As many of you know, I returned to live in Israel a year ago after 26 years in the place I consider my beloved hometown, Fresno California, located in the large valley that runs down the center of the state. It is more or less equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco; politically it is on a different planet. Its establishment is solidly socially and politically conservative, although Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration. The main industries are agriculture and related occupations, and there is a branch of the California State University known for its business and ag schools. Fresno was the home of noted writer William Saroyan and also a number of surprisingly good poets.
Fresno has a tiny Jewish community, no more than 1000 families in a metropolitan area of about a half million people. On several occasions I was told that I was the first Jew my interlocutor had met. I never noticed anyone checking for horns, though.
There is a Reform Temple with about 350 adult members, a much smaller Conservative congregation and a Chabad house. There are several churches on any non-residential block, including Catholic, several kinds of Orthodox, and countless Protestant denominations.
The three Congressmen representing the Fresno area are two Republicans (Jeff Denham and Devin Nunes) and one Democrat, Jim Costa. The Republicans are opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, but Costa is still undecided. As part of its campaign against the deal, AIPAC is holding ‘townhall’ meetings with its members and undecided congresspersons. Tonight there will be such a meeting with Jim Costa in Fresno.
It will take place in an Evangelical church, the Cornerstone Church of Pastor Jim Franklin.
This seemed strange to me. Why would AIPAC hold a meeting in a church, one which happens to be located in downtown Fresno about as far from most of the Jewish population as possible? Oh, it’s a great facility, modern and attractive, and Franklin is one of the most solidly pro-Israel people you will find anywhere. But aren’t most of AIPAC’s members Jewish?
Temple Beth Israel, the Reform congregation, also a large modern facility, located on the other side of town, would seem to be the appropriate place. But the event is not being held there, and in fact the Temple decided not to move its scheduled board meeting from this evening, which will make it difficult for the board members to attend the AIPAC event. When I inquired, I was told that the rabbi felt the Iran issue would be “too divisive” for the Temple.
You can smell the fear. This is what American liberal Judaism has come to.
AIPAC is a non-partisan organization whose objective is to lobby American politicians in support of Israel. Until recently American Jews have also supported Israel regardless of whether they were Democrats (most were) or Republicans.
But as the Democratic Party moved leftward – a move that sharply accelerated with the election of Barack Obama – Jews began to find themselves conflicted. The anti-Israel narrative formerly associated only with the extreme Left became more and more part of the conventional wisdom in liberal circles. An emblematic event took place at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 when language referring to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was removed and reinserted to a chorus of boos.
Now that Barack Obama has placed his prestige and authority on the line for the Iran deal which Israel (and AIPAC) strongly oppose, the conflict became even sharper. The Iran deal serves multiple purposes for the administration, such as advancing its goals of extracting the US from the Middle East and ending the era of American world leadership. It is also intended to weaken Israel, which it sees as a colonial power oppressing the real ‘owners’ of the Middle East. This project requires separating Israel from its traditional support in the US.
Obama and his people chose to play the Jew card. By presenting opponents of the deal as traitors and warmongers – and Jewish ones particularly as disloyal – the administration is trying to make pro-Israel expression uncomfortable, especially for Jews. When Obama talked about “tens millions of dollars in advertising” and “the same people who argued for the war in Iraq” they heard “Jewish money” and “Jewish neo-cons.” His thousands of surrogates on social media were far less subtle.
This strategy is having its desired effect. Liberal American Jews are being forced to choose between support for the Jewish homeland and what they perceive as loyalty to their country. The Reform movement as a whole preferred not to take a stand on the deal, and apparently the Fresno contingent sees it as too damaging to their fragile unity even to discuss. But this is exactly what they should discuss.
It’s interesting that a movement which values ‘involvement’ and ‘social action’ so strongly and which purports to favor open discussion and democracy above all, has fled from engagement with this particular issue, because it’s “too divisive.” This isn’t just hypocrisy. A big part of the problem is that American Jews have been manipulated by demagogic techniques that appealed to their deep-seated fear of the traditional antisemitic accusations of disloyalty.
AIPAC’s event will be held in an Evangelical church in Fresno because Evangelical Christians, in Fresno and in general, still have more courage to stand up for the survival of a Jewish state than Reform Jews.