From Selma to Selma


On March 3rd, Kamala Harris delivered harsh remarks on Israel on the Edward Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, one of the most significant sites for the civil rights movement, a political landmark for the Democratic Party and the alliance between African Americans and American Jews. It is hard not to see in this speech, at this location, the symbol of a progressive distancing between the Democratic Party and Israel.


A rich history

In Selma in 1963, Martin Luther King led a procession for civil rights. By his side was Rabbi Heshel, and this photo has been and remains the symbol of the alliance between American Jews and African Americans within the Democratic Party, as well as the blueprint for the political identity of American Jews.

Martin Luther King was a Zionist and proudly identified as such. It is absurd to invoke him to defend Israel today as it is to criticize the country because today’s Israel bears little resemblance to what it was in the 1960s. However, this reminder is important as it dismantles the idea of inherent antisemitism in the left wing of the Democratic Party, or even among African Americans (partly due to the attitude of Black Lives Matter). Furthermore, this brief historical reminder is useful to illustrate the parallel and divergent evolution between Israel and the Democratic Party, shaped by the civil rights movement since the 1960s.


A divergent evolution

While Israel became more traditionalist and nationalist, the civil rights movement became less universalist and more identity-oriented. This dual evolution explains a distancing whose consequences we are now witnessing in the current crisis.


A portion, still a minority, of the Democratic Party is indeed under the influence of its left wing, with an identity-based and oversimplified assignment between oppressors and oppressed, rejecting not only Israeli policy but in many respects the legitimacy of a state based on ethno-religious affiliation and the “colonization” of “indigenous” lands.


These criticisms find even more resonance as Israel has evolved significantly, becoming more religious and nationalist than it was in the 1960s or 70s. The far-right Kahanists, once ostracized by Shamir or Begin of Likud, now sit in government, with a profoundly illiberal vision of the country and the desire to make any political solution with the Palestinians impossible. At the same time, the influence of the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) has grown from 3% to 15% between 1946 and 2022, and this influence is expected to continue growing, possibly reaching 20-25% by 2040, with an increasingly significant political role in Israel. The vision of Judaism held by Haredi parties effectively excludes liberal and “Masorti” Jews in the United States, who represent 80% of American Jews and are also largely Democratic voters, attached to an Israel that is changing before their worried and sometimes astonished eyes.


Criticism of the “wokeification” of the Democratic Party to explain its increased distrust of Israel is therefore incomplete if it does not take into account Israel’s parallel evolution.

An alliance cannot rely exclusively on shared values from the past when each party is evolving in opposite directions. Yet, in the diaspora, the focus is exclusively on the evolution of the left, especially in America, and very little on the evolution of Israel, as if it has no effect on the country’s alliances.


This blindness is as mistaken as it is deeply problematic because it prevents pragmatic thinking about the relationships between Israel and its allies in favor of a vision solely focused on antisemitism. While antisemitism certainly exists, relying solely on this lens is a fundamental analytical error and, above all, very incomplete.

This distancing has been theorized as much as the “most American of Israeli politicians,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


God laughs at men who complain about the consequences when they cherish the causes (Bossuet)


Since his emergence on the diplomatic and political scene, Netanyahu has had a very clear worldview and has consistently worked to implement it despite his erroneous reputation for pragmatism.


In his book “A Place Among the Nations” published in 1993, he discusses the Jewish destiny as the basis of his belief that Israel’s only destiny is to live by the sword, echoing the thesis defended by his father, Ben Zion Netanyahu, a renowned historian of the Inquisition. His entire political career has been about making this vision a reality and seeing his opponents as incorrigible naifs.

He has relentlessly ostracized liberal American Jews and Democrats in favor of an alliance with ethnonationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and around the world, especially in the United States. His real understanding of the USA has led him not to draw closer to American Jews but to do everything to distance himself from them, and he has succeeded beyond his expectations. For him, American Jews are destined for assimilation and to distance themselves from Israel, and he has systematically worked to make this prediction a reality…


Today, Netanyahu is persona non grata among many American Jews, and he prefers to celebrate his alliance with evangelical Christians. While he remains the king of AIPAC, this powerful lobby does not represent the dominant opinion of American Jews.


Netanyahu has systematically destroyed bridges with American Jews and the Democratic Party. How can we then be surprised that Israel’s standing has diminished so much within this party in recent years?

For a young American born in the 1990s, Israel is Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is Israel, whereas for previous generations, Israel was also represented by figures such as Rabin, Begin, Peres, or even Ben-Gurion. This identification of Netanyahu with Israel today severely penalizes Israel, both in the United States and the rest of the world.


An troubled future

The vast majority of American Jews identify with civil rights and with what happened in Selma in the 1960s as a foundational event of their identity. It is unlikely that they will sacrifice this identity marker for solidarity with a state that is moving away from these values, with a Prime Minister who openly despises them.


It is impossible to separate the internal political and social evolution of Israel from American Jews’ attachment to this country. This attachment will not disappear, but it will become more demanding, less visceral, and it should continue to weaken if the current trend within Israeli society persists, and thus their willingness or ability to defend Israel within the Democratic Party. As for the latter, this distancing risks being even more pronounced because the religious, quasi-familial attachment that unites American Jews to Israel, beyond its governments, is not a factor for non-Jewish Democratic Party voters.


The current trap is that the growing isolation suffered by Israel risks further reinforcing the nationalist and religious evolution of the country, creating a vicious circle that is difficult to stop.

Netanyahu’s legacy is indeed that of self-isolation and accelerated isolation of the country. Netanyahu sees the history of the Jewish people and of Israel as a story of oppression, of loneliness, and it is, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.


In thirty years, we will have gone from “Israel among the nations,” the title of Netanyahu’s book, to “Israel shunned by the nations.” He is certainly not solely responsible for this reality, but he has contributed to it considerably. His vision is becoming a reality, to his great satisfaction, no doubt.

Is it already too late to stop this?


Sebastien Levi



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