Opinion

Why U.S. Jewish Liberals Won’t Be Manning the Anti-occupation Barricades Anytime Soon

Anti-occupation activists' resentment and disbelief at liberal U.S. Jewish outrage over the Wall shows how disconnected they are from key tenets of American Jewish identity

A stone barrier painted with an Israeli flag in Hebron, December 15, 2015.
Gil Cohen-Magen

It was to be expected that the near unanimous outrage among non-Orthodox American Jews over the Israeli government’s backtracking on its Western Wall promises would be resented by the ultra-Orthodox and those who support the Kotel status quo.

But the strong pushback from the liberal denominations and the broader American Jewish community has also gotten negative feedback from those who might be thought of natural allies in any battle with Israel’s Orthodox power-brokers. The Jewish left as well as the Palestinians view the anger and the threats of cutting back funding for Israeli causes with a combination of resentment and disbelief.

Why, people like Simone Zimmerman ("It's Only About Them: U.S. Jews' Outrage on the Wall, Silence on the Occupation Is Obscene") and Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya Opinion ("American Jews, Can You Spare Some Outrage for Israel's Arab Citizens?") ask, are liberal Jews ready to head to the barricades over plans for easier access and expanded space for an egalitarian prayer area at the Wall, when the same groups tread so softly when it comes to disagreements about settlements and the peace process? It makes no sense to them.

But that betrays a misunderstanding of both the relative importance of faith issues to Diaspora Jews and the nuanced attitudes of American liberals toward Israel’s government. While these activists may think efforts to end the occupation should be an American Jewish priority, even those U.S. Jews who are relatively critical of the Netanyahu government actually have a very different take on the issue.

IfNotNow outside AIPAC
Gili Getz

The disconnect here is understandable. Some Americans, like Rena Singer ("To Simone Zimmerman: Reform Jews Must Choose the Wall or the Palestinians? That's Wrong and Insulting") share Zimmerman’s fervor when it comes to protesting settlements and supporting Palestinian demands but insist the Reform movement can fight for those causes as well as being vocal about pluralism.

Moreover, Haj-Yahya isn’t wrong when she notes the fact that the backlash over liberal Jews’ prayer at the Wall seems to be an exception to Cynthia Ozicks’s observation that "universalism is the parochialism" of the Jews. Liberals are usually more comfortable speaking up for others, rather than their own interest - but not here.

The left thinks that polls that tend to show most American Jews having little sympathy for the positions of the Israeli right ought to translate into more support for activism like that of Zimmerman’s IfNotNow group, as well as even more extreme organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace that support BDS or even take anti-Zionist stands.

So when U.S. Jews act as if the campaigns of what are, in reality, a relatively small number of Israelis for respect for pluralism, are more important than those of the Palestinians, they see hypocrisy if not something far worse.

But it’s not that simple. What Zimmerman, Haj-Yahya and even many on the Israeli right don’t get is that there is a big difference between not loving Netanyahu and even worrying about the impact of settlements and sharing the perspectives of the left about the peace process.

Liberal US Jews don’t and won't care more about settlements than the Wall. It's all about identity: Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Temple Israel (Memphis, Tennessee)

Part of the problem is the difference between being an Israeli and a Diaspora Jew. Secular Israelis think of religion as only one aspect of Jewish identity that many see as optional or of no importance at all. But to be a Jew in the Diaspora is inextricably tied with religion, even if your faith is, as some of Reform Judaism’s critics quip, the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. That means Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are always going to react to government support for Haredi attacks on their denominations with more urgency than their stance on the settlements.

Moreover, mainstream American liberals tend to see the conflict with the Palestinians in a more nuanced way than that of the Israeli left. The distinction here is crucial. A lot of the people who give to Israeli causes and support AIPAC would probably vote against Netanyahu, if they were in Israel. But most don’t think the continuation of the conflict is all Israel’s fault, and they don’t necessarily want to force his hand in the peace talks, as the left demands. Nor do they see Israel as an oppressor, because they are just as concerned about Palestinian intransigence and support for terror.

For the American liberal mainstream, settlements are not as much of a hot button issue as the Kotel. Those on the left who want American Jews to view Israel from a perspective divorced from faith, or not rooted in their perception of the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians, are always going to be disappointed.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a Contributing Writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.