I think Le Castor is simply wrong when she writes: "Imagine a Lebanese-American saying the same thing vis-a-vis Lebanon, or a Mexican-American saying the same thing about Mexico. Questions of true allegiance would be immediate." In classes and among friends I have heard people discuss particular election outcomes in the U.S. vis-a-vis Iran, Korea, Japan, and Mexico. None of them had their allegiance questioned. Moreover, historically Jews did, and to this day do, have their allegiance questioned. Most recently Jews were accused of distorting U.S. foreign policy through the "Israel Lobby", as if it could be taken for granted that the foreign policy choices of the authors making the distortion allegations were correct while those produced by the "Israel Lobby" were the distortions. See http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crbbNCvngOs and http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=19062
I think designated_knitter's point is important: that many other political boundary changes have occurred between 1945 and now, that many other conflicts have occurred during the last fifty odd years with more casualties than the Israeli-Arab conflict, that "the political self-interest of Jewish Americans is hardly unique." Yet, Israel is held up (particularly on the left) as a human rights violating bogeyman. To me this is a double standard driven by anti-semitism. As Willis writes, "But it's impossible not to notice how the runaway inflation of Israel's villainy aligns with ingrained cultural fantasies about the iniquity and power of Jews; or how the traditional pariah status of Jews has been replicated by a Jewish pariah state. And the special fury and vitriol that greet any attempt to bring up this subject in left circles further suggests that more is at stake here than an ordinary political dispute—just as more is at stake in the Israel-Palestine clash than an ordinary border dispute."
Israel is important for so many American Jews because they know how fragile the position of Jewry can be. It could happen again. Israel cannot be understood apart from the Holocaust. Though I'm only 32 it certainly affects my feelings about Israel.
Rabbi Roth, who taught me Hebrew as well as Jewish laws and customs for my Bar Mitzvah, was a holocaust survivor. When he was 18 the Nazi's sent him, along with his parents and six siblings, to Auschwitz. He was the only survivor. I'd been to Holocaust museums. I'd seen Shoah. But black and white pictures and extraordinarily long documentary films can be abstracted and decontextualized. It is more difficult with a person across a desk from you.
I was studying with Rabbi Roth in the summer and his office in the shul would get quite warm. He would roll up his sleeves. As long as I live I'll never forget the numbers tattooed on his arm. The numbers, his arm, his body made the Holocaust real for me in a way nothing had before. Evil created those faded-to-purple numbers on Rabbi Roth's arm and they were just three feet from me. The reality of its horror settled onto my then twelve year old mind for the first time.
Heavy stuff, I know, but I wanted to elucidate an important part of why I think of Israel prominently when I consider how to vote. Now, go read Ellen Willis, she is much more eloquent than I and she speaks my mind on this issue in more detail.