dealing with a Democrat in the White House, I think these issues would still be there, because they are rooted in demography.
The statistics are more extreme in the United States than in Canada, with escalating rates of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jewry, high rates of assimilation, fewer people giving their kids a Jewish education and a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood.
If you raise your kids without a Jewish education, not to think of the world in terms of Jewish parochial ideas, even the most liberal Jewish nationalism seems somehow racist, or off-key to your life. There’s a disconnect there.
Demographers say the fastest growing group of Jews within North America is a group they call “Jews of no religion” – Jews without any real ties or affiliation. Synagogue memberships shrink, federations raise less money. These are real issues. We think of it as a domestic American or Canadian Jewish issue, but it impacts Israel.
So the lack of affiliation or connection to Israel is a symptom of something deeper in the community?
That is exactly my point. So when you say, “What do you do about it,” the approach has to be holistic, not issue specific.
The answer to how do we get more people to care about Israel is the same answer to the question of how do we get people to care more about being Jewish, to care more about Jewish community, to want to have a Jewish family.
The answers are the same when you talk about the guardrails of Jewish life – education, camps, trips to Israel, all these things.
The other point is in terms of the political battles. Increasingly in mainstream society, and in what is considered acceptable liberal society, being for Israel is an extremely unfashionable cause. Part of that is the growth of BDS, which relates to the growth of anti-Zionist groups. It’s really hard to swim against the tide.
Above all, what we need for this generation is the courage to stand up, the courage to be unfashionable. That sounds simple, but it’s really hard and it’s elemental to our problem as a community, if we are not going to address these basic points.
Some people believe there is a longstanding media bias against Israel. Has media bias turned off a lot of people about Israel?
Inasmuch as Jews think about media bias, they think that the vast majority of Canadians or Americans will watch all this negative stuff about Israel and they will wake up one morning and they’re going to hate Israel, and Israel will be isolated and destroyed.
The truth is, we’ve got it backwards. The media bias does not impact non-Jewish opinion about Israel at all.
In the United States, Israel is just as popular as it ever was, if not more popular than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when media bias started to really ramp up.
Where you see the impact of media bias is among Jews. And you ask yourself: why is that?
It’s because Jews regard Israel’s reputation as somehow linked to their own self-esteem.
When Israel is seen as being wonderful, miraculous, successful, it makes us feel good about ourselves.
By contrast, when Israel is assaulted, when Israel is blamed for everything, when news about it is distorted, it makes Jews feel bad about themselves.
Where do things now stand in terms of a peace deal? The Trump administration has moved the embassy, cut off funding for UNRWA and sanctioned Iran. But it seems the administration expects that in exchange, Israel will now make a deal with the Palestinians.
Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with the Trump foreign policy team, has been working on a new Middle East peace plan. Its outlines are not a big secret. It’s calling for a two-state solution.
Netanyahu is not going to say no to it, because he’s counting on his ace in the hole, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, who clearly feel they cannot say yes to anything.
The Palestinians are still mired in this century-old war against Zionism. They’re still paying for martyrs and terrorists. They’re still educating their kids in their official media to hate Israel and Jews. Abbas is far more afraid of Hamas than he is of the ire of the Trump administration and I think the odds of that leading to anything in the immediate future are very small. Why should Netanyahu say no when he knows the Palestinians will do it for him?
Regarding Trump, there are a lot of people who say he encourages the alt-right, that he send out dog-whistles to them with the terminology he uses, with his policies.
To say extreme right-wing haters have any influence in his administration is crazy. It’s false.
It’s a very conservative administration, which is ironic because Trump is not a conservative, never was. And yet most conservatives, the magazines I was affiliate with – Commentary, National Review – we were completely “Never Trump.” We distrusted him. Ironically, he has governed as a conservative in most respects and even on those issues where he has hewed to his populist, rather than traditional conservative, positions, like trade, it hasn’t turned out that bad for him because he got Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA. So to say this is an alt-right administration is false.
There is a disconnect between the things that come out of Trump’s mouth and the way his administration governs on a whole host of issues. That’s very disconcerting. Certainly, style is substance and when you say things, it has an impact. Yet his policies don’t fit in there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.