Why the U.S. Jewish Establishment Won’t Condemn the Israeli Occupation

Unless more U.S. Jews who oppose the occupation become members of established Jewish organizations and donate money, the establishment is unlikely to heed calls of those who want it to condemn the occupation.

IfNotNow activists outside AIPAC’s office in Boston
JTA / Facebook

Once again, the American Jewish establishment has come under fire for its unwillingness to criticize Israel. Just before Passover, 23 young American Jews got themselves arrested in a series of sit-ins held at the offices of major Jewish organizations in Washington DC, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Berkeley. Staged by the activist group IfNotNow, the protesters called upon the American Jewish establishment to publicly oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. A few days later, Seymour Reich, a former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — one of the main groups within the Jewish establishment — wrote a blistering op-ed in the largest circulation Jewish newspaper in the United States, calling upon the leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations to publicly condemn “the Israeli government’s assault on democratic values.” 

These demands are by no means new. For decades now, going to back to the formation of the group Breira in the mid-1970s, liberal and left-wing American Jews have been protesting the silence of the American Jewish establishment in the face of what they see as oppressive, reactionary, and anti-democratic Israeli policies and practices. Yet, despite countless protests and appeals, most of the organizations that make up the American Jewish establishment (which includes, among others, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Federations of North America) have consistently refused to voice any public criticism of the Israeli Occupation, although they have, on occasion, mildly rebuked Israeli governments and Knesset members for legislative proposals they deem undemocratic and, more often, for government initiatives that undermine the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Why, then, has the American Jewish establishment remained so silent about the occupation? 

While many on the left, both Jewish and non-Jewish, accuse the American Jewish establishment of actively supporting the occupation, the reality is more complex. Most of the leaders of organizations within the Jewish establishment actually support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have no desire to see Israel ruling over the West Bank and controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians. Whatever historic or religious significance the territory has for them, most mainstream American Jewish leaders believe that Israel must eventually give it up. But, unlike their critics on the left, they also believe that it is not safe for Israel to immediately end the occupation. They are convinced that the occupation can only end when Israel and the Palestinians make peace, and since this depends upon the Palestinians as much as Israel, the continuation of the occupation until then cannot be blamed on Israel. Thus, in their minds, it is imprudent and unfair to simply insist that Israel end the occupation.

But even if the leadership of the American Jewish establishment were persuaded that the occupation is largely Israel’s fault, or that continuing it poses greater dangers to Israel than unilaterally ending it, many of their organizations would still resist any open condemnation of Israel. It is simply not in their DNA. Having spent decades defending and celebrating Israel, mainstream Jewish organizations are profoundly uncomfortable criticizing it. Their corporate culture reflects and reinforces their traditional mission of doing “hasbara” for Israel. Even internal criticism of Israel is subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, discouraged. Getting these organizations to dramatically change course and actively oppose the occupation would be like getting the Republican Party in the United States to support raising taxes on the wealthy to cut the deficit. Even if it makes sense, it’s an almost impossible task.

Which brings me to the third major reason why the American Jewish establishment won’t oppose the occupation. Just as the Republican party is now dependent upon some mega-donors who staunchly oppose higher taxes and a grassroots base which is fiercely anti-government, so too the American Jewish establishment increasingly depends upon a small number of major donors and a grassroots base who are generally more right-wing and politically conservative than most American Jews. Nowadays, the people who give the largest amounts of money to mainstream American Jewish organizations, or who regularly show up at their meetings and conferences, tend to be on the right, or at least the center-right, of the American Jewish political spectrum when it comes to Israel (although they may be Democrats domestically). Going directly against their views and publicly condemning the occupation might well put an organization’s finances and membership at risk. Like any organization, those within the Jewish establishment are focused first and foremost on their own survival, and they are generally risk-averse. Put simply, opposing the occupation could be bad for business.

Unless significantly more American Jews who oppose the occupation become members of establishment Jewish organizations, show up at their meetings, and give them large sums of money, the American Jewish establishment is unlikely to heed the calls of those who want it to condemn the occupation. But this should not deter its critics, because even if such calls fall upon deaf ears, they might be heard elsewhere, in the corridors of power in Jerusalem, where it really matters.

Dov Waxman is a professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center. His new book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel has just been published by Princeton University Press.