FOR YEARS I have watched the Palestinians do absurdly self-destructive things, and have never understood them until now. But watching the Bush administration stoutly defend Israel this week against the background of an American Jewish population that vocally (often sneeringly) dislikes him and his administration, and consistently votes by massive majorities for his Democratic opponents, I start to understand the Palestinians just a little.
American Jews are not Palestinians and have not sunk to the level of supporting terrorist murderers. But their behavior is a lesson in self-destructive nihilism that could teach even the Palestinians a thing or two. U.S. Jews remain fervent supporters of an American left that is increasingly unable or unwilling to say why Israel must exist. Of course American Jews, like all Americans, define their interests in terms of many issues and not just one. But there is a reason why so many used to put Israel's safety near the top of their lists: Israel has been caught in a life-or-death struggle since birth; American support is critical to her survival.
True: Jewish support for President Bush moved upward in the 2004 election relative to the 2000 figures. It moved all the way up to 25 percent. During the five presidential elections of the 1970s and '80s, American Jews averaged 35 percent support for the Republican candidate, so 25 percent for Bush in '04 was not exactly a landslide move to the GOP. But even this pint-sized move seems to have petered out earlier this year. Jack Abramoff does not make an attractive spokesman for Jewish Republicans. The fall of Tom DeLay silenced one of the best friends Israel ever had in American politics, and one of the most effective symbols of Republican support for Israel. So the pattern of the '90s is likely to continue: American Jews move left as the left moves away from Israel.
Merely look at American universities and their disastrous left-wing tilt (many are close to capsizing), and check out recent studies that document a startling deterioration in knowledge of and sympathy for Israel on U.S. college campuses, and you will learn plenty about the American left and its increasingly anti-Israel tendencies.
When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are voting to award jobs to a few of his supporters, and influence to vast numbers of them. Most Democratic politicians speak up for Israel. But grassroots Demo crats are increasingly dangerous to the Jewish state (not to mention the American state). Still, American Jews vote for (and bankroll!) Democrats. And each time they repeat this performance, the risk is greater.
Will they risk it again in 2008? Will the Arabs force Israel into yet another round of catastrophic, self-destructive bloodletting after this round is over? In both cases, probably yes.
American Jews (especially the intellectual leadership) have a tragic history of acting against their own professed interests. In the years before Pearl Harbor, U.S. intellectuals on the whole (especially New York intellectuals) vehemently opposed American entry alongside Britain into the war against Nazi Germany. Of course many New York intellectuals were not Jews, and many American Jews didn't care for New York intellectuals. But journals like Partisan Review helped shape the cultural climate--and were fiercely antiwar until Pearl Harbor--and were shaped, themselves, by Jewish intellectuals. Leading Jewish intellectuals signed a Partisan Review statement explaining that "Our entry into the war, under the slogan of 'Stop Hitler!' would actually result in the immediate introduction of totalitarianism over here. . . . The American masses can best help [the German people] by fighting at home to keep their own liberties."
Before Pearl Harbor, many prominent (non-intellectual) U.S. Jews failed to support war against Hitler because they were scared--understandably if unforgivably. Anti-Semitism was still real in this country, Jewish influence in America was brand new, and Jews did not want to be blamed for involving their country in another world war. Which makes the case of Partisan Review and other intellectual organs so fascinating. In some respects, left-wing Jewish intellectuals were admirably fearless. Most were Marxists and didn't give a damn what the country thought of them. Nonetheless: The Partisan Review crowd did not speak up for war against Hitler. Just the opposite.
Read that ancient Partisan Review statement and the truth hits home. The problem with the American Jewish left, from 1940 through 2006, is not malevolence but naiveté--naiveté so great, it is the next best thing to stupidity. Naiveté is an occupational hazard among all intellectuals. But American Jews at large respect their intellectuals as much as any group does, and more than most--and way too much for common sense.
The Palestinian Arabs who cheer terrorists on do so out of hate, which is far stronger than intelligent self-interest (or any other emotion). American Jews used to act out of very different motives; used to vote left out of idealism. But that is starting to change. As the left-wing agenda dries up, nothing remains to feed on (if you are used to getting your nourishment left of center) but the bitter weeds of hate. And thus the tragic, pathetic surge of hatred for George Bush on the left, including among left-wing Jews. As I heard someone say last week, "I think Bush is doing great on Israel. Naturally, I still hate his guts."
For those who continue to insist on voting Democratic, the future is written in a recent column by Richard Cohen--who explains that the "greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake." Who advises Israel to "hunker down," while "waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else." It is hard to understand why Israel is a mistake if Switzerland isn't--or the United States, or any other nation or (for that matter) human being. Cohen himself is occupying space right now that someone else could be using, and maybe wants to. The earth's surface did not expand to make room for him. Births have outstripped deaths on this planet for many generations. But we are not in the habit of demanding that human beings justify their existence or be mowed down, and the idea is equally bad in the case of nations.
Life is valuable in itself--human life or the life of nations; one of the main differences being that it is so much harder to create a nation. That the Israelis have done so--have created in fact a free nation and a hugely productive one that treats all its citizens humanely and is a world center of science, medicine, scholarship, and argument (all flavors)--is one of the stunning facts of modern history.
And, of course, the origins of no two nations more resemble each other than Israel's and America's, both created by Europeans clutching Bibles, searching for freedom, prepared to fight for a room of their own. Both populated by human beings, a species not noted for perfection. Yet both strongholds of democracy, freedom, and tolerance nonetheless. Anyone who has decided that Israel is a mistake is likely to come around to the same view of the United States.
But let's consider Cohen's offensive question anyway. Imagine how Jews might have fared in the Middle East over the last half century with no Jewish state to protect them. Would they have done as well as the Syrians, Egyptians, Libyans? Or would they all be dead, along with countless other victims of mass-murdering Arab tyrants? Or should the Middle East have been "restricted," like tony New York clubs in the 1930s--no Jews allowed? And Europe doesn't like Jews any better than the Middle East does; should Europe be restricted too? And what about America?
But Jews no longer have to ask such questions. Cohen may not be so sure that Jews have the same rights as other nations, but thanks to Israel's existence the question is closed and his view no longer matters. One thing is certain: Palestinians and left-wing American Jews would understand each other beautifully if they ever got together for a conference on refusing to face reality.
David Gelernter, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.