As Israelis head to the polls at the end of a closely contested campaign to determine the future of their country, American Jews have been engaged in their own contests and conflicts over Israel’s future.
Instead of the near-unanimous support Jews once gave Israel’s elected leaders, both left-leaning and right-leaning American Jewish activists regularly cross swords with Israelis and each other, sometimes in ways that can get personal and nasty.
American Jewish opinion toward Israel today is fractured and will only, it seems, continue to fracture.
The new normal
The round of mutual condemnations among Jewish activists over Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on March 3 to Congress is but part of a new normal in the American Jewish relationship.
A few years ago, one could hardly imagine that an Israeli prime minister would so brazenly offend a sitting American president. Nor could one have imagined that a half dozen Jewish senators and representatives would absent themselves from a speech by the top Israeli leader to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
In fact, the latest displays of division cap a series of dust-ups in just the last few months.
The New Israel Fund—a charity devoted to supporting the progressive civil sector in Israel—has been the recent target of attacks. The claims are that it gives “money to groups that work tirelessly to delegitimize Israel, undermining the soldiers protecting Israel, and pushing war crimes tribunals and sanctions against Israel in world courts.”
“We are appalled at this blatant valuing of Jewish and Jewish Israeli lives over the nearly 2,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, who have been massacred by the Israeli army.”
As it happens, the service mourned the dead on both sides.
And last year Hillel, the premiere Jewish campus-based organization, issued “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” declaring that “Hillel will not partner with … groups, or speakers that … delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.”
This week, International Hillel’s president Eric Fingerhut bowed out of addressing 1000+ Jewish students at the annual J Street conference, owing to the presence of Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator with Israel.
In fact J Street itself —“the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”—points to the widening divisions within the Jewish pro-Israel community. It was founded in 2008 in part to contest AIPAC, the well-established and influential pro-Israel lobby.
American Jews’ disputes are not confined to the U.S.
Since 2007, billionaire Sheldon Adelson (and onetime supporter of Newt Gingrich) has been providing an estimated $20 million annually to a freely distributed pro-Netanyahu Israeli newspaper. On the other side, U.S. businessmen Daniel Abraham and Daniel Lubetzky have been prime funders of an Israel-based get-out-the-vote campaign designed to bolster efforts to defeat Netanyahu.
The demographics underneath
Powerful population dynamics underlie these divisions.
The Orthodox—solidly conservative and Republican in the U.S., and solidly right-wing on Israeli issues—are growing rapidly. Just 10 percent of Jewish adults, the Orthodox are 27 percent of American Jewish children. In New York City, three-quarters of Jewish children are Orthodox.
At the same time, the vast majority of other American Jews remain solidly Democratic and liberal and the political and cultural circles they inhabit are increasingly unhappy about Israel.
This shift is taking place at the same time as polls taken among all Americans (not just Jewish) show widening gaps on the subject of Israel between religious, conservative older people and secular, liberal younger people.
But views on Israeli policies are far from identical to emotional attachment to Israel the country. Just as within Israel major segments of the public oppose their government’s policies while caring deeply about their country, so among American Jews overall there continues to be a meaningful bond with Israel, moving from mobilization to engagement, as scholar Ted Sasson tells us.
Yes, there are small differences between age groups that are largely attributable to the rapidly rising rate of intermarriage, now 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews. The intermarried and their children do not feel the same loyalty to Israel.
However, when it comes to Israeli government policy, the differences are far more pronounced, as Pew’s survey of American Jews in 2013 tells us.
The long shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
In the survey non-Orthodox older (age 65+) Jews were compared with younger (age 18-29) Jews on whether West Bank Jewish settlements hurt or helped Israel’s security. The older folk split 45 percent to 20 percent (hurt vs. help). In contrast, the under-30 crowd took a far more dismal view of settlements: 54 percent said they hurt and just 9 percent saw them as helping.
Even more striking were the contrasting views on whether “the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians.”
Back in 2013, before the war in Gaza and the breakdown in peace talks, the elders split evenly with 44 percent seeing sincerity and 43 percent not. For the younger people, those viewing Israeli leaders as sincere dropped to about under a quarter (23 percent vs. 67 percent who saw Israel as not sincere).
So long as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinian societies continues, so too will the deep divisions among American Jews over Israeli policies.
On one side there is the growing Orthodox community whose politics sometimes coincide with non-Orthodox moderate and conservative activists. On the other are younger, politically liberal and often religiously uninvolved Jews.
American Jews will continue to debate and divide. As in Israel, each side will see the other as lacking fidelity to Jewish values while each casts the other as lacking awareness of the dangers that face Israel and the Jewish people.