At the start of the last decade, Peter Beinart issued in these pages an anguished call to save liberal Zionism in the United States.* Young American Jews committed to human rights and averse to military power were growing alienated from Israel, which rules over millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank while populating the territory with Jewish settlements. As Beinart put it, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
His argument appeared at an opportune moment. President Obama had made the Israeli–Palestinian conflict a priority. His national security adviser, James Jones, said that of all the foreign policy challenges facing Washington, the conflict stood out for its urgency, significance, and potential for resolution. The United States was deeply invested in the Middle East, both for access to its oil and in order to prevent the spread of Islamist terrorism. But the Arab states viewed the US as Israel’s sponsor and protector; until it persuaded Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and permit the establishment of a Palestinian state, Washington’s influence in the region would be limited. Ending the conflict through a two-state solution would advance American interests in countless ways.
Beinart’s essay (expanded into a book, The Crisis of Zionism, in 2012) was essentially a plea to the American Jewish community to back the Obama administration’s efforts. Yes, Beinart was saying, unlike in earlier decades, Israel had the means to protect itself militarily. But it was abandoning any serious attempt to make a deal with the Palestinians just as it was undermining democratic principles by giving greater status and privileges to its Jewish citizens than to its Arab ones, barring critics from entering the country, allowing members of small communities to prevent Arabs from renting or buying homes, and threatening to downgrade Arabic from its status as an official language (which was later done). Israel, Beinart argued, would soon face a crisis of legitimacy that would undermine its existence. Palestinians would rise up again; the world would censure the state as it once did apartheid South Africa; and as American Jews turned away, so would America. The status quo was unsustainable, the solution clear.
The decade since has not been kind to this prediction. While the moral arguments were once interlaced with the geopolitical ones, they are today separate. The Arab Spring, which broke out in late 2010, exposed suppurating disputes both within and between countries of the Muslim Middle East—none of them linked to Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. The shale revolution in oil and natural gas essentially ended America’s energy dependence on the region.
Moreover, the West Bank Palestinians are foundering. Israel’s security services monitor them constantly. Since the end of the second intifada in 2005, every keystroke and phone conversation has been subject to surveillance, a policy that is complemented by late-night commando raids on the homes of suspected rabble rousers, making any organized uprising very unlikely. The Palestinian political leadership is divided between the nationalist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas, with neither faction showing realism or initiative and both dismissed by their people. The chance of a meaningful political solution is minimal.
Meanwhile, Obama’s nuclear deal with Shia Iran so alarmed its rival, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni sheikhdoms that they quietly created anti-Iranian security arrangements in cooperation with Israel, an alliance subsequently joined by the military government of Egypt. Even a casual survey of the region—taking in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq—makes it hard not to see Israel as a monument to stability and a reliable US ally. And, of course, Obama has been replaced by Donald Trump, who has withdrawn from the Iran deal, lavished uncritical attention on Riyadh, and offered unprecedented support for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right in his peace plan. It offers Israel full sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, and a veto over anything the Palestinians might want to do in building their state. For its part, Israel today has a set of government and private industries focused on security and espionage that makes it an all-but-indispensable partner in US and Gulf Arab antiterrorism efforts. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have served as testing grounds for Israel’s surveillance tools.
None of this diminishes the moral force of Beinart’s argument, but it does yank away its geopolitical underpinning. Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are every bit as oppressive today as they were a decade ago. It is, however, much harder to claim that ending the occupation should still be a top US priority because it would stabilize the region and strengthen American interests throughout the Middle East. Israelis look at their two recent military withdrawals—from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005—and see their occupying forces replaced with missile-firing Islamists: Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Withdrawing from the West Bank, most of them believe, would endanger the roughly 60 percent of Israel’s population that lives nearby. The occupation gnaws at the nation’s moral and democratic fiber and poses a risk that there will be more non-Jews than Jews ruled by the Jewish state. Still, Israelis believe that withdrawal would be even more dangerous. As many say, we are stuck; better stuck than dead. As a result, the issue lingers and festers.
Beinart identified a rift opening between American Jews, a majority of whom are liberal, and Israel, which has embraced a more right-wing vision of itself as a Jewish state than it did a quarter-century ago. His solution was to urge American Jewish leaders to stand up for the principles they claimed to support (the rights of minorities, freedom of religion and expression) and push Israel to help establish a Palestinian state. That would bring young liberal Jews back into the fold and strengthen the Jewish nation.
That has not happened, and the notion that US Jews and Israel are headed for some kind of ugly divorce continues to preoccupy scholars and commentators. In We Stand Divided, Daniel Gordis offers a very different analysis from Beinart’s of why the alliance between American and Israeli Jews is fraying, which focuses not on Israel’s misdeeds but on American Jewish misperceptions. By contrast, Amy Kaplan’s Our American Israel looks beyond American Jews to Americans in general and asks how there was ever such a strong bond between a superpower with hundreds of millions of citizens steeped in Christian tradition and a speck on a map half a world away with nine million people, the vast majority of them Jews. Something untoward, she argues, has been going on.
Gordis and Kaplan represent two main strands of the uneasy, polarized discourse about Israel that has emerged in the past decade. Gordis, an American-born-and-educated Israeli scholar and a Conservative rabbi, scolds American Jews for criticism he views as either misguided or naive. He wants them to find common cause again with Israeli Jews. Kaplan, a professor of American studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a critic of Israel, wants virtually the opposite. By exposing the cultural forces that have drawn the two countries close, Kaplan hopes that Americans, Jewish and otherwise, will stop seeing their bond with Israel as unbreakable.
There can be little doubt that the left, including American Jews on the left, increasingly rejects not only the occupation but the very concept of a Jewish state. It sees Israel as an antidemocratic and colonialist country where white Europeans expropriated the land of its Arab residents and continue to discriminate against them. By “the left,” I don’t mean the Democratic Party, at least not yet, but the activist left, much of it on campuses.
Most Jews view themselves as a people driven from their land two thousand years ago who kept their identity and ties to one another in the diaspora through religious practice. Secular American Jews, however, have always walked a fine line in their sense of peoplehood. They make up barely 2 percent of the US population and want the Christian majority to treat them well. This has meant championing minority rights and freedom of religion and speech. American Jews have worked assiduously to gain acceptance as assimilated patriots who may worship on Saturday rather than Sunday and celebrate Hanukkah rather than Christmas but whose needs and concerns fit easily and entirely into the American ideal.
The Jews of Israel, by contrast, have designed their public life and national calendar to reflect and celebrate their history, culture, and religion. That is the point of having their own country. While equal rights for non-Jewish minorities matter both on paper and in practice, they are secondary to the Zionist project, which is about Jewish redemption, sovereignty, and power.
Zionism calls on all Jews to move to Israel, which it views as the only place they can be truly safe and fulfilled. In the classical Zionist outlook, Jews who remain in the diaspora are lulling themselves into a false sense of safety. Zionist discourse, especially in the early years, sometimes echoed anti-Semitic disdain for the pale, weak diaspora Jew while lionizing the tanned, sinewy farmer-soldier reestablishing the historic homeland. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, called diaspora Jews rootless cosmopolitans, and Chaim Weizmann, the country’s first president, expressed understanding for the limited appetite of other countries to absorb them. Jew-hating European governments and Zionists found a common interest: one wanted to get rid of Jews, the other to gather them in.
For many American Jews, this all felt foreign and threatening. They had already found their promised land. In 1897, at the time of the first Zionist conference in Basel, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution to “totally disapprove of any attempt for the establishment of a Jewish state.” Zionism, it said, misinterpreted the universal words of the Jewish prophets, turning them into something parochial and nationalistic. It endangered Jews around the world by suggesting their loyalties lay with another country. The object of Judaism, it added, is the advance of peace, justice, and love.
It took a few decades for the Reform movement to warm to the Zionist project, but in 1937 it issued a statement declaring that “Judaism is the soul of which Israel is the body” and endorsed the Jewish homeland in Palestine. The late 1960s are widely regarded as a turning point: Israel’s show of force in the 1967 Six-Day War came as American society was shifting toward a politics of identity and ethnicity and as its military was sinking into the Vietnam quagmire. The young state’s stunning and decisive victory made it a source of unity, pride, and concern for organized American Jewry.
I first visited Israel as a boy in 1965, when my father spent a summer sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute. It was a very foreign country then, quasi-Soviet in many respects, with lousy food, scrappy people, no TV, and little wealth. For at least another decade, we sent over packages of instant coffee and nylon stockings to relatives and friends. In the years since, I have visited numerous times and spent twelve years there as Jerusalem bureau chief for three news organizations: Reuters, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.
As late as the 1980s, Israel remained a relatively poor and isolated place. But by the 1990s, it was on a remarkable path to prosperity. It has some of the world’s best food and wine and a mobile, ambitious population with a deep sense of family and belonging. It has also become much more explicitly Jewish. The Labor Zionists who founded and ran the state until the late 1970s rarely spoke of their Jewishness and had a near disdain for religious observance. (Jews were the ones in the diaspora; they were Israelis.) That disdain is partly what led to the victory in 1977 of Menachem Begin, whose Likud party has largely governed the country since. Likud has offered more power to religious parties, while more Israelis today are observing religious rituals and evoking their Jewishness.
At the same time, Israel is much more Middle Eastern than ever before. Half of its Jewish population immigrated from Muslim countries or descend from those who did, and while these Jews were once made to feel ashamed of their origins, that is far less true now. I have increasingly felt that by shedding its European socialist roots and embracing a political culture with a stronger religious component, Israel has become not only more like its neighbors but perhaps easier for them to accept. In fact, today it bears some resemblance to the other non-Arab Middle Eastern powers: Turkey and Iran. In all three, a Westernized, secular elite that once governed has had trouble finding the votes to stay in power.
As Israel has turned more to the right, become wealthier, made common cause with right-wing autocracies such as Poland and Hungary, added steadily to settlements in the West Bank, and engaged in military operations in Gaza, liberal American Jews who felt a close bond with the Israel of Labor Zionism and egalitarian kibbutz culture have grown uncomfortable with it. Today, however, the American Jewish community may be undergoing changes that seem likely to mitigate the rift with Israel of the past two decades. Many liberal secular American Jews who do not send their children to religious or Zionist schools and camps, teach them Hebrew, or have them spend time in Israel are watching them abandon not only Israel but organized Jewish life. The majority intermarry and have few children (1.7 per family on average). By contrast, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have large families (four or more children) and devote themselves to Israel in ways they did not in its early decades. The Ultra-Orthodox shunned it because they deemed the Jewish state premature before the arrival of the Messiah; the Orthodox did not feel welcomed by Labor Zionism. Now both are growing in numbers and importance. As Steven M. Cohen, a demographer of American Jews, noted in a 2017 study, “27 percent of Jewish children under seventeen are born into Orthodox families, with as many as 35 percent under five years old.” This means that the secular liberals who have dominated American Jewish life may find themselves replaced by more religious and conservative Jews who have strong connections to Israel.
But there is another trend underway that has not been carefully studied and that I believe is strengthening ties between Israeli and American Jews. In Israel’s first four decades, American Jews may have kept Israelis in their hearts, but they had little interaction with them. Some 15–20 percent of them visited Israel at least once through the 1960s and 1970s. Israeli Jews were burdened with exit taxes, low incomes, and bad English, and few came to the US. Today, the traffic in both directions is heavy and steady. According to Pew data from 2013, more than 40 percent of Israeli Jews have been here and 40 percent of US Jews have been there. Those numbers keep going up. The organization Birthright Israel has taken hundreds of thousands of young American Jews for a free visit. And the ultra-Orthodox are now among the busiest of travelers back and forth.
Just as Jews who immigrate to Israel are described in Hebrew as making aliyah, “going up,” those who move away make yeridah, going down. In previous decades, those who left Israel were called yordim, which was not an expression of praise. That word has fallen out of use. Israelis seem increasingly unbothered when their friends and cousins spend time in the US, and some end up staying. Nor do Israelis talk about expecting all Jews to join them. When I put the question to a twenty-five-year-old recently, she recoiled and said, in perfect English, that there wasn’t enough room for all the American Jews to come to Israel.
In addition, an estimated 400,000 Israelis now live in the US and are integrated into Jewish communities. Israelis are on college faculties, in Silicon Valley, and on synagogue boards. They own real estate and businesses. Their children remain devoted to Israel, adding another dimension to the relationship. In Israel today, nearly everyone speaks English and absorbs American culture. Over here, Israeli films and TV series such as Shtisel, Our Boys, and Fauda are popular on Netflix and HBO.
While it remains true, then, that the more left-leaning and secular members of the American Jewish community are less devoted to Israel than they once were, the shift is probably more drift than rift. Their children are simply turning their attention elsewhere. At the same time, Israel needs their devotion less. Christian evangelicals are fiercely attached to it and committed to protecting it politically. The rejection of Israel by the left is helping to nudge organized Jewry to the center and right, leaving liberal Zionists in groups like J Street in the challenging position of spurning some major Israeli policies but refusing to join with anti-Zionists.
Gordis opens his book by quoting Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, who wrote a Times of Israel column in 2017 headlined, “Sorry Israel, US Jewry Just Isn’t That Into You.” Gordis notes that many Israelis consider American Jews spoiled and ignorant about the challenges facing Israel in a violent, unstable region, and he sets himself the task of explaining what has happened to this once-vital partnership.
First, he notes that the relationship has always been more complicated than popularly understood, and he goes over the history of anti-Zionism among Reform Jews in the US. Second, he writes that liberal American Jews who believe that their problem with Israel is its mistreatment of Palestinians or the primacy of Orthodox Judaism there are failing to understand Israeli democracy. American Jews, Gordis maintains, think their own democracy, with its universalist approach to minorities and religious neutrality, is the sole legitimate one. In fact, there is another kind of democracy, an ethnic or nationalist one, in which, he explains, “all citizens have equal claims on civil and political rights, but…the majority group (Jews in Israel’s case) have some sort of favored cultural, political, and, at times, legal status.” (Latvia, Estonia, and Slovakia are also sometimes described as ethnic democracies.)
Once one grasps this distinction, Gordis says, much of American Jewish criticism of Israel amounts not to a disagreement over policies but to a misunderstanding of the essence of the Jewish state. American Jews think they are criticizing what Israel does; in fact, they are often attacking what it is. In other words, Gordis is saying that some liberal critics of Israel are not very different—even if they don’t realize it—from leftists who reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
There is truth in this argument, but Gordis overstates his case. For one thing, he exaggerates how unpopular Israel is among Democrats. Referring to a speech by a non-Jewish Democratic politician half a century ago, he says, “It is hard to imagine almost any Democratic politician calling either Israel or Zionism ‘a great and just cause for every person who appreciates justice and freedom.’” He must have missed the speeches by Charles Schumer, Steny Hoyer, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and many others at recent AIPAC conferences.
Gordis writes elsewhere that “there is scarcely an American Jewish liberal who would dare speak aloud about denying the Palestinian right of return once and for all.” This is a bizarre statement. I know few American liberals, let alone liberal American Jews, who think that Palestinians and their descendants all must be permitted to return to their former homes, since this would fundamentally alter the Jewish character of the state. It is true that Representative Rashida Tlaib and a few others on the left disagree, but they are hardly in the Democratic mainstream.
Gordis argues that American Jews have grafted their secular liberal values onto their Judaism. As he puts it, “Welcoming the stranger, dignity for all human beings, equality under the law, and respect for dissent and ethnic difference became religious principles for American Jews.” Those values, for Gordis, fail to address the realpolitik needs of Israel.
In a recent review of Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism in The New York Times, Hillel Halkin, another American-born Israeli writer, goes further, arguing that there is no liberal tradition at all in Jewish history:
Judaism as liberalism with a prayer shawl is a distinctly modern development. It started with the 19th-century Reform movement in Germany, from which it spread to America with the reinforcement of the left-wing ideals of the Russian Jewish labor movement. As much as such a conception of their ancestors’ faith has captured the imagination of most American Jews, it is hard to square with 3,000 years of Jewish tradition.
I don’t know why a 150-year-old tradition should count for nothing. Beyond that, Jewish liberalism goes back at least to the 1600s and Spinoza. But the argument put forth by Halkin and Gordis represents something new. It says that criticism of Israel from American Jews is not just mistaken, it’s irrelevant. It has no basis in Jewish tradition and little meaning for the Jewish state.
At the start of this century, nearly all Israeli leaders said they considered an agreed-upon and fair separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank to be vital. As prime minister, even the revered right-wing warrior Ariel Sharon said in 2003 that holding millions of Palestinians under occupation—he repeated the word “occupation” three times—was bad for Israel and bad for the Palestinians. His colleagues Ehud Olmert and Dan Meridor declared it a matter of existential necessity that Israel not rule indefinitely over the millions of Palestinians who aren’t citizens (20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinians).
But now, with Gaza ruled by Hamas, the West Bank Fatah leadership desultory, and the greater Arab world mired in dysfunction and cooperating with Israel against Iran, the Palestinian question has lost urgency. Israel is stronger and richer: its high-tech startups (Waze, Mobileye) are being snapped up, its real estate values soaring. Israelis live longer, fuller, and happier lives than the vast majority of people on the planet. This includes many Palestinian Israeli citizens who are physicians, lawyers, researchers, and artists. Forty percent of the undergraduates at the University of Haifa are Arabs, as are 20 percent at Technion University, Israel’s equivalent of MIT. So, Gordis is saying, stop talking about the occupation. It’s painful and troubling but harder to fix than you American Jews realize and matters less than you believe.
In Our American Israel, Kaplan attempts to explain why Americans have embraced a country she considers less than exemplary. She lays the blame partly on American Jews moonlighting as public relations agents: “As novelists, filmmakers, journalists, intellectuals, and museum curators, they have at times been more effective than formal lobbyists…in shaping the way a diverse swath of Americans have made Israel their own.” Zionist advocates, she argues, shrewdly Americanized the far-from-obvious plan to build a Jewish state in a land filled with non-Jews by drawing parallels with the American experience: standing up to British imperialism, gathering in immigrants from across the globe, building an informal and cheeky country that sheds traditions.
Kaplan devotes considerable attention to Leon Uris’s best-selling novel Exodus (1958) and Otto Preminger’s 1960 film adaptation of it, and the way in which the story romanticized the Jews and ignored the Palestinians. The hero of Exodus, Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, is in effect a Jewish cowboy, short on words, long on deeds. She also reminds us of the fawning coverage of Israeli soldiers in Life in the 1960s and cleverly notes the cultural tropes that played well for Israel over the years, such as the confident insouciance of its soldiers and the constant focus on the Holocaust.
But her thesis falls far short. She wants us to believe that Americans have been hoodwinked into identifying with Israel by slanted coverage, celebratory television shows, and cunning lobbyists. This forces her to make some odd points. For example, when she looks at Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which killed thousands of civilians, she finds angry American media coverage. On August 2, John Chancellor of NBC stood on a rooftop in West Beirut and spoke of the “savage Israeli attack on one of the world’s big cities.” He went on: “We are now dealing with an imperial Israel, which is solving its problems in someone else’s country, world opinion be damned.”
One might have thought that such reportage on the widely watched evening news would cool the American romance with Israel. Kaplan says it did, to some extent, but “equally important, and possibly more enduring,” she argues, was the pushback against such coverage from a number of Jewish intellectuals. She cites an article by Martin Peretz in The New Republic denouncing media portrayals of the Lebanon War as false. “The fierce backlash,” she writes, “aimed to counter disillusionment with Israel by monitoring and censuring the media for anti-Israel bias.” Peretz will be delighted to learn that a respected scholar considers his denunciation in The New Republic read by thousands to have been “possibly more enduring” than the anguished lament by an NBC anchorman seen by millions. But it’s not credible.
Kaplan wants her cultural observations to expose not only false illusions about Israel but also about ourselves. “Looking beyond romantic reflections of the past—promised lands, chosen peoples, frontier pioneers, wars of independence—would enable us,” she writes, “to see the darker shadows of shared exceptionalism: the fusion of moral value with military force, the defiance of international law, the rejection of refugees and immigrants in countries that were once known as havens.” I’m sympathetic to the hope for more nuanced and clear-headed understandings of ourselves. I’m skeptical of getting there through a critique of Exodus.
A decade ago, the Palestinian issue seemed central to US foreign policy and the future of Zionism; today, it has receded, but things could change again. The Democrats may take the White House in November. That won’t lead to a 180-degree turn, but a shift is likely. Bernie Sanders, who made a point of skipping this year’s AIPAC conference and condemns Netanyahu as racist, never expresses anti-Zionist views and rejects boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. He says he is willing to consider conditioning some military aid to Israel on its behavior and work toward alleviating suffering in Gaza. Biden, in his 2020 AIPAC address, spoke of the importance of a “secure, democratic, Jewish state of Israel.” But he scolded Israel over its threats of annexation and further settlement building in the West Bank, saying both were taking Israel away from its democratic values, which are central to its alliance with the US. He also expressed alarm at the alienation toward Israel taking hold among some young Americans. These sentiments still resonate with an important segment of Israeli society.
It is also possible that the internal Jewish debate could shift as a result of the spike in anti-Semitic violence in the US and abroad. Jews are the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes in America. A sense of endangerment and communal solidarity could stem the drift of secular Jews away from identifying with their own people and with Israel. Whether it does or not, Israel’s essential dilemma will remain. It calls itself Jewish and democratic, but it can’t hold onto the West Bank and be both.
—March 12, 2020