If Israel moves forward with its annexation plans in the West Bank, will it be the final straw for young American Jews, causing them to finally wash their hands of their cousins across the pond?
“It would be a very poor move,” says one self-declared Zionist, Sophie Nir. “I think this is going to kind of be a death blow to American liberal support of Israel,” she says, referring to the community that includes many Jews.
Nir, 25, works as a Democratic political consultant focusing on state and local races in New York. Her father is Israeli and her attachment to the State of Israel comes from her upbringing. However, her support for Israel’s existence “does not mean I support everything Israel does; it has nothing to do with it,” she says.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking about annexing the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements in the West Bank for over a year. Now, his newly formed government could bring an annexation plan up for a vote in the cabinet or the Knesset as early as July 1, subject to the “full agreement” of the U.S. administration.
‘I love Israel, but...’
For many liberal American Jews, the Netanyahu government’s right-wing policies over recent years have been hard to endure. American Jews like Nir are concerned what annexation might do to the relationship between Israel and the American-Jewish community, which is overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning.
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“I think that if Netanyahu does this, it’s going to be so alienating to the American left, for the Jewish community, for the people who don’t really know a lot about Israeli politics but know that [President Donald] Trump is bad so whatever Trump is doing and whatever Netanyahu and Trump are doing together has to be a disaster,” Nir says. “I think it’s just strategically so poor.”
For Jenna Weinberg, 31, the possibility that Israel might proceed with annexation is, in a word, “scary.”
“I, like my parents, never lived in a world where Israel didn’t exist,” she says. “And annexation pushes me, for the first time, to think that it might not exist in my lifetime – at least not the way that the founders of Israel imagined.”
“The Israel I was taught about in school or in summer camp – that Israel will cease to exist in my lifetime. And that is a fundamental affront to my identity,” she says.
Growing up in a Jewish community in Baltimore, Weinberg says Israel was “inextricably bound to what it meant to be an American Jew.” She learned Hebrew starting in preschool, celebrated Israeli days of commemoration in school, and went to Jewish summer camp, where Israeli envoys “enriched” her understanding of “what it actually meant to be an Israeli.”
Before going to college, Weinberg even took a gap year to volunteer in Israel, working at a day care center for the elderly in Bat Yam. Today, she serves voluntarily on the board of the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit that has previously been criticized by Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians for some of its campaigns. Israel’s future, she says, is important to her. But the potential annexation of the Jordan Valley and parts of the West Bank will have community-wide effects, Weinberg believes.
“I think that annexation will push American Jews deeper into what has already been the trend, which has been to decide to not identify with the State of Israel because it is either way too complicated or because they fundamentally cannot have a relationship with a country that is behaving so counter to their values,” she says. “I feel like already over the past decade, I’ve had so many conversations with peers who have just decided to walk away.”
Like Nir, Weinberg worries that annexation will cause irreparable damage to Democrat-supporting Jews who may “grow increasingly uncomfortable with what Israel is becoming and has chosen to stand for.”
Post-annexation, she says, many young American Jews “will still have personal relationships with Israelis and experiences on the ground. That love will still be there, but with an asterisk: 'I love this place, but...'”
‘Kinship with Israel’
Vlad Gutman-Britten, 34, has come to understand that feeling in recent years. Born in the former Soviet Union, he moved to the United States as a child and grew up in Chicago. Today, he lives with his wife in Seattle, where he works as an energy and climate policy advocate.
“Jewish identity has always been really important to me, even when the faith hasn’t always been central in my life,” he says. “I feel a kinship with Jewish people and with Israel. It is a very important part of who I am.”
In conversations with people who are less connected to Israel, Gutman-Britten says he often highlights the things he is proudest of about the country: “It’s a pluralistic society, it’s a democratic society that values the rights of people, that protects the rights of women and minorities and gay people,” he says.
“The things that I think are good about Israel are the things that set it apart from what so many other countries in the region do. But some of the choices that the Netanyahu government has pursued have been really alienating and disappointing.”
Although he believes “Israelis should make their own choices,” Gutman-Britten says annexation would be one of these alienating decisions.
Ethan Kahn, a student in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University, has been rather preoccupied with the issue of annexation recently. For Kahn, 22, who also heads his campus’ J Street U chapter, annexation represents “the most serious threat to peace in the region between Israelis and Palestinians that we faced at least in my lifetime.”
In line with the organization he is part of, Kahn supports a two-state solution, seeing it as “the best chance for peace in the region, and to satisfy Israeli and Palestinian nationalist aspirations.”
In recent weeks, his group has been focused on “mobilizing American Jews, and more importantly showing the reality of how American Jews are supportive of the two-state solution and opposed to moves like annexation.”
Kahn makes clear he supports Israel, but finds “the definition of support is often a little bit 'woolly.' Supporting Israel means supporting the security and safety of its citizens – and also remaining true to democratic values and the Israeli declaration of independence,” he says. “So for me, annexation is very worrying because it is a threat to all of those values.
“Annexation, if it happens, will force deep thinking and assessment within the American-Jewish community about how we can best support democracy, peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians,” Kahn adds.
Weinberg is also concerned about what annexation might do to what she calls Israel’s “body” – meaning its security – “and also wanting to make sure that Israel is defending its soul – its purpose and reason for existence as a democratic and Jewish state.”
When it comes to “Israel’s soul,” Weinberg says that “annexing all of this land in the West Bank will continue to lead us toward permanent Israeli control over a whole body of people who are governed by a different set of rules than Israeli citizens. Those people will not have the right to vote, they will not have the right to freedom of movement, they will not have a whole set of human rights that are part of what we mean when we talk about democracy,” she says.
Gutman-Britten struggles to reconcile annexation with the “high moral authority” he has attributed to Israel throughout his life, as “the entity that has offered peace plans, that has sought peace, that has sacrificed and put its own citizens at risk at times in the pursuit of peace.
“I think it isolates the country more and more on the global stage, which is not something that Israel needs. And that makes me concerned for the Jewish character of the state, the democratic character of the state, and for its security and standing in the global arena,” he adds.
For liberal Jews, there is a clear political parallel between events on their own doorstep and Israel. Weinberg says that after the election of Trump in 2016, young American Jews were “starting to make connections between the threats to democracy at home in the United States and the growing trend toward authoritarianism in Israel. Annexation will make Israel significantly harder to defend among their peers,” she says.
“The fact that Netanyahu, since Trump was a candidate, treated him like he was anything but a disaster for Israel is so confusing to me and shocking,” Nir says. She adds that Trump has “polarized Israel as this far-right issue, and it’s going to have absolutely detrimental and long-reaching effects for Israel.”
Gutman-Britten sees the warm relations between Netanyahu and Trump as a deeply personal source of disappointment. “I came to the U.S. as a refugee. Many American Jews can speak to that for their own or their family’s background, or they remember the effort to save Soviet Jews in the 1970s and ’80s,” he says. “And now Trump is jailing children on the border who were brought to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life. And this is the guy Netanyahu is naming neighborhoods after?”
The other schism
If the bond between Netanyahu and Trump has proved problematic, there is also another relationship concerning young Democratic Jews: The shift in the party’s views on Israel. As Nir puts it, there has been a “scission between the democratic socialists and the more traditional Democrats.
“The democratic socialists, being anti-Israel is not even a question to them: it’s like number three on their list of policies. It’s so baked into their foundation that they don’t even question it – and more and more people are joining that part of the party,” Nir says.
She feels that because many young Americans identify with most of the issues pushed by democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – including health care for all and free college tuition – they are increasingly shifting to that side of the Democratic Party. Positions against Israel are simply part of the package deal, she says.
“Especially in a pandemic, you see these things happening and they feel like they need such radical change, so people are definitely gravitating toward these more radical positions,” Nir says. That shift is “just going to grow and grow, and become more influential” as “a lot of the people [in the Democratic Party] who are currently really championing Israel are going to retire.”
The Trump argument
Although she is concerned about the effect unilateral annexation could have on American-Jewish support of Israel, Nir is unequivocal about her personal relationship with Israel: Annexation will not affect it “at all.”
“My relationship with Israel and my support of Israel is not conditional in any way on anything that happens with Israeli politics,” she stresses. “I support Israel’s right to exist, I support Israel as the Jewish homeland, as my ancestral homeland and my family’s home 100 percent, completely separate from Israel’s politics, which I have often taken issue with.
“The thing I try to remind people of is that Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and nobody is suggesting that the United States should not exist because we have an absolutely despicable, heinous leader,” she says. “So the insinuation that Israel as a country should not exist because the current leadership is not in line with our values is crazy.”
For Weinberg, if annexation were to happen, “multiple parts” of her American-Jewish identity would be conflicted, specifically “the piece that feels deeply connected to Israel, and the piece that believes that being an American Jew means standing up for human rights and social justice for all people.
“I’ll be pushed into a fight for the soul of my people and the soul of my own being in fighting for what I believe to be right,” she says, vowing to continue to deepen her relationship with Israelis.
Although annexation would be deeply concerning for Gutman-Britten, he at least remains confident that the shared values of Americans and Israelis are “deeply held and firmly held and based in truth.”
Kahn, meanwhile, says that while annexation would be “a total violation” of his values and “the values of most American Jews,” he is hopeful that “sometimes with conflict, peace can come unexpectedly.” He notes as an example that “the Israeli government annexed East Jerusalem, and that did not end the two-state solution.
“I refuse to give up hope,” he concludes, “and I don’t think other people involved in activism will give up hope either.”