Excerpt from “We Stand Divided” (Ecco Press) by Daniel Gordis:
A MISTAKEN CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
July 4, 1976, was a Sunday. It was also the bicentennial of the United States, and all of us at the camp where I was working that summer knew that a celebration was in store. The dining hall would be decked in red, white, and blue. There would be fried chicken for dinner and apple pie for dessert. For the older campers and staff, there would be square dancing a bit later.
None of these festivities were intended to be a surprise. So when word spread that the camp director wanted everyone— and he meant everyone—to gather on the large lawn in the center of the camp, we were curious. What was going on?
Fairly quickly, everyone assembled. Numbering almost a thousand, between the campers and the staff, we sat and waited. And then, with a bullhorn in hand and a voice cracking with emotion, the camp director, who happened to be Israeli, told us what had just happened in Entebbe, Uganda. An Air France plane en route from Tel Aviv to Paris had been hijacked, after a stopover in Athens, to Entebbe a week earlier. Determined never to negotiate with terrorists, Israel had just sent one hundred commandos some 2,500 miles to attack the airport and rescue the hostages. When the ferocious gun battle ended just a few hours earlier, the camp director announced, 102 of the 106 hostages had been rescued. Only four hostages and one Israeli soldier—Yoni Netanyahu, whose brother, Benjamin, would years later become prime minister—had been killed. The soldiers and the freed hostages were all on their way back to Israel.
We sat, hundreds of us, on that large green hill, stunned and brimming with pride. The counselors, almost all of them in college, were as moved as the campers. The sentiment was wall-to-wall. This, once again, was the Israel on which we’d “been raised.” It was an Israel that represented the kind of Jews we all wanted to be—proud, strong, brave, invincible. I remember that afternoon and the emotion in the camp director’s voice as if it happened yesterday. Of the bicentennial celebration, I remember nothing at all.
Thirty-eight years later, in the summer of 2014, Israel’s army was in the news again. This time it was not a commando force responding to a hijacking, but a full-blown war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The fighting was bitter, and the casualties horrifically high on both sides. In the midst of the conflict, a group of young, mostly post-college-age American Jews founded an organization called If Not Now. As they told their own story on their website, they created their organization “during the violence of Operation Protective Edge in 2014” and “had three demands: stop the war on Gaza, end the occupation, and freedom and dignity for all.” The fact that there was also a Hamas-led war on Israel was nowhere mentioned on their site.* No less instructive, however, was their noting that “we do not take a unified stance . . . on Zionism or the question of statehood.” Not only were these young American Jews (who would eventually get so much traction that they would be the subject of a major article in New York magazine) unwilling to acknowledge that Israelis were dying and that Hamas was engaged in a war on Israel, but they were even unwilling to state that they endorsed at least the idea of a Jewish state.
Four years later, If Not Now released a thirty-five-page manifesto of sorts, titled “Five Ways the American Jewish Establishment Supports the Occupation.” Though the lengthy document assailed Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights and the American Jewish establishment’s ostensible support of those violations, the report was no less noteworthy for the fact that nowhere did it mention Palestinian violence against Israel, the continued pledge of many Palestinians (including the Hamas government of Gaza) to destroy Israel, any mention of the Jewish right to sovereignty, or even the word “Zionism.” These omissions, of course, were not accidental.
The American Jewish world had come a long (and sad) way since November 29, 1947, when Jews huddled around radios listening to the vote in the United Nations General Assembly, breaking out into tears and dance when the resolution to create a Jewish state was passed. Then, Jews had believed that a new era of Jewish life was dawning. A mere sixty-five years later, young Americans like those involved in If Not Now could not even bring themselves to say that the creation of a Jewish state was a good thing.
Everything, it seemed, had changed. The Jewish worlds of those two summers, the summer of the bicentennial and the summer of the 2014 war, could not have been more different. It wasn’t only that American Jews weren’t “that into” Israel, as Alon Pinkas put it. Among some of the young, the hostility to Israel was undisguised and unabashed.
What had happened?
* This omission made the group’s name particularly ironic. “If Not Now” is part of a longer quote of the sage Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (“Ethics of the Fathers,” 1:14). When If Not Now also failed to demand an end to attacks on Israel, those critical of the group wondered what had happened to the “if I am not for myself” part of Hillel’s admonition.
IT HADN’T ALWAYS BEEN that way…
On October 6, 1973, the Baltimore Orioles were scheduled to play the Oakland A’s in the first game of the American League playoffs. For die-hard Orioles fans like us Baltimore kids, it was a big day. There was a problem, though: it was also Yom Kippur, and we were going to be in our Orthodox synagogue with our parents all day.
For my brother, such apparent conflicts always seemed more a challenge than an impediment. As we all trudged off to synagogue in our suits and ties, he had a small transistor radio and earphone in his jacket pocket and was planning to listen to the game while strategically stationed in the synagogue bathroom.
Sometime in the midmorning, however, he came running back into the sanctuary to tell us that the radio was reporting the news that Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel. Newscasters were saying that a major war had just erupted. Soon enough, similar rumors were spreading among many of the other congregants as well. What only minutes earlier had been a solemn, serene day of prayer and introspection morphed into controlled bedlam. Dozens of people scurried out of the sanctuary and congregated in the lobby, desperate for any news they could get. Suddenly, my brother, who had planned a day of solitude in the company of only his radio, was the center of attention. “Where’s your brother?” one visibly panicked woman pressed me after she heard that he was the one who possessed the coveted radio. “I don’t care how he got it or why he has it. Just tell me where he is.” That day, in the midst of the horror, the fact that using a radio on Yom Kippur is forbidden to Orthodox Jews did not matter to her at all. That day was the start of the Yom Kippur War, a devastating war in which Israel lost some 2,700 men, barely managing to claw its way back to the lines from which the war had begun. Although we could not have known it at the time, the war would change the Middle East dramatically. At that moment, all that the hundreds of people in our synagogue knew was that Israel was under attack; in that Orthodox synagogue, worry about Israel trumped Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year.
What made the most lasting impression on me that day, as a young fourteen-year-old just beginning to examine the world critically, was that not once did the rabbi encourage people to come back into the sanctuary. He understood what his flock felt, and he knew better than to try to corral them. Many of them were Holocaust survivors or the children of survivors, and all were horrified that it seemed that the Jews—the Jews in Israel this time—might once again be massacred. What had always moved them about Israel was that it was a symbol of Jewish rebirth. As one observer of American Judaism put it, “Israel stood, symbolically, as a redemption of the Holocaust. Israel made it possible to endure the memory of Auschwitz. Were Israel to be destroyed, then Hitler would be alive again, the final victory would be his.”
News of Israel was so precious that day, Yom Kippur notwithstanding, that my brother, for having had the audacity to bring his contraband radio with him to listen to a ballgame, was for several hours transformed into the synagogue’s most valuable prayer.
I recall that day and its images as if it were yesterday. I remember the sanctuary being much less full than it usually was, especially on Yom Kippur, and in the lobby, a swelling group of pious but desperate American Jews hanging on every word that came out of the radio. I can still picture the many congregants on the verge of tears; some were actually weeping. Whenever I recall that day, what comes to mind more than anything is a world that seems very different from today’s, a Jewish world in which American Jews and their feelings about Israel were simpler, less fraught, more unified. It was a time when having a Jewish state was a source of pride, not conflict, for American Jews.
THE WAR DID NOT go well for Israel, at least not at first. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which in 1967 had seemed invincible, now seemed to be crumbling. Israeli aircraft were being shot out of the skies by the dozens; in the first two days, Israel lost 10 percent of its air force. Its tank force was being obliterated as well, and merely twelve hours into the war, the Syrian army had crossed deep into Israel’s territory in the Golan. Some 1,300 Israeli soldiers were killed in the opening days of the war. It was a disaster.
Israel faced a Syrian incursion in the north and an Egyptian onslaught from the south. It was not clear how long the country could hold on. Moshe Dayan, a hero of the Six-Day War, now feared for the future of the Jewish state. Prime Minister Golda Meir had to block his appearance on a radio broadcast when she heard that he was going to speak about the possible “destruction of the Third Temple,” a reference to the two previous instances (586 BCE and 70 CE) in which Jerusalem had been sacked and Jewish sovereignty ended.
The mood among American Jews turned from shock to grim desperation. A few days later, with the war still raging and Israel’s survival by no means guaranteed, my parents took our family to a rally at the Pikesville Armory in the Baltimore suburb where we lived. It seemed that everyone we knew was there. Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, and Reform Jews; Jews passionate about Israel and Jews less involved. I still recall the flood of thousands of people, inside the building and out, representing all of the Jewish community. Never in my life had I seen a crowd like that amassed for any cause.
We didn’t get a seat inside the armory, so we couldn’t hear the speeches. Inside, speaking to a packed house, Dale Anderson, Baltimore County’s executive and a (non-Jewish) Democrat, said to a desperately nervous Jewish community, “I am a student of Jewish history and the Zionist cause.” Zionism, he continued, was “a great and just cause for every person who appreciates justice and freedom.”
When I reread speeches like this one today, they sound surreal. Now, decades later, it is hard to imagine almost any Democratic politician calling either Israel or Zionism “a great and just cause for every person who appreciates justice and freedom.” In fact, in 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that “79% of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27% of Democrats.” Sympathy is a complicated sentiment, and it is true that having sympathy for the Palestinians does not necessarily mean that one does not support Israel or feel loyal to it. Nonetheless, those statistics are telling. Israel has become what its supporters in America desperately hoped would never happen—it is a “wedge” issue, an issue on which America’s parties are sharply divided. Like immigration, tax reform, abortion, or gun control, it has become an issue so deeply ideologically rooted and so divisive that any semblance of the “wall-to-wall” support that was in evidence at the Pikesville Armory in 1973 now seems unimaginable.
Most striking of all, however, is that Israel has become a wedge issue among Jews no less.
NOT THAT LONG AGO, if there was a single issue that could unite Jews of all stripes, it was Israel. Few believed that Israel was perfect, but its creation seemed almost miraculous; given that the most sacred value to Jews in those post-Holocaust years was survival, contributing to its security seemed a sacred obligation. Religious American Jews were fascinated by Israel’s traditional sites, by the huge numbers of young men (and with time, young women as well) studying in yeshivot.* Secular Jews were taken with the kibbutzim and their seemingly utopian combination of agriculture and socialism, and with the bronzed and muscular kibbutzniks, no longer bound to the rituals of old.† All Jews, it seemed, still traumatized by what the world had let happen to Jews in the middle of the twentieth century, took pride in Israel’s army, the symbol of Jews no longer being as helpless as they had been in the face of pogroms and the Holocaust. To be sure, some American Jews worried about the Arabs living in the areas that Israel had captured in 1967, about what would eventually be called “the occupation.”* But for the vast majority, even an awareness that Israel faced a serious moral and demographic challenge in “the territories” did not lessen their passionate attachment to the state and their willingness to stand with Israel in moments of crisis.
* Yeshivot (“yeshiva” is the singular form) are traditional academies for the study of Jewish texts and law.
† “Secular” is a problematic term for describing non-observant Israelis. In a society like Israel’s, the lives of “secular” people are filled with Jewish content. All Israelis speak Hebrew, a language that has Jewish substance built into its very vocabulary. The overwhelming majority attend a Passover Seder, most fast on Yom Kippur, and many light Sabbath candles and the like. All this is a far cry from the standard meaning of “secular.” However, this book uses the term “secular” since that is how both American Jews and Israelis tend to refer to non-Orthodox and non-observant Israelis.
* Nomenclature is an extremely sensitive issue in contemporary discussions of Israel. What some people refer to as the “occupied territories,” others call the “liberated territories.” Most of the West refers to the “West Bank,” while Israelis who believe that this area is rightly Israel’s refer to it as “Judea and Samaria.” As this book is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and makes no suggestions as to how to solve it, I generally use the language employed by most Western media, as that will be most familiar to readers.
Those days are gone. Everywhere one turns, there is a sense of crisis. There are even books on the subject. One argues, like Pinkas, that American Jews are in a “waning love affair” with Israel. Another book argues that “support for Israel among American Jews, though still strong, is not as broad and deep as many, inside and outside the American Jewish community, believe it to be. Nor is it as unconditional and uncritical as it is often depicted in the media.” Think tanks have joined the conversation, and in 2017 (the same year Pinkas wrote his column), a leading Israeli research center warned in a study titled “The Future of the Nation State of the Jewish People: Consolidation or Rupture?” that “ties between U.S. Jews and Israel could reach [a] breaking point.”
The crisis has been fodder for newspapers as well. Shortly after the publication of that research center report, Ha’aretz (Israel’s highbrow daily, which generally leans strongly to the left) ran numerous stories on the issue, with headlines such as “Israel’s Irreconcilable Differences with U.S. Jews and the Democratic Party May Soon Lead to Final Divorce.” Then Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist, stated in an interview with an Israeli Hebrew paper, Makor Rishon (a weekly whose readers are generally right-leaning and religious), “You can’t tell American Jews: We want you to come to Israel, but your form of Jewish-religious expression is unacceptable to us.” Ha’aretz, reporting on that interview, proclaimed what was nothing new to anyone following the widening break: “There’s a Crisis Between U.S. Jewry and Israel, Says Jewish-American Journalist Thomas Friedman.” Even Western media was fascinated by the storm. What was transpiring was nothing less than the “Fracturing of the Jewish People,” said the Wall Street Journal. “American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup,” proclaimed an opinion piece in the New York Times.
Jewish community professionals also clearly felt that a crisis was at hand. When the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, one of American Judaism’s largest communal gatherings of the year, met in Israel in 2018, the subject of its annual conference was “We Need to Talk.” Covering the event, Ha’aretz opined, “The GA’s ‘We Need to Talk’ Slogan Is a Desperate Plea to Save Israel-U.S. Jewish Ties.”
True, not everyone was terribly worried about the crisis. Some voices insisted—appearances to the contrary notwithstanding— that American Jews remained resolutely at Israel’s side. Still others acknowledged that the chasm was widening, but unlike Pinkas, they did not think Israel ought to be that worried. Yet another view was held by Elliott Abrams, who had served in senior posts on the White House’s National Security Council under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. At a conference in Israel in 2018, he went out of his way to tell Israelis that it would be a mistake to exaggerate levels of American Jewish commitment to Israel. “Israelis are from Mars and American Jews are from Venus,” he said. When asked whether Israel ought to consider the opinions of world Jewry on a host of different policy matters, Abrams assumed a dismissive attitude toward the Jewish community of his own country. “Your first obligation to world Jewry is to survive,” he said to the assembled Israelis, essentially telling them to ignore what he seemed to characterize as American Jewish bellyaching.
While many American Jews were exasperated with Israel, right-of-center American Jews were exasperated with other American Jews. The split between American Jews and Israel was causing a split even within the American Jewish community. When the New Republic published a series of articles on American Jews and Israel in 2018, it titled the series “A Diaspora Divided.”
Divisions have arisen everywhere. Among most observers, the prevailing wisdom is that relations between (non-Orthodox) American Jews and Israel are at an all-time nadir. After decades of cooperation and support, goes the argument, American Jews are asking themselves whether they can continue to support Israel as they have in the past. Many observers believe that there is a real possibility of a dramatic rupture between the two communities. Some say that the rupture has already taken place, and that the best we can hope for is that American Jews and Israel will learn to live together respectfully, even while acknowledging and celebrating “their separate identities.”
Of all the issues related to Israel’s conduct that distress American Jews, it is the conflict—originally with the Arabs and now with the Palestinians—that looms largest. In the eyes of many American Jews, especially the young, who have no personal memories of the Oslo Accords, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, or subsequent Israeli overtures to the Palestinians, Israel seems first and foremost an occupying power, unwilling to fashion a better, freer life for the Palestinians who live in the areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. For young American Jews, that is untenable. Though the Jewish establishment expects them to make Israel their primary loyalty, they seem more committed to being part of the progressive community than to Israel; to them, commitment to Israel seems at odds with the values of individual dignity, freedom, and human potential at the heart of American liberalism. As Peter Beinart, an intellectual pied piper of American Jewish progressives and millennials, put it pithily in a much-quoted 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
One of the first incidents that led many American Jews to publicly break with Israel took place during Israel’s war with Lebanon (now called the First Lebanon War) in 1982. In the late 1970s, southern Lebanon had become the base of a large Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist presence that was terrorizing Israelis in Kiryat Shmona and other northern cities with rocket fire and occasional murderous incursions into Israel.
Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, fumed that the Jews had not created a Jewish state so that Jewish children would have to sleep in bomb shelters and Jewish families would have to cower in terror of the unknown just as they had in Europe. Israel had been created to change all that, and in failing to make its citizens safe, Israel was failing the very purpose of its creation. Prime Minister Begin was going to make Jewish children safe again.
Finally, in 1982, Begin and his generals sent a massive military force into the area. Nothing about the war went the way that Begin had planned, and Israelis quickly soured on the war, which, they noted, was the first war that Israel had chosen to launch. What aroused the fury of many American Jews (as well as Israelis, of course) was a specific incident in the war. During the fighting, the IDF captured and secured an area that contained two Palestinian refugee camps, named Sabra and Shatila. While the IDF was stationed outside the camps, Christian Phalangist fighters entered the camps and murdered between seven hundred and eight hundred Muslim men, women, and children, in revenge for the Muslims having murdered the Christians’ leader, Bashir Gemayel.
Israelis had done none of the killing, but there was almost wall-to-wall agreement, both in Israel and abroad, that the IDF and Ariel Sharon, who was commanding the force, could and should have prevented the massacre. As images of hundreds of dead Muslims lying on the roads of Sabra and Shatila flooded the international media, young American Jews were distraught. They felt humiliated and shamed by the country to which they had once pointed with pride. Not only was this the first Israeli war that Israel had started, they said, and not only had Israel invaded a neighboring sovereign country, but much worse, they wanted to know, how did Israel’s army look the other way as hundreds of innocent people were massacred? What had happened to the Israel they knew and loved? American Jews took great pride in what they commonly called “Jewish values”; did Israel no longer embody those values?
Many American Jews recall that period as the first time they found their erstwhile pride in the Jewish state slipping away. As Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine and a leading American Jewish author and social activist of the period, later recalled, “It was a shameful moment. It was a very difficult time. I think also we lost a lot of young people. You can’t behave that way as a nation and expect to spark in young idealistic Jews a passion for Israel, unless you’re dealing with fanatics.”
Then the issue of Palestinian statehood and Israel’s occupation made matters even more complex. In 1987, Palestinians in the West Bank unleashed what is now called the First Intifada (1987–1991) and succeeded in getting the topic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The Palestinian story sounded both sad and compelling, and once again, American Jews found themselves dismayed. Yes, they knew that the PLO continued to insist that it would not cease its attacks until Israel was utterly destroyed, but many American Jews believed that the Palestinians could be moderated. The Palestinians had no country, no citizenship, apparently no brighter future—and it seemed that it was because of Israel that the Palestinians had such bleak prospects. That was not the Israel the American Jews had been taught to love.
Since then, peace efforts have come and gone. Israelis have elected both left-leaning and right-leaning governments, but for all intents and purposes, nothing much has changed. Israel still controls the West Bank, sometimes with a heavy military hand and sometimes with a lighter touch. The Palestinians still do not have a state, and progress has stalled. For today’s young American Jews, who have no personal recollection of a peace process of any sort, an Israel that does not appear to be pursuing peace, even as it occupies another people, is intolerable. It is, in short, not an Israel they can love or support.
If anything, it is Israel that they must resist.
IF MANY AMERICAN JEWS (like many Israelis) are uncomfortable with Israel’s conduct of its conflict with the Palestinians, others, as Alon Pinkas noted, are infuriated by the way Israel treats and speaks about non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the vast majority of the American Jewish community.
Israel has always had an Orthodox chief rabbinate, but in the state’s early years the religious community in Israel saw its position as tenuous. In the early stages of Israel’s formation, its ultra-Orthodox community was very small. David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) agreed to leave matters of state and religion in the hands of the rabbinate because he believed that the ultra-Orthodox would eventually disappear. They were, he was sure, a short-term problem that resulted from their need to flee Europe; they could not and would not survive in Israel.
Ben-Gurion was dead wrong, and today Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community has become a powerful political and economic force. In 2017, the number of Haredim in Israel topped one million for the first time, representing 12 percent of the population. With their rise in power, ultra-Orthodox leaders (who include the chief rabbinate) feel increasingly comfortable expressing their views on an array of matters, including those not directly in their purview.
Increasingly, what is a nominally anti-Zionist, anti-intellectual, monolithic, and dismissive chief rabbinate espouses a version of Jewish life that most American Jews find foreign at best, and often abhorrent. It is dismissive of all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism. It ridicules attempts to create more egalitarian roles for women in Jewish ritual life and shows no tolerance for the rights of gays and lesbians. To make matters even worse, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders have often characterized non-Orthodox Jews in needlessly disparaging ways. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, chief rabbi of Jerusalem and formerly chief rabbi of Israel, remarked that Reform Jews were “worse than Holocaust deniers.” Ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset have accused Reform Jews of “destroying Judaism,” while others have called Reform Jews the “Wicked Son” to whom the Passover Haggadah refers.
Beyond the verbiage, the rabbinate’s stranglehold on Israeli policy makes Reform and Conservative Jews feel that they are second-class Jews in Israel. Weddings and conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel are not recognized by the state.*
* While it was David Ben-Gurion who made a deal with the Orthodox rabbinate to continue the status quo that gave them control over all religious matters, he apparently believed that was a political necessity that he would eventually manage to reverse. Even in Israel’s early years, when American Jewish leadership objected to the power that Ben-Gurion had given to the Orthodox, Ben-Gurion replied that the matter was entirely academic, since at that point there were no Reform rabbis in Israel. He insisted that “if any Reform rabbi comes to Israel he will enjoy the same rights and privileges as the Orthodox [rabbis].” What Ben-Gurion genuinely thought is not entirely obvious. Given that religious practice mattered very little to him, he might not have cared very much. Yet, though he did believe that the ultra-Orthodox would disappear in a matter of years, he could not possibly have thought that of the more modern Orthodox. How he might wrest control from them, he did not say. It never happened.
(In July 2018, Israeli police, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox authorities, detained a Conservative rabbi for performing a wedding, unleashing a brief but vociferous international uproar.) The central portion of the Western Wall, considered one of Judaism’s holiest sites, does not have a section where Reform and Conservative Jews may worship with men and women together, as they do in their home synagogues. Government funding for religious institutions flows readily to Orthodox rabbis of cities and neighborhoods; non-Orthodox institutions have to fight much harder to receive it. For many American Jews, such policies and practices are inimical to a liberal, democratic state and make it much more difficult for them to be passionate supporters of Israel.
As offensive as ultra-Orthodox attitudes are to many American Jews, what makes Israel’s comportment utterly intolerable to them is the government’s collusion with the rabbinate—or at a minimum, its refusal to stand up to them (which most governments cannot do without losing their majority in the Knesset because of the religious right’s political power).** In 2016, after years of pressure from American Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed to create a space along part of the Western Wall (the Kotel) where egalitarian prayer could be held; the government promised to create an entrance to that area that would be as “central” as the entrance to the “original” space at the Kotel. Yet the following year, despite having given his word, Netanyahu folded and reneged on his promise when Haredi pressure grew. Clearly, the desire to preserve his coalition and stay in power meant far more to him than any promise he might have made to non-Orthodox American Jews, even if they constitute the overwhelming majority of American Jewry.
Netanyahu’s change of heart and his refusal to stand by an agreement he had explicitly made infuriated many American Jewish leaders. The Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (Chicago’s Jewish Federation, one of the largest and most respected in the country) announced that no representative of the Netanyahu government would be welcome in town until the policy changed. Ike Fisher, a leading American Jewish philanthropist, announced with fury that he was done supporting Israel.* This controversy, too, eventually blew over, but the incident was one of many that left in its wake the residual feeling of a marriage slowly eroding.
* The Knesset is comprised of 120 seats, which are distributed proportionally according to the percentage of votes received by each party in an election. A political party that receives one-quarter of the vote, for example, wins 30 seats in the Knesset. Given the many competing parties, however, most typically receive much smaller proportions of the vote, and prime ministers therefore have to cobble together coalitions of parties in order to control 61 seats, the minimum number for a majority of the 120. Because parties typically have dissimilar agendas, many coalitions are unhappy and unstable compromises from the outset, and small parties, by threatening to leave a coalition, can hamstring the prime minister. The result is a governmental system whose tumult and instability have plagued Israel since its founding.
* This, too, was hardly a new phenomenon in the relationship between the two communities. In the early 1950s, angry at Ben-Gurion’s disparaging remarks about American Zionists, Rose Halperin, president of Hadassah— perhaps the quintessential American Zionist organization—threatened that American Jews would sever relations with Israel.
WHILE PINK AS AND OTHERS refer to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and its conflict with American Jews over matters of religion as the primary causes of the troubled relationship, other Israeli policies have also raised the ire of American Jews. Some had nothing to do with the Arabs or with Israel’s treatment of other Jews. For instance, Israel’s 2018 decision to deport thousands of African asylum-seekers (though that term itself is controversial and only one of a number of possible definitions of their status) smacked to many American Jews of racism.
For all these reasons, as well as others, American Jews are increasingly expressing their ire. In May 2018, low-grade conflict erupted on Israel’s Gaza border, and Israeli forces shot several dozen Palestinians they believed were seeking to damage or breach the border fence. The Forward, the American Jewish community’s hard-left-leaning newspaper, is often unrelentingly critical of Israel.* But that week, The Forward outdid even itself and published an opinion piece on the incident with the headline “Israel’s Choice to Shoot Palestinians Should Horrify—But Not Surprise Us.” At around the same time, Natalie Portman, an Israeli-born American actress, announced that she would not travel to Israel to accept an award she had been given. The Forward pithily summarized the state of matters when it announced in a headline that “Natalie Portman Speaks Loudly for Young American Jews with Snub of Israel.”
* From the very outset, relations between the American Jewish press and the state of Israel have been periodically contentious. Blaming the American Jewish press for fanning the flames of a crisis between the two countries, Moshe Sharett (who would later serve as Israel’s second prime minister) referred to the “combination of stupidity and malice known for short as the JTA [ Jewish Telegraphic Agency].” Today it is not JTA but publications like The Forward (which, due to financial woes, ceased its print version in 2019 after 120 years and became digital only) that evoke that ire among the few Israelis who even care enough to follow the American Jewish press. The players have changed over the years, but the reciprocal sentiments have not.
To be sure, there is another powerful and poignant side to this picture. Hundreds of thousands of American Jews are deeply committed to Israel, and they, too, are an important dimension of the picture. At the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), some eighteen thousand people (most but surely not all of them Jews) gather in Washington, D.C., for what is a passionate, energetic, and inspiring display of commitment to and belief in the State of Israel.* Tens of thousands of American Jews visit Israel each year on delegations from Jewish organizations, congregations, study groups, and more. All of Israel’s cities are peppered with signs and plaques indicating the massive amount of money that American Jews raise for Israel and the many institutions that make up Israeli society. Birthright, funded primarily by American Jews, brings nearly forty thousand students to Israel each year—not to look at Israel’s divisive political issues, but rather to inspire these young people with the very concept of Jewish sovereignty and Israel’s many accomplishments. There is clear evidence that Birthright is having a profoundly positive impact on the attitudes of many American Jews toward Israel.†
* AIPAC is the largest and by far the most powerful and effective pro-Israel lobby in the United States. In AIPAC’s words, its mission is “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”
† It is thus not surprising that If Not Now occasionally tried accosting Birthright groups at airports before they departed for Israel, hoping to convince them to abandon the group they had pledged to join, since the Israel that Birthright groups are shown is much greater than the sum of its conflicts, an image of Israel much more nuanced than that promulgated by If Not Now.
Hadassah, the American women’s Zionist organization, began its work in Palestine more than a century ago and was a critical force in bringing modern medicine there in the early 1900s; today it continues to support and direct one of Israel’s finest hospitals and research centers. Rabbinical students from all streams of American Judaism do some of their training in Israel, while one-year programs continue to attract thousands of American students to Israel for a year of study abroad. The list goes on.
That said, the shift, particularly among young American Jews (those under forty, and especially millennials), is real. Note that The Forward article cited earlier made a point of stressing that Natalie Portman was ostensibly speaking for “young American Jews” in her decision to not travel to Israel to accept her award.
The changing attitude of “young American Jews” became even more painfully obvious after Israel’s first two twenty-first-century conflicts. From 2000 to 2004, Israel was embroiled in the Second Intifada, a conflict that left more than 1,000 Israelis dead and 8,000 wounded. Then, in 2006, the Second Lebanon War ended inconclusively, with 120 IDF soldiers killed and more than 1,200 wounded. Whatever complacency Israelis and Jews across the world might have previously felt was now gone; Israel’s ongoing vulnerability to Palestinian terror was clear. That made a study that two American Jewish sociologists conducted the following year all the more striking, particularly for what it showed about the attitudes to Israel among young American Jews. The survey asked American Jews of various ages whether they agreed with the statement that “Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy.”
Not surprisingly, of those age sixty-five and older (many of them the sorts of people who had gathered in my Baltimore synagogue’s lobby in 1973), some 80 percent said that yes, for them the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy. Among those thirty-five years old or younger, however, the figure was significantly lower—slightly less than half felt this way. And note the wording of the questions: the researchers asked not about Israel’s disappearance, or its withering away, but about its “destruction,” such as from a cataclysmic event in which tens of thousands of Jews, perhaps many more, would presumably die. Still, only one-half of the younger cohort said that Israel’s “destruction” would be a “personal tragedy” for them. In fact, their feelings about Israel may have been even more stark than that number suggests. Owing to the structure of their sample, the authors noted, “one has to presume that the ‘real’ levels of attachment among those under 35 are lower still.”
The passage of time since the Holocaust has clearly affected the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. The extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust (and 90 percent of perhaps the world’s most important Jewish community, Polish Jewry, which numbered 3 million before the war but was reduced to 300,000 by the war’s end) shook many American Jews to their core. A disproportionate number of them had immigrated just a generation or two earlier from Jewish communities that now no longer existed. Why had they deserved to survive while members of their families who had stayed behind in Europe were incinerated? For many American Jews of the post-Holocaust generation, the cloud of Nazi genocide was perhaps the defining issue in their lives. For them, Israel was the very symbol of the Jewish people’s rebirth.
For today’s younger American Jews, however, Israel is not a symbol of rebirth. How could it be when the Holocaust feels like ancient history? Think about it this way: the beginning of the Holocaust is already about half as long ago as the end of the American Civil War. And how emotional does anyone get when thinking about the Civil War? Unlike their parents, and certainly unlike their grandparents, young American Jews cannot imagine a world without Israel. And because the first days of the Yom Kippur War were also the last time that Israel’s survival seemed to be in question, they also cannot imagine that Israel actually faces an existential threat. If they are asked about “Israel” and “vulnerability,” they think of Palestinians. They are too young to remember Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s dramatic embrace of the Oslo Accords and his (unhappy) handshake with Yasser Arafat, his former (and future) nemesis. They have known nothing other than an Israel that is “the startup-nation”: powerful, stable, (seemingly) invulnerable, but also, in their minds, the reason that the Palestinians live such unfortunate lives. One generation has made all the difference.
One generation has made a great deal of difference in Israel as well. Unbeknownst to many American Jews, Israel’s social and demographic makeup has been changing in a way that affects American Jews’ view of Israel. The story we tell of Israel’s founding is almost always a European-centric narrative, because that is where Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Chaim Weizmann, and many others were born and raised.
But the demographic sands in Israel are shifting. In Israel’s early decades, European (Ashkenazi) Jews often looked down on Mizrachim, who came largely from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran; Israel’s mostly Ashkenazi political leaders kept the Mizrachim at the periphery of Israeli society, marginalizing them economically and politically. Fortunately, however, Mizrachim have made great strides in Israeli life over the decades. They now constitute a slight majority of Israeli Jews and are increasingly represented in government, the professions, religious leadership, the arts—almost all sectors of mainstream society. Marriages between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews, once rather rare, are no longer even noteworthy. Not quick to forgive Israel’s ostensibly liberal parties for years of discrimination, though, Mizrachim have flocked to Israel’s political right, where they both strengthen right-wing parties and—since right-leaning parties want to hold on to the Mizrachi voting bloc—make those parties more determined to reflect a Mizrachi worldview.
And what is that worldview? Mizrachim typically represent a socially, culturally, and politically conservative force in Israel. They have a resilient religious faith that has withstood decades of secular influence. Having been evicted from Arab lands, they are typically less optimistic than their Ashkenazi counterparts about the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict and less willing to take what seem to them foolish, hopeless risks for a peace they do not believe can be had. Although the Mizrachim have their own feminist movement and women activists, gender roles among most are more traditional, as are their religious views; even Mizrachi feminists are focused much more on social advancement than on changing women’s roles in religion. Mizrachim typically resist the sort of religious change—such as egalitarian gender roles—often advocated by Reform and Conservative Jews in America. Reverence for religious authority is an even greater value among Mizrachim than it is among religious Ashkenazim, and most Mizrachim are content to leave their hallowed, centuries-old religious way of life unchanged.
How does this affect Israel’s relationship with American Jews? The demographic rise of Mizrachim and their concomitant greater influence on Israeli society and culture helps shape an Israeli society that strikes many American Jews as distinctly illiberal. American Jews may not fully realize that this increasing mainstreaming of a former underclass is a sign of social progress; what they do see is a country that seems to be moving further and further away from the progressive discourse common among much of American Jewry.
The rise of Mizrachim is a telling example of the conundrum in which American Jews will increasingly find themselves: as advocates of the social underdog, they should celebrate the progress that Mizrachim have made. Their progressive values, however, are at odds with those of Mizrachim, making it even more difficult to embrace Israel as wholeheartedly as was once possible.
THUS, WE CAN REFRAME Alon Pinkas’s claim that “U.S. Jewry just isn’t that into” Israel this way: the more illiberal Israel seems, the less attached to it young American Jews feel. As they confront Israel’s positions on Palestinians, religious pluralism, and the treatment of the non-Jews and people of color (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) in its midst, these usually progressive Jews, with a substantially less powerful connection to the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, increasingly find Israel unpalatable. As a leading sociologist of the American Jewish community has put it, “Israel is a Red State and American Jews are a blue country.” Or to use a biblical metaphor, American Jews wish for a country based on the teaching of the biblical prophet Isaiah—the wolf lying down with the lamb, nation not lifting up sword against nation anymore—while Israel seems to act more like King David—battling the Philistines and wielding power at every turn. Israel and American Jews have adopted almost opposite models of leaders and visions of Jewish life from among those found in Jewish culture.
THE PREVAILING VIEW, THEREFORE, is that the root cause of the rift between American Jews and Israel is what Israel does:
if Israel only behaved better, the relationship could be healed. There is only one problem with that explanation: it is wrong.
Why is the conventional wisdom mistaken? Let’s return to our marriage metaphor. When a couple quarrels over dishes left in the sink or socks dropped on the floor, the problem is rarely about kitchens or bedroom floors. The issues in the dynamic are generally much deeper, more profound and far-reaching, than the immediate issues that triggered the quarrel. The same is true with Israel and American Jews. That is not to say that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is not a critically important security, demographic, and moral challenge, the resolution of which may ultimately determine whether Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. It absolutely is. In particular, millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation—even if it is an occupation that Israel did not seek and has tried to end—is terrible for the Palestinians and a threat to Israel’s moral and democratic core. Nor is the suggestion that something deeper than the immediate triggers is at play meant to suggest that the Israeli rabbinate’s views of non-Orthodox Jews are not gratuitously offensive and callously dismissive of those with whom they disagree. Or that Israel’s handling of an African asylum issue is not key to the kind of country Israel will or should become. All of those are profound issues that everyone who cares about the
Jewish state needs to take very seriously.
The proof that these explanations are insufficient lies in the fact that the fraught relations between American Jews and Israel predate by decades the conflict with Arabs and then the Palestinians; the tensions arose long before the ugliness of Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews. The real issue that divides the world’s two largest Jewish communities, as we have noted, is not what Israel does, but what Israel is. The essential issue, we will suggest, is that, at their core, America and Israel are exceedingly different: created for different purposes, they believe in and foster very different sorts of societies with very different values and different visions of Judaism.
For decades, American Jews have assumed that the more Israel emulates the United States the more admirable it will be. The more Israel acts in ways that highlight the differences between its values and those of the United States, however, the more difficult it becomes for American Jews to support it.
Yet American Jews misunderstand Israel when they assume that Israel’s founders wanted or expected it to mirror America’s core values. And Israeli Jews often wrongly read American Jews’ differences as disloyalty, or laziness, without appreciating that American Judaism has a profound, but very different, set of core values. Israel’s founders never hoped that Israel would be an imitation of America, and American Jewish leaders recognized from the outset that a Jewish state would threaten some of their deepest commitments. The divisions between American Jews and the Zionist project have always run deep, in large measure because the values and priorities of Zionism are diametrically opposed to many of the values that have made America the extraordinary country it is.
The United States and Israel were created for entirely different purposes, and as a result, they are fundamentally different experiments in how to enable humans to flourish. In the chapters that follow, we will look at several of the key commitments that make Israel and America so different.
To uncover the origins of today’s fraught relations between American Jews and Israel, we need to begin with the very origins of Zionism itself.
Excerpt from WE STAND DIVIDED by Daniel Gordis. Copyright 2019 by Daniel Gordis. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.