The Growing Gap Between Israel And American Jews
Ties between American Jews and Israel, while still strong, are fraying. With the help of rabbis and scholars, historians and journalists, diplomats and activists, Moment explores the forces pulling the Jewish state and the American Jewish community apart—and holding them together.
Elliott Abrams / Michael Barnett / Ethan Bronner / Steven M. Cohen / Alan Cooperman / Jonathan Dekel-Chen / Hasia Diner / Seth Farber / Yaron Gamburg / Susie Gelman / Lisa Goldman / Daniel Gordis / Yossi Klein Halevi / Samuel Heilman / Martin Kramer/ Michael A. Meyer / Aaron David Miller / Marilyn Safir / Jonathan Sarna / Julie Schonfeld / Ofira Seliktar / Anita Shapira / Abraham D. Sofaer / Jay M. Stanton / Dov Waxman / Dov Zakheim / Neta Ziv
Symposium Editor: Marilyn Cooper
Interviews by: Sarah Breger, Marilyn Cooper, George E. Johnson, Sala Levin and Ellen Wexler
The age of unquestioning support for Israel from American Jews is over: An era of conflict is replacing the age of solidarity. Within the American Jewish community, there are two major aspects to this divide: ambivalence and anger. On the one hand, there is a process of detachment from Israel, often expressed as indifference and apathy. But the majority of American Jews, about 70 percent, remains emotionally attached to Israel. Within that group there is growing debate and argument about Israel, particularly about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. There is a mounting sense of frustration, and many are alarmed by the direction the Israeli government is heading. Ultimately, there is a risk that U.S. Jews might become completely alienated from Israel.
This is not simply a divide between Israel and American Jews; increasing divides exist throughout the American Jewish community and deep splits exist within the Israeli Jewish community. That said, there is a growing sense that Israeli and American Jewry are two separate communities moving in opposite directions. Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the second intifada (2000-2005), Israeli Jews and Israeli politics have moved to the right. American Jews, for the most part, remain firmly in the liberal camp. There is not, however, a divide between Israel and American Orthodox Jews, who remain very attached to Israel and are supportive of the Netanyahu government.
There is an ahistorical attitude that looks at the honeymoon period after 1967 as the norm. However, the American Jewish relationship with Israel has always been in flux, and it has not always, or even often, been characterized by strong, unequivocal support for Israel. Before Israel’s establishment, Zionism struggled to obtain support from American Jews. Even in the 1950s, Israel wasn’t that dominant in American Jewish life. Because most American Jews today are no longer in love with Israel in the way that they were during the period following 1967, there is a tendency to see the relationship as newly troubled and in terminal decline. It is much more that the infatuation has come to an end; this is now a troubled marriage.
Dov Waxman is a professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University. His most recent book is Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel.
To argue that Israeli Jews and American Jews are growing apart is to miss the bigger picture. They have far more in common and interact and communicate with one another far more today than ever before in their histories. For most of Israel’s existence, barely 15 to 20 percent of American Jews visited Israel. Israelis spoke limited English and had few links to the world economy, so relationships between American and Israeli Jews were largely nonexistent. Today, all of that is very different. According to the latest Pew survey, 40 percent of American Jews have visited Israel and 40 percent of Israeli Jews have visited the United States. Israeli Jews come to the U.S. to study, do business, see family. During my first visits to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, the attitude of Israelis was that every Jew who didn’t move there was missing his role in history. Today, Israeli Jews not only accept the diaspora community but have little embarrassment or shame in being part of it.
I would also note that for much of the state’s history, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities were at best ambivalent about Israel and often frankly hostile. That is completely different today, when they are often among the most ardent Zionists.
Although it’s true that today you find Democrats, the well-educated and liberals to be less supportive of Israel than other American Jews, overall U.S. public support for Israel has been unwavering for five decades—consistently four or five times stronger than pro-Palestinian sentiment in America, including during the Gaza invasions.
Finally, I would note that Israel’s robust cultural production in film, TV and music, as well as its many accomplishments in tech, give American Jews direct connections with Israel and Israelis that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago. The two communities interact and know one another in ways they never did before. There were always tensions, and they exist today, too. But the real story is that there are much closer relations than ever before.
Ethan Bronner is a senior editor at Bloomberg News. From 2008 to 2012 he was The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief.
This is not a divide between Israelis and diaspora Jews. It is a political divide. An increasing number of American Jews finds Israel’s policies distasteful and troubling. That often gets misinterpreted on both sides of the conversation as a distancing of the peoples. That might eventually occur, but right now, this is much more a matter of American Jewry’s objections to Israel’s political culture. U.S. Jews have great discomfort with Israeli leaders who do not seem to take into account the effects of their policies on diaspora Jewry, including policies on Jewish identity, social justice and religion. Too often, American Jews think that Israel is what its leaders say it is or that Israelis are who their leaders appear to be. I think most Israelis would be appalled by that proposition. Democracies are a tricky business, and in Israel, with its many political parties and coalition governments, it’s trickier than in other places. Israel’s government cannot claim to represent all Israelis. There have always been tensions about the degree to which Israel has the right to speak for all Jews. The Netanyahu government is a symptom of this, not the cause.
Jonathan Dekel-Chen is a lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry and the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Yossi Klein Halevi
To a certain extent, a divide is inevitable because of geographic circumstances and opposite cultural makeup. Israelis live in the most dangerous and inhospitable neighborhood in the world; American Jews live in the most hospitable environment that Jews have ever lived in. Israelis have to be tough; American Jews have to be flexible. If you take that a step further, Israeli Jews’ identity is inseparable from the military. For American Jews, this is the first generation in American history where the Jewish community is almost completely severed from the American military.
We are fundamentally different in the way we function. American Jews exist in self-selecting, largely homogeneous entities. If I am an American Jew, I don’t have to deal with Jews whose politics and religious identity I find disturbing or even abhorrent. American Jews can live in relatively insular communities. Israelis must function as a people. It’s a very messy construct that requires coalition governments and dealing with all kinds of groups of Jews, including groups of Jews that find each other to be anathema. In Israel, after an election, the parties have to sit down and figure out whom they are going to govern with. Parties that detest each other’s ideologies, and often see each other as deeply threatening to Israel’s well-being, have no choice but to sit at the same table to function as a sovereign nation.
There is a disconnect between the two communities in terms of understanding each other’s basic needs and circumstances. Too many Israeli Jews don’t understand, or even think about, how Israel has been systematically insulting American Jews for the past seven decades by denying the legitimacy of the religious expressions of the majority of American Jewry. I find that appalling. I also find the inability of so many liberal American Jews to understand Israeli vulnerability equally appalling. Too many American Jews speak of ending the occupation as if Israel were an island in the South Pacific and not a miniscule country surrounded by some of the most lethal terrorist groups in the world. I don’t understand how Israeli Jews can miss the deep offense that American Jews rightly feel for the way the State of Israel has disenfranchised entire denominations. And I don’t understand how many American Jews can miss the acute sense of vulnerability Israelis live with as their daily reality.
Many American Jews want to place most of the blame for the divide on Bibi Netanyahu. I place most of the blame on Barack Obama. I don’t absolve Bibi of the dysfunctional relationship, but it is very clear to most Israelis that Obama came into office determined to create distance between America and Israel and to make a deal with Iran, his signature foreign policy achievement. Most Israelis perceive this deal as profoundly threatening to the country’s long-term interests, but many American Jews supported it. Bibi’s addressing Congress obviously deepened the rift, not just with the Obama administration but with parts of American Jewry. That pains me, but I agree profoundly with Bibi. The Iran deal presents an existential threat to Israel. Netanyahu has aggravated but not created built-in problems in the relationship.
Here is the essence of the problem: For many Israelis, American Jews sound hopelessly naïve, and for many American Jews, Israelis sound brutal. The danger here is that each community will perceive the other as betraying an essential element of Jewishness. For Israelis, the essential element is Jewish solidarity and self-protection. For American Jewish liberals, it’s empathy for the other, especially the oppressed. We have deep structural misunderstandings. But even so, I believe deeply in the future of the American Jewish relationship despite the minefields. I am optimistic about the relationship because we are the Jewish people. We are the joint custodians of the Jewish story: We have no choice but to get this right.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent book, Like Dreamers, took the top prize in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards.
For the first 20 years or so of Israeli history, American Jews avoided thinking about what it meant for Israel to be a Jewish state. They were enthralled by the miracle of statehood in the aftermath of the Holocaust and historic statelessness. But settlement policies, and the understanding that the government has no interest in any kind of equitable solution to the ongoing issues these policies create, have changed that. I think an increasing number of American Jews are saying, “This is not what we signed up for.” Certainly this is not all American Jews. Some American Jews believe that God gave this land to the Jews and, in essence, “Others be damned. We’re very happy to have them as guests, but that’s what they are: guests in our land.”
Most spaces in the American Jewish world now blindly endorse a particular vision of Israel. I wrote my Haaretz article, “We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind,” with Marjorie Feld because I felt it was important to speak out against this blind endorsement. We need to rethink the way we celebrate Israel and unquestioningly sign on to everything it does. Not only is the occupation a moral blight, but Israel claims to be a Jewish state and claims to speak for me. I do not give it that right. I do not endorse what it does. I have not heard a justification for a Jewish state that works with my political values.
There are hideous policies dating back to Menachem Begin’s government (1977–1983) that are even worse under Benjamin Netanyahu. But there is a degree to which this is inherent when you have a state that defines itself as the property of a particular group of people rather than of all of its citizens. The behavior of the Netanyahu government and his cozying up to people I find reprehensible have brought into bold relief everything that has been disturbing me for a long time.
Hasia Diner is the director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University.
The American Jewish community’s concern about a gap between them and Israel should not lead them to blame Benjamin Netanyahu, the current government of Israel or its settlement policy. Rather, they should recognize that this problem has to be addressed here in the United States. If you look at a child who is born to a Jewish parent and a Christian one, and that child is raised as a Christian or is raised without any religion, and then that child grows up and marries a Christian and raises his or her children without any religion, the strength of the family’s solidarity with Israel reflects these demographic changes, not the particular policies of the government in power in Israel at any one time. In my experience, there are two critical questions here. One is whether the non-Jewish spouse converts so that you now have a fully Jewish home, and the second is whether the child is being raised as a Jew. If the answer to both of those is no, that child may be culturally Jewish, but he or she is not going to feel the same way about Israel as his or her grandparents did. And it’s got nothing to do with Netanyahu or any particular policies of the government of Israel.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, served in foreign policy positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
There is precedent for the current divide; there have always been tensions between American Jews and Israelis. This rift has happened for an array of reasons, not one of which by itself entirely explains it. First, there is a pervasive commitment to the sort of liberalism that embraces universalism and rejects particularism, which has actually become the religion of young American Jews. Second, the American Jewish establishment used an overly simplistic narrative to teach children about Israel: First there was the Holocaust and then there was Israel; before Israel, everything was horrible for the Jews, and after Israel, it was all good. When that unsophisticated history inevitably comes crashing down, individuals often feel betrayed. Many young people are angry at what they were and were not taught; they feel they were sold a bill of goods. Third, Americans Jews don’t really teach their kids anything substantial about Israel. Even American kids who attend Jewish day schools and go to Jewish summer camp know very little. As a result, American Jews see Israel only through the lens of the conflict. They don’t know why the Jews wanted the State of Israel or about the 1947 United Nations Plan for the Partition of Palestine or about early Zionist thinkers Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am. They don’t know the background and history of the conflict. What they do know is that Israel is an occupying country. But that is all they know.
The American Jewish establishment needs to be willing to widen the tent. Americans have to stop seeing settlers in such a narrow way; they’ve got to meet normal people who moved there and who don’t understand why living in the West Bank is any different from living in Carmiel. Carmiel was captured in the 1948 War, yet no one says Israel should give that back. Why should Israel give back the West Bank captured in the 1967 war? Why should everything that was captured in 1948 become Israel but the land captured in 1967 not become Israel? Those questions need to be asked. The left needs to be put on the defensive as much as the right does. We need to have a genuine conversation in which all assumptions are challenged. American Jews and Israeli Jews need to understand one another better and appreciate the challenges the other is facing.
In many ways, American Jews and Israel are at the divorce stage. There is a feeling that they have to stay together because they need to raise the kids, but they no longer want to meet each other’s eyes and really talk. They’ve grown too far apart. This is sad, but I don’t think it is catastrophic. It was probably inevitable. There are growing pains on the Israeli side and shrinking pains on the American side. Part of me believes we can heal the rift at least somewhat, but part of me senses that, now that the Israeli Jewish community has reached adulthood, the center of the Jewish world has shifted. In 1948, only five percent of the world’s Jews lived in Israel. Today, Israel is the world’s largest Jewish community. American Jews are having a lot of trouble accepting that. Gradually, we will all learn to accept this new reality. In another generation we will have much less in common, but we will also be much less in each other’s faces.
Daniel Gordis is the senior vice president at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His most recent book is Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.
For the first time, Jews in America are beginning to feel the echoes of the relationship between church and state in Israel. Many more American Jews are visiting Israel and are exposed to the country’s religious life. When they’re exposed to religious coercion in Israel, it frustrates them. They think, “How can we feel connected to a state that stands in opposition to one of our basic values?”
American Jews today still see Israel as a central part of their Jewish identity. The closer you are to something, the more critical you are of it. All of a sudden, they’re beginning to say, “Whoa, wait a minute.” That can be alienating. The fight you have with your spouse is not the same as the fight you have with your girlfriend. I would say from an historical perspective, there’s even an irony. A generation ago, there was a tremendous delegitimization of the North American Jewish community, but now, in various ways, numerous Israeli government policies recognize the legitimacy of American Judaism.
American Jews have become activists. They’ve become more active about criticizing Israel in public. This is both positive and negative. But I think the reason that there’s a sense of greater alienation is because of the Palestinian issue, particularly on college campuses. However, the issue of “What does a Jewish state mean?” is a much more complex one. That is something we have never agreed upon. Is it a state for Jews in Israel? Is it a state for the Jewish people? That’s something that we will hopefully work out in the next generation. It’s a very important discussion that will shape Jewish life in the next thousand years. If Jews in North America see their role as helping to forge a Jewish future for all of us rather than just as being criticized or delegitimized by Israel, then I think the current activism won’t lead to alienation.
Seth Farber is an American-born Modern Orthodox rabbi and founder and director of ITIM, an Israeli advocacy group that helps guide people in dealings with the Israeli rabbinate.
One reason for the growing divide is that we’re now the fourth generation of American Jews since the great migration that lasted from the 1890s to World War I. We’re very comfortable and sure of our place in American society. I don’t think many Jews today really regard themselves as hyphenated American-Jews. Data-driven research shows a very strong decline in interest in, or a sense of connection with, the State of Israel among Jews born after 1980. Even among my generation, Gen X, many of us had grandparents who came from the old country, and we grew up with stories of social anti-Semitism that our own parents experienced. The idea that Israel was a safety net or insurance policy against persecution was something that was conveyed both implicitly and explicitly. My impression is that nowadays, American Jews don’t feel that they need that insurance policy.
Second, more than 70 percent of American Jews identify as liberals. Israel is rapidly metamorphosing into an authoritarian state. The closure of Gaza is now 11 or 12 years old. The occupation is nearing 50 years, and Netanyahu has made it explicitly clear that he’ll never negotiate a two-state solution. American Jews are looking at a shift to the far right in Israel versus their own liberal, increasingly secular and humanistic values. Their progressive values, combined with their sense of being very much American, are taking priority over any sort of primordial identification with a state for Jews.
There always has been a gap in worldview between American Jews and Israeli Jews. Israeli Jews from the 1940s through the 1960s were committed to the national, communal project of state-building. Americans are much more individualistic. After World War II, American Jews romanticized Israeli Zionism. Even more after the 1967 war, which was explained in near-messianic terms, American Jews began to outsource their identities to Israel, especially the idealized version of Israeli history fed to them by Jewish day schools, summer camps and youth groups. They never got to know real Israeli society with all of its great complexities, but rather a two-dimensional, Disneyfied version of Jewish identity. I see 2014 as a turning point. Any latent romantic identification with Israel was really negatively affected by the 2014 war with Gaza. I don’t think the Jewish Federation, Jewish communal leaders or the Israeli Foreign Ministry have begun to grapple with the extent of the damage done to the relationship between American Jews and Israel following the war.
Lisa Goldman is a founding editor of and contributing writer for +972 Magazine, a Tel Aviv-based news and commentary website.
It would be difficult to find two halves of one people who inhabit such totally different worlds. The blue-state suburbs of America, where most American Jews reside, are the most stable, secure and peaceful abodes known to humankind since the Garden of Eden (in one word: ever). In most of these places, no soldier has fired a shot in more than a century. American Jews are a minority of just under two percent of the population in an open society that embraces them. Having let their guard down, they’re being assimilated away.
Israeli Jews are just under two percent of the population of the Arab world, which adamantly refuses to “normalize” them in any way. They are subjected to barrages of threats in a region where people fulfill threats of violence every day. Arabs can be ruthless to one another: The death toll in nearby Iraq and Syria since 2003 is about equal to the massive death toll of the American Civil War. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen to Israel’s Jews were they to let their guard down. Is it any wonder, then, that American Jews and Israelis see the world differently?
Yet despite the perils, Israeli Jewry is thriving. When Israel was born, there were nine American Jews to every Israeli Jew. Now they are at parity, and the long-term trend is clear: Israel is destined to become the center of the Jewish world. Sovereignty is such a powerful elixir that Jews who enjoy it thrive even in the most troubled part of the world. In less than a century, the center of world Jewry will have moved from Europe to America, then from America to Israel. Alas, some American Jews are experiencing this as a loss. The negation of Israel is one (minority) response among those who can’t grasp the dilemmas of sovereignty in an often anarchic world. But the majority of American Jews are driven by a sincere desire to help Israel prosper. Where their expectations aren’t realistic, Israel must work to change them. But it must never ignore them, lest the Jews cease to be a people.
Martin Kramer was the founding president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, where he teaches the history of the Middle East. His latest book is The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East.
Michael A. Meyer
The gap is far more apparent in the Reform movement and in some circles of Conservative Judaism than it is in American Orthodoxy. The official leadership of American Reform Judaism has never wavered from the pro-Zionism that first appeared in the Columbus Platform of 1937. It has, however, chosen to be critically interventionist on issues immediately affecting it, such as the controversy over egalitarian worship at the Western Wall. The Reform rabbinate, whose younger members now all spend their first year of studies in Jerusalem, is overwhelmingly pro-Zionism, though not as fervently as in the 1970s, which constituted the peak in pro-Israel enthusiasm. Today, “Reform Zionism” views Israel with a sympathetic but critical eye, focuses on sustaining the movement’s own congregations and encourages those political factions in Israel that support a more inclusive approach within Judaism, greater fairness toward the Israeli Arab minority and negotiations leading to a mutually acceptable two-state solution.
Michael A. Meyer is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. A three-time winner of the Jewish Book Award, his books include the 1988 Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism.
We’re talking about a generation that was born into a reality in which Israel exists—and therefore the miracle effect of the early decades is basically gone. Israel is a fact; Israel is a nation among other nations. It’s already possible to differentiate between criticizing Israel and delegitimizing Israel, while this was not possible for the older generation. Voicing any kind of critique or any kind of difference with the policies of the State of Israel—you would maybe talk about it over Shabbat dinner, but you wouldn’t do it outside. This shift is meeting changes that Israel has been going through in terms of its values, politics, the outcomes of the occupation, the role of the ultra-religious, the problems of religion and state, the non-Orthodox movement and Israel’s growing global status. When you see the move to the right, you see issues of human rights, issues of freedom of religion and Israel’s growing isolation in the world meeting the worldview of American Jews, who look at Israel with a critical eye. It’s not surprising that Israel doesn’t hold a special place in the hearts of American Jews as it did in the past. The older generation of American Jews—and some of the younger generation—is definitely more conservative and still views Israel in more black-and-white terms. But in a few decades, that generation will no longer be here, and its financial and political support will be handed over to the younger generation. We’re in a state of transition right now. It’s still not complete, but it’s happening.
Neta Ziv is the academic director of the Israel Affordable Housing Center and the Housing, Community and Law Clinic at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.
I think that a lot of Israelis see what’s going on in Israel today and have similar reactions to American Jews. They have the same kinds of concerns. My identification is like that of the American Jews who are becoming disenchanted with Israel. The major difference is that a smaller proportion of people in Israel has similar concerns to those expressed by the majority of American Jews. Unfortunately, the intellectual left hardly exists in Israel now. The Labor party, which is called leftist by the right wing, is far from being a leftist party. Part of the problem is that many people seem to have lost their ability to identify or understand the other—“Be like me or don’t be that way at all.” Thinking in such general and extreme terms—that’s a problem.
Marilyn Safir is a professor emerita in the department of psychology at the University of Haifa and an Israeli women’s rights advocate. She is the founder of the Israel Women’s Network.
Steven M. Cohen
The widening gap can be attributed to several causes. One is that Israeli Jews live as a complete society; American Jews live as a minority population, with considerable fluidity and hybridity (combining being Jewish with other identities). They live in a culture that is marked by radical inclusivity, cosmopolitanism and what we call Jewish personalism—they make decisions on how to be Jewish based on personal meaning. Israeli Jews have traditional, pre-modern notions about what it means to be Jewish. They live in a part of the world that has strong group boundaries, is fairly conservative with respect to changing norms and locates authority in the traditional rather than the personal sphere. Each thinks the other is inauthentic.
But most critical is the difference in the relationship with the surrounding non-Jews. In the U.S., Jews are surrounded by non-Jews who love them. In Israel, Jews think the local non-Jews might want to kill them. For most Israelis, the entire land of Israel belongs only to Jews. Palestinians are to be accorded individual rights, but not collective rights. For American Jews, Palestinians are a minority group that, like all minority groups, deserves respect and equal treatment on the part of the majority group—in Israel’s case, the Jews.
Steven M. Cohen is a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Jay M. Stanton
Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a daily nightmare for Palestinians. In the Internet age, we have constant access to the reality of the ongoing injustice against Palestinians. We hear Palestinian stories. We see Israel depriving Palestinians of human rights—including those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—on a daily basis. We see Israel repeatedly elect militaristic leaders who fill their cabinets with nationalist extremists. Whether or not we value the idea of a Jewish state in the land of the birth of our people, we cannot condone Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in their historic homeland. Israel claims to speak and act for us as Jews; to have any ethical credibility, we feel a need to clearly communicate our disapproval.
Many of us begin to learn about Israel’s history beyond the hasbarah or propaganda we were exposed to in our formal and informal Jewish educations. When we do so, the destructive nature of Jewish nation-building in historic Palestine becomes clear. We learn about the intentional destruction of Palestinian villages, the intentional killing and displacement of Palestinians and the efforts of organizations such as the Jewish National Fund to destroy and hide evidence of Palestinian presence. We learn that this ethnic cleansing dates at least to the creation of the State of Israel; it is not limited to extremist settlers during the occupation. So, too, does the relationship between the military policing of the West Bank and the militarization of American police upset us. The shared technology and tactics that target Palestinians under Israeli authority and black people in America rightfully make us angry. So, too, do Israel’s countless human rights violations within its Green Line borders.
I believe wondering why there is a widening gap between American Jews and Israel is really the wrong question. We need to ask ourselves why we became so entangled with Israel in the first place, and why mainstream American Jewish institutions remain so entangled with Israel despite the changing opinion of American Jews. We need to ask how to end occupation. We need to ask what kinds of reparations Palestinians need in compensation for stolen land and half a century of oppression and statelessness. We need to ask why we tolerate the relationship between the IDF and U.S. police. We need to ask how we can atone for our complicity in Israel’s wrongs.
Jay M. Stanton is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and a rabbinical intern at Tzedek Chicago.
We can see in [the 2013 Pew survey] that Jews in the two countries have deep connections: The majority of Israeli Jews feel they share a common destiny with U.S. Jews and have either “a lot of” or “some” things in common with them. And most think that, overall, American Jews have a good influence on Israeli affairs. For their part, most U.S. Jews say they are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, and 43 percent say that caring about Israel is essential or important to what being Jewish means to them. More than a third of Israeli Jews have traveled to the U.S., and a similar share of American Jews has been to Israel. At the same time, Jews in the two countries also have differing perspectives. To some extent, the differing perspectives may reflect the very different social and demographic contexts in which they live: Jews in the U.S. are a tiny minority, about two percent of the overall U.S. population, and are—on the whole—generally well-integrated, socioeconomically successful and well-regarded in American life; most have close friends who are not Jewish and many marry non-Jews. Jews in Israel are about 80 percent of the overall population, and they occupy a wide socioeconomic spectrum; many say that most or all of their close friends are Jewish, and religious intermarriage is very rare. Some of the differences lie in the way that Jews in the two countries typically define themselves religiously: the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform “streams” in the U.S., and the common categories of haredi, dati, masorti and hiloni Jews in Israel. In my personal experience talking with Jews in both countries, I have found that Jews in Israel often have a limited understanding of the major streams of American Judaism, and Jews in the U.S. often have little experience with or knowledge of the common Jewish identity groups in Israel.
Alan Cooperman is the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center. Formerly, he was a national reporter and editor at The Washington Post and a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.
There are two major underlying issues. First is the demographic changes that have occurred in the community. The new generation of American Jews feels less connected to Israel than previous generations. That’s inevitable with every diaspora.
Second is politics in Israel and the type of state Israel has become. The first dimension of that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which weighs heavily on relations between Israeli and American Jews. Americans on the whole are more liberal in their attitude toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than Israelis are. The other problem is the type of country Israel has become. Israel is still a democracy—no one would ever deny that. However, there are certain things that seem to be troubling to American Jews. One of them is the increase in power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, which is something that most liberal American Jews really do not appreciate.
Given the demographics, I’d say the trend going forward would be even more distance and more alienation. There are certain steps that have been taken to bridge the gap, one of them being the Birthright program, where you get young people going to Israel and seeing the multi-dimensional nature of the country and its flourishing democracy. It’s difficult to make an assessment of whether the Birthright program or other programs will have a long-lasting impact because I don’t know if there’s a critical mass: There are simply not enough young Jews going to Israel to change demographic processes. The second thing that could happen to change the relationship is a peace settlement, which I don’t see coming any time soon. There are problems in the Palestinian community that preclude enacting any meaningful peace process, and on the Israeli side there’s a very strong trend of holding onto the territories no matter what. Should there be a development in the peace process, that may reverse the alienation. Or, if there is a catastrophic type of occurrence in Israel, that may cause American Jews to rally for Israel in the same way they did during the Six-Day War. It’s hard to speculate, but barring either exceptional event, if things continue to go the way they are, then, of course, there would be no coming together of the two groups.
Ofira Seliktar is a professor of political science at Gratz College and is the author of numerous books, including Doomed to Failure? The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process.
I think there is great frustration today among many American Jews who are committed to Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic and secure state and who want to continue our unique partnership with the State and the people of Israel, but who have great difficulty understanding, never mind identifying with, anti-democratic trends in Israel today, especially as evidenced by legislative action by the current hard-right coalition government. We see legislative activity that runs counter to our own democratic values such as free speech, freedom of the press and the rights of NGOs to espouse democratic ideals. This is not the Israel that we know and love. We are determined to do all in our power, in concert with Israelis who are fighting an ideological war for the heart and soul of the Jewish state, to preserve Israel’s democratic nature, which is a cornerstone of the Zionist enterprise.
I can’t tell you what precipitated this divide; it certainly has been exacerbated by years of occupation, the stalemate with the Palestinians, ongoing activity in the West Bank that makes an eventual two-state solution increasingly harder to realize, the treatment of the Women of the Wall and the collapse of the agreements regarding egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the most unfortunate appearance by the prime minister before a joint session of Congress in March 2015, the fight over the Iran deal—all of these elements have contributed to an increased polarization and a sense of disaffection with Israeli leadership that makes the relationship between American Jews and Israel more challenging. Moreover, the unfortunate politicization of support for Israel—the attempt by some to make it a partisan issue, which I unequivocally reject—is also having a negative effect on those in the community who support Israel but not all of its political policies. We struggle with balancing our deep-rooted commitment to Israel with our duty to speak out on matters of concern without being accused of disloyalty or worse.
Susie Gelman is the chair of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that has advanced the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1993. She also cochairs the Israel Religious Expression Platform, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Aaron David Miller
First, generalizing about a community of some 5.3 million folks (who either list their religion as Jewish or identify culturally or through parents), half of whom may not be affiliated with a synagogue or any Jewish organization, is risky business, particularly on such a complex issue. I’m not a pollster, but I’d be wary all the same about making hard and fast judgments, certainly about fundamental divisions, let alone estrangement from a basic identification with Israel.
Second, the often-cited 2013 Pew Research poll, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” makes it pretty clear that there’s a strong foundation of support still. Seven in ten Jews surveyed say they either feel very attached (30 percent) or somewhat attached (39 percent) to Israel. That is basically unchanged since the 2000-2001 survey.
Third, there’s no doubt that American Jews are divided on other basic questions related to Israel’s behavior, particularly toward the Palestinians. Just 38 percent say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to make peace with the Palestinians, though only 12 percent say Palestinians are serious. And 44 percent say settlements hurt Israeli security interests. A key question is whether growing opposition to settlements has fundamentally eroded support for the idea of a Jewish state, however imperfect it may be. I suspect not.
Fourth, there are clear generational differences and a willingness to be more critical of Israeli policies or just not to be all that interested in Israel-related issues. My own kids have a great deal of experience and knowledge about Israel and the broader Middle East; and still I see traces of some of those tendencies in them.
But it’s not yet time for what I call the cosmic Oy Vey. The fundamental estrangement between American Jews and Israel seems not yet at hand. The behavior of Israel’s neighbors (Hamas, Hezbollah, Egypt, Bashar al-Assad) and the actions of other actors in the neighborhood (Iran, ISIS, al-Qaeda) are far worse than Israel’s transgressions and are likely to remain so for quite some time. Indeed, as the broken, angry and dysfunctional Middle East continues to melt down, the bonds will remain strong. A broader and more centrist Israeli government would make them stronger still.
Finally, the U.S.-Israeli relationship will likely remain strong, however imperfect because of Israeli practices and policies toward the Palestinians. The image of Israel in the mind of America as a like-minded, pro-Western democracy in a dangerous region will likely guarantee it. If the perception and reality of that image should fundamentally change in minds of most Americans (Jews and non-Jews alike), then and only then will relations between Israel and America enter a dramatically new and potentially dangerous estrangement. Some say it’s inevitable and inexorable. I’m not one of them.
Aaron David Miller is the vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has served as an advisor to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, most recently as the Senior Advisor for Arab-Israeli Negotiations.
There has been no real change in the relationship. At heart, the relationship between Israel and American Jews is a very close one. It is one of mutual support and understanding. Israel is a source of hope for Jews all over the world; they see Israel as a fulfillment of their dream for a Jewish state. For its part, Israel sees itself as responsible for the future of Jews all over the globe. The status of Jews worldwide changed dramatically for the better after the establishment of the State of Israel.
The new generation, the millennials, tends to forget events of the recent historical past. They don’t see Israel in the same way that their parents and grandparents did in the years after the Holocaust and in the many decades spent trying to create the State of Israel. There will always be differences of opinion between the United States and Israel; we are different countries, after all. There is a diversity of opinion in Israel as well as in America; that’s natural. But a diversity of opinion does not indicate a shift in the relationship. And at the end of the day, all Jews agree about certain important core issues. Jews in the diaspora need the State of Israel, and the State of Israel needs the Jews of the diaspora.
Yaron Gamburg is the minister of public diplomacy at the Embassy of Israel to the United States.
The novelty of having a Jewish state has petered out, and now there is a growing gap between Israel and most American Jews. American Jewry remains mostly Democratic and liberal, whereas Israel, particularly its government, is leaning more to the right. This has many implications and is particularly an issue in terms of equality for women and gays. For most American Jews, equality for these two groups is very important, but in Israel this is not taken that seriously or seen as an issue the government should deal with.
American Jews are brought up with the ideal of equality and believe that women and gays should have full equality. In Israel, there is much less consensus on these issues. Serious public disturbances have resulted from disputes about women praying at the Western Wall or gays having a pride parade in Jerusalem. Because of the dominance of the Orthodox in the Israeli government, these issues are neglected, even though the Israeli high court ruled that there should be equality. On the whole, the Orthodox are against women and gays’ being rabbis. This is a point of serious contention between Israel and many American Jews.
Equally problematically, Israel is taken for granted by most American Jews. It is seen as just another nation. I am worried that we will see a reemergence of anti-Semitism. I grew up in the 1940s and saw Jews as constantly facing danger. That was part of being Jewish. But my children don’t have that viewpoint and neither does the next generation of Jews in America. We need to look at, and take seriously, the denial of Polish cooperation in the destruction of Polish Jewry and the anti-Semitism of the Hungarian government. We must not underestimate the continuing dangers and threats facing Jews in Europe and elsewhere—even in Israel.
Anita Shapira is a professor emerita of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and the founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. Her most recent book is Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life.
Most American Jews still support Israel, but there has been a change in how that support is expressed. To be “pro-Israel” no longer necessarily means to support the policies of its government.
In many ways, we have historical amnesia. The relationship between Israel and American Jews has historically been an ambivalent one. Even after 1948, American Jews did not have an enormous amount of active interest in Israel. After 1967, there was a golden period in the relationship. But as the conflict in the Middle East has shifted from one between Israelis and Arabs to one between Israelis and Palestinians, American Jewish attitudes toward Israel have changed. Formerly, Israel was seen as David and the Arabs as Goliath. Now, Israel is quite often viewed as a bully in the region. There has long been anxiety among American Jews that Israel doesn’t reflect well on them. Because they are embarrassed by Israeli politics and militarism, many American Jews have become halfhearted Zionists.
We are now 50 years into the occupation. For most American Jews, during their lifetime, Israel has only been an occupying power. While the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was a turning point, images from the first intifada, when Israel was caught on camera breaking the bones of Palestinians, had a truly devastating impact. Those pictures shattered, for Americans as well as for many Israelis, the notion that this was a “benign” occupation. Open and sometimes ugly arguments about Israel erupted within the American Jewish community and for the first time, there was significant fragmentation in the pro-Israel lobby. It’s important to realize, though, that growing disagreements with, and even anger at, Israeli politics and policies do not necessarily indicate a greater detachment from Israel on the part of American Jews. You can disagree while still maintaining a relatively strong relationship.
Michael Barnett is a professor of international affairs and political science at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His most recent book is The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews.
There has been constant shifting in the relationship between Israel and American Jews for the past 40 or 50 years. In many ways, there has been a natural evolution occurring, in large part because Israel is increasingly less an immigrant society, and the same is also true for the United States. From the sociological point of view, this means that both the Jews in America and the Jews in Israel are much more comfortable where they are and have a greater confidence in their ability to have an independent identity and point of view. In a related factor, because Israel is more confident in its place in the world, it doesn’t see itself as dependent upon diaspora Jewry as it has in the past. Diaspora Jewry, particularly American Jewry, no longer sees Israel to be necessary as a potential refuge for Jews. This doesn’t automatically mean that they are not as interested in Israel as previous generations, but the nature of their interest is different. They recognize that Israel is now a permanent part of the world, and so they don’t worry about Israel continuing to exist in quite the same way.
Overall, this has resulted in these two Jewish worlds moving further apart. Within that reality, there’s a segment of both populations that is now much more comfortable moving back and forth between these two worlds. There are Israelis who feel very comfortable spending time in America. They no longer hold what was once a cardinal belief of Israeli Jewry that, at least culturally, if you are in the diaspora, you’re just not totally as valid as a Jew. On the other hand, there’s a small but significant population of American Jews, mainly the Orthodox, who have a stronger relationship with Israel, and see themselves, in many ways, as having a kind of right to speak almost as if they were Israeli. This also reflects a move to the political and cultural right on the part of American Orthodoxy that coincides, in many ways, with the move to the political and cultural right among Israelis.
Frankly, I think that Israel has a problem with American Jewry. Colloquially, it is what we call the distancing hypothesis: For the majority of American Jews, especially younger ones, Israel simply is not on their radar in the way it was in the past for American Jewry. Most American Jews care less and less about Israel and they actually know less and less about Israel. Simultaneously, a smaller number of Orthodox Jews, about 10 percent of American Jewry, has a more intense relationship with Israel. As a group, the Orthodox have been sliding to the right, and that has impacted the overall relationship. Most American Jews who move to Israel are Orthodox, and most Americans who visit Israel more than once in their life tend to be on the political right. Many non-Orthodox American Jews still provide important financial and political support for Israel, but even among them, the younger ones are simply not as interested in Israel. In another generation, this will be much more the case.
Samuel Heilman is a sociologist and holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center of Queens College. He is a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, most recently for The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Jonathan D. Sarna
Going back to colonial days, American Jews viewed Zion as “America as it ought to be.” Visitors from Zion, who were usually emissaries from different yeshivas and often rabbis, portrayed the Holy Land as a country where everybody was studying and learning and praying. This was precisely the opposite of America, where, even in colonial days, Jews were mostly involved in business. Later on, with the advent of Zionism, the image of the Holy Land was one in which Jews were beginning to work the soil, in contrast to America, where Jews were heavily urban. So Zion continued to be viewed as how Jews wished it could have been. Louis Brandeis, for example, thought it would be where all of his progressive ideas would be realized. For many American Jews, Zion represented what Philip Roth would call a “counterlife. ”
Remember that, before the Internet, people didn’t know much about Israel. Not that many American Jews went to Israel, and they didn’t read Israeli papers, which, except for The Jerusalem Post, were all in Hebrew. The bulk of Jewish information came through the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which presented Israel in a very positive and monochromatic way. Yes, there were disagreements about Israel, but the goal was to be united. You could really project a lot onto Israel, and American Jews liked that. In recent years, American Jews have discovered the real Israel, and that is never as good as the Israel of your imagination.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and the chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
There are, in my view, four reasons for the growing divide between Israel and American Jews. First is the historical reason. The Six-Day War was probably the high point of American Jewish pride in Israel. It was so miraculous, and the State’s existence was so obviously threatened, that the victory stiffened the spine of American Jews. Anybody under the age of 40 doesn’t have a memory of that war, so there’s less of a pull in that regard. The second reason is cultural, and that is that American Jews don’t speak Hebrew. Israeli culture over the years has developed into an independent one, but how many American Jews get in a car and turn on Reshet Gimmel and listen to Israeli pop music, or follow the latest Israeli news other than what’s in English? I’m talking about ordinary American Jews who may not even visit Israel—and the vast majority don’t. Then there’s the religious divide. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, and even a significant percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews are in a precarious position vis-à-vis the Israeli chief rabbinate, which still doesn’t accept conversions performed by their rabbis. There’s a sense that non-Orthodox Jews are second-class citizens in the Jewish world. That doesn’t sit well with young people who may want to marry a convert, or with rabbis who may want to perform a conversion. If you’re not Orthodox, you’re practically considered “not Jewish” in Israel. Then there’s the political divide. In 1967, Israel was the underdog. Almost nobody sees it as an underdog today, except maybe its prime minister. Older Jews may have parents or grandparents who came from Europe—maybe as Holocaust survivors or, earlier, as immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia—but younger Jews don’t have the memory of any of that. For them, those are the “olden” days. What they see instead is a very powerful country that has not embraced the liberal values that it advertises. The more extreme young American Jews will support BDS; the more moderate ones won’t, but many don’t appear to be willing to accept Israel’s policies in the West Bank.
Dov Zakheim is a former under secretary of defense to President George W. Bush and chairman of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition.
The relationship between American Jewry and Israel remains strong and continues to be a crucial element of U.S.-Israel relations. At the same time, haredi lawmakers, representing a small, ultra-Orthodox minority, have managed to use the coalition system to secure disproportionate influence. As a consequence, Israeli law as it pertains to deeply important issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion, access to basic secular knowledge in publicly funded religious schools, requirements for universal army service, funding of religious institutions and access to mikvahs (ritual baths) remain under ultra-Orthodox control. A powerful symbolic issue, the right to egalitarian prayer at the Kotel has also been a highly public issue since the government failed to implement the signed agreement it initiated and negotiated for three years.
These extreme, anti-democratic religious views pose a risk to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, first and foremost. Added to those risks is the critical level of alienation of diaspora Jews who find that their Jewish identities are routinely dismissed, derided or outlawed by the Israeli government and its representatives. The situation is especially troubling as it relates to the younger generations of American Jews whose attachment to Israel is built not upon firsthand experience of Israel’s founding, but upon a sense of personal connection to Israel as a state for all Jews. Although the commitment to Israel remains strong, the hostile messages communicated by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority to world Jewry pose a risk that cannot be underestimated.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is the first female rabbi to serve as the head of the Conservative movement. She was named the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly in 2009.
Abraham D. Sofaer
The difficulty of evaluating how Israel is doing with the American government or public pales in comparison to figuring out how well Israel is doing with American Jews. In biblical times, even God and Moses, working together, failed to satisfy the expectations of a people that had just been saved from slavery.
We are a stiff-necked, self-critical people, ready to argue with each other even when our survival is at stake. Jews were killing each other within the walls of Jerusalem while the Romans were camped outside. Even after losing some 85 percent of Polish Jewry in the Holocaust, Polish Jews were condemning—even killing—each other for their post-war political positions. Ben-Gurion had to use force against Israeli Jews to keep the country united.
Current differences among Jewish Americans regarding Israel are painful to see but much less self-destructive than the differences Jews have had among themselves historically. Hard-core supporters of J Street and AIPAC are worlds apart. But it is important to remember that from 1885 (in Reform Jewry’s Pittsburgh Platform) until 1948, anti-Zionism was common in America. Today, as Jonathan Tobin summed up in Commentary in 2014, anti-Zionists have declined “from minority status to statistical insignificance.” A very few ultra-Orthodox Jews and some left-wing, secular Jews oppose the existence of a Jewish state, for different ideological reasons. But the vast majority of American Jews argues over what they think is “good for Israel” as an indispensable refuge for Jewish people and culture, not about whether Israel should exist.
American Jewish leaders could and should do more to get their constituencies to be more objective and civil with each other. They should work as hard to find common ground with each other in support of Israel as they do in competing with each other for funding and influence. But overall, the American Jewish community is relatively well-aligned by historical standards.
Abraham D. Sofaer is the George P. Shultz Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy and National Security Affairs at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and served as a federal judge and a legal adviser to the United States Department of State.