A few months ago, a young Jewish-American woman was invited to dinner in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood. During the meal, the conversation turned to Israel.
Almost all of the participants - half of them Jewish - expressed blunt anti-Israel sentiment. Because the young woman did not voice support for these views, she was asked if she considered herself a Zionist. At first she answered, no. But a few moments later, she reconsidered.
On second thought, she told her friends, I support Israel’s right to exist - so I suppose I am a Zionist. A heavy silence fell upon the room, and finally the woman was asked to leave. She was told that identifying herself as a Zionist was a hurtful act, and therefore she was no longer welcome.
This Brooklynite anecdote is actually a very big story. It is one of thousands of episodes which attest to the growing animosity among progressive Jewish Americans toward Israel.
In a survey of Jewish voters conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute, following the recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, 34 per cent agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States”; and 25 per cent agreed that “Israel is an Apartheid state”. At the same time, 20 per cent of those under 40 agreed with the statement that “Israel does not have the right to exist”. This means that between a quarter and a third of Jewish Americans see Israel as an entity without genuine legitimacy. They are not only anti-occupation and anti-settlements, they are anti-Israel.
But the problem is much broader. The vast majority of Jews in the diaspora are non-Orthodox. Many of them believe that Israel disregards their beliefs, values and way of life. Throughout the world, numerous young Jews feel they cannot identify with Israel because of its continued occupation of the West Bank - and because of its religious bias. Israel, for its part, is ignoring this crucial issue.
During the long years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, Israel’s Foreign Office was dysfunctional. No minister was appointed, and hardly anyone on staff recognized the changes occurring in the United States and in the Jewish world. Under Netanyahu, Israel abandoned the liberal world and turned its back on the Jewish diaspora.
The gravity of these developments should serve as an urgent wake-up call for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Both are Jewish patriots, who do not want to lose the Jewish world. Both are young and promising leaders. Both are fluent English speakers, who know the United States well and are acutely aware of the crucial importance of the American-Israeli alliance.
Therefore, I must urge them to recognize the fact that what is happening today at American universities, on American social networks and in Jewish communities around the world is threatening the Zionist enterprise. It is no longer simply a PR problem. It is a danger to Israel’s national security. It is a new and grave existential threat.
How did we get here? A noxious combination of three destructive processes.
In the United States, the new radical-progressive camp has greatly distanced itself from the values that have characterized the Democratic Party for over a century. As a result, its attitude toward the Jewish people and the Jewish state has changed. It no longer sees Jews as part of a coalition-of-minorities, but as part of the privileged white establishment. Absurdly, it no longer sees Israel as an oasis of liberty — but as a violent, racist and colonialist entity.
At the same time, world Jewry has also experienced profound change. For my parents’ generation, Israel was sacrosanct. They were willing to do almost anything to guarantee its survival and success. My generation, too, is, for the most part, deeply committed to the Jewish-democratic state. But for my children’s and grandchildren’s generations, the situation is quite different.
The weakening of Jewish education, the fading memory of the Holocaust and the disappointment in Israel’s policies toward non-Orthodox Jews have led to a growing rift.
In Israel, the conservative Right has moved far away from the common values which served as the basis for the profound cooperation between the great America democracy and the frontier Israeli democracy. Concurrently, the capitulation to ultra-Orthodox parties and the indifference among the wider Israeli public severely undermined the commitment to non-Orthodox Jews around the world. By its own hand, Israel eroded its longstanding alliance with America - and its cherished covenant with the Jewish diaspora. By continuing to insist upon ruling the Palestinian people, building more settlements and promoting a nationalist-religious agenda - thereby alienating Conservative and Reform Jews - Israel has played into the hands of its enemies in the United States and Europe.
An inadvertent, perverse unity of purpose between BDS activists in America and Europe, extremist settlers and some anti-Zionist Haredim has created a new and combustible reality. The unholy alliance between Israeli right-wing extremists and American and European left-wing radicals represents the most dangerous attack on Israel I have witnessed in my lifetime. Simultaneously, we are losing our young Jews and failing in the struggle against our anti-Semitic adversaries.
I call upon Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Minister Lapid to take action. Put right what went wrong during the Netanyahu era. As the precedent-setting decision by Ben&Jerry’s to stop selling its ice cream in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank reveals, the danger is close at hand.
As the dinner party in Brooklyn shows, the situation has become toxic. Bennett's visit to the White House this week - and the appointment of a new Israeli ambassador to Washington - should be used to launch a Jewish, Israeli, Zionist counter-offensive. Israel must place public diplomacy at the top of its agenda. This requires marshaling prodigious resources, recruiting uniquely talented individuals and devising a comprehensive and creative strategy. The Foreign Ministry must conceive and implement a cogent multi-pronged hasbara campaign the likes of which was never pursued in the past.
But first and foremost, Israel must embrace world Jewry and renew its alliance with the Jewish people. And Israel must resume the peace process with the Palestinians and work earnestly, diligently and bravely to bring about a two-state solution. Only thus will it be able to prevent the anti-Israel pandemic we are seeing today from escalating and spiraling out of control.
If Israel does not find its way into the hearts and minds of millennials, Americans and Jews, the crucial American-Israeli alliance will be severely damaged. And if this alliance is thus damaged, Israel will grow weaker and suffer. Bennett and Lapid must do everything within their power to turn this around: rebuild the American-Israeli alliance and the Israeli-Jewish alliance here and now.
Ron Lauder is an American businessman, billionaire, philanthropist, art collector, political activist and the President of the World Jewish Congress.