There was a time before Ashkenazi American Jews were considered white. Not too long ago, Jews were still well acquainted with the ambivalence of their American compatriots. Reflected back at them in the windows of the country clubs that would not admit them, they saw the stooped, hook-nosed money-grubber of every Der Stürmer cartoon.
But in 1948, something astonishing happened, a plot-twist that would irrevocably change the American Jewish story, though it happened halfway across the globe. The Jewish state was established, and the tiny, fledgling country, which initially looked like it might be wiped out in a second Holocaust, prevailed against all the Arab states that sought to destroy it.
Israel’s military strength, especially during the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Israeli Defense Forces conquered Jerusalem, gave American Jews something they hadn’t had for two millennia: national pride. In so doing, it curbed the headlong rush to assimilation, the great aspiration of the American Jewish community for much of the 20th century.
In exchange for this gift of Jewish pride, American Jews gave Israel their undivided support, their financial aid, and, with the help of their evangelical friends, the support of the American government.
After half a century, that arrangement is coming to an end.
Poll after poll shows that young American Jews are losing their connection to Israel, largely over its systematic dispossession of Palestinian civil rights and property. Once temporary, the occupation of the West Bank after the 1967 war and the blockade of Gaza since 2007 have grown entrenched, especially throughout Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure.
It’s in the shadow of this interminable occupation, rather than the military victory that gave rise to it, that millennial Jews have come of age—in the shadow of a Jewish state that brings them not pride but shame.
And it’s not just young American Jews. Older Jews are breaking ranks, too. Their outrage is not aimed at the disastrous fate of the Palestinians so much as at Israel’s increasing intolerance toward liberal Jews.
In Israel, control over matters of personal status—marriage, divorce, and conversion—belongs to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Strict Orthodoxy is the only version of Judaism that the state recognizes. And since Israel has no separation of church and state, this monopoly grants the rabbinate the power to impose a fundamentalist version of Judaism on Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews, chronically disempowering women and refusing to recognize liberal conversions. This state of affairs is slowly eroding support for the Jewish state, even in the pro-Israel community—even in the donor class.
Just this year, Ronald Lauder, an erstwhile supporter of Netanyahu, and Charles Bronfman, one of the mega-donors behind the Birthright project of educating non-Israeli Jews about Israel, wrote scathing op-eds excoriating the Netanyahu government for its treatment of non-Orthodox Jews. “Many non-Orthodox Jews, myself included, feel that the spread of state-enforced religiosity in Israel is turning a modern, liberal nation into a semi-theocratic one,” wrote Lauder in The New York Times.
Such harsh words would have been unthinkable even a year ago.
In this context, Netanyahu’s alliance with President Donald Trump is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the crisis between the world’s two major Jewish communities. In fact, this break was a long time coming. For a while now, American Jews and Israelis have been separated by more than just geography.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that 69 percent of American Jews said that “leading an ethical and moral life” was “essential to being Jewish”—compared to just 47 percent of Israelis. And 56 percent of American Jews said “working for justice and equality” was essential to their Jewish identity, as opposed to just 27 percent of Israelis.
American Jews also ranked these values of ethics, justice, and equality as more important to their Jewish identity than Israel, along with remembering the Holocaust. American Jews ranked having a good sense of humor as equally important to their Jewish identity as Israel (Israelis disagreed—strongly).
In other words, for the majority of American Jews, their core beliefs about what is ethical and just—beliefs that preclude occupying Palestinians or denying Jews the right to practice their religion—are more central to their identity as Jews than the nationalism represented by a Jewish state.
As anti-Semitism in the U.S. has waned and American Jews found themselves part of the cultural and economic elites, many have eschewed an identity based on tribalism for one based on ethics. It was one thing to be the chosen people when we were chosen to suffer, but chosenness without persecution inevitably suggests supremacy.
Instead, liberal Jews have chosen to view their Jewishness not as a function of nationalism or religion but as the expression of universal values like justice and pluralism. They find these values in the Torah, and it’s this legacy that increasingly gives American Jews pride.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the different ways Israelis and Americans view intermarriage. For Orthodox Jews and many Israelis, intermarriage is synonymous with assimilation; to marry someone not of one’s tribe is to lose one’s identity as a Jew. To be a Jew according to this vision is to belong to a bounded group that admits the other only under duress. The new head of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, went so far as to call intermarriage “a plague.”
It’s a sentiment the American Jewish community, especially the younger generation, has all but abandoned. After fighting intermarriage for years, the liberal Jewish community is now embracing the intermarried, welcoming them and their children into their temples.
That same Pew study found that a rising number of the children of intermarriages are Jewish in adulthood. Only 25 percent of American Jews over 65 with one Jewish parent identify as Jewish, compared to 59 percent of Jews under 30. In other words, two out of three intermarried couples now raise their children Jewish. “In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans,” Pew concludes. Far from a plague, it’s viewed as a blessing, a way to open communities and spread Jewish values, and to foreclose on the devil’s choice of Orthodox coercion or nationalist pride.
For many Israelis and the Orthodox, being Jewish is not something one chooses but an inescapable fate that must be protected through demographics. In this view, Jews must marry Jews and raise Jewish babies. Jews must maintain an ethnic majority in the Jewish state.
For liberal Jews, the opposite is the case. Being Jewish is a matter of values, a matter of choice. One chooses to lead an ethical life, to remember the Holocaust, to pursue justice at all costs. Unless Israel changes course dramatically and soon, no obligation will remain that’s as strong as that choice.