Jewish members of Congress all say Israel has a right to exist– but 10-20% of Jews aren’t so sure

Last week all 25 Jewish congresspeople took the highly unusual step of signing a statement condemning Paul O’Brien, director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International, for remarks opposing Israel’s definition as “a state for the Jewish people.” O’Brien said his “gut” tells him that polls that show overwhelming Jewish support for Israel are misleading: American Jews don’t want a state so much as “a sanctuary that is a safe and sustainable place that the Jews, the Jewish people can call home.”

The Congresspeople responded angrily: “Mr. O’Brien’s patronizing attempt to speak on behalf of the American Jewish community is alarming and deeply offensive.” Antisemitic, too: O’Brien has added “his name to the list of those who, across centuries, have tried to deny and usurp the Jewish people’s independent agency.”

The Congress members were acting strategically: trying to discredit the recent Amnesty report that Israel practices “apartheid.” They said the report delegitimizes the “Jewish people’s right to self-determination.”

But they and O’Brien have raised a key issue. Just how many American Jews oppose the idea of a Jewish state?

The simple answer is between 10 and 20 percent. According to a survey of Jewish voters conducted by the Jewish Electoral Institute last summer, 9 percent of respondents said that “Israel does not have a right to exist” — presumably as a Jewish state.

And 20 percent of Jews in that survey favor an outcome that would end Israel’s character as a Jewish state:

Establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian, and includes Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza under a single government elected by Israelis and Palestinians

These attitudes are generational. One out of five Jews under 40 say Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. Above age 64, the number was 3 percent or less.

The survey supports O’Brien’s “gut” inasmuch as it found that 38 percent of Jews said they did not feel “emotionally attached” to Israel (62 percent do). Other polls have shown growing “alienation” from Israel.

Let me add my gut sense: Older Jews overwhelmingly support Israel, and young Jews are alienated by Israel and are even anti-Zionist, but many are afraid to come out because it really is a heresy to oppose Israel’s existence. Almost every mainline Jewish organization and religious body supports Israel. Zionism is the official position of the community and its donor/board class– and duly reflected by the 25 Jewish members of Congress.

In mainstream Jewish life, it is still the case that To be Jewish means To be a Zionist. Even liberal older Jews reflect the late Leonard Fein’s view that the creation of Israel was the greatest Jewish achievement of the 20th century. While propagandists for Israel say that 97 percent of Jews support Israel– and only a fringe of crazies aren’t for Israel.

These claims of Jewish unanimity are battered by trends. Jewish Voice for Peace is now 25 years old, proudly anti-Zionist, and has the largest number of chapters of any Jewish social justice organization in the US and is said to have the biggest social media reach of any US-based Jewish organization. As Jeffrey Goldberg said ten years or so ago, Israel’s refusal to end its occupation means that anti-Zionists are going to have the wind at their back. And we have. Israel’s declaration in 2018 that it is the Nation State of the Jewish people, in which Arabs have lesser land and language rights, only cemented this process of alienation– and triggered the Human Rights Watch report of last year saying Israel practices apartheid.

In the last year two or so two former liberal Zionist intellectuals with stature, Peter Beinart and Ian Lustick, have both thrown in the towel on the Jewish state and called for democracy in Israel and Palestine: it should be a state of all its citizens. That’s the 20 percent group in the survey above.

Among young Jews it is a minority position to be pro-Israel (as Israel advocates often bewail), and the idea of a Jewish state seems very unpopular in my encounters.

It is still not easy to be anti-Zionist. There are strong community norms at work. The Jewish community has maintained its coherence as a minority in western countries over many centuries by enforcing unspoken rules on conduct with respect to the wider society, which cannot be fully trusted (the goyim means the nations, and the word is full of contempt). The long shadow of the Holocaust and Israel’s “existential” battles with Arabs reinforced these norms of not criticizing Israel publicly. Add to that the religious idea that Jews in Israel are higher than Jews in the western world, and at far greater risk too– so keep your mouth shut. Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress, has said that members of his own family didn’t talk to him after he began criticizing Israel. Richard Goldstone got disinvited to his grandson’s bar mitzvah in South Africa after he came out with the UN Human Rights Council report accusing Israel of war crimes in 2009.

When I became an anti-Zionist, I was told I was antisemitic, helping Israel’s enemies, and betraying my community. Those charges are getting stale but they have not lost their sting.

People still lose their jobs for questioning Israel’s right to exist. Jessie Sander, a 26-year-old teacher, was allegedly fired from a New York Reform temple job last year because during the Gaza onslaught of May 2021 she had called on American Jews to emulate her “anti-Zionist journey”– and recognize that “American Jewish support for israel has enabled the genocide in Palestine.”

The apartheid charge and the natural response to it –BDS — are still anathematized in the Jewish community, including by the liberal Zionist group J Street. And no surprise, Congress gets into the act when it can, too.

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