Israel No Longer Unites American Jews. But Exploring Judaism Could

Instead of helping left- and right-wing American Jews talk to each other about Israel, let’s help them find a common Jewish identity beyond Israel.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Jewish Americans.
"One of the tensions in American Jewish history is navigating the extent to which American Jews want it to be distinct."Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

In late 20th-century America, four distinct bonds connected American Jews to one another. Each is fraying in the early 21st.

The first is a shared memory of oppression. But as the Holocaust grows more distant, and a radically accepting America opens wide its arms, the sense of exclusion that once forged solidarity among American Jews weakens.

The second is Jewish culture. But America has universalized those aspects of Jewish culture that have mass appeal. When McDonalds serves bagels, eating one no longer constitutes a Jewish act. And American Jewry has largely discarded the rest. How many American Jews under the age of 40 even know what a bialy is?

The third is “tikkun olam,” the idea that Jews bear a special responsibility to the strangers in our midst. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the American Jewish leadership supported African American civil rights as a way to guarantee equal citizenship for Jews, this notion had broad appeal. But in today’s hyper-partisan America, politically conservative Jews see “tikkun olam” as a way to paint a Jewish veneer on a liberal agenda they oppose. So “tikkun olam” is less unifying, too.

The fourth, of course, is Israel. The Holocaust created an American Jewish consensus in support of the Jewish State, and the Six-Day War intensified it. American Jews identified with Israel both because it offered a refuge for Jews in distress and because it embodied the democratic values they prized. But today, both pillars of the Zionist consensus are crumbling. Younger American Jews have neither experienced much personal discrimination nor seen any significant number of Jews fleeing to Israel to escape state-sponsored anti-Semitism. So, France’s troubles notwithstanding, they’re less drawn to a Zionism of refuge. And since many find Israeli policies in the West Bank alienating, they don’t see Israel as embodying their values either.

To be sure, Zionism remains a powerful force in American Jewish life, especially among the older and more religious. But it is less and less unifying. It is already common to hear American Jews say they can’t talk about Israel with their family members. And the more the two-state solution fades, the larger that gulf will grow. Today, the American Jewish debate is dominated by people who agree Israel should be a democratic Jewish state but disagree about how to keep it one. Imagine what happens when the two-state solution dies, and the debate pits advocates for one non-democratic Jewish state against advocates for one non-Jewish democratic state. Then the real nastiness will begin.

In the face of this growing divide, smart people are trying to bring left- and right-wing American Jews together — with a skilled moderator — to discuss Israel in a civil way.

And that’s worthwhile. But if I had a few million dollars, I’d try something different. I’d bring left- and right-wing American Jews together — with a skilled moderator — to discuss the weekly Torah portion. I wouldn’t do so because I believe studying Torah can help U.S. Jews talk more constructively about Israel. I’d do so to help American Jews talk constructively about something other than Israel.

It’s a lot easier to disagree vehemently about Israel when you share something else Jewish in common. In 2015, a shared exclusion from the WASP-dominated country club down the street no longer works. Neither does cheering for Martin Luther King Jr. or enjoying whitefish salad. The deepest potential source of connection between American Jews comes from those texts that form our deepest common heritage. Of course, Jews of different religious and political persuasions will approach these texts in different ways.

But simply approaching them at all would give them something enduring in common, something that can’t be shaken by the latest headline in The New York Times. If American Jewish leaders had seriously invested in building an infrastructure for community-wide engagement with Jewish texts decades ago — affordable Jewish day schools, stimulating and serious Jewish after-school programs, expanded Jewish camps — the idea of community-wide learning might not seem so far-fetched. And if American Jewish leaders had invested more seriously in Jewish literacy when Israel was still a unifying force, Israel’s growing divisiveness would not be so threatening today.

But it’s not too late. In my own life, I’ve been privileged to build close friendships with people who disdain my views on Israel. What sustains these friendships? It’s seeing people week after week, year after year, in synagogue, at Shabbat tables, when a child is born or a parent dies. It’s a common language grounded in Jewish ritual, Jewish tradition and Jewish texts. It’s a solidarity borne of our common experience of Judaism, irrespective of how we feel about the experience of Jews living half a world away in the Jewish state.

Obviously, merely spending an hour studying Jewish texts together doesn’t forge that bond. But it’s a beginning. And it would remind American Jews that, important as Israel is, we share something bigger: Judaism. The more we nourish our connection to it, the more of a community we will remain in the painful and turbulent days to come.

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