Gaza Is Trigger for American Jews’ Tension and Dissonance on Israel

Despite the calls for solidarity, the Gaza conflict is alienating increasing numbers of American Jews from Israel and from the organized Jewish community, which equates being Jewish with a monolithic political position on Israel.

Emily L. Hauser
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Israeli planes strike the offices of Hamas' television station in Gaza city, July 29, 2014.Credit: AP
Emily L. Hauser

It’s hard to sketch an absence or reproduce a silence. It’s easier to report whispers, but those who whisper often seek anonymity. And anecdotes, of course, are not data.

Yet anecdotally, in whispers and off-the-record comments, in sudden Facebook defriendings or empty chairs at services, Israel’s most recent wave of hostilities appears to be leading to increasing alienation for a number of American Jews, despite the call for solidarity. For many of these members of our community, the sensation comes as a deep, identity-shaking shock.

The sense has been building for some time – as Ori Nir reported in May, “Lately, American friends are asking me whether Israeli leaders are thinking straight, whether they realize how unreasonable their statements sound here in Washington… These are people who support Israel… who follow the news from Israel with genuine concern, and who cannot comprehend what seems to them like self-destructive behavior.”

But whereas outright war usually muffles such doubts, for many the current violence has created a powerful cognitive dissonance.

From Birthright returnees who now take Israel’s word with a grain of salt, to stalwart community leaders who admit to occasionally removing regularly-worn identifiers of their Jewish identity – whether to avoid conversation, or out of a stunned sense of disgrace – many are experiencing an anxiety that is new, and distancing.

“I hear a lot of pain over the current tension between the terrible, terrible things that are happening to people in Gaza,” says Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Virginia’s Temple Rodef Shalom, “and the feeling that Israel needs to defend itself.”

“Judaism has a moral standard…. When that morality is compromised, we need to talk about it publicly.”

The frequent unwillingness to do just that – not to mention the vitriol with which such questions are often greeted – has meant that for many the only option is silence, or anonymity.

A recent college graduate who asked not to be identified says: “There definitely is this huge discomfort and shame…. The past month has been really difficult. There’s really huge tension where I’ve felt like, ‘where the hell do I go?’”

Unlike some who say they aren’t going to synagogue right now “because I don’t want to deal with what I’ll hear” (as one person put it), this young woman attended services on a recent Friday night “because I was feeling really emotionally torn.... But also out of curiosity, I didn’t know what [my rabbi] would say.”

“Then the rabbi was saying all these things about peace, but never said the words ‘Palestinians’ or ‘Gaza’.” Ultimately the congregation was urged to attend a pro-Israel rally.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, reports that soon after the upsurge in hostilities, a donor with strong Israel ties told her that his children “don’t want anything to do with Israel, and they don’t necessarily want anything to do with Judaism”; at about the same time, a woman who grew up in “a very strong Jewish community” told Jacobs that “her social values aren’t lining up with what she’s seeing coming out of Israel.”

“I think the Jewish community has just been so tone-deaf about this,” she goes on. “It’s completely tone deaf to what’s in people’s minds.”

Another anonymous speaker, who’s worked in the organized Jewish community for years, says that “with the younger generation… their set of values is one that’s based in universal justice, tolerance of the other, particularly of the disenfranchised.”

He adds: “Here they look at a situation where there is a dissonance… and the dissonance is deepening all the time.”

Even those who haven’t witnessed a pulling away from Israel or the community report what Rabbi Peter Knobel, rabbi emeritus of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Illinois called “frustration and a tremendous amount of pain… I think what people are looking for is something to give them hope and they’re beginning to despair that this is a permanent problem.”

For some the solution has been to find alternative expressions of identity. Recently a small group (IfNotNow) gathered outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and read aloud an open letter

We are here today to demand that the Conference of Presidents join our call to stop the war on Gaza, end the occupation, and forge a path forward for freedom and dignity for all people in Israel and Palestine… For all of us, our tradition obligates us to a particular commitment, born of shared texts and a shared history, to the notion that all people are created equal.

Jack Levinson, a recent Birthright returnee, feels the tension needn’t exist in the first place: “I have never conflated Judaism with Zionism…. I am very glad that I went to Israel, but what I saw has made me watch the ongoing conflict… with a deeper sense of sadness, not a deeper sense of fraternity.”

Anecdotes aren’t data, and it’s clear that most US Jews – even those for whom this is a painful time – aren’t going anywhere. Israel and the Jewish community can rest assured that, at least for now, most American Jews will back the Israeli government, come what may.

But just as anecdotes aren’t data, neither does “most” mean “all.” I worry about every Jew we lose to anger, pain, and confusion, and I genuinely believe that if we want to maintain a vital religious community, we need to learn to decouple our faith from what amounts to a monolithic political position.

Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel, can mean many things. Forcing a single definition on all Jews appears to be an good way to make many of them suffer deeply in our midst – or simply leave our midst all together.

Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli writer currently living in Chicago. She has studied and reported on the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s for a variety of outlets, including The Chicago Tribune and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter.

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