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.”

Waxman’s mission, it turns out, is less an exposition than a warning to a broad swath of American Jewry. The actual “trouble” isn’t that the American Jewish community is rupturing over Israel—or even that non-Orthodox Judaism as a religion is fading away—it’s that the “predominantly secular, liberal American Jewish community,” with which Waxman seemingly passionately identifies, is “endangered.” The voices of authentic “peace, tolerance, and human rights” face extinction. So much for “a nuanced and balanced account” that investigates “as objectively as possible.” Trouble in the Tribe is, therefore, no appeal for tribal reconciliation and solidarity. It feels insufficient that Waxman cautioned in the preface that his “own politics surely come through at times” and counseled in the conclusion that his “own personal opinions and biases” shape his analysis. These admissions come off as token professional gestures, winks and nods to colleagues in the Ivory Tower, as opposed to sincere gestures to a general audience.

In retrospect, Waxman’s provocative arguments appear to be straw men for garnering attention. Is Israel that significant to American Jewry? Waxman, in the first chapter, maintains “supporting Israel continues to be at the top of the American Jewish political agenda.” Yet in the very same chapter, he also insists, “Israel is not at the top of the list of American Jews’ political concerns. It is not even close.” Crucially, it’s the latter stance that’s backed by polling. A Public Religion Research Institute survey from 2012 showed that Israel was the “most important” voting issue for a mere 4 percent of American Jews. A J Street poll conducted around the same time found that only 10 percent of American Jews deemed Israel one of their top two “voting issue priorities.” And when Pew’s seminal 2013 study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” enquired, “What’s essential to being Jewish?” the response “caring about Israel” lagged behind “leading ethical/moral life,” “working for justice/equality,” and “being intellectually curious.” Poignantly, it barely beat out “having a good sense of humor.”

Is there actually a “conflict over Israel” within the American Jewish community, let alone one unmatched in “its intensity and visibility”? Waxman says there isn’t. “American Jewry, as a whole . . . is not as polarized in its views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the public debate suggests,” he grants in the fourth chapter. “Most American Jews,” he clarifies, are “ambivalent centrists” who “want peace and favor some Israeli territorial concessions,” “worry about Israeli security,” and remain “highly suspicious about Palestinians’ intentions.” So is there even a “disconnect” between American Jewry and the so-called American Jewish establishment over Israel? In the second-to-last chapter, Waxman proposes, “Only a minority of American Jews . . . is really critical of the American Jewish establishment’s politics regarding Israel. Most are either reasonably satisfied or simply unaware and apathetic.” Waxman’s demographic case near the end of the book nixes other previous claims as well, namely that the establishment “represents a small and shrinking segment of American Jewry” and, ergo, it “cannot lead American Jewry any longer, with its own leadership widely seen as out of touch and unrepresentative.”


ALL THAT being said, Waxman’s greatest transgression is his failure to thoroughly probe the causes of mainstream American Jewry’s dissolution. In the last chapter, Waxman submits that the “decline of ‘Jewish peoplehood’” is due to “many reasons”: assimilation into the American “melting pot,” “American Judaism itself is becoming ‘post-ethnic,’” “so many” Jews “are intermarried or the children of intermarried couples,” “the whole concept of ‘Jewish peoplehood,’” particularly for younger American Jews, seems “too tribal and exclusivist, even racist.” But why are Jews assimilating into the “melting pot”? Why is American Judaism itself becoming “post-ethnic”? Why are so many Jews intermarrying and themselves the children of intermarried couples? Why is Jewish peoplehood increasingly perceived as “too tribal and exclusivist, even racist”?

Many American Jews profess to care about these ominous developments but have expended little energy to figuring out how they came about. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the Winter 1987 issue of the Public Interest, made clear why the federal government had allowed the country to fall trillions of dollars into debt. “At some level,” he lamented, “official Washington has not wanted to know what happened. . . . If you are not seriously prepared to do something, it is perhaps best not to know that you ought to.”

As such, Waxman’s grand omission makes Trouble in the Tribe a perfect illustration of the long-standing myopia of the community he defends. The withering away of mainstream American Jewry is primarily due not to external pressures, but instead internal factors: the markedly secular Judaism and the left-liberalism to which the principal portion of American Jewry adheres. Non-Orthodox parents raise their kids on the notions that “love knows no bounds” and “Judaism is also a culture.” Why then should they be stunned when their kids fall for and marry “Christopher” and “Christina”? Non-Orthodox Hebrew schoolteachers drill into their pupils’ minds the concept that Judaism epitomizes universal culture. Why then should they be astonished when their pupils ditch Judaism after recognizing that it’s redundant? Non-Orthodox rabbis teach their congregants that Torah consists not of holy edicts acquired from above for gratifying God, but rather “good deeds” derived from human reason for attaining pure “justice” and “equality.” Why then should they be perplexed when their congregants start remonstrating against the “Jewish apartheid state”? Secularism, especially when paired with a robust progressive ethos, unravels certain types of community. That’s not conjecture. That’s a sociological and a historical fact.

Waxman further asserts, “Over the last few decades, the activities, resources, and energies of major American Jewish organizations have become more and more focused on Israel” and that this preoccupation has caused younger Jews to embrace “new vehicles of activism and different issues (most notably, social justice and the environment).” I too have spent a considerable amount of time in a range of temples and synagogues throughout America. I can attest that Brotherhood, Sisterhood, young adult and children’s activities are not focused on Israel. Far from it. The subject that dominates is that of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”)—a phrase extracted from the Aleinu (“it is our duty”), a prayer traditionally recited daily in the morning, afternoon and evening—which, over the past half-century, has been equated with “social justice.” Even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons beseech worshippers to purchase hybrid vehicles, petition for gender-neutral bathrooms and lobby for gun control. Israel is peripheral. While Waxman does point out that tikkun olam “has become something of a catchphrase,” he neglects to point out how it came to be a catchphrase. I’ve also attended within the past three years the annual meetings of the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the ADL. Israel plays a far more minor role than you might imagine. And though Waxman intimates that American Orthodox Jews, who “have long held the most right-wing and hawkish views within the American Jewish community,” form the backbone of these establishment organizations, I saw only a handful of yarmulkes among the thousands of attendees.


THE STORY of the advent and ascent of “liberal Judaism” is too long to detail here. Needless to say, it happened and it’s had consequences. What’s more is that there have been warnings, in the form of signs and proclamations, ever since the first modern challenge to observant Judaism arose. Moses Mendelssohn was the pioneer of Haskalah, the “Jewish enlightenment,” which inspired Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany, and four of his six children converted to Christianity despite the fact that he remained observant. On the American scene, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, dedicated much of his tenure at Commentary from 1947 to 1952 to rebuking the mainstream American rabbinate for rendering Judaism little more than “a doctrine of social (and sociable) principles.” “What are we to make,” Kristol exclaimed in a 1948 review of Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism, “of a rabbi who claims for the Mishnah and the Talmud that they guarantee the right to strike—thereby providing Holy Writ with the satisfaction of having paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act!”

But why did Judaism originally become susceptible to liberalism? Dissenters to liberal Judaism have tended to concentrate on the process in which heaven was brought down to earth. With the rise of human reason—and exacerbated by the spiritual crisis wrought by the Holocaust—the Almighty was seen less and less as all-mighty and Torah less and less as divine. Emancipated from the threat of retribution from above, God gradually became a compassionate being capable only of praise and sympathy while Torah gradually became a Chicken Soup for the Soul volume from which anecdotes and lessons could be expediently cherry-picked to validate personal ambitions and beliefs.

Waxman and the community he seeks to defend are truly caught between Mount Sinai and a hard place. They’re worried about their state of affairs, one in which they themselves along with their values are disappearing. Alas, it’s their values that created the situation in which they find themselves. The lifesaver for mainstream American Jewry, if it wishes to seize it and stay afloat, is rebuilding Jewish identity through more robust primary education. In The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart censured pro-Israel advocates for expecting “Jewish students to defend the Jewish state when they have not been taught to care much about Judaism itself.” Journalist Caroline Glick was on target when in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed she instructed that Jewish education must include “all of it—Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael” (the law of Israel, the people of Israel and the land of Israel).

When the idea of (re)introducing Torah study to non-Orthodox Hebrew school is mooted—in Reform Judaism, textual interaction with Torah is usually limited to rehearsing the oral recitation of a single Torah “portion” for a bar or bat mitzvah—it elicits reactions like the one from a history student at Sheffield University in England, who was recently asked by the Independent why millennials are declining to read literature classics. “Students,” she opined, “might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don’t work for us.” Caroline Glick admitted that getting Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael back into the conscience of mainstream American Jewry will be difficult “in a culture where people expect instant and continuous gratification without knowledge.” “But,” she appended, “if American Jewish history teaches us anything, it teaches us that they are all necessary.”

Indeed. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German Jews, after great consideration of the potential costs, amended particular aspects of Judaism with the express purpose of acculturating into Enlightenment Europe. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century American Jews have readily spurned most of the beliefs and customs that comprised Judaism for more than three millennia, yet simply cannot figure out why they’re assimilating out of existence. Karl Marx, the exemplar of assimilation, who descended from a venerable line of distinguished German rabbis, opened The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon by quipping that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In the ultimate dialectical feat, American Jewry is proving that, like with most things, Marx had it backwards all long.

Jonathan Bronitsky is a commentator and historian working on a biography of Irving Kristol to be published by Oxford University Press.

Image: U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro visits the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem​. Flickr/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv