The growing divide between Israeli and American Jews was a major topic of conversation at this week’s annual meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was also the topic of a lengthy feature in Haaretz, which largely blamed the Israeli government. Inter alia, it quoted former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro as saying, in reference to that majority of American Jews who identify as non-Orthodox and politically liberal, “There is an idea that has some currency in certain circles around the Israeli government that says, ‘You know what, we can write off that segment of American Jewry because in a couple of generations their children or grandchildren will assimilate.’”
I agree that the idea of writing off this segment of American Jewry has some currency in Israel. But in most cases, it’s due less to fantasies about liberal Jews disappearing than to a belief that Israel will have to do without them whether it wants to or not, because liberal Jews can no longer be depended on for even the most minimal level of support. And by that, I don’t mean support for any specific Israeli policy, but for something far more basic: Israel’s right to be heard, by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
Nothing better illustrates this than recent decisions by two campus Hillels to bar mainstream Israeli speakers from addressing Jewish students. At Princeton, it was Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, and at Stanford, it was a group of Israeli Arab veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. I can understand Hillel refusing to host speakers from the radical fringes. But how are Jewish students supposed to learn anything about Israel if campus Hillels won’t even let them hear from representatives of two of the country’s most mainstream institutions – its elected government and its army?
Both Hillels later termed their decisions a “mistake” – most likely under pressure from Hillel International, whose CEO, Eric Fingerhut, was the lead author on Princeton Hillel’s apology. But that doesn’t change the fact that at two leading universities on opposite sides of the country, the Hillel directors, both non-Orthodox rabbis, initially thought canceling the speeches in response to progressive students’ objections was a reasonable decision. Princeton’s Julie Roth thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear an official Israeli government representative try to explain the government’s policies. And Stanford’s Jessica Kirschner – backed, incredibly, by the university’s “pro-Israel” association – thought it completely reasonable to deny her students the chance to hear from non-Jewish Israelis who don’t agree that Israel is an apartheid state.
American Jewish rabbis and lay leaders obviously have the right to disagree with Israeli policies. But how is any relationship possible if one side won’t even allow the other to be heard? Gagging and boycotts Israel can get from its enemies; it doesn’t need American Jews for that. So if Israel can’t even rely on them to enable interested students to be exposed to mainstream Israeli views, what exactly are they contributing to the Israel-Diaspora relationship? And why, under these circumstances, should Israel have any interest in accommodating their concerns about, say, prayer arrangements at the Western Wall?
Moreover, consider who did step in to allow the Princeton and Stanford speeches to take place as planned – the Orthodox Chabad movement, which, on both campuses, volunteered to host the speakers on very short notice. If Orthodox groups are the only ones in America these days even willing to provide a venue for Israelis who deviate from progressive orthodoxy, why wouldn’t Israel give greater weight to Orthodox views than non-Orthodox ones?
Nor is this problem limited to college campuses. The most salient example – one worth revisiting precisely because both sides consider it a turning point in the relationship – was the dispute over the Iranian nuclear deal.
Given the almost wall-to-wall Israeli consensus that the deal was dangerous (despite deep disagreements over how best to oppose it), many Israelis felt no less betrayed by American Jewish support for the deal than many American Jews felt when Israel reneged on the Western Wall compromise two years later. As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told Haaretz, “We went to American Jews and told them that the Iran deal endangers 6 million Jews in Israel, and that it’s not an American political issue, but rather, a matter of Jewish existence, and I don’t need to tell you what happened.” Indeed, absent that sense of betrayal, I suspect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have been more willing to rebuff ultra-Orthodox pressure over the Western Wall.
But policy disagreements I can accept, even on issues of existential importance. What I found far more troubling was liberal American Jews’ reaction to Netanyahu’s efforts to lobby against the deal, which Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz accurately described as follows: “Considering that 70 percent of American Jews had voted for Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s efforts to lead a revolt against him were seen by many in the Jewish community as unconscionable.” Indeed, many prominent American Jews vociferously objected to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress against the deal, using terms like “humiliated” and “angered” to describe their feelings. Yet somehow, I haven’t heard a word from them against European leaders’ efforts today to lobby Congress to defy President Trump and preserve the deal.
In short, many liberal American Jews didn’t just oppose the Israeli government’s policy, they even objected to the government’s efforts to publicly advocate for its chosen policy. Effectively, they declared that Israel had no right to make its views heard in America if doing so discomfited them.
Many liberal Jews remain staunch supporters of Israel. Yet the ranks of the Roths and Kirschners seem to be growing every year. And though Israel and Diaspora Jewry can survive disagreements about policy, if liberal American Jews aren’t even willing to hear what Israeli Jews think, and provide a platform for others to hear it, the relationship will be over. I continue to think that would be tragedy. But you cannot have a relationship with people who don’t even acknowledge your right to speak – even if those people are your family.
Originally published in Commentary on November 15, 2017
While some Israeli minorities might plausibly say this (ultra-Orthodox Jews upset by American Jewish pressure for religious pluralism, radical leftists upset by American Jewish support for Israel), it’s hard to see those minorities alone adding up to 21 percent of respondents. But why would any mainstream Israelis, who have traditionally been appreciative of Diaspora Jews’ political and financial support for Israel, now feel that overseas Jewry has become a negative factor, a force contributing to social divisions?
If I had to answer in four words, I’d say “the New Israel Fund.” But the NIF is merely the most visible face of a deeper problem, as demonstrated by another shocking poll released last month: Mainstream American Jews are increasingly siding with Israel’s enemies on issues that many Israelis consider fundamental to their country’s well-being.
The poll in question, by the American Jewish Committee, surveyed American Jewish opinion on a range of issues. But two questions were particularly noteworthy.
The first asked respondents what they thought about moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Supporting the embassy move used to be a mainstream American Jewish position. Yet in this poll, only 16 percent of respondents favored moving it immediately. Even more shocking, only another 36 percent supported moving it “at a later date in conjunction with progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.” A full 44 percent said they didn’t want the embassy moved, period.
Most Israelis want international recognition of Jerusalem as their capital. Palestinians, by contrast, overwhelmingly oppose it. So on an issue where Israelis and Palestinians are clearly at odds, American Jews overwhelmingly opted to side with the Palestinians against Israel. Almost half didn’t want the embassy moved at all, and most of the rest wanted to give the Palestinians de facto veto power over the move–which is the real meaning of saying it should happen only “in conjunction with progress” in peace talks. And needless to say, recognition of Judaism’s holiest city—the focus of Jewish prayers for millennia–as Israel’s capital is hardly a trivial issue.
This same divide was evident on a question about establishing a Palestinian state. Fully 55 percent of the AJC’s respondents said they favor establishing a Palestinian state “in the current situation.” Only 40 percent opposed it.
The “current situation,” lest anyone forget, is one in which Palestinians adamantly refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or drop their demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel; in which every Palestinian party–including Mahmoud Abbas’s supposedly “moderate” Fatah”–lauds anti-Israel terror, incites it, pays generous salaries to terrorists, and educates its children to hate Israel; in which most Palestinians say their ultimate goal isn’t a Palestinian state, but Israel’s eradication; and in which Hamas, one of the two major Palestinian parties, still openly proclaims that goal.
Consequently, as repeated polls have shown, most Israelis believe a Palestinian state under current conditions would be inimical to their well-being. Far from bringing peace, they believe it would simply turn the West Bank into a base for anti-Israel terror, just as Gaza has been since Israel withdrew from that territory in 2005. Thus, on an issue that’s literally life and death for Israelis, a majority of American Jews sided with the Palestinians against mainstream Israelis.
Are most Israelis actually familiar with this poll data? Of course not. But they intuit it from the behavior of one of the most high-profile American Jewish organizations in Israel – the NIF.
The NIF has become toxic not just for Israeli rightists but also centrists and even the soft left. As an example, take Women Wage Peace, a group seeking to mobilize Israeli and Palestinian women to lobby for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In an interview last month, its founders said they decided to stop accepting money from the NIF after their first year in operation because they wanted to broaden their base beyond the hardcore left and feared association with the NIF might drive away the centrists they sought to recruit.
Nor is this surprising. That same month, in response to a tweet asking whether Israel is “an evil country” or “just committing ethnic cleansing on a regular basis,” the NIF’s Israeli president, Talia Sasson, tweeted, “It is both.” Also that month, Ruchama Marton, founder and president of one of the NIF’s best-known grantees, Physicians for Human Rights, published an op-ed in Haaretz advocating for BDS.
In other words, the NIF has no problem with a chief executive who publicly calls Israel “evil” and falsely accuses it of systematic ethnic cleansing. And despite claiming that it doesn’t “fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs,” it has no problem with its grantees’ chief executives publicly promoting BDS. Given this, is it any wonder that even soft-left groups like Women Wage Peace don’t want to be associated with the NIF?
Nor can the NIF be dismissed as a fringe organization. Unlike, say, the widely condemned Jewish Voices for Peace, the NIF is well within the mainstream American Jewish fold; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, today the president of America’s largest Jewish denomination, the Reform movement, used to chair one of its grant committees. And with annual donations topping $26 million in 2016, from a long list of donors, it clearly has a non-negligible support base. It’s not in the top financial tier of American Jewish organizations, but neither is it anywhere near the bottom.
A generation ago, an organization whose executives and grantees spouted anti-Israel canards or advocated anti-Israel boycotts would have been as toxic among American Jews as it was among Israelis. That fact that today’s NIF instead has broad support among American Jewry tells Israelis everything they need to know about how far away from Israel many American Jews have moved.
Given this, it’s not surprising that a growing number of Israelis view Diaspora Jewry negatively. The only question is whether anything can be done to close this widening rift before it’s too late.
Originally published in Commentary on October 24, 2017
Last Friday, for instance, Austria’s national student union passed a motion denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic and saying the movement recalls the Nazis’ economic boycott of Jewish businesses. The resolution also said BDS activists shouldn’t be given funding or venues in which to promote its campaign. The motion, which was pushed in particular by a student group called GRAS (Greens and Alternative Students), passed almost unanimously, with one abstention and no votes against.
The previous week, the Green Party in the German state of Bavaria passed a resolution denouncing BDS as “anti-Semitic, hostile to Israel, reactionary and anti-enlightenment,” adding that it “reproduces the National Socialist slogan, ‘Don’t buy from Jews!’” The resolution, introduced by the party’s youth wing, also urged the national Green Party not to cooperate with BDS. Given that some prominent Green Party members have actively promoted anti-Israel boycotts, this uncompromising denunciation effectively amounts to a grassroots revolt.
And this week, the Left Party in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, decided not to consider a motion urging Israel “to end the occupation and the Gaza blockade” and demanded the European Union end its Association Agreement with Israel due to the blockade and Israel’s West Bank security fence. Given that the Left Party (Die Linke in German) is easily the German party most hostile to Israel, this development is surprising.
The party offered no explanation when it announced the decision on its Twitter account, but Jerusalem Post reporter Benjamin Weinthal suggested it might be related to what Martina Renner, a Left Party member of parliament, said about the resolution earlier this month. The “motion sounds like it was written from Israel boycott groups,” Renner said. “From this the executive board of @dielinke clearly distances itself.” Renner’s statement left no room for doubt: Even the Left Party wants nothing to do with BDS and anti-Israel boycotts.
All these examples have something in common: The anti-BDS push is coming precisely from the groups that are normally least sympathetic to Israel–leftists and young people. In other words, BDS is losing not just among groups that could be expected to oppose it, like the U.S. Congress, but among the very demographic that ought to be its principal bastion of support.
Of course, even many people who oppose boycotting Israel as a whole still think boycotts are acceptable as long as they target the settlements alone. The problem, as the UNHRC blacklist makes glaringly obvious, is that this isn’t actually possible.
One of the companies that received a UNHRC warning letter this week, for instance, was Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Why? Because Bezeq provides telephone and internet service to the settlements. Nor is Bezeq unique; many of Israel’s largest companies provide services to the settlements, including the banks, the Mekorot Water Company, the Israel Electric Corporation, and all cell phone operators, because physical and economic infrastructure companies are expected to provide service to all Israelis.
Moreover, the blacklist as compiled by the UNHRC and other BDS advocates also defines East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as “settlements.” In other words, to satisfy the boycotters, Israeli companies wouldn’t merely have to stop providing essential services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank; they’d also have to stop providing services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Israel’s capital, not to mention the tens of thousands of non-Jewish, non-Israelis living in both eastern Jerusalem and the Golan. Complying with the boycott would, thus, cause a humanitarian crisis of major proportions –and, therefore, it isn’t going to happen.
Until now, because most boycott initiatives have been small-scale, it’s been possible for people who advocate “just boycotting the settlements” to ignore what that actually means. The irony is large-scale initiatives like the UNHRC blacklist, by publicly spelling out exactly what it entails, make it much harder for people to keep ignoring the truth: that “boycotting the settlements” actually means boycotting Israel.
Nevertheless, this realization isn’t going to sink in without a lot of work on the part of both the Israeli government and Jewish and pro-Israel activists worldwide. Indeed, that’s one of the main lessons of the victories to date.
When the BDS movement first emerged, many well-meaning people advocated ignoring it rather than fighting it on the grounds that fighting it would simply inflate the importance of an otherwise insignificant movement. But victories like those of the past few weeks show why that strategy was wrong. The growing understanding that BDS is anti-Semitic didn’t happen because Israel and overseas activists ignored the movement; it happened because both the Israeli government and overseas activists relentlessly explained the connection between boycotting Israel and anti-Semitism. And a similar effort will be needed to explain that “boycotting the settlements” is just a euphemism for boycotting Israel.
Even though large swaths of polite society are now perfectly comfortable with anti-Semitism as long as they can tell themselves it’s just “anti-Zionism” or “fighting the occupation,” open avowals of anti-Semitism are still taboo. Once stripped of the comforting pretense that it’s not anti-Semitic, BDS will be finished. And groups like the Austrian student union and the Bavarian Green Party are now tearing that pretense to shreds.
Originally published in Commentary on October 18, 2017
Last week, the German Interior Ministry released a report on anti-Semitism which stated that during the first eight months of this year, a whopping 92 percent of anti-Semitic incidents were committed by right-wing extremists. That sounded suspicious for two reasons, which I’ll get to later, but since I don’t speak German, I couldn’t scrutinize the report for myself. Fortunately, the German daily Die Welt found the results equally suspicious, and this week, Benjamin Weinthal of the Jerusalem Post reported on some of the problems it flagged.
Weinthal explained that in a federal report on anti-Semitism issued by the German government earlier this year, “the crime of ‘Jew-hatred’ is classified in the category of ‘politically motivated right-wing extremist crime.’” But once Jew-hatred has been declared a right-wing crime by definition, most of its perpetrators will inevitably be classified as far-right extremists, even if they shouldn’t be.
Die Welt cited one particularly blatant example from summer 2014 when Israel was at war with Hamas in Gaza. The war sparked numerous anti-Israel protests, and during one, 20 Hezbollah supporters shouted the Nazi slogan “Sieg Heil” at pro-Israel demonstrators in Berlin. Hezbollah supporters are Islamic extremists, not neo-Nazis, even if they chose to taunt German Jews by hurling Nazi slogans at them. Nevertheless, the incident was classified as a far-right extremist crime, thereby neatly removing a case of Islamic anti-Semitism from the statistics.
There are two good reasons for thinking the linguistic acrobatics, in this case, represents the rule rather than the exception. First, a 2014 study of 14,000 pieces of hate mail sent over a 10-year period to the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Israeli embassy in Berlin found that only three percent came from far-right extremists. Over 60 percent came from the educated mainstream–professors, PhDs, lawyers, priests, university and high-school students. And these letters were definitely anti-Semitic rather than merely anti-Israel; they included comments such as “It is possible that the murder of innocent children suits your long tradition?” and “For the last 2,000 years, you’ve been stealing land and committing genocide.”
Sending hate mail is an anti-Semitic incident in its own right, even if it’s not reported to the police (as most of these letters undoubtedly weren’t). Thus unless you want to make the dubious claim that Germany’s educated mainstream–unlike that of other Western countries–consists largely of far-right extremists, it’s clear that far-right extremists aren’t the only people actively committing anti-Semitic acts.
Second, in other Western European countries, Islamic extremists are a major source of anti-Semitic crime. Thus it’s hard to believe that Germany–which, as several terror attacks over the last two years have shown, is hardly devoid of such extremists–would be the one exception to this rule. In contrast, it’s easy to believe the German government would manipulate its definitions to downplay Islamic anti-Semitism because German courts have already done the same.
In perhaps the most notorious case, a German court ruled in 2015 that three Palestinians who firebombed a synagogue in July 2014 didn’t commit an anti-Semitic crime, but were merely trying to draw “attention to the Gaza conflict.” That ruling was upheld by an appeals court earlier this year. I can’t imagine a German court ruling that firebombing a church to draw attention to, say, the U.S. war in Iraq was a mere political expression rather than a hate crime. But neither the lower court nor the appellate one saw anything anti-Semitic about bombing a Jewish house of worship to protest Israel’s actions (the men were convicted of vandalizing the synagogue, but given only suspended sentences). So presto, Islamic anti-Semitism has been eliminated from the picture.
Far-right anti-Semitism is, of course, real. But so are left-wing and Islamic anti-Semitism. And by pretending the latter two don’t exist, the German government has made it impossible to combat those types of anti-Semitism effectively, since you can’t fight something whose very existence you refuse to acknowledge.
This might not matter to Berlin; the German government clearly cares more about fighting the far right than fighting anti-Semitism, and evidently considers redefining all Jew-hatred as right-wing extremism a legitimate means to that end. But it ought to matter to Jews of every political stripe.
Thus both sides of the American Jewish community need to call out Germany on its whitewash. They should also avoid replicating its despicable practice of redefining anti-Semitism to suit its own political purposes since doing so will only allow the strains of anti-Semitism they deny to metastasize. And in the end, as history has proven time and again, neither right-wing nor left-wing anti-Semites offer immunity to any Jew, even when they’re on the same political side.
Originally published in Commentary on September 12, 2017
I supported the compromise, though as an Orthodox Jew, my reasons were different from those of most American Jews. Nevertheless, I feel the government’s decision to scrap the deal was defensible, but not for any reason involving American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.
One crucial fact underlies both halves of my position. Many of the American Jews who care most about the Kotel compromise and were most hurt by its cancelation are among the most genuinely pro-Israel members of America’s non-Orthodox community. These are people who tirelessly work to bolster support for Israel worldwide and donate generously to Israeli hospitals, schools, ambulance services, and more from which Israelis benefit.
Most anti-Israel American Jews (and that includes some who like to call themselves “pro-Israel”) don’t care much about the Kotel compromise. See, for example, Simone Zimmerman of IfNotNow, who termed it “obscene” that American Jews are upset about the Kotel when, in her view, they should be focusing on “the occupation.” The growing ranks of the indifferent also don’t care; they’ll probably never visit Israel anyway.
So who does care? People like David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, who issued a statement last week “decrying” the decision to freeze the compromise. This week, nine UN ambassadors toured Israel on a trip organized by the AJC. Among other things, they visited the City of David to gain an understanding of the Jews’ deep roots in Jerusalem—an obviously timely effort given the recurring Palestinian efforts to pass UN resolutions denying these roots.
Or take Lynn Schusterman, one of 65 American Jewish philanthropists who signed a newspaper ad last week protesting the cancellation of the compromise. This week, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is hosting a group of university professors in Israel for a training program to help them combat anti-Israel agitation on campus. The foundation also supports numerous Israeli charitable endeavors, like the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which has brought new life to the capital.
Granted, backers of the compromise also include a nontrivial number of people who show their “love” for Israel mainly by badmouthing it and supporting anti-Israel organizations. But many of the people most deeply hurt by the decision are people like Harris and Schusterman, who work indefatigably both to promote Israel’s cause abroad and to make life better for Israelis at home.
That brings us to my specifically Orthodox reason for supporting the compromise—the importance of hakarat hatov, or gratitude. I think American Jews should help Israel, because Israel is vital to the Jewish world and because all Jews are family. But familial relations are a two-way street, and even within a family, it’s important to show gratitude for assistance rendered when possible.
Often, it isn’t possible, because American Jews want many things Israel can’t afford to give. Israel can’t make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians just to please American Jews, nor can it magically fight wars with no civilian casualties. Concessions on conversion—another hot-button issue for non-Orthodox Jews—are also difficult. As long as converting to Judaism confers an automatic right of Israeli citizenship, the state must retain some control over the conversion process to retain control over immigration.
But since the Kotel was a rare issue on which Israel could afford to give American Jews something they wanted, it should have seized the opportunity. Even if you believe, as I do, that Orthodoxy has a much better track record than Conservative and Reform Judaism at preserving the Jewish people over time, the compromise sacrificed no vital interests.
The Kotel isn’t and never was a synagogue—in Jewish tradition, worship belongs on the Wall’s other side, aka the Temple Mount—so there’s no compelling religious argument for insisting that the entire plaza be under Orthodox supervision. Indeed, that’s why both the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties and the Kotel’s rabbi initially approved the compromise before backtracking under pressure from Haredi zealots.
Nevertheless, I feel that canceling the compromise was defensible, due to another value I hold dear: democracy. By definition, democracy involves messy compromises among groups with very different interests, and often, these compromises are made through political horse-trading. Each group concedes on issues it cares less about to obtain support for those it cares more about.
That’s exactly what happened in this case. The Haredi parties have little interest in nonreligious issues, but they cared greatly about killing the Kotel compromise. So they threatened to quit the government—thereby depriving it of the majority it needed to continue its foreign, economic, and defense policies—unless the government scrapped the Kotel compromise. Since the non-Haredi parties all care more about foreign affairs, defense, and economics, they made the deal the Haredim demanded. The Kotel isn’t most Israelis’ top policy priority.
American Jews talk a lot about the importance of democracy, but, if you value democracy, then you have to accept democratic decisions even when you don’t like them. And you have to accept the fundamental democratic principle that numbers matter. People who live and vote in Israel in large numbers, as the Haredim do, will always have more clout in Israel’s democratic process than people who don’t, like Reform and Conservative Jews.
But whatever clout American Jews do have is diminished when Israelis perceive them as turning away from Israel, because if their support seems to be slipping away in any case for reasons beyond Israel’s control, then any government has less incentive to accede to their demands. And that’s not my personal opinion; it’s simply a fact.
Originally published in Commentary on July 5, 2017
American Jews, following American liberalism, have abandoned belief in the nation-state, non-voluntary communities, and religion in the public square
In his essay “Why Many American Jews are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel,” Daniel Gordis lists, as key sources of tension, four major differences between the American and the Israeli political projects. His analysis strikes me as largely accurate, yet I think he misses something important by treating the differences as longstanding and perhaps even inherent. In fact, most are of recent vintage, and there is nothing inevitable or intractable about them. They are the product, first, of dramatic changes in the tenets of political liberalism, and second, of a collective decision by many American Jews to follow the new liberalism wherever it leads—even when it contradicts longstanding axioms of both American politics and traditional Judaism.
Take, for instance, the issue of universalism versus particularism. It’s true, as Gordis notes, that unlike Israel, America was not founded to serve a particular ethnic group. Nevertheless, throughout most of its history, America has viewed itself and functioned as a nation-state. Thus, despite promoting supranational projects like the European Union, which entail forfeitures of sovereignty, America has shunned any such project for itself, preferring jealously to preserve its own sovereignty. This preference traces straight back to the founders’ distrust of “entangling alliances.” Even today, there is bipartisan agreement that America’s first responsibility is to itself, whether or not the “international community” agrees; that’s why even a thoroughly liberal president like Barack Obama didn’t hesitate to launch strikes against anti-American terrorists worldwide without waiting for UN approval—something few European countries would deem thinkable.
Of course, the agreement isn’t wall-to-wall. In recent decades a vocal subset of American liberals, mostly housed in the left wing of the Democratic party, has come to believe that—in the words of Walter Hallstein, first president of the European Commission—”the system of sovereign nation-states has failed.” As perhaps inevitable corollaries of this belief, they argue that national decisions require “global legitimacy,” and that one’s fellow citizens have no more claim on one’s allegiance than do citizens of other countries.
Princeton University, my alma mater, exemplifies this evolution. When I graduated in 1987, the university’s motto was “Princeton in the nation’s service,” which nobody considered problematic. A decade later, the idea that a university should dedicate itself to serving its own country in particular had become unacceptable in advanced liberal circles. And so, in 1996, the motto was changed to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Two decades later, even this was deemed too particularistic; last year, the university’s trustees recommended a new version: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
The change is hardly trivial. Americans who view their country as a nation-state, even if not the state of a particular ethnic group, have no trouble understanding why, when Israeli and Palestinian interests clash, Israel puts its own interests first: why it is reluctant to cede more territory to Palestinians when every previous such cession has massively increased terror, or ready to fight wars to stop rocket fire on its civilian population. Only for liberals who believe that countries have no right to prioritize their own citizens over other human beings are such decisions unacceptable.
Yet, even today, this latter view, however dogmatically held in elite circles and by American Jews, is a minority one in America at large. That’s precisely why polls consistently show that most Americans still strongly support Israel.
The same goes for a second difference highlighted by Gordis: namely, the place of religion in the public square. A few decades ago, few Americans thought twice about crèche scenes in public venues at Christmastime or public-school choirs singing Christmas carols. Nor has the legal situation changed since then. In a series of rulings in the 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court largely upheld the constitutionality of public displays of crèches and other religious symbols, only occasionally nixing them due to very specific circumstances. As recently as 2014, it also upheld a decision by a town in upstate New York to have volunteer chaplains open local board meetings with a sectarian prayer. To this day, politicians from across the political spectrum, including the last three Democratic presidents, continue to speak openly about their own faith.
This is most obvious with regard to the issue of voluntary versus non-voluntary communities. Traditional Judaism, which is passed down from mother to child without the child having any choice in the matter, is buttressed by a complex legal system of obligatory commandments and formulates even the most basic values in terms of obligation rather than rights. For instance, the poor don’t have a “right” to assistance; rather, everyone else has an obligation to assist them. Nor do the sick have a “right” to care; rather, the rest of us are obligated to care for them. Granted: in practice, the difference may be minimal, since rights by definition create an obligation on others to fulfill them. But to jettison the concept of non-voluntary commitment—the “must”—is effectively to jettison 3,000 years of Jewish teaching and behavior.
Similarly with religion and the public square. Traditional Judaism is fundamentally a public rather than a private religion. Some biblical commandments, like the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, must be performed in public, and public violations of the commandments are regarded as far more serious than private ones. (When the prophet Jeremiah castigates the nation for failing to observe Shabbat, for instance, he singles out commerce at the city gates: a highly public violation.) One can argue about how much Judaism belongs in Israel’s public square, and Israelis do. But the idea of barring it entirely, of building a wall of separation, is alien to Judaism.
Finally, traditional Judaism is designed to be observed in a sovereign nation-state. Numerous commandments (primarily though not exclusively agricultural) can be performed only in the Holy Land. Others, like the laws governing the conduct of the ruler and the judiciary, can be observed only in a country with a sovereign government and court system. Moreover, despite its many universal principles, Judaism prioritizes local obligations: a famous talmudic dictum on charity, for instance, asserts that “the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” The flipside of this is that Judaism doesn’t demand that the rest of the world (or even non-Jewish residents of the Jewish state) become Jewish; rather, it envisions a Jewish nation-state surrounded by other nation-states (a point expounded brilliantly by Gordis in a 2010 essay on the story of the Tower of Babel).
Even 50 years ago, before American liberalism diverged so sharply from American tradition, it was never as fully compatible with Judaism itself as liberal American Jews liked to believe (and I’d enter a similar caution regarding the full compatibility of Judaism with American conservatism). But, at least before liberalism abandoned the concepts of the nation-state, non-voluntary communities, and religion in the public square, the differences were more easily papered over, allowing American Jews to be at once committed Jews and committed liberals without experiencing severe cognitive dissonance.
Today, that is no longer possible; liberalism’s differences with Judaism have become too glaring. And, forced to make a choice, non-Orthodox American Jews have increasingly chosen liberalism over Judaism. In some ways, Israel is mere collateral damage in this contest, being simply the most visible symbol of the religion that liberal American Jews have chosen to reject. But that symbol is of the essence. Despite being a secular country, Israel’s character, as Gordis writes, has been informed by Judaism since its inception; nor could it be otherwise without effectively eliminating the “Jewish” from the Jewish state.
For all of these reasons, I see little prospect of a rapprochement between the two communities without a dramatic change in American Jewish attitudes toward liberalism, toward Judaism, or toward both. Ultimately, I do believe this change will happen, if only because, in my view, modern liberalism itself is too radical a departure from centuries of political and religious tradition to be viable over the long run. Sadly, however, I’m far less certain that the needed change will occur in time to save American Jews’ relationship with Israel.
Originally published in Mosaic on May 18, 2017
Regardless of whether you support or oppose a new law allowing Israel to bar entry to prominent supporters of anti-Israeli boycotts, one outcome was eminently predictable: Israel would lack the guts to enforce it even when doing so was most justified. That was amply proven by Wednesday’s decision to grant a one-year work visa to Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir. By this decision, Israel eviscerated the one crucial point the law got right, despite the many it got wrong: You cannot wage an effective war on the BDS movement while giving the people behind it a pass. As the old truism goes, people are policy.
The arrest of a Jewish American-Israeli teen for making hundreds of bomb threats against American Jewish institutions in recent months seems to put paid to the favorite explanation advanced by both American Jews and the broader American left–i.e., that Donald Trump’s election empowered right-wing anti-Semites, leading to an upsurge in anti-Semitic acts. Yet the fact remains that the number of threats did jump dramatically following Trump’s election, to a degree that seems hard to attribute to mere coincidence. Now, new disclosures by the Israeli police provide a way to square that circle. It turns out the sudden increase was, in fact, connected to Trump’s election–not because of anything Trump did or didn’t do, but because of media’s hysterical reaction to it.