Not Just Millennials: These Older U.S. Jews Are Disillusioned by Israel Too

The media may have focused on young American Jews’ disconnect from Israel, but a growing number of older U.S. Jews tell Haaretz they have also become alienated from a government that doesn't share their liberal values

Israelis during events marking the country's Independence Day in 2016. Liberal American Jews over 50 are increasingly struggling with the Israeli government's policies.
\ BAZ RATNER/ REUTERS

Richard Taub can vividly recall his grandfather shaking a blue and white box on his Brooklyn porch back in the mid-1940s, not letting family members leave until they had contributed to the Zionist cause.

“I came from a family where the sense that Israel was ‘our place’ was very strong,” says Taub, now 81 and recently retired as a public policy professor at the University of Chicago.

He counts himself among what he says is a growing number of older American Jews who are increasingly angry and alienated by the policies of the current Israeli government.

“The Israeli government is getting more arrogant and the right-wing is taking over,” he tells Haaretz by phone from his home in Sante Fe, New Mexico. “I think what is happening on the West Bank is close to criminal. And I think the coalition of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and conservatives who are religious nuts, in my view, is really unfortunate. I believe they are taking Israel in a very bad direction.”

The focus of much hand-wringing in the Jewish establishment in recent years has been the mounting evidence that young American Jews don’t care as much about Israel as their elders. The Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” for example, found that younger Jews were significantly less likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel than those 65 and older.

But it is also the liberal parents and grandparents of these youngsters who appear to becoming more outspoken about the Israeli government and some of its policies.

Donald Trump shaking hands with World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder after meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, December 2016.
DON EMMERT/AFP

Even World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, a leader of mainstream Jewish organizations, a Republican (and longtime friend of U.S. President Donald Trump) took to the pages of The New York Times in August to voice his dismay in an Op-Ed entitled “Israel, This is Not Who We Are.”

His list of complaints included the Netanyahu government’s nixing of a deal to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall for non-Orthodox Jews; a new law that denies gay men equal surrogacy rights; and a nation-state law that damaged the “sense of equality and belonging” of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim communities

“These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested,” Lauder wrote. “Israel is a miracle. The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home. However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.”

Fundamental change

Lauder’s Op-Ed was the latest example of what political scientist Prof. Dov Waxman labels a fundamental change among U.S. Jews nowadays: Being pro-Israel no longer means pure unconditional support for the Israeli government. “I call it critical engagement,” he says, adding it is no longer the old model of what he calls “passive support.”

Waxman, author of the 2016 book “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel,” says that what he has seen is very much a broader shift among American Jews. He cites the 2013 Pew data which found that almost half of American Jews (48 percent) did not believe the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to make peace with the Palestinians.

“A general change has been taking place across all age groups,” not just young Jews, the Northeastern University professor tells Haaretz. “But younger Jews have been vocal in groups like IfNotNow, and there is a certain attention-grabbing narrative that is misleadingly focused on young American Jews as a byproduct of this obsession over the concern that [they] are less attached,” he explains.

Waxman blames the American-Jewish establishment itself for missing the broader development. “The organized Jewish community is obsessed with its youth, who they are marrying, what they are thinking … and older Jews have kind of been forgotten about,” he adds.

He says that in the two years since his book was published, he has spent a lot of time on the road giving talks where, he estimates, some 90 percent of the audience is older American Jews. “And everywhere, I heard the same sentiments,” he says: “That people had long felt troubled by Israeli politics and actions regarding the Palestinians, but never felt able to speak out. They cowered around the sense they were alone, and felt like now a burden was being lifted because they were no longer alone and intimidated by speaking out,” says Waxman.

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, says young Jews’ disengagement from Israel is part of the worry for older generations. “It’s some mix of genuine personal frustration – with the direction of things, with Netanyahu specifically, with how Israel handles issues of respect for U.S. Jews – mixed with concern about how it all impacts younger people,” Burton wrote via email.

“In my conversations with some of my own leaders who express so much frustration, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell how much that is personal dismay, or dismay over the impact of events in Israel on their grandchildren’s Jewish identity and relationship with Israel,” he wrote.

Douglas M. Bloomfield. American Jews, including older Jews, "are disillusioned with an Israel that has turned far to the right," he says.
Courtesy Doug Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield, a syndicated columnist who was once chief lobbyist for AIPAC, also travels, like Waxman, to Jewish communities around the country speaking about Israel. He tells Haaretz that, in his experience, Jews – older Jews included – are “being turned off, but not turned away. They’ll quickly return in a real crisis – real, not Bibi-manufactured.”

“But for the most part,” he says, “they are disillusioned with an Israel that has turned far to the right, too dominated by the ultra-religious and the ultra-nationalist, run by a charismatic and [allegedly] corrupt PM and, perhaps most telling, an Israel that rejects them as not Jewish enough.”

Taub recounts how his own treatment during his most recent visit to Israel, when an airport security employee inquired if he went to synagogue, reinforced that “not Jewish enough” frustration. “I am angry at people who try to decide whether or not I am Jewish,” he says.

His says his own feelings for Israel began to sour years ago. But where he says he once felt like a lone voice in the room, he now hears more and more Jews over 50 echo his misgivings. He cites his recently deceased brother, a once ardent and generous giver to Israeli causes whose donations waned over continued settlement building on Palestinian lands.

“I have run into more people who feel like I do,” says Taub – including among his age group as well. “And it’s compounded by all the Jewish liberals who hate Trump, so Trump’s attachment to Netanyahu and Israel is really changing the balance too.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during an event marking Israel's 70th anniversary, April 2018.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Indeed, a recent American Jewish Committee poll seemed to suggest a major fissure between American and Israeli Jews when it comes to how they think Trump is handling U.S.-Israel relations. While 77 percent of Israeli Jews approve, only 34 percent of American Jews do.

The survey also found that 88 percent of Israeli Jews support the American president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, but that only 46 percent of U.S. Jews do. The survey also found that American Jews support the creation of an independent Palestinian state and evacuation of West Bank settlements much more than their Israeli counterparts.

The other divide

Age is not the only factor to consider when assessing American Jews’ support for Israel, says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. He notes the “growing polarization” between the politics of Reform and Conservative Jews and Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, both when it comes to U.S. politics (anti-Trump versus pro-Trump) and their views and connection to Israel.

Sarna cites the 2013 Pew survey, in which a solid majority of Orthodox Jews said they thought the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to make peace with the Palestinians, had traveled to Israel and felt attached to Israel.

“When thinking about age, you can never forget that the people generating the most younger Jews today are the Orthodox – and this shift will surely balance out the other shift” of liberal Jews disengaging from Israel, says Sarna.

And when it comes to ultra-Orthodox Jews – of all ages – he says, the data shows they are, “like evangelicals, firm Trump supporters.”

Sarna notes that in general, the days when American Jews were united in their political opinions – which began in the Roosevelt era – is no more. There is no question “that there is a calculus” going on where Americans, including some American Jews, are saying that if they revile Trump and Trump loves Israel so much, perhaps they cannot support Israel too, he says.

Israelis taking part in a rally to protest against the nation-state law, in Tel Aviv, August 11, 2018.Reuters/Ammar Awad
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Sarna also says it is important to note that for many American Jews, Israel has long been imagined as a projection of what they want the United States to be. “That was Louis Brandeis’ view,” he says, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court justice who first legitimized Zionism for many Jews in the early 20th century, “and it was frequently far from the reality of Israel.”

“There is also a huge difference between those who remember the Six-Day War [in 1967] or even 1948. For many today, the only Israel they know is the Israel portrayed on American TV as the aggressor,” Sarna says.

Widening circle of dissent

Nomi Colton-Max is the former president of a conservative synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey, and vice president of Ameinu, an American-Jewish organization that defines itself as Zionist and progressive. She also believes the circle of dissent among older American Jews is widening.

“Yes, there is still a community that will defend Israel regardless of what they do,” she says. “But as someone who grew up in [socialist-Zionist youth movement] Habonim Dror, is 50 and has been working on progressive issues since I was a young teenager, I think the group is much larger than it has ever been.

“The real question is, what are they prepared to do about it?” she says. “Will they engage? Or will they disengage, like many millennials who are in fact just stepping back from Israel?”

Margery Goldman, left, on a recent visit to a school in the West Bank, sitting with a female student
care of Margery Goldman

Colton-Max adds that it is important to distinguish between the Israeli government, on the one hand, and Israeli and Diaspora Jews on the other.

“One of the things that angers me about speaking out critically is this response that it is anti-Semitism to do so. It’s not – it’s against the [Israeli] government,” says Taub.

Margery Goldman, 69, a philanthropist and designer from Boulder, Colorado, echoes those sentiments. “I feel disconnected to the country though not necessarily to the people, as I am connected to many Israelis doing incredible civil society work through NGOs like the New Israel Fund, ACRI, Just Vision and others,” she tells Haaretz via email.

“Also, with the experience of living under the Trump administration,” she continues, “it has become clear to me that a government may represent only a fraction of the people.”

However, Goldman says her sense of connection to Israel gets tested as more and more “distressing” events unfold. “Honestly, I feel sick as I hear about each new act to oppress and destroy the hope of the Palestinian people. Was this the dream of the founders of Israel – to turn from oppressed to oppressor?” she asks. “And now, with Trump cutting funding to [Palestinian refugee agency] UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority … what has become of decency?”

“For myself, I am angry, saddened and at times moved to disbelief that this is what the world now knows as Israel and, by association, the Jewish people,” Goldman concludes.

Heartbroken over Israel

“Israel is a place you love so much, but it’s not behaving the way you might want,” says Elaine.
Courtesy of Steve Markowitz

Talking to older American Jews, it becomes clear they each have their own unique stories about a “turning point” or accumulation of events that changed their attitude toward Israel. For 61-year-old Laurel Leff, it was this May as she watched the inauguration ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem from her home outside of Boston, while some 60 Palestinians were being killed by Israeli soldiers during a simultaneous protest on the Gaza Strip border.

But the image that stayed most with her was seeing leaders of the U.S. evangelical community on stage in Jerusalem. To Leff, a journalism professor and Holocaust scholar, this signaled that “the current Israeli government had made a decision that it didn’t care what American Jews thought anymore – because it had the evangelicals to support them.”

On the other side of America, Steve and Elaine Markowitz, both in their 70s, describe themselves in similar ways – Democrats, Reform Jews, longtime supporters of Israel who, despite their feelings of attachment, also find themselves struggling. Voicing criticism is especially charged because of where they live, they say, due to the anti-Israel atmosphere they feel in progressive northern California.

Louise Enoch. “It’s been harder and harder to hang in there.”
Courtesy of Louise Enoch

Steve says he is dismayed by the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties within the Israeli government, while Elaine draws a parallel between the Jewish state and her homeland. “A lot of the feelings I have about Israel are the same feelings I have about America,” she says. “It’s a place where I live, but I don’t approve of so many things going on right now.”

Elaine says she feels the shift among members of her Jewish community. “My friends are supportive of Israel, but fall into different camps. But a lot of people are just confused. Israel is a place you love so much, but it’s not behaving the way you might want. But there are a lot of wonderful things we love about it. It’s the Jewish state, a place [where] I could really feel at home.”

Louise Enoch, a clinical social worker and therapist from Massachusetts, was born two years before the establishment of Israel. Growing up she went to Jewish camps, joined the Habonim youth movement and felt so drawn to Israel that she that considered moving there.

Although she remained involved in Israel-related issues, the 72-year-old says that, over the years, she felt like her “heart was broken – and it’s been harder and harder to hang in there.”

Enoch admits to being particularly disheartened after a recent vacation in Israel. “Relations with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have certainly become more frayed, tense and paranoid,” she says.

But she’s equally troubled that her 30-year-old daughter feels so alienated from Israel, because of its policies, that she refuses to visit. She says, with a downbeat tone, “It breaks my heart.”