The Illusion of Jewish Unity

Yitzhak Shamir
Yitzhak Shamir; drawing by David Levine


In the political drama playing on Israeli television, American Jews are shown as largely supporting Israel’s hard line. During Yitzhak Shamir’s visit to the United States in March, he addressed two national Jewish conferences, first, of the “young leaders” of the United Jewish Appeal in Washington, then of the leaders of the American Jewish organizations in New York. He was cheered at the first meeting, and there was only a scattering of opposition to his views at the second. American Jewish leaders were demonstrating their solidarity with Israel at the very moment, in fact, that polls were showing that most American Jews were critical of its policies. But that criticism was not perceived in Israel.

After the meetings with Shamir, Gideon Samet, a columnist for Ha’aretz who had been its Washington correspondent in the early 1980s, protested that American Jews had betrayed their liberal convictions and had let Israel down. Samet was upset because he knew that the film clips of those meetings on the Israeli 9 o’clock news, which the entire country stops to watch, would be interpreted as a triumph of Shamir. He would be seen to have persuaded American Jews to support the position that it was better to remain at war with the Palestinians than to have to surrender any part of the “undivided Land of Israel.” Since Israel itself is split between hawks and doves, the doves needed direct and unmistakable support from American Jews to help them influence opinion. At the very least, they hoped for television images that would show the average Israeli that a serious confrontation had taken place with Shamir.

Israel’s left wing should not have been surprised: they have been disappointed before. In the years before he came to power in 1977, Begin used to argue that American Jews were capitalists, that they were, indeed, among the greatest beneficiaries of the free enterprise system. He appealed to the Jews in the Diaspora to put their weight on the side of capitalism in Israel, and thus create a world Jewish majority against the socialism of the Labor party. Begin even went so far as to propose a second chamber to advise the Knesset—he called it, with a dose of melodrama, a Jewish “House of Lords”—to which leading figures in the Diaspora would be appointed along with their peers in Israel. This body was to act as a brake on the leftist policies of the Israeli government and give it advice from on high. Of course, nothing ever came of Begin’s suggestion. So long as Labor was in power, it did not want such highly placed kibitzers. When Begin himself became prime minister, he never said another word about the “House of Lords.” He made it even clearer than Golda Meir had before him that what he expected of Jewish leaders of the Diaspora was not advice but agreement.

The truth is that…

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