American Jewish identity: Moving beyond ‘love for Israel’ and the Holocaust

Dov Waxman, has written a clear and useful book called Trouble in the Tribe. “It’s about how American Jews relate to Israel, and increasingly fight about Israel,” he says in a recent article in The Forward. Waxman was hoping the book would spark discussion and reflection, but so far, he laments, it has garnered him nothing but grief. The book deserves a wide audience. It offers an insightful glimpse into modern American Jewish identity, especially non-Orthodox identity, and it will serve as a lasting resource for the next generation of American Jews as they attempt to move beyond “love for Israel” and “remembrance of the Holocaust” as cornerstones for their Jewish identity.

A vibrant and powerful community

Waxman describes an American Jewish community that punches above its weight in politics, culture, and life. Approximately six to seven million strong, it accounts for just two percent of total U.S. population, but four percent of its voting population, and a much larger percentage still of political donations. See, e.g. Here and Here. Jews are strongly represented in government (e.g. 7.3% of the current Congress), in think tanks, academia, media, entertainment, and business.

The American Jewish community accounts for 40% of the world’s Jewish population and 70% of the Diaspora population (Jews outside Israel). It is highly organized and focused on Israel. “No citizens of one country have ever been so committed to the success of another as American Jews have been to Israel,” said Steven Rosenthal in 2001. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main lobbying organization on behalf of Israel, annually draws in excess of 15,000 to its policy conference, including most members of Congress. As a result, Jewish issues have become interwoven in America’s routine political agenda.

And there are spillover effects. Jewish access and powerful sway over the American government has led some foreign governments to court the American Jewish community, sometimes by adopting foreign policies supportive of Israel. American Jewish leaders travel the world like ambassadors, says Waxman.

An Emotional, Not Ideological Connection

American Jews have not always been Zionists. “Right up until World War II,” says Waxman, “the American Zionist movement failed to gain mass support among American Jews and encountered a lot of resistance from the (mostly German-Jewish) leadership of American Jewry who were concerned that Zionism might jeopardize the position of American Jews by calling their national allegiance into question.”

Louis Brandeis, a Boston lawyer and later an associate justice of the Supreme Court, leader of the Federation of American Zionists from 1914-1921, argued that Zionism was the solution for European Jews who faced persecution and homelessness. Brandeis encouraged American Jews to philanthropically support the efforts of Jewish pioneers in Palestine, and he made the point that they should do this as patriotic Americans.

After the Holocaust, creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and especially after Israel’s success in the Six Day War (1967), American Jews gradually came to love Zionism and Israel. The connection formed was deep and emotional, but not based on ideology, says Waxman. He identifies five pillars of this emotional pro-Israelism: 1) Familial solidarity and kinship among Jews worldwide; 2) Fear of anti-Semitism everywhere, fear for kin in dangerous places, and fear of assimilation at home; 3) Functionalism–support for Israel, along with the Holocaust, functions as a powerful symbol of Jewish identity in a time when Jewish observance of Halakhah (Jewish law) and communal observance in synagogues is less and less prevalent; 4)Faith–Jewish rituals, festivals, and prayer are intimately connected to the land of Israel [Take, for the most recent example, the creation and adoption of a Prayer for the State of Israel which has been incorporated into the Jewish liturgy world wide and is recited every Shabbat in most synagogues]; and 5) Fantasy–Israel for American Jews is an idealized fantasy of all their hopes and dreams; it’s not their real Zion; America is their Zion.

Waxman cites to the 2013 Pew study in which 43% of American Jews reported that caring about Israel was an essential part of what “being Jewish” meant to them; 69% reported being emotionally attached to Israel; 75% reported that “remembering the Holocaust” was essential to their sense of Jewishness. Since the Six Day War support for Israel has been central to Jewish life in America. It has been described by some as a “civil religion” for American Jews.

For a period this support was unconditional, uncritical, and near unanimous. It united the Jewish community. But after the scare of the Yom Kippur war (October ’73), two wars in Lebanon (1982/2006), three Gaza wars (2008/09, 2012, 2014), two Intifadas (87-93; 2000-2005), 20 years of a failed peace process, and  nearly 50 years of occupation, this support for Israel has become fractured and contentious. The emotional attachment remains, says Waxman, but at this point Israel has become a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry. And this fracturing is apt to continue for the foreseeable future.

A Political Spectrum Regarding Peace with Palestinians

The fracturing of American Jewish engagement with Israel is taking place along the political faultiness of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As this conflict has dragged on, and on, American Jewish engagement has become more critical, and less unconditional over time. Waxman identifies four  distinct political camps who live on different tectonic plates in this fractured landscape:

1. Center-Right (think AIPAC): This, by far the largest grouping, includes most of the Jewish establishment. On this tectonic plate challenging Zionism–the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state–is deemed anti-Semitic at heart. People who live here are very concerned about any efforts to de-legitimize Israel (e.g. the international boycott-divest-sanction (BDS) movement). People who live here believe that Israel is absolved of responsibility for the dispute with the Palestinians: it is Palestinian stubbornness in refusing to accept “generous” peace offers made by Israeli leaders that is to blame for the failure to reach a just peace. There is no “partner for peace,” people say here. Flare-ups of violence are blamed solely on the Palestinians, on Hamas, and on Palestinian incitement. Israeli actions–from the creation of the state in 1947-49 all the way to the current knife intifada–are seen as reactive and necessary for Israel’s security, and justified. The Center-Right accepts the concept of a Palestinian state in theory, but on this tectonic plate they believe that the size and sovereign powers of such a state must be limited. And they don’t feel great urgency about a two-state-solution. The Center-Right pays lip service to abandoning some settlements, but they believe that settlement building is not an obstacle to peace as such. They opposes any U.S. pressure on Israel with respect to the peace process.

2. The Right (think ZOA): On this smaller tectonic plate are found American neo-conservatives and many of the religiously Orthodox. Neo-conservatives see the conflict through the ideological lens of a wider conflict between the West and radical Islam. The religiously Orthodox see the conflict through the theological lens of “it’s our holy and Promised Land.” Security is an overriding concern. Those who find their home here dispute the existence of Palestinian national rights. They brook no territorial compromises. They hold the view that the Arabs are not–and never will be–interested in peace; in fact, the Arabs are motivated by deep seated and incorrigible anti-Semitism, they say. They hold that all of the land belongs to the Jewish people, and that Israel is entitled to build settlements anywhere on the land. People who live on this tectonic plate reject a two-state-solution; at most they are willing to grant some limited autonomy under Israeli rule.

3. Center-Left (think J-Street): Those on the Center-Left tectonic plate share the belief that Zionism is just and right. They believe in the continued existence of a Jewish state and they are emotionally attached to the idea. But they abhor the military maximalism exhibited by the Center-Right and Right. They are critical of the Center-Right for failing to take into account past wrongs against the Palestinians and failing to take into account present injustices. They believe in “humane and pragmatic Zionism,” a term coined by the late Leonard Fein. The Center-Left believes in Israel as a liberal democracy that treats all of its citizens equally (with exceptions inherent in Israel’s status as a Jewish state with Jewish symbolism, Jewish holidays, and a right of return for Jews but not others). People on this tectonic plate also believe that Israel as a Jewish state must be reconciled with the rights of Palestinians to self-determination as indigenous inhabitants. The Center-Left believes that continued occupation is a threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Accordingly, the Center-Left feels much more urgency about the need for a satisfactory two-state-solution. Whereas the Center-Right grounds its tepid support for a two-state-solution in a grudging pragmatism, says Waxman, the Center-Left’s advocacy of a two-state-solution is normatively grounded (a requirement of justice). The Center-Left believes that the occupation and the settlements are an obstacle to peace, that Israel is partly responsible for Palestinian suffering, displacement, dispossession, discrimination, and for widespread violence on both sides.  The Center-Left, moreover, feels that a two-state-solution is possible: it is just a matter of political will. They reject the notion that there is “no partner for peace.” Finally, the Center-Left believes that the U.S. has a crucial role to play in bringing about peace, and that this includes applying pressure to both sides.

4. The Left (think Jewish Voice for Peace): The Left inhabits the smallest tectonic plate in the American Jewish community. People who live here are critical of Zionism and its inherent institutional bias against its own Palestinian citizens. The Left wishes to transform the state in a way that can accomplish justice and equality for all who live in Israel-Palestine. The Left is universalist in its orientation, says Waxman. It proceeds from different factual premises, starting with a view of Israel as a colonialist occupier of the land. People here focus on the dispossession of the Palestinians, the denial of rights, the historical and ongoing injustices. The Left views Israel as an aggressive apartheid state that violates international law and human rights and commits war crimes. They view all non-violent forms of Palestinian resistance, including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), as justified. The Left is very skeptical of a possible two-state-solution. They see that only a weak, truncated state could possibly emerge from any two-state-solution, and that this would be inadequate to satisfy the basic rights and needs of the Palestinians. In place of the two-state-solution the Left supports some version of a one-state-solution (with equal rights guaranteed for all) or some type of bi-national state.  The Left believes the U.S. has proven that it is unable to act as an honest broker in any peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Secular/Orthodox Divide

Waxman points to Michael Oren, who started out as an American citizen, became Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. under Netanyahu (’09-’13), and is now a member of the Israeli Knesset (Kulanu party). Oren has lamented about a growing division between American Jews and Israeli Jews. But that misses a key part of the picture, suggests Waxman: Jews are divided both in America and in Israel. The biggest divide, he suggests, is the divide between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox.

Waxman points to polling of the American Jewish community over the last 30 years which suggests that there is a significant divide between the Orthodox, the non-Orthodox, and the not-religious in their attitudes towards Israel. Some of this polling information is interesting in and of itself.

As we saw with the fight over the Iran nuclear deal (2015), which featured J-Street and AIPAC squaring-off on opposite sides of the issue, the right end of the political spectrum in the American Jewish community is aligning more and more with the Republican party, and the left side of the spectrum is aligning with the Democratic party. This partisan divide over Israel in Congress is new. But this polarizing trend is likely to accelerate, suggests Waxman.

For the non-Orthodox, Jewish identity is not a series of obligations and communal commandments, notes Waxman. They approach Judaism as a source of personal meaning and spirituality: more as a personal choice than as a matter of religious definition. It makes them less committed to Jewish peoplehood and more committed to American peoplehood.

In other words, Jewish communities in America are not immune to the melting-pot effect. As non-Orthodox Jews continue to inter-marry at higher and higher rates, their children are becoming post-ethnic, part of a wider multi-cultural and multi-racial society. The communal glue of “we care about Israel” and “we are the children of the Holocaust” is getting weaker. The shock and proximity of the Holocaust is wearing off and in America today philo-Semitism is much more prevalent than anti-Semitism. The Birthright program won’t be enough to keep “love of Israel” as the defining characteristic of Judaism for the non-Orthodox in America. [Birthright sends 30,000+ young Jews to Israel each year on all expense paid trips in order in order to foster the emotional connection between young American Jews and Israel] This shows up prominently, for example, in the ’13 Pew polling where among younger Jews (those under 30 years old) only 32% responded that “caring about Israel” was an essential part of their Jewish identity, compared to 53% among older Jews (those over 65 years of age).

Bad Jews!

If being a “Good Jew,” above all, is synonymous with “love of Israel,” “remembering the Holocaust,” and “not inter-marrying,” as some on the Center-Right and Right tectonic plates believe, then most  non-Orthodox and secular Jews in America today are “Bad Jews!”  Elliott Abrams (identified by Waxman as living on the neo-conservative tectonic plate of the Right) illustrates this position in a highly critical review of Waxman’s book in Mosaic Magazine. The “problem” of increased criticism of Israel and Israeli government positions by American Jews–by those on the Center-Left and Left tectonic plates–says Abrams, should not be blamed on what Israel has become, or on Israeli politics. The problem is that too many American Jews are “Bad Jews.”

“Bad Jews” don’t practice the religion and they marry non-Jews. For Abrams, the fact that many of these “Bad Jews” vote Democrat must make matters that much worse! All this non-Orthodoxy, this fading emotional attachment to Israel, this inter-marrying by “Bad Jews,” that’s the problem. It has resulted in a lack of ethnic solidarity with Jews here in America and abroad, i.e. Israel, says Abrams.

What Abrams says poses a challenge to the American Jewish community, but he is shooting the messenger.

The five pillars of emotional attachment to Israel (see above) are crumbling.  Abrams is correct that the familial bond is being watered down by a lack of observance and increased rates of inter-marriage and the fact that, today, there are no Jewish communities “in trouble.”  In the highly successful American Jewish community, and in a world where Israel is the undisputed military hegemon in the Middle East, fear of anti-Semitism is greatly diminished. For these reasons, Israel and the Holocaust are no longer so functional as a locus of Jewish identity. After 50 years of occupation and the rightward drift of Israeli politics, and the fading of the Holocaust into history, it is harder for young American Jews to “love Israel” unconditionally. Faith is less of a factor in a time of declining participation in organized religious life. Finally, with bad news from Israel featured in our news feeds on a daily basis, Israel is a much less idealized fantasy.

To lay this at the doorstep of “Bad Jews!” as Abrams implicitly does is to miss the point. To write off the secular critics of Israel as “Bad Jews!” is not useful.

Concluding Thought

The challenge for non-Orthodox American Jews is to find a new center for their Jewish identity.  “Love of Israel” and “the Holocaust” cannot serve this role for the long haul. But a fading emotional attachment to Israel and a fading identity with the Holocaust among the non-Orthodox and secular unaffiliated Jews does not mean they are abandoning their Jewish identity, of course. Even among the unaffiliated studied by the Pew ’13 study, 87% responded that they are “proud to be Jewish,” says Waxman. A significant number (57%) place this pride in working for justice and equality. That and tradition are two places to start looking.

Finding a replacement for “Love of Israel”and “the Holocaust” as a locus for Jewish pride in a secular world is a challenge for our time. Dov Waxman’s book will help with the quest.

This review was first published on Roland Nikles’s blog a few days ago. 

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