On Christmas Eve of this past year, Yediot Achronot, the largest circulation newspaper in Israel, ran an interview with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, which has attracted a great deal of attention in the online Jewish world for comments he made about the latest failures in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Accepting himself as representative of American Jewish thinking, Remnick said, “You have the status of an occupier since 1967. It’s been happening for so long that even people like me, who understand that not only one side is responsible … can’t take it anymore.”
In putting the matter in this way, he was probably more revealing of a certain mentality than he realized. For Remnick’s problem is not so much Israel’s actions (although he has his quibbles) but the reality of a lengthy conflict that shows no signs of dissipating.
The decade that just closed saw an unprecedented proliferation of studies, books and related flotsam struggling over the question of the weakening connection of American Jews to Israel. There is much concern over the growing cultural divide between this era’s two great Jewish societies. These studies considered intermarriage, the Internet and Israel’s rightward political shift. But few raised a much simpler and more far-reaching point: perhaps many American Jews simply hope to remove themselves from a violent conflict that will likely rage for many years to come, swallowing many lives up with it.
American Jews tell a story about their commitment to Israel that runs something like this: After immigrating to America early in the last century, they remembered their Jewish obligations in part through support for Zionism, manifested in great figures like Louis Brandeis, who became head of the principal American Zionist group in 1914. This steady support increased dramatically after World War II, when they became convinced that Jewish sovereignty was the only possible response to the Holocaust. The crescendo arrived in 1967 when, startled by the possibility that the Jews of Israel might be consumed in another catastrophe, they threw themselves into Israel’s defense and then exulted in its victory.
From then through the 1990s the American Jewish love affair with Israel ran deep, but cracks turned into breaks with the failure of the Camp David peace negotiations in 2000. The violence that followed, along with the election of Ariel Sharon and the reoccupation of areas of the West Bank, convinced many for the first time that there was a nefarious side to a Zionism they had never before questioned. Now we face a future where the certainties of the past no longer hold and questions about the alleged failings of Zionism cannot be overlooked.
While partially true, this account is demonstrably false in several important ways. First, American Jewish support for Zionism before World War II was anything but robust. All of the major organizations of the era were officially anti- or non-Zionist, and an anti-Zionist like Cyrus Adler, a founder and president of both the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Theological Seminary, was far more representative of institutional thinking than Louis Brandies.
Even after World War II, American Jewish leadership remained nervous about supporting too strongly a state that might call into question its own loyalty to the United States. And the 1970s saw the emergence of Breira (“alternative”), a group that aimed to challenge the establishment by proposing a left-wing position on Israel.
American Jewish opinion on Zionism has, therefore, been far from uniformly positive in the past century. The relatively brief 30-year period of near-consensus on the issue following the Six-Day War is probably better read as a result of the widespread feeling that Israel’s existence and future were secure. There were certainly problems in this period, from the Yom Kippur War to the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the first intifada, but the narrative of Sadat and Oslo seemed clear: Israel was marching steadily toward acceptance and peace. If Israelis looked on their children as the last generation that would risk their lives in a war, so, too, did American Jews imagine that their children would benefit from a “new Middle East” of easy relations between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Basking in the glow of the many successes of an Israel few knew personally was therefore both psychologically pleasing and risk-free.
It is this narrative that has collapsed in the past 10 years of bloodshed and rising threats, both physical, in the form of terror and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and social, as increased suspicion of Jewish intentions in elite opinion has brought its own costs for American Jews’ previously casual embrace of the Jewish state.
The question for all concerned observers should now be whether or not American Jews are capable of resting their affections for Israel on the more solid footings of the 3,000-year connection of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland and their natural right to modern self-determination within it. As supposedly informed observers like Remnick should be able to easily grant, even in the most ideal projections a lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs remains years in the distance. But no one ever claimed that national independence would be easy, or that a lack of peace should turn anyone away from his people’s homeland.
Matthew Ackerman is Middle East analyst for The David Project.