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The Deep Sources of a Great Divide

The contemporary moment offers unparalleled possibilities for a rich Jewish future offered by two thriving Jewish civilizations.

The growing divergence of American Jews from Israel is actually composed of two different phenomena: on the one hand, there is anger towards Israel among a set of American Jewish elites, especially young, highly engaged, and educated progressive activists; on the other, an apathy among the broader American Jewish population as it drifts from the demands of particularistic Jewish identity, in which for many decades reflexive attachment to Israel played a significant role. Conflating these two issues—anger and apathy—makes the predicament seem larger, hopelessly tangled, and insurmountable.

A Diaspora Divided

Twelve writers address the changing relationship between American Jews and Israel

Political interests shape this problem as it is presented in media, punditry, and agenda-driven social science. Progressives characterize their disenchantment with Israel as shared by an entire generation, and believe that campaigning against the alliance of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu will push the American Jewish political consensus (which is already overwhelmingly anti-Trump) towards a harder line on Israel; and, also, that this process can help advance leftist domestic political goals. They portray the alienation of American Jews from Israel as more than a fringe phenomenon, and as the cause for this divide they tend to blame exclusively Israel’s policies and its government.

Conservatives, meanwhile, see the liberal American Jewish divide from Israel as leverage to get “serious” Jews—Jews who care about Jewish survival, Jewish peoplehood, and the state of Israel—to abandon their historic loyalties to the Democratic Party and effectively to choose Zionism over liberalism. This effort, too, requires a narrative that “distancing” is not a minor problem among highly engaged Jews but a major problem that can tilt the balance in the broader American relationship to Israel; and they attribute this distancing to ideological shifts in political liberalism that make it intolerant to Israel.

These simplistic narratives, and the political desires to exploit them, make it more difficult to see and address the longer-term and structural factors driving the communities apart. They also turn a complicated story into an inevitability, even as the silent majority of engaged American Jews, and virtually all of the centers of American Jewish power, are trying desperately to prevent the process of distancing from taking hold. We should instead understand this phenomenon as irreducible to single-issue explanations; the harder work, and the attendant opportunity, lie in mapping out the problem in its fullest.

First, these two communities increasingly have different ideas about what it means to be ethnically Jewish. American Jewish identity has radically transformed over the past two generations through intermarriage, shifts in standards and practices of conversion, and  the changing way Americans think about family and ancestry as drivers of identity. Family heritage now may play a role in one’s Jewish identity, but is certainly not universally determinative—a phenomenon that American Jewish sociologists describe as the emergence of “voluntary affiliational Jewish identity.” Controversies in different American Jewish denominations about the acceptance of intermarriage, the universality of conversion, the nature of membership, and how or whether Jewishness is transmitted from parent to child all attest to a culture in flux.

Accordingly, the mid-20th century notions of “Jewish peoplehood” that fueled attachment and loyalty to Israel—predicated on the idea of the Jewish people as a ‘family’ and reinforced by familial lines that remained intact through post-war dislocations—seem artificial to growing numbers of otherwise proudly identified and even affiliated Jews. In Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation, Noam Pianko argues that 20th century American Jews invented the rhetoric of “Jewish Peoplehood” as an ideological and political system to respond to their needs. As those needs have changed dramatically in the past two generations, commitment to this ideology that they generated has declined as well.

Israeli Jews have been facilitating their own transformations of ethnicity, especially through multicultural Jewish hybrids between Jews of diverse ethnic backgrounds, as well as through tinkering with the rules of Jewish belonging with its Law of Return. Israel’s prioritizing of immigration, and its need for demographic growth, make for an ethnic makeup and definitions of Jewishness in Israel that are largely unfamiliar to American Jews. And the cultural norms and practices of both Jewish civilizations make the two often unrecognizable to one another.

These active and passive processes of evolution in Jewish ethnicity in America and Israel eliminate the shortcuts to sustaining the relationships between Jewish communities separated by 7,000 miles. American Jews and Israeli Jews do not share a language, and they do not share most elements of culture. Now, if American Jews and Israeli Jews increasingly do not see themselves as part of the same peoplehood, it may be because they do not actually share the same people.

Political environments and attitudes are also pushing the communities apart. The right has held power in Israel for most of the past generation, and their policies on a wide set of issues—religious pluralism, the occupation, the status and treatment of Palestinians, and international alliances and allegiances—contribute to American Jewish alienation and anger. But it is also likely true that radical changes in Israeli policy on any of these fronts would do very little to stem the estrangement. Regime change in Israel would be welcomed by the small number of American Jews who are deeply engaged with Israel but hostile to its policies. Yet it offers little hope in bridging the divide with the majority of American Jews, who do not know enough about Israel to have their opinions of it shaped by its government’s policies.

American Jews act and behave politically like the broader American public. Research from Pew demonstrates that partisanship and polarization are at heights not seen in the past century, and that the biggest shift in American political attitudes has been in pushing the American left even further left. American Jewish voting patterns have remained largely consistently pro-Democrat, which now means something different than it used to; and Israel’s place as a core feature of American conservatism makes it susceptible to partisan rancor, especially during this divisive administration.

So as Israel pulls (or stays) right and American Jews pull left, then alienation and the anger are merely natural consequences of larger trends exhibited in the two societies. Blaming Bibi or the Israeli electorate for this divide is folly, as is the recurring neo-conservative attack on “liberal American Jewish values.” There are different prevailing Jewish political positions in the world, both authentic products of their environments, and both independent and viable reflections of sincere historical, theological, and intellectual processes. That the majority of Israeli Jews chose Netanyahu in a spat with Barack Obama, and the majority of American Jews chose Obama, is not because one of these communities or the other is causing the divide: it is that different political realities have produced different—and maybe incompatible—political ideologies. In this climate, the bipartisanship that defined late-20th century American Jewish consensus attitudes to Israel is starting to come across to Jews on both sides of the political divide as bad politics, the abandonment of moral principles in a climate of urgency, and a bourgeois relic of a different era.

It is not just ethnicity and politics. The Jewish people relish in their history, and in the stories that shape their collective consciousness. The lived experience of the 20th century fueled world Jewry’s loyalties to Israel. Mass dislocations detached Jews from their particular political loyalties and led them to prioritize belonging to the Jewish nation instead. The birth of a nascent state in a hostile region—desperate for philanthropic, political, and human capital—created clear obligations. The American Jewish community built an institutional infrastructure that was big on resources and low on meaning, and Israel proved a valuable totem at the center. And Jews came to believe that the Jewish people both needed a place to run to in crisis and the support of each other in hard times. These narratives thrived when the lived experience of American and Israeli Jewry bore them out. Less so today. No one doubts that Israel faces existential threats, but in facing those threats today Israel seems far less dependent on American Jews’ philanthropic or political resources. The “story” of Israel that shaped American Jewish identity for a long time does not match the reality of Israel, and this discovery is hard to ignore, and it is taking place awkwardly in public. The collective memory of the meaning of Israel for the Jewish people today is at best contested, and at worst absent.

And let’s be honest: Those very narratives that may have “worked”—what American Jews told themselves about Israel for a long time—were not always true. We are experiencing a reckoning with realities about Israel, Israelis, and Israeli society that many American Jews never fully understood to begin with.

American Jews grow distant from Israel and from Israeli Jews sometimes just because of the passage of time, and because of the actual distance between us. Jews longed for home for generations, and then suddenly by the end of the 20th century found that home in two separate hospitable cultures and idioms that have allowed them to flourish independently. Flourishing is good; flourishing independently is more complicated. Real needs drove the relationship between these communities. But the passage of time, and the realities of geography, are mitigating those needs and offering an equally compelling alternative—the possibility of going at it alone, without the hassle of the judgmental, incomprehensible, semi-relatives across the water.

As of now, no educational approach seems capable of bridging the divide. American Jewish educational institutions do not adequately prepare students to either withstand the pressures facing the Israeli narrative, or to competently understand Israel and its challenges, or to sustain a relationship with a place and a people undergoing such significant changes, and for which they do not have any obvious and continuing need. Jewish education about Israel innovates more in the realm of how to teach Israel than in why, and often uses nostalgia, language education, dated culture, and the study of history as its primary commodities even though none of these address or close the growing gap, and even though it is increasingly difficult for a student today to reach the independent conclusion as to why Israel should matter to them and to their Jewish life.

And there is so much fear in the field. We know that real education requires some amount of faith in uncertain outcomes and trust in students to handle complicated subjects; and uncertain outcomes are viewed as politically threatening to consensus Jewish communal politics when they relate to Israel. The anxiety in the field makes it impossible to teach much-needed confidence.

The most effective large-scale program that teaches anything about Israel to young American Jews is Birthright Israel, whose mission is to strengthen Jewish identity using the instrument of Israeli travel, not to educate about Israel for its own sake. There is very little reason to believe that a short Israel trip will create a lifelong relationship with the Jewish civilization on the other side of the globe. Neither Birthright alone, nor a struggling educational system, have met the challenge of cultivating communities of curiosity, nuance, and knowledge, which could be the Jewish community’s best bet to rethink and make secure the meaning of this relationship.

Israeli Jews do not engage seriously with the needs and wants of American Jews in part because they know very little about them, or even about why they should. Even if a formal ideology of “negation of the exile” disappeared over time from Israeli polite company, the Zionism that still defines Israeli Judaism remains premised on the idea that there is but one home and homeland for the Jewish people. Absent formal responsibilities for continued philanthropy and support from afar, the continued presence and thriving of Jews outside the Land of Israel is broadly incomprehensible. Efforts are now underway to remedy this gap, but it is enormous: if a group’s very self-identity is defined by an ideology, and that ideology is critical to a group’s collective consciousness in the midst of prolonged conflict, tinkering with and supplementing that ideology with countercultural ideas is sensitive work. Ideas and initiatives in Israeli society that sound “Diasporic” can be doomed at the outset, and sometimes even seem seditious.

And anyway: Have we come up with really good reasons—comprehensible not just to elites, but to the general public—about why Diaspora Jewry and their idiosyncrasies and vicissitudes should really matter to Israeli Jews?

In the meantime, paradoxically, the business of Israel among American Jews is robust and growing. The AIPAC Policy Conference is easily the largest annual gathering of American Jews in in America, and locally it is far easier to attract a significant crowd for a lecture on Israel and Jewish politics than any other topic of Jewish concern. Multiple new or resurgent Israel-Palestine organizations are thriving—IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, Israel Policy Forum, Encounter, The Israel Project, and our own iEngage Project. Israel-related topics constitute the continued drumbeat of content in most Jewish media. If Israel is failing as an American Jewish cause, it seems to be failing up.

Where does this leave us?

One path forward is through reinvesting in ideas and ideologies that can weather these changes and divergences and can tolerate the diversity of the Jewish people, and that also have a political plausibility to define Israel’s character. Forcing these communities together inorganically or trying to homogenize across difference won’t work, and neither will dishonest education or making one community subordinate to the other. But what if we told a big enough and concrete enough story about what it means to live at this moment at Jewish history, and a story that could translate into a program for the Jewish people? Can narrative once again save Jewish peoplehood?

I identify as a liberal Zionist. The critics of this ideology believe it can no longer exist, perhaps because they measure the integrity of an ideology based on whether it is winning. Liberal Zionism is optimistic in spite of contemporary political trends, in part because it is rooted in a Zionist history of ideas that was always far more ambitious and optimistic than it should have been in light of its early implausibility and lack of popularity. Liberal Zionism advocates for liberal democracy and liberal values to define the character of the Jewish nation-state. This idea may not be winning right now, but to be a Jew in Jewish history is to work things out with rigor, and not to be distracted by short-term thinking.

Liberal Zionism offers both the most pragmatic and most morally serious grappling with the historical legacy of Jewish deterritorialization and its catastrophic consequences. It is also the political ideology best capable of grappling with the moral costs of the nationalism into which the Jewish people have been thrust and into which the Jewish people must opt. A serious American Jewish Zionism would also articulate twin meanings of home for American Jews (here) and homeland (there), unconvinced by the arguments that the one invalidates the other. The contemporary moment offers unparalleled possibilities for a rich Jewish future offered by two thriving Jewish civilizations, as well as the unique opportunity to improve on the legacy of the Jewish past. Neither abandoning the project of Israel, nor slavish loyalty to it, does service to who we are as morally, historically, or politically serious Jews.

Such an American Jewish liberal Zionism – and a corresponding movement among Israelis to connect with the American Jewish project – is not inevitable, and not intuitive, but it is necessary; and it is worth fighting for. The simultaneous births of the state of Israel and a thriving Diaspora may be the most interesting, possibly the most valuable transformation in Jewish history. Israel changes the very meaning of Judaism, for better or worse, and presents an opportunity to the Jewish people, not to be squandered, to shape that meaning.