Can Post-Jewish Zionism Sustain Israel?

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Spencer Ackerman writes, in a (semi-)rebuttal to this post:

"(T)he vast majority of American Jews won't support an Apartheid Israel. But the Israelis have a different American ally who might: Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists, in the United States, are fully democratic actors, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise domestically. When it comes to Israel, though, their favored approach is for Israel to keep the entire West Bank, for eschatological reasons. They are much, much less concerned about the political character of Israel, and even less concerned with the fate of (non-Christian) Palestinians."

My argument is that Israel will not survive for very long without the active support of American Jewry. Ackerman is arguing that millions of evangelical Christians -- who are concerned about Israel for theological, rather than ethnic, familial, or ideological reasons -- would be able to maintain American support for Israel in Washington even without broad Jewish support. I'm not disputing the notion that this movement (post-Jewish Zionism, in Matthew Yglesias's phrase) worries less about Israel's democratic character than it does about Israel's Jewish character, and about the Christian messianic promise embedded in the return of Jews to their historic homeland, but I take issue with the idea that it has as much power as Ackerman ascribes to it here:

"...(C)onspiratorial talk about the Israel Lobby seriously misses the point. The U.S. relationship with Israel is not determined by a narrow band of colluding Washington, New York and Hollywood Jews. It's not even determined by Jews, full stop. It thrives because one of the most powerful constituencies in American politics, conservative Christians, identifies with Israel -- and not with politicians who question it. You can see that, barometrically, in the GOP presidential debates, in which the candidates line up to outdo each other in vowing support for Israel and bashing Obama for his insufficient affection for Israel.

It's not that Post-Jewish Zionists like apartheid. They just like Israel fulfilling what they understand to be a divine mandate; they additionally identify with Israeli rhetoric about being tough to survive in a hostile region; and they consider politicians who are comfortable with pressure on Israel to be opponents of their broader conservative agenda. (Probably a correct calculation.) As long as American politicians make the -- frankly correct -- democratic political calculation that there are more votes in Post-Jewish Zionism than there are in liberal Zionism, Israel won't face American pressure. And as Goldberg and everyone else correctly observes, there is very little time left on Israel's demographic clock before Zionism faces a full-blown crisis.

I don't disagree with Ackerman about the priorities of conservative Christian "Zionists" (I'm not sure I would label what they believe "Zionism,' because their beliefs don't have much to do with the reasons actual political Zionism came into existence, but you should pardon the digression). What I don't fully accept is the notion that evangelical Christians are a) truly devoted in a permanent way to the cause of Israel, and b) that their current commitment is deep and abiding, and c) they possess the political infrastructure to protect, over time, Israel in the American foreign policy debate.

Though I don't always subscribe to the view that philo-Semites are simply anti-Semites who like Jews, I do think philo-Semitism, which is rooted in the idea that Jews are somehow different than everyone else, can curdle and become its opposite rather quickly. In this particular case, that of evangelical Christians, I think that this could happen. Remember that evangelical Christians don't often know Jews; what they do know of Jews in America -- that they are mainly liberal -- is not something they like; remember that evangelical leaders have sometimes expressed themselves in crudely anti-Semitic ways (the late Rev. Falwell comes to mind) and remember that before Christian evangelicals decided to like Jews (rather recently) they didn't like Jews at all. (And I think Ackerman is correct when he notes that a future, compromise-oriented Israeli government might very well alienate its evangelical supporters, but that's another subject.) Many evangelical supporters of Israel do not like Israel for what it is, and they do not like Jews for who they are. They like Israel as a steppingstone to the Second Coming, and they like Jews in the abstract because their savior was Jewish.

On the second point, keep this in mind: Though evangelical supporters of Israel outnumber Jewish supporters in America, the quality of their support is very different, and not only in  financial terms. There are quite literally thousands of Jews in America who work full-time -- I mean, in paid positions, underwritten by donations from other Jews -- to buttress Israeli academic, cultural, medical, and charitable institutions, and to buttress the Israel-America political and defense relationship. Tens of thousands of other American Jews stand behind these professionals as lay leaders, sometimes devoting 20, 30 or 40 hours each week to their slice of the cause. And outside this ring are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of other Jews who donate time and money on a regular basis to this relationship. The vast majority of the thousands of rabbis who lead synagogues in every city in America organize much of their professional lives around supporting and explaining Israel as well, from encouraging congregants to buy Israel Bonds to leading communal trips each year to Israel. I simply do not see this level of deep and broad engagement among evangelicals.

There are, of course, organizations and ministers thoroughly devoted to their version of this cause, but Israel, for most evangelicals, is part of package of causes, and their financial and time commitments are not the same as you find among Jews (and many American Jews also have relatives in Israel, which deepens and personalizes the relationship; this cannot be said for evangelicals).

This has been a windbaggy way of saying that this is not merely a numbers game: If the bottom falls out of American Jewish support for Israel, I don't think evangelical Christians would fill the gap. And let's put aside the tragic aspects of this -- the possibility of a divorce between a large sector of American Jewry and the Jewish state, and the devolution of Israel into a country that institutionalizes discrimination, for another time.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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