Is the American Jewish pro-Israel Consensus Dying?

Professor Dov Waxman argues that American Jewish disagreement about Israel 'reflects broader shifts in the American Jewish community' in his new book, 'Trouble in the Tribe.'

Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik
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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2015.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg
Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik

“Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel,” by Dov Waxman, Princeton University Press, 328 pp., $29.95

Would tensions between American Jews and Israel be reduced if a Republican were elected president? In the last eight years, the mismatch between liberal American and conservative Israeli regimes has exacerbated tensions. The Israel lobby has fractured, Jewish college students are collectively contesting Hillel’s policies on Israel, and politicians like Naftali Bennett are heckled by young Jews in front of “safe” American audiences. Jewish arguments on Israel have moved from the family Seder table to the public sphere, growing more vitriolic and polarized.

But how much of this tension can be attributed to the public disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama? Even if American Jews weren't big fans of either President Bush or Ronald Reagan before them, they were almost as comfortable with the alignment between conservative American and Israeli governments (respectively, those of Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon) as they were with Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin’s shared liberalism. Maybe a Trump or Cruz presidency would calm the situation?

International affairs professor Dov Waxman thinks otherwise. In his new book, "Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel," Waxman argues that American Jewish disagreement about and discontent with Israel “is not just a reaction to events six thousand miles away in Israel and Palestine,” but rather “reflects broader shifts in the American Jewish community.” No short-term political changes, whether in America or Israel, will resolve what Waxman sees as a central communal struggle in American Judaism. Waxman argues that this fight stems from fundamental shifts in demography and culture, such that the American Jewish pro-Israel consensus is likely dying.

Waxman starts by showing how fragile that consensus was. He shows how the American Jewish pro-Israel establishment was built after the Six-Day War, some two decades after Israel’s founding. Historically, however, American Jews rancorously debated Zionism. The Reform movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform pronounced, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community,” and in 1950, the head of the American Jewish Committee told Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion... that they are in exile.” Isaiah “Si” Kenen, the founder of the “American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs,” changed its name to AIPAC to avoid offending non-Zionists. Moreover, Ben-Gurion happily accepted American Jews’ money while discouraging them from further interest in Israeli politics or society. Before 1967, relatively few Jews even visited Israel.

David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker in 1968. Happily accepted American Jews' money while discouraging them from further interest in Israeli politics or society.Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO

The 1967 war, especially given the rise of identity politics, inspired Jewish pride in the victorious Israeli state, as well as fear for its future. For upwardly mobile young Jews, the virile, powerful Israel may have oddly but potently symbolized their own newfound success in American society. As the Israeli army was shattering the Syrian tank line, American Jews were shattering glass ceilings in law firms and universities, increasingly entering the upper reaches of American society. That may be fuzzy thinking, but indeed, American Jews’ attitudes to Israel were primarily fuzzy and symbolic, an expression of longings and myths rather than a concrete engagement in Israeli culture or politics.

Not only the Jews, but also American politics, were shifting to be more hospitable to pro-Israel institutions. The Six-Day War, Waxman argues, inspired a realignment of American foreign policy: While President Eisenhower had courted Arab states and been largely unreceptive to Jewish appeals, increased Russian investment in Egypt and Syria made that strategy implausible and seemed to require a counter-balance. So President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made Israel a key American client-state in the Cold War.

In the 1980s, Reagan treated AIPAC as the central representative body of American Jews, because he wanted to sideline other, domestically liberal Jewish groups like the National Community Relations Advisory Council (now called the Jewish Council for Public Affairs). Meanwhile, changes in campaign-finance laws allowed the rise of pro-Israel political action committees, organizations for bundling together large amount of political money (confusingly, AIPAC is not itself a PAC). When we talk about American Jews standing lockstep behind Israel and getting what they want, we are talking about a period of twenty-five years, from the mid-1980s until the second intifada — that is, roughly the length of a generation.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 5, 2012.Credit: Reuters

That fact is no coincidence. The American college students who donned machine guns in the Israel Defense Forces or picked oranges on a kibbutz after the ‘67 war then crafted a powerful, unified pro-Israel establishment. In turn, many of their children are busy dismantling it.

Younger American Jews are simply more cosmopolitan. They frequently come from intermarried families, a background that is obviously inhospitable to particularistic nationalism. Perhaps as importantly, their universities teach them to value diversity, which has become a central value in higher education over the last several decades. Most importantly, Jews — excluding the Orthodox, who buck all these trends — are simply growing more secular, and as Waxman argues, “the more secular Jews are, the less attached they are to Israel.” This is increasingly so as Israel grows more religious and nationalistic. While American Jews are learning to use gender-neutral pronouns and marching in Black Lives Matter protests, Israeli schoolchildren are sent to visit the right-wing-narrative-promoting City of David excavations, and racist attitudes toward Arabs are on the rise.

Young Jews arrive in Israel for a Birthright trip. Credit: Courtesy of Birthright

Younger American Jews have also grown more critical of Israel in part because they know it better than their parents. Since 1999, more than 400,000 of them have flown to Israel on Birthright trips paid for by American Jewish mega-donors and the Israeli government. Birthright responded to the infamous 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which showed increasing rates of intermarriage and disaffection; visiting Israel was supposed to guarantee that American Jews would stay Jewish. But those trips routinely feature in the spate of Israel-disillusionment stories that are now a regular part of American Jewish stories.

Birthright encourages participants to see themselves as having personal, “real” knowledge of Israel, weakening American Jewish institutions’ hold over the Israel discourse. The elite youth, some of whom who learn Hebrew in day schools and spend gap years in Israel, can then independently read Israeli newspapers and watch Israeli television. Rather than a mythical, abstract Israel, they encounter a messy country with a half-century-old occupation of Palestinian territory, periodic military clashes with a beleaguered Gaza, and a rising hyper-nationalist right wing. Paradoxically, American Jews’ attempt to “engage” their children with Israel is producing the base for liberal and left-wing groups like Open Hillel, J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace.

A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative.Credit: Gili Getz

To be sure, Waxman does not exclusively concentrate on the question of age. In a plodding, 20-page typology of the American Jewish right, the center-right, the center-left, and (wait for it...) the left, he shows how even older American Jews hold a range of views. Indeed, much of the book covers ground well known to anyone who reads Jewish newspapers. Waxman densely quotes and impressively cites, but he rarely says much that is original.

Nonetheless, the book usefully dismantles the idea that American Jews’ troubles with Israel are ephemeral or passing. It does not matter, for instance, how well (or poorly) the Netanyahu government handles Conservative and Reform complaints about the Western Wall. Many younger American Jews have no interest in praying anywhere.

Older American Jews wanted their children to have a tensionless, comfortably assimilated American lifestyle, and they conceived of Israel as the convenient guarantor of their children’s Jewishness, a safe haven in case of catastrophe. They got what they wanted. Young Jews are fully American, and they are “engaged” with Israel. Unfortunately, as Waxman illustrates, the two societies are headed in radically different directions, and for American Jews, the juxtaposition is only getting more jarring.

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