Jonathan Tobin: There is a powerful political force that is still very pro-Israel

In the middle of the most recent wave of missile attacks on Israel, Jonathan Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, talks to Neokohn.hu about his work, war in Gaza, Democrats and Jews in the United States, and the decline of the sense of Jewish peoplehood in America.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and also about JNS, the Jewish News Syndicate.

I’m a native of New York, I attended Columbia University, where I studied history. Although I started out as an academic, I eventually wound my way into journalism. I’ve edited weekly newspapers in the United States and various venues, was an editor at Commentary Magazine and was a columnist at Jerusalem Post for a long time. Currently, I am editor-in-chief of JNS.org, the Jewish News Syndicate. I also write regular columns for the New York Post, Newsweek magazine, The Federalist, Washington Examiner and sometimes Haaretz, where we say I’m the dog in the manger there. 

So a bit of the other side, I would say.

A very little bit. I will go down in history as probably the only writer to appear regularly in Israel’s leading right-wing newspaper and Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper. It certainly provides me with a unique window for an audience, some of which like me, some of which really do not.

As for JNS, it is about 10 years old. I came on at the end of 2017, and our audience is now about 8x what it was only a few years ago. Our mission statement is to provide honest Jewish journalism, a view of both the Jewish world and particularly of Israel, but one that is stripped of some of the left-wing, anti-Zionism bias that dominates not only most secular coverage of Israel but also many Anglo-Jewish forums in the United States. 

We like to say that we try to play it straight.

For those who want both news and opinion, we also welcome those who speak up for Israel as well as those who seek to trash it. I think we are providing something that is quite unique right now and hopefully plays an important part in framing the conversation within the Jewish world as well as influencing the non-Jewish world. 

While we speak, Israel is in the midst of a war that’s been going on for some 10 days now.  What’s your take on the current situation, and how would you see the end to this current war? 

Israel has been faced with an impossible choice with respect to Gaza ever since Ariel Sharon withdrew every settler, soldier and settlement in 2005. Gaza is an independent Palestinian state in all but name. Since 2007, it’s been ruled by Hamas, the Islamic terrorist organization, and is basically a terrorist platform. Israel is much more powerful than Hamas, but Hamas is protected by the undeserved sympathy of the world, as well as the fact that really no Israeli government, whether it was run by the left, central or right, considers it a viable option to do what any nation would normally do: go in there, and remove all of those who are doing the shooting. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu has no appetite, no one in Israel really has any appetite, for a ground invasion into Gaza that would rid the world of Hamas, theoretically.

That would take obviously a lot of casualties on the Israeli side as well. 

It would be tremendous casualties, 2014 showed us that. Israel is a small country, a small Jewish country where everyone feels the loss of each life. Eleven dead Jews in the last week is an enormous…

Is 11 too many. 

It’s not only 11 too many; just like at Mt. Meron, that awful disaster earlier this month, every loss of life is felt deeply by the Jewish people, and there’s no way he’s going to order the army in, even if it was considered a viable option. Not only would Israel have to then run Gaza again itself, which few people in Israel have any appetite for, it would involve perhaps hundreds of dead Jewish soldiers. He’s not going to do that. So, sooner or later, whether it’s before Shabbat this week or after that, he’s gonna have to agree to a ceasefire that will leave Hamas in place. Hamas will declare victory, as it always has…

As it always does.

Simply because it has survived and has killed Jews. The current conflict has its origins in a ginned-up argument about Jerusalem that was created by Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, in order to distract his people from the fact that he had canceled the elections; he’s currently serving in the 16th or 17th year of the four-year term to which he was elected. 

Do you not think that canceling the elections was in Israel’s interest a little bit also because, according to the polls, Hamas would have been the winner had the elections been held. 

I think that’s entirely true. Certainly, Hamas would have done well. But even Abbas does not accept legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are. He’s the one who has rejected peace and offers of a Palestinian state repeatedly. 

So, yes, Israel doesn’t want Hamas to be running the West Bank as it does Gaza, so it was not upset with the lack of elections, which would have been a terrible idea in terms of stability. But obviously, Palestinians aren’t that happy about it, and they have a reason not to be happy; they’re ruled by a corrupt government that doesn’t care about them. So, he ginned up this dispute about the Temple Mount, claiming Israel had desecrated the mosque there because police had gone in to remove weapons and fireworks and stones to throw at Jews who were worshipping at the Western Wall.

There is also the court case adjudicating a property dispute in Jerusalem, in the Sheikh Jarrah section. Arabs who had been living there without a lease, basically squatting in Jewish-owned properties, have been allowed to stay for many years by the courts and could remain if they were willing to pay rent to the Jewish owners, but they refuse to do so. They are then saying Israel is trying to “Jewdaize” Jerusalem. 

It’s just an excuse to start the war. 

Exactly; it’s a pretext.

Ever so often, every five or six years, Hamas piles up enough rockets to be able to start some violence. 

Palestinian leaders have been using the Temple Mount, this talk about Jews owning property in Jerusalem, as a false argument since the 1920s. Hamas then jumped in to compete with Abbas and did so in the manner that gives credibility in Palestinian politics,

which is unfortunately the shedding of blood — that’s how Palestinian political factions, terrorist groups, gain traction over each other.

That’s what Hamas did, and it did so spectacularly by sending thousands of rockets into Israel, killing Jews and creating a forceful response by Israel to try to shut down the rocket fire. This led to a couple of hundred of Palestinian deaths, the majority of which were almost certainly terrorists, some of whom were killed by Palestinian rockets, Hamas rockets and Islamic jihad rockets falling into Palestinian areas. But nevertheless, it creates the international furor over the supposedly disproportionate Israeli response, which had been basically orchestrated by Hamas itself, which wants there to be Palestinian casualties; they want to sacrifice their own people.

Israel builds bomb shelters for its people, builds defensive systems to save the lives of its citizens. Gaza has an underground tunnel system, but it’s used for the terrorists and their munitions.

So, we’re in the same position that we were in when the war ended in 2014. But there is a difference — the demonization of Israel, the delegitimization of its right to self-defense, has grown in acceptance in American popular culture and, indeed, even among the political class. There are far more voices raised demonizing Israel today than even there were after 2014, even though the casualties and the fighting was much worse then. And there is a clear reason for that, and it’s twofold. One is that the base of the Democratic party, which now controls Congress and the White House, is now increasingly dominated by a left-wing faction that has very little sympathy for Israel and is openly hostile. 

Led by the progressive Democrats, such as Senator Sanders, Senator Warren and the famous Squad of AOC. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and others whose numbers have actually grown since they first appeared in Congress three years ago. 

It was unheard of in the United States, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, that the United States should withdraw its military aid to the state of Israel. And now these voices are not only out there, but they’re coming from higher and higher sources, high-ranking people.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. And what we’ve seen in the last week is that the majority of the Democrats in the United States Senate have endorsed demands for an immediate ceasefire. 

How do you see President Biden’s role in this thing? 

The Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, and Biden as well, have always been sort of avowedly pro-Israel, although often very critical. But they are clearly intimidated by the strength of their party base, which sympathizes greatly with the progressive critics and haters of Israel in the House.

Their views, which were once outliers, are now very much part of mainstream discourse in American politics.

That’s a shocking thing for the pro-Israel community, and it also reflects the way the two parties have sort of exchanged identities over the course of the last half-century. Fifty or 60 years ago, the Republicans were very equivocal about Israel. Some supported it, some didn’t, some didn’t care. Today, they’re in lockstep, an almost unanimously pro-Israel party, with undiminished and unvarnished expressions of support for Israel these last 10 days. 

On the other hand, the Democrats have become the party that is divided about Israel.

It started already in the Obama era, didn’t it?

Very much so. President Obama was, as one of his diplomats said, not exactly in love with the idea of Israel, as many of his predecessors had been. 

Clearly, the roots of where we are now can be traced to the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, which this administration is dedicated to reviving, which is a very dangerous development for Israel and indeed for the Middle East as a whole and Western security.

But I think to understand why these expressions of hatred for Israel have become so mainstream, it’s not just a matter of politics and politicians, it’s a matter of what happened in American culture in the last year with the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The Black Lives Matter Movement and the rise of critical race theory and ideas about white privilege and intersectionality, which were once very much marginal in terms of American politics, are now very much mainstream.

You, yourself, come from the world of academia, where now it’s been taken over by these ideas. 

Like many bad ideas, it began on college campuses and migrated to the public square. Many people think these are just ordinary expressions of support for equality and opposition to discrimination, which all decent people share. But in fact, this talk of equity and white privilege involves a way of classifying everyone by race, and they see the Palestinian war on Israel’s existence as somehow akin to the struggle for civil rights in the United States and believe that all Jews and Israel are oppressors. 

It’s white oppression.

Even though this is nonsense, the majority of Israeli Jews are, by the definition of progressives, people of color because their origin is in the Middle East, but that doesn’t matter to those who are the influencers in culture, including late night comedians. 

We equate the struggle of black Americans to Palestinians. 

Exactly, so that’s why these views, calling it an apartheid state, have become so intrusive and so much more widespread than they were after 2014. That’s the dilemma that Israel faces, that supporters of Israel currently face. We’re in a much different position now because these ideas have influenced progressives, Blacks and Hispanics, as well as many liberals, who once were supporters of Israel but now view it as an oppressor state. And this places great pressure on Biden, who actually did the right thing, preventing the United Nations Security Council from passing biased resolutions against Israel. But it’s clear he will be moving against it going forward because that’s what his party wants. 

One gets the impression that America is more divided than it ever was after this election. How do you see the future of America and the Jewish stance in American politics? 

You’re absolutely right. Clearly, this is the most hyper-partisan, the most divisive moment in modern American political history, maybe since the Civil War. It is something that’s been building for years, and part of it has to do with the way the media works and this was exacerbated by the role of social media, which is so pervasive. Now, people really live in silos in which they have very little contact with people who don’t share their views. Whenever they’re confronted with opposing views, they delete it, they unfriend people who confront them, and this has created a situation where not only can we no longer agree to disagree, which is the essence of any working democracy,

we’re no longer willing to listen to people who disagree with us, we’re no longer willing to credit them with good motives.

We see people who disagree with us as people who want terrible things to happen, and that’s why the two parties demonize each other in a way that is really unknown in modern American political history. The overwhelming majority of Jews in this country are politically liberal, loyal Democrats. About a quarter to 30% of Jews vote Republican, and a growing percentage of those are Orthodox. 

Conservative Jewish voters, whether Orthodox or not, tend to prioritize Israel. For the majority who are liberal, it’s not as if they all don’t care about Israel, but it is not a priority for them; social justice issues are their priority. 

I just read a survey that talked about Jewish-American youth being very pro-Israel, even among the non-Orthodox and non-conservative Jews, but they tend to vote Democrat which is very perplexing. 

I don’t think it’s going to change. A lot of people on the Left blame American Jewry’s alienation from Israel on Netanyahu, settlements, political issues. I think that’s a mistake. I think it has much more to do with demography and the decline in a sense of Jewish peoplehood and the rise of intermarriage, to the point that the overwhelming majority of Jews who get married are intermarrying. The fastest growing group of American Jews are called “Jews of no religion.” They have very little connection to a sense of Jewish peoplehood and to Israel. Of those who intermarry, less than 30% give their children a Jewish education; that doesn’t mean they don’t identify in some way as Jewish. This is a country where Jews are accepted in virtually every sector of society — in culture, in politics, the economy. 

Admitting your Jewishness does not cause you any harm.

Absolutely. And even to being an observant Jew, in the general context, doesn’t generate much prejudice or almost any at all. I like to joke that the only job a Jew isn’t eligible for is to be the Catholic Archbishop of New York. 

American Jews are not ashamed of being Jewish but neither are they very involved in the normative indicators of Jewish identity, which we traditionally think of as religion, tradition, some sense of connection to Israel — those are declining. The joke is that most Jews’ version of Judaism is the Democratic party platform with holidays thrown in. 

It’s only natural for them to see social justice issues, their perception of what social justice should be, as their most important priority and an expression of their Jewish identity. And a country like Israel, which is centered on a very parochial view of the world rather than a universal interpretation of all humanity, is somewhat alien; it’s a hard sell for a lot of Jews, to think of just preserving Jewish identity, marrying a Jew, a Jewish country. So it’s no surprise that they’re not prioritizing Israel in terms of their political choices and that many of them are even embracing the anti-Israel and indeed sometimes even antisemitic narratives about it. 

What’s the way forward in your view, what will happen eventually?

The thing to understand is that while the progressives, the Left of the Democratic party is increasingly anti-Israel, every poll shows that

the majority of Americans are still very much supportive of Israel and indeed many Democrats.

The first American president to endorse the idea of a Jewish state wasn’t Harry Truman or Woodrow Wilson, it was John Adams, over 220 years ago. So, most Americans are deeply sympathetic to Israel, and most members of Congress tend to be supportive of Israel, even now, because it’s good politics; it’s popular with most Americans.

I don’t think any party that fully embraces the demonization of Israel will find it to their political advantage, outside of sort of deep-blue, left-wing enclaves. That’s why Joe Biden is pushed hither and yon in this way. And it’s troubling that he and even Jewish politicians did not speak up for Israel this week nor criticize the likes of Tlaib and Omar and AOC.

It would be wrong to be complacent, but equally wrong to think that there are not many people in this country, and indeed a powerful political force that is still very pro-Israel. The Republican party remains lockstep pro-Israel, and they have a very good chance of winning back Congress next year. You know, every time anyone wins an election in this country, they always act like it’s the start of a 1,000-year rite, but in two or four years…

In two or four years, they’re out. 

Nothing in politics is permanent, certainly nothing in American politics. So, the doom of Israel, and the doom of being pro-Israel, is not correct. There’s plenty of room to fight back and push back, plenty of voices raised in defense of Israel. They tend to get drowned out in pop culture because that tends to be dominated by the Left, but they are nonetheless still potent.

So I wouldn’t give up hope; we’re still in the fight, and it’s not yet lost. And I don’t think in the end it will be. Israel’s shown in the last decade, in the eight years with President Obama, that it can say no to America when it seeks to pressure it to do something that is not in its interest. It is disappointing that most American Jews will not support that, but that doesn’t mean that that stance isn’t viable and that there aren’t still very strong, very powerful political forces that will work to support Israel. 

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