American Jews torn on Israel-Palestine conflict
Conflicts not only divide opinions, but also sharpen differences of approach and can even cause people to question deep-seated beliefs. The recent flare-up of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has probably split opinions more than ever — and this was demonstrated in the protests and media commentary expressing support for one side or the other. One notable change taking place is a shift in American public opinion toward support for the Palestinians, including among American Jewry.
It is not a dramatic shift but an important one nevertheless. It is by no means an expression of support for Hamas, in most cases quite the opposite, but it recognizes the plight of ordinary Palestinians caught up in the conflict. In this asymmetric contest, Israel is no longer David but Goliath, and Americans are increasingly showing widespread sympathy for the Palestinians, who are quite rightly being seen as the underdogs in this gory conflict.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel, there has been an expectation that Jewish communities worldwide will support it whether they agree with its policies or not — and nowhere is this more evident than in the US, home of the world’s largest Jewish diaspora, whose support is regarded as crucial for advancing Israel’s interests with its closest allies. For the most part, American Jewry has not only complied with this Israeli demand but has done so with great enthusiasm, though not without the odd qualm or controversy.
However, societal changes both in Israel and the US has led certain segments of American Jewry to develop an identity that is not necessarily Zionist in character, and is separate and differs from the direction that Judaism has taken in Israel. While Israel is marching to the right and becoming more nationalistic and religiously orthodox, American Jews are generally more liberal and progressive, and a majority of them support the Democratic Party.
A foremost source of growing tension between the liberal-progressive elements among American Jewry and Israel is the latter’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its oppression of the Palestinian people, who have been stripped of their basic human and political rights. Many American Jews are torn between their affinity and care for Israel, which at times is entirely atavistic, and their liberal-democratic views and adherence to the essential creeds of human rights; values they have been brought up on by their communities and wider society. Hence, the more than 50 years of harsh occupation and prolonged cruel blockade of Gaza — a situation exacerbated by periodic outbursts of violence — creates a genuine dilemma for Jews in the US, as it does for other Jewish diasporas.
Societal changes both in Israel and the US has led certain segments of American Jewry to develop an identity that is not necessarily Zionist in character.
Many of them are worried for their families and friends living in Israel, especially when rockets are launched across the border from Gaza. But their moral compass, complemented by an assessment of the situation, is leading them to reject the common narrative they inherited: That of an Israel that faces a constant existential threat. Instead, they take a more balanced and critical view of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which is seen as incompatible with Jewish and universal values and as a major obstacle to peace.
As we would expect, American criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians — and more generally regarding the constant erosion of its democracy — varies in content and style. J Street, which was a pioneering organization in openly breaking ranks with Israeli government policy, nevertheless still declares its pro-Israeli credentials when stating that its mission is to organize “pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans to promote US policies,” while asserting that this can only be attained through a negotiated resolution that is acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians. More recently we have witnessed the emergence of a more radical approach. For instance, that of IfNotNow, which sees Israeli occupation not only as detrimental to the state of Israel, but also one that poisons the discourse among American Jews and leads to the weaponization of anti-Semitism.
IfNotNow’s supporters explicitly position themselves as activists standing up for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. Their criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, not only in the Occupied Territories but also those who are citizens of Israel, is scathing. In the same breath, they accuse the American Jewish establishment of silencing dissenting voices in the community and either exploiting anti-Semitism to justify their uncritical view of Israel or, worse, contributing to it.
Many of these mainly young Jewish Americans who are at last finding their voices to criticize Israeli policies were raised on an idealized image of Israel as a kind of theme park; a fantasy Jewish state that could do no wrong. To reinforce this unrealistic vision — in which the Nakba never happened, territories are always “liberated” and never occupied, and Israel is a model progressive society that is also a safe haven for Jews from around the world, almost an insurance policy should anti-Semitism rise up — there have been programs like Birthright. This has, through the years, enabled more than 750,000 young Jews from across the world, predominantly the US, to visit Israel and be exposed to the most one-sided, unchallenged version of what Israel is and its relations with the Palestinians.
The changes in attitude among American Jewry are aligned not only with events in the Middle East, but also with developments in the US in relation to human rights in general and injustices to minorities in particular, as in the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was organically translated into Palestinian Lives Matter and seen on many placards at demonstrations in support of Palestine.
In addition, US legislatures are, in unprecedented numbers, publicly expressing their dismay at Israeli policies and calling for adjustments in Washington’s approach toward Israel and its relations with the Palestinians. This includes the initiative of Jewish Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders to block a $735 million weapons sale to Israel authorized by the US government (that he later dropped) and 28 senators questioning the wisdom of their own president in not calling for an immediate ceasefire and thus allowing Israel’s military machine more time to pound Gaza in its war with Hamas, which resulted in the killing of 67 Palestinian children.
This gradual maturing of American Jewry, as well as substantial changes in other parts of American society, signals a trend that might, if not immediately, lead to a shift in Washington toward a more balanced view of Israeli-Palestinian relations. This could eventually reposition the US as an important and significant peace broker. However, no less importantly, it might also lead to healthier relations between Israel and American Jewry, as well as other Jewish communities, who will be supportive but not uncritical.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.