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The different reactions of American and Israeli Jews to US President-elect Joe Biden’s early appointment of four Jews to top positions in his administration provide a telling peek into the different ways the two communities view reality.
In this sense, the
of Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Janet Yellen as secretary of the Treasury, Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of Homeland Security, and Ron Klain as Biden’s chief of staff are a Rorschach test of sorts.
Here is one reaction from American Jewry: “We are proud of the fact that this slate of nominees includes multiple Jewish Americans and others whose family history represents the rich tapestry of American society,” the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) said in a statement. “Their understanding of our past will help build a stronger future.”
That response reflects pride that Jews have risen high in the government ranks, and that the new appointees’ understanding of Jewish values will infuse policy.
Contrast that with a tweet from Makor Rishon editor-in-chief Hagai Segal: “There is no need to attribute too much importance to the appointment of Jews in Biden’s administration. There are also a lot of Jews in J Street,” Segal wrote, in reference to the left-wing lobby that has played a leading role in legitimizing and mainstreaming harsh criticism of Israeli policies by both elected and nonelected US officials.
Obviously, Segal, who edits a newspaper with a strong right-wing editorial tilt, does not represent all Israelis, any more than the JDCA reflects the entirety of opinion of American Jewry.
But their different takes on the appointment of Jews to the Biden cabinet, and what those appointments mean, reflect different ways Israeli and American Jews – as a result of their different experiences and different concerns – view the world.
American Jews, said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2009-2013, look at these appointments and feel pride. Israeli Jews, on the other hand, look at them and wonder whether the appointees’ religion will make them more sympathetic to Israel’s concerns.
“American Jews look at these appointments and say, ‘This is what we can achieve in this country, what a country,’” Oren said. “Israelis say they are going to understand us better, because they are Jewish.”
In addition to the pride that US Jews feel when their coreligionists rise to positions of great authority, there are two other emotions in their baggage that Israeli Jews don’t carry in this context: shame and insecurity.
“American Jews first of all feel pride,” Oren stressed. “But they could also feel shame.”
He said that some liberal American Jews looking at US President Donald Trump’s senior advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller often feel shame because these men are Jewish, advocating policies – for instance, on immigration – that they are adamantly against.
And the other emotion triggered by high-level Jewish appointees among American Jewry is often insecurity.
“Because if the Jew in high office pursues policies that are highly controversial, or if that individual fails in office, that reflects on the entire community,” Oren said. Many in the Jewish community, he quipped, look at a non-Jewish official embroiled in controversy and say to themselves, “Thank God he is not Jewish.”
If that degree of insecurity reflects a shtetl mentality, American Jews are not the only ones to have it. Danny Ayalon, who was the ambassador to the US from 2002-2006, during the George W. Bush years, said that mentality also exists among Israelis when they look at Jews abroad in high places.
“I think Jews all over the world are conditioned, because of our 2,000 years of exile and all the tribulations, to always look and see who we can talk to, who we can do business with, whether he is a landsman, a member of the tribe. When you were the few against the many, it was always comforting knowing who you were dealing with, and whether he was your brother.”
Even though today Israelis are “strong, independent and proud,” Ayalon said “we are still in that sense – in that form of conduct – acting a little like we did in the shtetl: ‘Is the official Jewish or not? Is the landowner [paritz] a Jew?”
And what if he is? What if the landowner is a Jew? What if the senior State Department or Pentagon official is a Jew? Does it make a difference? Does it help Israel in any way?
Ayalon thinks not, and said that in his years as ambassador and foreign policy adviser to prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, the fact that there were Jews in prominent roles in the Clinton and Bush administrations did not make his job any easier. In fact, he recalls a time during the controversy over Israel’s selling Harpy drones to China in 2004 – something that the Bush administration wanted to stop – that top Pentagon officials Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz “gave me a dressing down and came down on me like a ton of bricks.”
Ayalon said that his experience over the years taught him that US Jewish officials are “first Americans, and then Jews,” and that this goes to the core of their identity.
Ayalon’s diplomatic career crossed paths with two Jewish US ambassadors to Israel – Martin Indyk and Dan Kurtzer – who were highly critical of the government policies that Ayalon was representing at the time.
“Certainly we did not get any favoritism because of the ethnicity or religion of US officials,” Ayalon said diplomatically. “If anything, it was quite the contrary.”
Ayalon said that “it is not inconceivable” that Jewish officials may feel more free in criticizing Israel “because they don’t risk being called antisemitic.”
Asked point blank if Israel is better or worse off having Jews in top positions affecting Israel in the US, Ayalon said “it depends on the person.” But, he added, he “never, ever, ever” felt that he was on easier ground if the official he was dealing with in Washington happened to be a Jew.
Former ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said that the only advantage in having a Jewish official sit across the table is that “it may enable small talk and the ability to connect better, but regarding the substance of policy it does not mean anything.”
said that while it is understandable that Jews may feel pride when another Jew rises high in any government around the world, “we can’t then come and say that as a result of this we have an insurance policy [regarding policy on Israel], and that everything will be OK. It is not. It may be a source of pride, but we can’t go on the assumption that there is a guarantee that policy issues will go in our direction.”
In fact, he warned, sometimes the opposite is true. “We saw in the past that there were Jews whose policies toward Israel were problematic, and whose being Jewish allowed them to be more critical.”
The example he gave was former president Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, someone who Israeli officials who worked with him said “made our lives miserable.”
Oren advised Israelis not to get excited by the appointment of Jews to top foreign policy and national security positions in the Biden administration. “I think what you have to say is that these people are going to be loyal to the administration’s policies, and that their Jewish identity may make them a little bit more sensitive to our concerns – but at the end of the day they are going to follow policy.”
Oren said that to think otherwise would be a mistake that would only lead to disappointment.
“We can take pride that they are Jewish and have reached high office,” he said. “That’s wonderful, and it says a lot about America and about American Jews that such a high percentage of these officials are Jewish. But don’t think it’s going to affect policy [toward Israel]. And I can think of several examples of people who bent over backward to prove that they were going to be dispassionate about our issues.”
The glaring example he cited was Henry Kissinger, America’s first Jewish secretary of state. Oren pointed out that Kissinger – who infamously said it would be best if Israel “got bloodied” during the Yom Kippur War – opposed an arms airlift during the darkest days of the war, and that it was president Richard Nixon who ordered it.
Former Foreign Ministry directory-general Dore Gold, who also served during his career as ambassador to the UN and foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took a position a bit more forgiving relative to Kissinger, saying that the former secretary of state believed “he was serving America’s and Israel’s interests in the actions he took by turning the Yom Kippur War into a springboard for Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, which didn’t exist before.”
Regarding whether Jewish officials in positions touching on Israel are good or bad for the Jewish state, Gold said, “I don’t distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish American officials. They reflect the interests of the United States, period. However, I would expect that if Israel is dealing with an existential issue, in which our population is threatened, it might matter.”
Asked whether this really held up considering that so many Jews worked in the Obama administration, which entered the nuclear agreement with Iran, a country seen by Israel as an existential threat, Gold said “I don’t think American elites bought into the idea that it [the Iranian nuclear deal] was an existential issue.”
And as to Kissinger during the Yom Kippur War, Gold maintained that Kissinger did not believe Israel was in existential danger.
“I would not rely on somebody’s Jewish background to yield a more sympathetic understanding of Israel, particularly today, when the monolithic [US] Jewish community has been replaced with diverse organizations that pull in different directions,” Gold said. “I’ve had experiences both ways – members of the Jewish community who were strongly supportive, and members who were highly critical.”