As Joe is Biden his time before Inauguration Day, Zionists should wonder, “how can the next administration” – dare I say it – “trump this one’s Middle Eastern accomplishments?”
Clearly, the pro-Israel community should thank President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team for three game-changing achievements – recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, defining the Iran threat more broadly than the rush to go nuclear to include Iran’s region-wide bullying, and facilitating the Abraham Accords-Plus, which have thrilled Gulf Arabs, Israelis, and now Moroccans too. Trump’s Administration has also fought anti-Zionism – and anti-Semitism – at the UN, on campus, and elsewhere.
But two unfortunate trends intensified during the Trump years: American anti-Semitism and the deepening partisan divide over Israel – within the Jewish community globally and between Republicans and Democrats.
Zionists, therefore, should encourage the Biden Administration to build on Trump’s accomplishments while tackling these festering sores of bigotry and polarization.
Both problems require more education and better advocacy, emphasizing the ideological, strategic, and moral ties uniting Israel and the United States – which has long bonded Democrats and Republicans in the kind of galvanizing missions healthy democracies need.
Today, the conversation can have a deeper dimension as well. While discussing our shared interests and shared values, let’s address our shared challenges as sister democracies. The rise of social media, individuating technologies and today’s tribal mindset, compounded by the loss of community-feeling and an anomie epidemic, have strained democracies in profound ways. Beyond just air-kissing, honest discussions about how those challenges affect Israel and America, and how we handle them could also unite us.
Meanwhile, the calendar offers an unfortunate anniversary that could be put to good use in fighting hatred while creating common platforms for cooperation. One month into Biden’s presidency will mark the twentieth anniversary of “The Asian Preparatory Meeting for the World Conference against Racism,” which convened in Tehran from February 19 to 21, 2001. The Democratic human rights activist, Congressman Tom Lantos, called this conference “the beginning of the end,” as in the end of hopes that the UN’s World Conference against Racism would fight racism. Instead, the Declaration and Plan of Action targeted Zionism and Israel for implementing a “new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity.” Noting that the Iranians had barred delegates from Israel – and from Israel-friendly countries like Australia and New Zealand — Lantos wrote that “the discriminatory atmosphere” there reflected the menacing majority’s “intention to use the conference as a propaganda weapon attacking Israel.”
Six months later, what we now remember in anguish as “The Durban Conference” began on August 31, 2001. The general meeting and the NGO meeting were hatefests targeting Israelis, Zionists, Jews, – leavened with an intense undercurrent of anti-Americanism Americans too-frequently overlook. Days later, with Jews still reeling from Durban, al-Qaida’s evil 9/11 attack on America murdered 2,977 innocents.
Americans and Israelis may occasionally disagree – but our enemies understand how interconnected we are. That’s why they hate us so intensely, with anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism often overlapping and reinforcing one another.
Let us therefore perform a classic Zionist Jew-Jitsu, turning the twentieth anniversaries of these twin days of anguish into moments of solidarity. Starting in February, Zionist organizations should encourage the Biden administration and Congress to support a strong statement affirming Zionism, denouncing anti-Zionism, and repudiating the 2001 Durban conference. We should reach out to African-American allies, explaining that the absurd focus on demonizing Israel and Jews distracted from the conference’s real mandate to fight racism. We should reach out left and right, forging a common front against bigotry and against terrorism, against those who rationalize hate and against those who deploy political violence. And we should use a shared disdain for anti-Zionism to get Christian evangelicals speaking again to traditional liberals, highlighting some fundamental issues on which most Americans and Israelis agree.
A second Jew-Jitsu could turn our shared contempt for the haters into an affirmation of core Zionist values. Zionism is Jewish nationalism. Like American nationalism, it celebrates a particular people’s stories, values, heritage, and ties to a particular homeland, as a launching pad into broader, moral, democratic, universally-constructive visions. It also activates nationalism as a counter-cultural force today, unifying people of different faiths and with different agendas by giving them a sense of community and common cause, while offering badly-needed frameworks for otherwise-alienated individuals seeking meaning and shared values.
In fact, if we could detoxify all the Zionophobia around us, if we could push the conversation about Israel away from settlements and Palestinians and Bibi and BDS – as I have been doing with my Zionist Salons — we could use Zionism as a model for the kind of romantic nationalism that truly made America – and Israel – great: not by building walls but by opening hearts, not by putting up barriers but by reaching out, not by trashing others but by loving ourselves – and our democratic ideals.
Undoubtedly, the Biden years will yield political tensions, personality clashes, tactical differences, between Israelis and Americans – and within the two communities. But shaping a conversation that targets common enemies – and fosters common values — can free us from the constant bile and make us more skeptical about the hysterical headlines. Stated in Zionist terms: we affirm our Political Zionism to fight Zionophobia and Jew-hatred, to protect the Jewish body and build up the Jewish state; we affirm our Identity Zionism to stretch the Jewish soul – while uniting with other proud meaning-seeking liberal nationalists, starting with our American friends.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.