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Posted by on Dec 27, 2016 in Haaretz | 6 comments

American Jews in Uproar After UN Vote

American Jewry, it is fair to say, is in an absolute uproar. Every Jew involved in the community has something to say about the response of the U.S. government to last week’s UN Security Council resolution on settlements.

United Nations Vote on Israeli Settlements

(AFP Photo)

Even when there is general agreement that the U.S. was in error, there is little consensus about the broader meaning of these events and what to expect in the weeks ahead.

I offer some thoughts on what is happening among American Jews and what lessons might be learned from recent events.

1. American Jews are profoundly uncomfortable. Nothing is more distressing to them than a major, public disagreement between their government and the government of Israel. And disagreements don’t get much more public and vitriolic than the one that is now taking place. Hardly ever in Israel’s history have Israeli government officials engaged in the kind of frenzied name-calling directed at a President of the United States that we are now witnessing.

2. Uncomfortable or not, most American Jews, including its liberal branches, were not happy with the decision of the Obama administration to allow the UN Security Council resolution to pass by abstaining rather than exercising its veto. This was due in some measure to the one-sided nature of the resolution, although by UN standards it was not nearly as bad as it could have been. But it was mostly due to the revulsion felt in Jewish circles at the inexcusable hypocrisy of the United Nations, which forever uses Israel as its whipping boy while ignoring genocides and atrocities happening elsewhere.

America’s UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, spoke with great eloquence about UN mistreatment of Israel, and called for an end to “the double-standard that undermines the legitimacy of the [UN].”  Her remarks were intended to explain why America chose to abstain. But American Jews, including many opponents of the settlements, pointed to those same remarks as a compelling reason why Israel deserves American protection in UN forums and why a U.S. veto should have been cast.

3. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has American Jews scratching their heads in dismay at his vindictive response to the UN vote. In what can best be described as a schoolboy tantrum, Netanyahu had his government unleash an endless stream of vicious and personal attacks on President Obama.

Not only were these attacks excessive and unnecessary, they were counterproductive. No matter what transpires in the months ahead, Israel will need to maintain strong bipartisan support in Congress and among all Americans. Since Obama is the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, it is impossible to imagine how targeting the president personally will strengthen Israel’s standing among the Democratic rank and file.

And that was not all. Netanyahu fired off meaningless threats in all directions. For example, he threatened to cut Israel’s contribution to the United Nations, a piddling sum that no one cares about.  And he summoned foreign ambassadors to receive rebukes on Christmas, one of the holiest days of the year for Christians, in what was a truly extraordinary faux pas for the Jewish state. As innumerable Israeli commentators pointed out, what would Israel say if Israeli ambassadors were summoned to foreign embassies on Yom Kippur?

None of this is to suggest that Netanyahu should have remained silent. An appropriate response might have echoed the tough words of Samantha Power about the UN’s moral failings when it comes to Israel, throwing the administration’s words back in its face. This would have been a dignified answer by a responsible leader to a difficult situation. Instead, Israel’s prime minister and his spokespeople, speaking of conspiracies and acting like lunatics, engaged in the schoolyard taunting of America’s elected leader. What, American Jews are asking, is going on?

4. Right-wing American Jews are convinced that President Donald Trump will respond to the current uproar by allowing unrestricted settlement in the West Bank, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and permitting Israel’s very conservative government to do whatever it pleases. Many other American Jews who are not right-wing fear that this is so.

The right-wingers are probably wrong. It is a considerable stretch to think that the Netanyahu government will be given a free hand. General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense-designate, is likely to be the experienced, responsible adult in the Trump cabinet and the linchpin of Trump’s foreign policy. Mattis was Trump’s best pick, a respected general with broad knowledge of diplomacy and military affairs and someone who brings to the table a profound suspicion of Iran and a healthy skepticism of Russia. Mattis is a friend of Israel, but a friend who believes in a two-state solution and who sees Israeli settlements as a potential danger to the region and to Israel.  Settlement building, he once said, if not constrained, could lead to “apartheid.

Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State-designate, is a far more problematic choice for a variety of reasons, but he knows the Middle East well.  And he too is both a friend of Israel and well aware of how dangerous and problematic unrestrained settlement building will be.

Some worry that David Friedman, the new ambassador to Israel, will be setting policy on Israel and the Middle East for President Trump. He won’t. Mattis and Tillerson, who are cabinet heavyweights whether you agree with them or not, did not join the government so the likes of David Friedman could define its foreign policy. My bet is that President Trump will lean on his heavyweights, and they will not permit the settlement fanatics to run amuck.

5. What American Jews yearn for most, of course, is some clarity on what Israel’s settlement policy actually is. They are inclined to support Israel’s government in the current brouhaha, but that does not mean to them that Netanyahu’s approach to settlements makes sense. He claims to want a two-state solution but builds settlements as if he doesn’t. He says that “settlements are not the issue” but always acts as if they are. He tells the right-wing political parties one thing on settlements and the American government something else. Not one American Jew in a thousand can explain Israel’s settlement policy for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist.

American Jews don’t want 1967 borders for Israel, but neither do they want a binational state. And like James Mattis, they certainly don’t want apartheid. The bottom line is that even in the current crisis, while their hearts may be with Israel, they know that clear and reasonable limits must be set on Israeli settlement building. And they also know that if the Israeli government doesn’t set such limits, and soon, the Security Council or the Americans will end up doing it for them.


  1. Hi Rabbi Yoffie,
    Thank you for sharing your measured response. I agree with much of it, but you write that most American Jews are unhappy that the Obama administration allowed the resolution to pass. I, for one, am proud that the Obama administration allowed this resolution to go through. I am sick of the settlements. It is increasingly clear that Netanyahu’s government is actively undermining the possibility of a two-state solution. I will love Israel as long as it is a Jewish Democracy, but population trends are not in its favor. If this resolution serves as a wake-up call, then I am all for it.

    • Thank you for your comment. As I have said to others, there is no data that I am aware of that tells us whether or not American Jews supported the President’s decision to abstain rather than veto. Therefore, I talked to as many people as I could and reviewed literature and written comments from around the country. My best guess is that most American Jews were uncomfortable with the failure to veto. This is not because they support settlements — they don’t, and we have data on that — but because the UN is so morally compromised that it is not fit to make that judgment, or any other, when it comes to Israel. In any case, like you, I am sick of settlements, and as I made clear, Israel’s settlement policy needs to change.

  2. Rabbi Yoffie,

    I write to you as a lifelong member of the Reform movement; as a deeply committed supporter of the State of Israel; as a politically engaged millennial; and as someone who has chosen a career in service to the Jewish community.

    Your op-ed in today’s Ha’aretz, “After UN Vote, American Jews Are Asking What’s Going On,” is a gross misrepresentation of what American Jews are actually thinking and asking.

    For one, there is NOT, as you claim, general agreement at the U.S. was in error. Among those who are aware of this decision, many people support it and have wanted the administration to take similar steps for a long time. This is not a small minority of the pro-Israel community.

    Second, you unironically claim “Nothing is more distressing to them than a major, public disagreement between their government and the government of Israel.” In fact, much more distressing to many American Jews are the endless expansion of settlements and the military occupation of West Bank Palestinians. A lot of people care more about the injustices exacerbating Israel’s isolation, than a widening rift between Israel and the U.S.

    I don’t know you personally, so I can’t fashion an honest guess whether these claims are made out of arrogance, or ignorance. I think the establishment institutions across the American Jewish community have done such a thorough job of stifling dissent and critical thinking on Israel, it may become impossible for an elite like yourself to have a real grasp of where most American Jews are. How many members of our community identify ideologically with J Street, for example, but never disclose that information for fear of excoriation? Our communal conversation has become so warped by repressive attitudes about the Israel conversation, only the voices who support Netanyahu are comfortable airing their opinions.

    So in effect, I can’t really blame you for thinking the way you think on these issues. But respectfully, I need to cut through the groupthink and illuminate a hidden reality: a significant slice of American Jewry enthusiastically supports this decision by the administration. It might even be the case that a majority of young people are on board with the abstention. Maybe it’s time we read Beinart again:

    I am sure I am coming across as arrogant or self-righteous in my own right; please forgive my tone if I’ve crossed the line. I am just so sick and tired of people claiming to speak on my behalf and saying literally the opposite of what I believe. I am more than happy to discuss over the phone if you like, or to continue the dialogue via email. Thank you

    • Dear Evan,

      There is no data that I have seen on how American Jews responded to the American abstention. In the absence of data, I was making my best guess, after talking to many people and reading reports from a variety of sources, both liberal and conservative. I believe that I was right: American Jews are unhappy–or at the very least, uneasy–about the hypocrisy of the UN decision, while at the same time opposed to Netanyahu’s policies on settlement.

      Unless you have data, and you didn’t mention any, I would be cautious about assuming ignorance or arrogance on the part of others. And while many in the Jewish community do their best to suppress views that are contrary to their own, particularly if they are anti-settlement views, we fortunately live in a world where there are many media options that permit us to express what we think. Heaven knows that Haaretz, where I do most of my writing, is open to views on the left; most of what they publish, in fact, is highly critical of Israel’s government and settlement policy.

      From what you say, you and I agree on some things and disagree on others. If you and others that you know have critical views, whether of me or of Jewish leadership or of the government of Israel, I urge you to express them frequently and fiercely.

  3. I think the US should veto any anti Israel resolution at the Security Council regardless of its content on the grounds that the UN should be dealing with other issues rather than simply focusing primarily on Israel. Ambassador Power could have given the same explanation of vote yesterday with some slight changes in support of why the US had cast its veto, rather than the weak explanation for abstaining.

    A friend from LA (formerly on the URJ Board and still on the HUC Board) thought the veto was a good move. I wrote him the following today:

    While I share your sentiments re: settlements, I have a serious concern that expressing/criticizing, taking Israel to task for the policy through the UN by a resolution crafted by Egypt is not the way to achieve change or express policy differences. This is especially true as the UN is unable to effectively deal with the serious, human disasters taking place in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. Israel is on the receiving end of a huge disproportionate number of ongoing attacks by the UN each year at the General Assembly and in other UN bodies. For that reason alone, the US should have vetoed the resolution on the grounds that this is not an acceptable manner in which to deal with the issue.

    Nothing has changed since the days when I served with Canada at the UN dealing with all the Middle East questions and long before I served in the 70s. If anything, in some respects the situation is worse and, in my view, the western democratic members of the UN (including Canada) bear part of the responsibility for allowing the UN to become a dysfunctional international organization, except for some subject areas like health and civil aviation.

    • Mark,

      Yes, you and I are basically in agreement here.


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