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Let's not talk about it: US Jews' problem discussing Israel

My piece on last weekend’s Haaretz Magazine, and some other thoughts on the issue

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

While visiting New York last year, I got into a long political conversation with a friend, after which he invited me to dinner at his house. “But you must promise me we won’t discuss Israel,” he warned me. “It might ruin the evening.” About the same time, a friend wanted to introduce me to her new Jewish-American partner. “The one thing we can’t talk about is Israel,” I was told.

I wasn’t the last time I heard such comments. In other cases, I saw people get extremely upset, even hostile, when arguing about Israel. I knew that Israel was a complicated issue for Jews, but it seems that in recent years, the debate over Israel has become so polarized and tense, that it’s gotten to a point where many people would rather avoid it altogether.

When I got back to Israel, I offered my editors in Haaretz to write a piece about this issue. I spent a long time speaking to scholars, community leaders, activists and writers. Some of them were quoted in my piece, many weren’t. The interesting thing was that nobody – not even one person – denied the problem. Furthermore, once the article was published, people commented on one detail or another, but once again, the feeling that reform and conservative Jews have a tough time reaching a consensus over the role of Israel in their community was something that everyone shared:

“Our communities have really been torn apart surrounding Israel,” says [retired Rabbi Sheldon] Lewis. “People have attacked each other personally, friendships have ended, people have left synagogues because of it and have even disappeared entirely from the community. When I was a community rabbi I experienced that myself. The film festival may have been the most dramatic and well-known incident, but things have been going downhill for years.”

This is from writer Eric Alterman:

“In the past, you could say to liberal friends who criticized Israel ‘What would you do if you were in their place?'” says Alterman. “After all, no country would agree to undertake security risks [like] those that are required from Israel. But in recent years it’s more and more difficult to say it. It’s much more complicated to justify the raid on the Turkish flotilla, or the way Israel handled Gaza, or the attacks on human rights organizations. It looks like we we’re reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel. And many, alas, are going to stick with their values. There’s a sense of failure of an idea with regards to Israel. This is something very painful for me to say.”

You can read the entire piece here.

———————-

Defining the problem is easier than reaching a conclusion on its political implications. More than anything, I felt a growing cultural gap between Israel and American Jews, and cultural issues manifest themselves politically in unexpected ways.

What was most interesting for me was to hear so many people saying that violations of civil and human rights in Israel contradict Jewish values. I expected people to speak of political values, and identify themselves as Liberals, and therefore at odds with the current trends in Israeli politics, but I realized that what I call liberalism was, for many people I’ve spoken to, part of their cultural and even religious identity as Jews.

Which makes things even more complicated.

Israel was never a very liberal place. Until the 80’s, the Israeli left had nothing to do with liberalism (one could probably argue that the Likud was more liberal than Mapai, the old Labor party). Liberals (in the American sense of leftwing politics) took the lead in Israeli politics only for a brief moment in the 90’s, when, during Rabin’s government, they got some important laws passed and benefited from a very active Supreme Court.

By the end of the decade, it was all over. Netanyahu’s government with its racist laws and the toxic atmosphere it spreads is just part of a process that has been going on for more than a decade. In a way, I think that liberal Jews in the US wanted to see something of them in Israel, and recently, they are having a hard time finding it. That is the reason for all the anger and frustration.

I would be very careful to conclude that this process will damage Israel’s ability to gain political support in the US, or to advocate its policies in Washington. Many people I’ve spoken to said that the evangelical right more than makes up for the loss of Jewish support for Israel – if there is such a loss. I tend to agree. Also, Israeli politicians are extremely capable at manipulating the anxieties of American Jews, as Netanyahu’s successes in confronting pressure from the White House regarding construction in East Jerusalem has taught us. Yes, many Jews resent Avigdor Lieberman, but only a few would translate these feelings to positions that have something to do with the political reality.

This is not to say that Israel doesn’t face a major diplomatic crisis – only that this crisis has to do with the growing desire in other parts of the American establishment to see the end of the occupation. Even more important is the rest of the international community, which is clearly impatient with Jerusalem. But this dynamic won’t be affected by the difficulties of a Newton synagogue with hosting a political debate or by the backlash following a show at a Jewish theater in DC. The problem of liberal American Jews with Israel will remain what it is – a problem of American Jews.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Ex Israeli

      I’m not sure this is typical to American Jews only.
      Its vile and pathetic beyond words.

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      When Alterman says, “Alas,” to the idea that many American Jews will stick with their values, that says a lot about Alterman.

      Maybe that would be a good slogan: ISRAEL: LEAVE YOUR VALUES AT THE DOOR.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      It depends which American Jews hangs around. Certainly “progressive” Jews have a big problem with Israel, because as we keep seeing here in the BDS discussions, you really can no longer be a “progressive” and support Israel (and this is BESIDES the question of the ‘occupation’ but goes to the very core of Israeli Zionism). However, “progressive” Jews in the US are a minority, even of the non-Orthodox community. Don’t forget that the 78% of the US Jews who voted for Obama were voting for a candidate who claimed he was a “friend” of Israel. Just because a Jew is assimilated and has no ongoing connection with the Jewish Establishment (synagogues and other Jewish organizations) does not mean that he follows a “progressive” line on Israel and other issues.
      I would guess maybe 30% of of the US Jewish community would define itself as “progressive” and I believe most will eventually give up any support for Israel, but this is a drop in the bucket of the American electorate, most of which supports Israel, so I don’t see any major shift in American support for Israel coming from this increasing alienation of the American Jewish Far Left.

      Reply to Comment
    4. There are two conflicting progressive values relative to Israel, not PEP (progressive except for Israel) but POP (progressive on Israel).

      There is one progressive value, which describes an only egalitarian value, that we are only individuals and that we are all equal. (Modeled after “we are ALL God’s children”.)

      That progressive value conflicts with any racially/ethnically defined favoritism (though it does often apologize for the acceptability of Jews being subordinated as historical “colonial interlopers”).

      The second progressive value is of support for cultural coherence for community or national self-determination. That value supports the rights of communities to self-govern as distinct national communities, rather than as a mush of communist and/or commercialist homogeneity.

      Which one is progressive?

      BOTH.

      Both being true is a quandry. Similar to Israel constructed as Jewish AND democratic.

      Possible in a body. Not possibly in an idea.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ron Newman

      Could you explain further what you mean when you say that the pre-1990s Labor governments were not ‘liberal’ ?

      Reply to Comment
    6. @Ron: pre-eighties Labor (and Mapai before) was an authoritarian, socialist, party which didn’t care for liberalism or human rights very much. Likud’s leader Menahem Begin was probably more sensitive to such issues than most of Labor’s leaders.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Shoded Yam

      “…Many people I’ve spoken to said that the evangelical right more than makes up for the loss of Jewish support for Israel – if there is such a loss. I tend to agree. Also, Israeli politicians are extremely capable at manipulating the anxieties of American Jews, as Netanyahu’s successes in confronting pressure from the White House regarding construction in East Jerusalem has taught us.”

      As I’ve mentioned before on these “pages”, without the affirmation of the majority of American Jews (you know, not the 20% who happen to be fundamentalist sh*tbags, who when their not busy allowing their rabbis to get away with drug money laundering and child molestation, their blockbusting traditionaly secular jewish neighborhoods such as 5-Towns and Lakewood) the support of evangelical christians with their book of revelations and “end-of-days” plans for Jews won’t be the game-changer you’re betting on. This is what comes from listening to peyes curlers. And as far as Israeli manipulation is concerned, that might’ve worked with Irving and Estelle who are still trying to grapple with the guilt of their parents who sat on their hands eating bagels and lox at the 2nd Ave Deli while their families and co-religionist were turned into fertilizer buried in a polish cornfield. It doesn’t work so well with people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s for whom the Holocaust is history, who reject the notion that they should see themselves as victims, and in any event have bigger fish to fry grappling with the loss of their jobs, retirement funds, and even their homes. You want American Jewish support? First Israel will have to bend the Orthodox and the settlers over a table and ass-rape them. Thats not gonna happen? Well when it does, drop us a line. I believe you have the number.

      Reply to Comment
    8. I’d discuss my feelings on this article, but as an American Jew, I feel uncomfortable doing so.

      Reply to Comment
    9. @David (:

      Reply to Comment
    10. Shoded Yam

      “… Don’t forget that the 78% of the US Jews who voted for Obama were voting for a candidate who claimed he was a “friend” of Israel. Just because a Jew is assimilated and has no ongoing connection with the Jewish Establishment (synagogues and other Jewish organizations) does not mean that he follows a “progressive” line on Israel and other issues.”

      Thats nonsense. Obama clearly stated before, during and after the election that his problem was with the Likud and the right wing agenda, not with Israel or Israelis per se. This is the message that the 78% of American Jews that voted for Obama were hearing and they liked what they heard, hence their approval.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Shoded Yam

      “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel,” the Illinois senator and contender for the Democratic presidential nominee told a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland on Sunday. “If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”

      http://jta.org/news/article/2008/02/24/107170/brtzezinskicleveland

      Reply to Comment
    12. Ben Israel

      The only problem is that it is the Likud that has been in power most of the time since 1977. Clinton did intervene directly in 1999 to get a Labor goverment into power that he wanted, but he still didn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize he wanted to badly. He did get a war here, though. Maybe Obama noticed that.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Shoded Yam

      “…The only problem is that it is the Likud that has been in power most of the time since 1977.”

      Only furthering the supposition that the sons are determined not to make the mistakes of their fathers by supporting something that is plainly not in their interests either as jews or as americans.

      Reply to Comment
    14. I found that this reluctance extended even to American Jews who were *currently* on a Taglit-Birthright trip. They were being effectively paid to come learn about Israel, and yet there was always an atmosphere of “don’t talk about politics, though!”

      I tried to push through some of this barrier in my blogging about the Birthright experience – http://www.tinfoilyarmulke.tumblr.com, if anyone’s interested – but I find myself facing the same problem even as I am consciously trying to address it. It’s hard to buck a lifetime of not talking about it…

      Reply to Comment