Why Are American Jews Abandoning Israel?

July 5, 2016 Topic: Society Region: Americas Tags: JudaismJewsIsraelUnited StatesForeign Policy

Why Are American Jews Abandoning Israel?

The price of assimilation has been Jewish identity.


Dov Waxman, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) 328 pp., $29.95.

ON APRIL 19, three days before this year’s start of Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from bondage in ancient Egypt, six protestors were arrested at the Boston office of AIPAC, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” They had chained themselves to a mock Seder table. Their group, IfNotNow, claims to “seek an American Jewish community that stands for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians by ending its support for the occupation.” Fittingly, it was cofounded in 2014 by Simone Zimmerman, the former J Street campus activist hired as national Jewish outreach coordinator by the Bernie Sanders campaign on April 12 and—after a March 2015 Facebook post authored by her quickly surfaced—suspended two days later on April 14. “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole,” Zimmerman bellowed on the social media platform.


What transpired in Boston distressed the American Jewish community. Yet it didn’t come as a total surprise. The controversial nature of AIPAC is well known, and the unique ideological proclivities of younger American Jews are rapidly becoming better known. What went down the next day in Manhattan, nevertheless, did shock the community—or rather the vast majority of it. On April 20, IfNotNow marched into the lobby of the building that houses the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Around one hundred activists donned shirts reading, “No liberation with occupation,” and belted out songs in Hebrew. This was an arrow straight through the heart, for the ADL is possibly the most cherished institution of “mainstream” American Jewry. Established in 1913 in response to Eastern European pogroms, its slogan is “Imagine a World Without Hate” and its agenda involves advocating not just for a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also for LGBT rights, voting rights, disability rights, immigrants’ rights and women’s reproductive rights.

Many who want Israel to withdraw from the “Palestinian territories” (which, at the moment, usually means the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) also participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Jews, it’s estimated by various sources, constitute at least 20 percent of the economic-pressuring BDS, which is akin to the campaign once waged against apartheid-era South Africa. Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS nonprofit based in Oakland, California, “is perhaps the fastest-growing Jewish organization on campuses nationwide,” a professor at Brooklyn College posited in the New York Times recently. In a late-March interview on the Michael Medved Show, Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, went so far as to brand BDS “an anti-Jewish movement.” (It’s not a stretch to deduce from Booker’s remark that BDS is anti-Semitic and, hence, Jews involved with it are “self-haters.”)

If this wasn’t enough to raise blood pressure, mainstream American Jews are realizing that they’re vanishing and, as a result, a lot that’s precious is being lost. Spend a day at a Reform temple—about 35 percent of Jews subscribe to Reform Judaism, making it the largest Jewish denominational movement in the United States by a wide margin—and you’ll discover that baby boomer parents and, especially, greatest generation grandparents are alarmed. The sound of thousands of light switches switching off in cavernous sanctuaries across the country rings in their ears—and hearing aids.

Within several generations, perhaps two or three, it’s possible that very few people in the United States not adhering to some variant of “observant” Judaism will readily self-identify as “Jewish.” Pew found that 30 percent of American Jews have no denominational affiliation while 22 percent have “no religion.” Before 1970, intermarriage was under 20 percent among American Jews of all denominations. Since 2000, it’s been over 72 percent among non-Orthodox American Jews. Additionally, and it almost goes without saying, religious ritual, custom and belief drop precipitously in intermarried households. Even Judaism as a “culture,” which in the Land of the Free today means hardly more than an affinity for bagels, sarcasm and social justice, will soon be more common among non-Jews than Jews, if it isn’t already. From coast to coast, mainstream American Jews reared on a love of Israel and a Judaism of progressive values are despondent and desperately eager to understand what’s happening.


ENTER DOV WAXMAN, tripartite professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University. In Trouble in the Tribe, Waxman argues that the pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding, and Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry. He believes that this division reflects not only “changes in Israel and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as media reports often suggest),” but also “broader shifts in the American Jewish community.” Waxman devotes the preponderance of Trouble in the Tribe to the idea that the “American Jewish establishment” is responsible for driving many American Jews, particularly younger American Jews, away from their heritage. By zeroing in on the American Jewish establishment, he seeks to revise the case prominently set forth by Peter Beinart in his 2010 New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” and his subsequent 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism, which implored American Jews to accept the “shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power” and persuade Israel to end the occupation. (Oddly though, Waxman avoids citing Beinart’s writings in the main text until the second-to-last chapter. The fact that his cover design is reminiscent of Beinart’s doesn’t help matters.)

According to Waxman, Israeli governments, basically since the late 1970s, have been morally wayward—and the American Jewish establishment has supplied them with “unquestioning and unstinting support.” Like a robot cheerleader, it has reflexively chanted “Rah, Rah!” for the Jewish state irrespective of how dirty the struggle on the gridiron has become. Israel “was more right wing, more religious, more intolerant, more unequal, and more aggressive and expansionist than the Israel that American Jews had fallen in love with.” In the process, it has exhibited quasi-authoritarian behavior. The American Jewish establishment’s eminent figures and institutions have, for decades, “excluded and shunned” American Jews critical of Israel from the “communal tent.” And inevitably, these figures and institutions have turned a blind eye to the illiberalism of Israel—an illiberalism that clashes with the liberalism fundamental to the identity of (most) American Jews. “This disconnect,” Waxman proclaims, “is, arguably, the real ‘failure’ of the American Jewish establishment.”

When the British literary critic F. R. Leavis styled his collective nemesis the “Metropolitan literary society and the associated University milieux,” he was being slightly sardonic. There seems, however, to be nothing tongue-in-cheek about Waxman’s lengthy definition of the American Jewish establishment as comprising

“not only the most prominent advocacy organizations (AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents), but also the so-called defense organizations (such as the ADL and the AJC), religious organizations (such as the Union for Reform Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Rabbinical Council of America), educational organizations (for instance, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminar), philanthropic organizations (like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, B’nai B’rith, and Hadassah), and umbrella organizations (the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs). One could also include local federations, Jewish Community Centers, and even synagogues within this definition.”

In other words, the only Jewish institutions in America not part of the establishment are those, limited in number and relatively small in terms of membership, behind BDS or ending the occupation, or both causes.

It’s only near the end of his work that Waxman offers an additional reason for the “bitter and polarizing” division over Israel among American Jews: population trends. There’s a “joke” circulating through the American Jewish community that’s too indicative of reality to be considered funny. Question: What’s the difference between Donald Trump and a liberal Jew? Answer: Trump will have Jewish grandchildren. (The Republican presidential candidate’s second-eldest child, Ivanka, converted to and practices Orthodox Judaism, her husband’s brand of Judaism. She keeps kosher and Shabbat, two commandments that, despite being indispensable to Judaism since the arrival of Torah, are rarely heeded—in their traditional sense—by non-Orthodox American Jews.)

In brief, non-Orthodox American Jews, who—for the time being—make up 90 percent of American Jewry, are moderate when it comes to Israel, and they’re assimilating, intermarrying and having few children. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, are resolutely protective of Israel, and they’re having many children. Waxman points out that Orthodox households in New York have risen from 13 percent in 1981 to 32 percent in 2011. “In New York City itself, the epicenter of the organized American Jewish community,” he adds, “40 percent of the Jewish population is now Orthodox. Most of these are actually ultra-Orthodox Jews.” The penultimate paragraph of the book’s last chapter, which immediately follows these statistics, is worth quoting at length because it reveals Waxman’s true intention:

“This potential demographic change could have major long-term political implications for American Jewry and for Israel. American Jewish politics would shift to the right as Orthodox Jews gradually come to outnumber non-Orthodox. The future American Jewish community would be more politically conservative, more Republican, and even more supportive of Israel. The long American Jewish love affair with liberalism and the Democratic Party would come to an end, and the Republican Party will finally be able to do what it has tried and largely failed to do for the past three decades—prise American Jewish voters away from their historic attachment to the Democrats. . . . The growing religiosity of American Jewry might also weaken future American Jewish support for religious pluralism in Israel, Arab civil rights and Arab-Jewish co-existence, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and a host of other causes currently popular with liberal, non-Orthodox Jews. (There is nothing inherently contradictory between Judaism and support for peace, tolerance, and human rights, but in practice, Orthodox Jews are far less committed to these causes.) The most important and influential Jewish community in the Diaspora could be slowly transformed from a bastion of progressive social values and Jewish religious pluralism to a redoubt of ultra-Orthodoxy, thereby strengthening the growing power of the haredim in Israel.”