I grew up with a Disneyland version of Israel: It was a country that had truly been a land without people waiting for a people without a land. It was immaculately conceived after Zionist leaders accepted the U.N.’s partition plan in 1947, and then fended off massive Arab attacks while demonstrating nothing but goodwill to the Palestinians living in what would become the new Jewish state. By the age of 18, I had been to Israel five times with my family and three times on my own, and went on to spend a gap year there before college, but I was unaware that Israel’s official borders did not encompass all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The space between what I thought I knew and what I actually knew was a canyon. And when that space began to narrow, it presented a challenge to my identity, values, and worldview.
Much of the churn taking place in the American Jewish community over Israel reflects a struggle over how best to deal with just such a fallout. For many older American Jews, social media and widely available English-language Israeli news have created a daily wealth of information about Israel unavailable to them before, challenging the milk-and-honey version they espoused. For others, the low esteem with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government holds American Jewry—and in particular the 90 percent of American Jews who do not identify as Orthodox—has undermined the emotional attachment they have to the Jewish state. Many younger American Jews either disassociate themselves from Israel due to its policies toward the Palestinians, or direct their anger at the Israeli government and American Jewish institutions that they believe actively misled them about Israel’s true nature.
Yet just as the deification of Israel as a country that does no wrong was substantively wrong and tactically erroneous, so too is the demonization of Israel as a country that does no right. Like any country, Israel is a varied and complex place, and a real understanding of it will never come from an absolutist portrayal. More importantly, simply shedding all American Jewish identification with Israel—if that is even possible—will come at a high cost. Israel has played a central role in American Jewish practice and identity for too long to excise it without real ramifications. While a debate can be had as to whether it was healthy to make love for Israel such a central feature of American Jewish life, their mutual dependence is not something that can be reversed.
The key to establishing a more stable American Jewish relationship with Israel lies in acknowledging both that American Jews and Israel are deeply connected and that they travel different paths. This is a reflection of thousands of years of Jewish history and tradition. The last two millennia of Jewish practice were shaped by its Diaspora status, while at the same time Jewish belief never wavered in its connection to and memory of Zion. American Jewish practice and identity have developed in response to being a minority group without a homegrown political nationalist movement, living in a world power at peace with its immediate neighbors and with no established state religion. Nothing about this basic structure pertains to Israel, so there is nothing shocking about American Jews having difficulty understanding what drives their Israeli cousins and vice versa.
Disappointments and disapprovals on both sides will abound, and the appropriate response is neither to pretend that they don’t exist nor to cut ties entirely. It is to nod to these differences, and to figure out how to manage them in a way that both sides can live with.
American Jews who are struggling with Israel’s expressions of exclusionary nationalism and its occupation of the West Bank want Israel to be remade in their own image and adopt policies that reflect their own values. But this is not a reasonable expectation. Israelis live with threats that American Jews do not even dream about facing, and in the wider scope of history are still in the process of negotiating the proper balance between democracy and security and the role of various state institutions. When the United States turned 70, as Israel just did, it had experienced multiple constitutional crises and had not yet gotten to the Civil War. American Jews rightly feel a stake in Israel, but they want it to heed their directives even though they do not live, pay taxes, or perform mandatory military service there.
On the other side, Israel wants American Jews to support it uncritically and subsume their negative opinions to the larger project of a Jewish state. This is also not a reasonable expectation. There was a decades-long Israeli assumption that American Jews would support Israel no matter what, and that if they even bothered to express their concerns, they could be largely ignored. Israel has no obligation to conform its policies to the wishes of American Jewry—but the other side of that coin is that it should not depend on the old dynamic still reigning supreme. As a new generation of American Jews becomes more active and vocal, one that has no firsthand memory of large-scale Jewish persecution or of the euphoria that marked Israel’s founding, the difficulty that Israel now faces in maintaining its support is only going to increase.
The relationship between American Jews and Israel has been marked by tension from the outset, but the new tensions will override all unless both sides recalibrate their expectations, establish that their differences are not extraordinary but reasonable, and work harder to understand why it is that they will never travel in absolute lockstep.