U.S.-Israeli relations are strained as never before

And it came to pass after the 1977 election for prime minister that Menachem Begin went to the occupied West Bank and declared it "liberated Israeli territory." It ignited a revolution in the construction of Jewish settlements.

That territory since has become an albatross hung around Israel's neck by an intransigent seven-year conservative government, settlers, nationalists and Orthodox Jews who insist on homesteading in areas contested by Palestinians, bringing the Jewish population in the region to about 350,000. Consequently, relations between the United States and Israel have become strained as perhaps never before.


Further, and perhaps more significantly, Israel's walling off and antagonizing not only the Palestinians but those in the West who disagree with its policies is roiling relations between Israel and American Jews.

In a shot across Israel's bow illustrative of the split in the American Jewish community and for what surely is a first in U.S. politics, Israel's marginalization of the Palestinians has been challenged publicly by no less than a popular U.S. presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Jew. Israel overreacted during the Gaza war and the Palestinians have rights, too, he said, recognizing the Palestinians as a people. Talk about shock and awe.


Mr. Sanders' politically bold and risky statement emerged during the most contentious Democratic debate between him and Hillary Clinton, which was held in New York, the heart of American Jewry. It assuredly upset Israel's right-wing political establishment headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has squeezed the livelihood, freedom of movement and property of Palestinians in the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem.

But the widening criticism of a government that may be one of the most nationalistic in Israeli history is not confined to its policy of building new and "thickening" existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Washington has condemned repeatedly in its futile search for a two-state solution to what has been an intractable problem for 49 years.

Seymour D. Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, ignored the settlements when he wrote recently in The Jewish Week that it is time for American Jews to speak out against "Israel's assault on democracy." He listed these details:

• An NGO bill in the Knesset, or parliament, that "targets progressive groups that advocate for human rights and oppose settlements, which depend on funding from foreign organizations." Omitted from the legislation were private individuals who support right-wing causes. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked introduced it.

• Legislation barring Reform and Conservative Jews from ritual baths, which are administered by Orthodox Jews.

• Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett banned from schools and the military an organization of former soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza, Breaking the Silence. The group gathers information from soldiers critical of operations in those areas.

• The Education Ministry, controlled by the religious Jewish Home Party, banned from high school reading lists a novel about a romance between an Arab and a Jew.

There is more, including a bill withholding state funding to institutions that burn the Israeli flag and another, initiated by Mr. Netanyahu, that would permit a supermajority to end the term of a sitting Knesset member. The target: Israeli Arab members of the 120-seat chamber.


"American Jewish community leaders … should spearhead the condemnation of anti-democratic practices such as these," Mr. Reich wrote.

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the army's deputy chief of staff, picked up the cudgel during a Holocaust Remembrance Day address, sparking controversy when he said, "It's scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe begin to unfold here" — an obvious reference to the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

"The Holocaust, in my view, must lead us to deep soul-searching about the nature of man," he said. "It must bring us to conduct some soul-searching as to the responsibility of leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to rethink how we, here and now, behave towards the other."

"There is nothing easier than hating the other. There is nothing easier than raising fears and sowing terror. There is nothing easier than becoming callous, morally corrupt and hypocritical," the general said.

Mr. Netanyahu condemned the remarks as "utterly mistaken and unacceptable to me."

No surprise there.


Richard C. Gross, a former correspondent and bureau chief in Israel and foreign editor of United Press International, retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun. He lives in Santa Fe, and his email is