Over the past few months, the Jewish state has been increasingly castigated by U.S. President Barack Obama and his spokesmen as part of botched efforts to bring about a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The tense relationship deteriorated further in recent weeks when the U.S. ritual endorsement of Israel's right to self-defense was linked to criticisms of its behavior.
The U.S. is unquestionably Israel's principal ally. In contrast to most of the world, the American public and a bipartisan Congress remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Until this week, the U.S. has maintained the military partnership with Israel and exercised its veto powers to defend Israel from biased resolutions at the U.N. Security Council. Israel is therefore reluctant to confront the offensive statements emanating from the White House and has gone through the motions of minimizing differences.
Under such circumstances, one would have expected the American Jewish leadership to actively express its concern. Yet, other than the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish establishment appears to have burrowed behind a curtain of deafening silence.
Ironically, engaged American Jews are currently more united in support of Israel than at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Even groups like Peace Now endorsed solidarity meetings and publicly expressed their support. This, despite the fact that the left-wing media again provided excessive exposure to anti-Israeli Jewish individuals and groups, who represent a marginal portion of the committed Jewish community.
American Jews related with shame to the events in 1944 when their leaders, headed by Rabbi Stephen Wise, failed to protest the failure to rescue Jews during the Holocaust in order to appease then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Over the past four decades Jewish leaders have earned a proud reputation of speaking up without fear or favor in relation to Jewish rights, actively combating the demonization and delegitimization of Israel.
In retrospect, American Jewish activism in our era has been rather uncontroversial. The successful protest movements to alleviate the plight of Soviet Jewry and campaigns against anti-Semitism did not ruffle any feathers.
There were occasional differences over Israel with various administrations but, aside from the Carter era and until the Reagan administration, Democratic presidents proved more favorable toward Israel than the Republicans did. That was a source of gratification for most Jews, for whom support of the Democratic Party had virtually become part of their DNA.
Today the situation has changed dramatically. While there is evidence that, overall, Americans have become more pro-Israel, there has been an erosion of support for Israel among far-left elements in the Democratic Party who strongly support Obama. The debates over resolutions relating to Israel at the last Democratic convention highlighted the emergence of intensifying hostility.
Over the past few months, the attitude of the president and his administration toward Israel has dramatically deteriorated. Israel was unfairly blamed for the breakdown in the U.S. peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry shocked Israelis by attempting to substitute Egypt with pro-Hamas Qatar and Turkey as mediators of a Gaza cease-fire agreement -- a step that could have been disastrous for Israel had it not been thwarted.
Obama has not treated Israel as befits an ally. The State Department has condemned Israel for civilian casualties, describing its actions as "disgraceful" and "appalling," while the president referred to thousands of rockets from Hamas as "extraordinarily irresponsible" and even indicated that Israel is obligated to lift the blockade, with no regard to security requirements. In effect, he related to Israel and Hamas in terms of moral equivalency.
Regrettably, Obama's condemnations encouraged the rest the world to demonize Israel and allowed Hamas to believe that continuing the war and sacrificing civilians would ultimately lead to global action to force Israel to concede to its demands. This week, the U.S. upped the ante by introducing new restrictions on the provision of arms supplies to Israel.
Yet not a single criticism of White House policy was heard from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League.
American Jewish leaders are certainly not indifferent to events. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Presidents Conference, has a proven record of devoted and passionate commitment to Israel and the Zionist cause and orchestrated large numbers of effective solidarity demonstrations on behalf of Israel.
There is also no doubt that Jewish organizations like AIPAC, whose efforts over the years have achieved bipartisan congressional support for Israel, have been striving quietly to promote the case for Israel to the White House.
What is difficult to accept is the reluctance to publicly repudiate the offensive statements concerning Israel emanating from Obama and White House spokesmen.
In the past, some Jewish leaders have argued that by speaking up, they would be denied access to the White House. Today that argument is no longer relevant because meaningful access to Jewish leaders is probably more limited than it has ever been in the past half-century.
It seems that the Jewish leadership has decided that confronting Obama would only further polarize the situation, encouraging him to be even more critical toward Israel. There were also concerns that criticizing the White House could result in some Democratic legislators abandoning them in favor of their president.
There are also concerns that after the November congressional elections, Obama will feel free to do whatever he wishes until his term expires. Thus, they have decided that it would be "safer" to concentrate on silent diplomacy and strengthen the relationship with Congress.
Admittedly, these issues of where to draw the line between silent diplomacy and public action are complex and frequently confront Jewish leaders in democratic countries. It is noteworthy that even in relation to Soviet Jewry, initially there were major arguments about the potential terrible consequences protests could incur on Soviet Jews. In most cases, a twin-track approach was adopted. But, since those successful campaigns, American Jews have prided themselves on speaking out and have even derided other Diaspora Jewish communities for remaining silent.
Today, despite the concerns about further polarization, the leadership of the Jewish community is failing to fulfill its mandate if it remains silent when the White House makes negative statements while Israel is locked in a bitter war with genocidal terrorists.
In the wake of the inexplicable silence by the Jewish leadership on the New York Metropolitan Opera's performance of the anti-Semitic "The Death of Klinghoffer," questions are being raised as to whether Jewish leaders are unconsciously drifting back to the "trembling Israelites" approach of the 1940s.
There is an urgent need for soul-searching by the American Jewish leadership. Failure to respond to such provocative outbursts from the White House sends a message of weakness that the Jewish community is no longer willing to publicly confront hostility, and could lead to a significant erosion of American Jewry's political influence.
American Jewish leaders may be motivated by good intentions, but there are means of expressing dissent and retaining respect and dignity. Their ongoing public silence is likely to be condemned by future historians.
Isi Leibler's website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.