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The Influence Of American Jewish Attitudes On Israeli Politics

Apr 13, 2019
Originally published on April 13, 2019 2:34 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Israel this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election for his fourth consecutive term, his fifth term overall. And as the campaign unfolded, we heard about Netanyahu's imprint on Israeli politics over the years. But we found ourselves interested in what may have an influence on him. Specifically, we were wondering if the American Jewish community remains an important factor in his point of view.

For that perspective, we're joined in our studios by Nadine Epstein. She's editor-in-chief and CEO of Moment Magazine. It's a magazine that was co-founded in 1975 by the late Nobel Peace Prize human rights activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. And Nadine Epstein is here with us in our studios now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

NADINE EPSTEIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Could you just describe historically what the relationship has been, say, in recent years over the last, say, 15 or 20 years between the American Jewish community and Israeli politics overall? I mean, did Americans - see themselves as influential, were they influential?

EPSTEIN: I think American Jews saw themselves as very influential on Israel, and they were part of the building of the whole Zionist enterprise for decades. And this changed dramatically really over the last 10 years in part after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected again for his second term in 2007. He had been prime minister also for three years in the 1990s. And what happened in Israel was a new kind of - more religious messianic Zionism began to take root which was much more supportive of settlements. And it was a different kind of Zionism than I think most American Jews are comfortable with.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that the majority of American Jews lean Democratic, and yet we see that President Trump has made an aggressive effort to reach out to conservative Jewish people. He's also made an effort to reach out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Benjamin Netanyahu has reached back to him. How is that being perceived in the American Jewish community? How is that understood?

EPSTEIN: It depends on where you are in the Jewish - American Jewish community. And you'll see that the 25 percent of Jews who are on the right are now embracing the Netanyahu government. And then you'll see the 75 percent of people voting Democrat are very uncomfortable not with Israel but with the policies of the Netanyahu government.

And that's very important to make that distinction because I think the vast majority of Americans are all very supportive of Israel. And certainly the vast majority of American Jews care deeply about Israel. But what has happened as the bigger picture has changed, you see more and more American Jews in the middle, feeling disaffected, feeling less connected with Israel. That's something very concerning in the American Jewish community.

MARTIN: Now that Donald Trump's aides have leaked that the president is expected to release a peace plan once the prime minister forms a coalition government, as he is expected to do, how do you see that playing out among the American Jewish community?

EPSTEIN: Well, first of all, the new concern is that right before the election, that Netanyahu brought up annexation. And that has sent shivers through much of the American Jewish community. You see a number of high-ranking members of Congress who are actually normally very close to AIPAC speaking out against annexation. You see center-establishment organizations very concerned and publicly speaking out against annexation. So annexation is sort of like the new fear among, I think, many in the Jewish community. And again, I'm speaking for the middle, not so much for the right or for the left here.

MARTIN: So do people feel less connected to Israel than they had been in the past? I mean, do they feel less welcome there?

EPSTEIN: I wouldn't say that they feel less welcome there, but there's definitely been a long process now of disaffection. And I actually just interviewed Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel. I spoke to him before the election, and he was voicing what I hear all the time from Israeli leaders and Israelis, that young American Jews no longer feel the same kind of connection that young Jews and different generations felt towards Israel. And studies show that that is true. But there's another element that

I think many people like Barak and also other Israelis are missing and that there are many middle-aged and elderly American Jews who are also feeling disaffected and who have just had to step back because this has been going on so long. And they're so disappointed. And they just don't feel that connection to Israel that they once did. And in the long term, the American Jewish community doesn't want any of that. In the long term, Israel doesn't want that. There is a really important connection between the American Jewish community and Israel. And it's a very important one for Israel. And it's a very important one for American Jews. We don't want to lose that.

MARTIN: That's Nadine Epstein, editor-in-chief and CEO of Moment Magazine. She's also the author of the new book "Elie Wiesel, An Extraordinary Life And Legacy." She was kind of to join us our studios in Washington, D.C. Nadine Epstein, thank you so much for joining us.

EPSTEIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.