by Jonathan Tobin
(JNS) — Now that he’s no longer Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer is free to tell it completely like it is. Speaking at a conference hosted by the Makor Rishon publication, the American-born Dermer made a pronouncement that was bound to raise the hackles of many American Jews.
Asked if the government led by his former boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had placed too much emphasis on outreach to evangelical Christians in the United States, Dermer turned the question on its head. Saying something that is rarely said aloud by an Israeli official, but which is not really in question, he stated the following:
“About 25 percent [of Americans] — some people think more — are evangelical Christians. Less than 2 percent of Americans are Jews. So if you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to evangelical Christians than you would do to Jews.”
If anyone is entitled to blow off some steam after serving as Israel’s envoy in Washington for more than seven years, it’s Dermer. He served during the moments of worst tension between Israel and the Obama administration during the lead-up to the adoption of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He was also Netanyahu’s point man in America during what proved to be a period of close cooperation between the two allies during the Trump administration.
But there were two things that stayed the same during those radically different chapters in the U.S.-Israel relationship. One was the consistent and enthusiastic support that Dermer could count on from evangelicals. The other was the always contentious and divided Jewish community response to just about anything Israel does.
That’s an important observation, but it is particularly timely this week as the people of Israel came under deadly rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza after days of Arab rioting in Jerusalem. With unrest spreading, including an ugly riot by Israeli Arabs in Lod, Akko and elsewhere, the question of how Americans are responding to the crisis is neither theoretical nor unimportant.
Jewish groups expressed horror at the rocket attacks and violence. Yet the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the political arm of the largest Jewish denomination, had nothing to say about the tragedy. Many of the comments from other mainstream Jewish groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, about the conflict incited by Palestinian leaders in order to distract from their own failures and the cancelation of their elections have been predictably “even-handed” in their calls for both sides to stand down.
Some, like the left-wing lobby J Street, went further and applauded the Biden administration’s response which cast Israeli efforts at self-defense and Jews seeking to recover their Jerusalem property as on the same moral plane as terrorism and murder. Meanwhile, the anti-Zionist and sometimes antisemitic Jewish Voice for Peace expressed solidarity with Arab squatters in Jerusalem while having nothing to say about the deaths of Jews or terrorism.
By contrast, pro-Israel evangelical groups were quick to declare their devotion to Israel in no uncertain terms. For organizations like Christians United for Israel, there was no talk about sympathy for both sides or calls for mutual restraint — just solidarity with the Jewish state and anger over the attacks on it.
Dermer, who was in Washington during the 2014 summer war with Hamas in Gaza, understands the pattern all too well. More to the point, he realizes that it is a natural result of the two groups’ political priorities.
While polls show that most American Jews have some degree of concern about Israel and feel a connection to the Jewish state, it’s not a priority for many of them. Indeed, for the overwhelming majority of American Jews who identity as political liberals, Israel ranks far below ideas about social justice, abortion, the economy or immigration as a concern.
By contrast, for the minority of Jews who are Orthodox or politically conservative, it is a litmus-test issue. It’s the same for evangelicals. Support for Israel is one of their most important topics, right up there with social issues like abortion (pro-life as opposed to the pro-choice majority among the Jews) and religious liberty.
So it’s hardly surprising that the man who spent much of the last decade trying to rally support for Israel in America would feel that conservative Christians are more reliable, as well as more ardent friends of the Jewish state than most Jews.
Nor is he wrong to think that outreach among evangelicals is not superfluous. As much as groups like CUFI are powerful moral and political forces driving grassroots support for Israel around the country, this huge demographic group cannot be taken for granted. Anti-Israel groups have seen the importance of evangelical opinion, and have sought to influence and diminish its ability to rally conservative Christian voters to let Washington know how they feel.
Moreover, although pro-Israel evangelicals often seem impervious to the antipathy that many Jews feel for them, they have noticed that the liberal majority of Jews regards their pro-Israel activism with both skepticism and even not a little contempt.
Many Jews claim — often without actually knowing a thing about evangelical theology — that their sympathy for Israel is bound up with eschatological beliefs about the Second Coming, as well as the notion that some Armageddon-type final battle between Israel and its enemies will bring the return of their Messiah and the final conversion of all Jews. They have no idea that most conservative Christians back the Jewish state simply because their Bible and faith tells them that he who blesses Israel will themselves be blessed.
Moreover, they take the promises made in the Bible to the Jews about the disposition of the land of Israel seriously, which is something that is not true of most American Jews. Even so, the idea that Jews who don’t believe in Christian theology worrying about what will happen after a theoretical return of Jesus is risible.
Still, Dermer is right to think that ignoring them or simply counting on them to wield their considerable influence on Israel’s behalf is short-sighted.
But to assert that Israel and pro-Israel Jews need to cultivate, rather than slight, evangelicals does not mean that the Jewish state should consider efforts to build support in the Jewish community a waste of time.
The task of educating American Jews about the importance of Israel can be difficult. And it is frustrating when so much of the community acts as if it is a red state that is alien to their blue state political sensibilities. But it would be both wrong and counterproductive for anyone to interpret Dermer’s remarks as an excuse to write off much of American Jewry.
Israel remains not just a Jewish state, but the beating heart of the Jewish people that is a vital source of inspiration and encouragement to a Diaspora urgently in need of both. Israeli and American Jews are, in many respects, two very separate tribes with different values and interests, as well as differences about the respective merit of American political leaders like presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. But American Jews desperately need Israel as its spiritual center.
In weeks like these, when Israel is being unfairly attacked in the Western press and faces arduous choices in terms of fending off terror and unrest, it needs the friendship of all Americans — Jews and non-Jews alike. And even if it begins to treat Christian conservatives as the essential ally that they are, American and Israeli Jews must also remember that they still need each other as much, if not more, than ever before.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.