Everywhere you look, there are signs that Israel and American Jews are drifting apart, whether it be the Pew surveys on American Jews and Israeli Jews, the involvement of American Jews in organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace that support the BDS movement, or the general angst about Israel that is becoming more prevalent in the American Jewish community. There is little question that from a 30,000 foot perspective, American Jews as a whole are in ways large and small more conflicted on Israel than they once were. So it is only natural to ask, who is to blame for this state of affairs? Is it Israel, for policies that are driving away American Jews, or is it American Jews, for shedding their sense of ethnic solidarity and their support for Israel along with it?
Dov Waxman – who wrote on this topic for Matzav a few weeks ago – has a new book out on the subject called Trouble in the Tribe, which elicited an interesting response in Mosaic from Elliott Abrams. Abrams characterizes Waxman’s book as distilling the conventional wisdom in liberal American Jewish circles, which is that rightwing Israeli governments, growing nationalism within Israeli society, and above all the occupation have turned off younger American Jews, and that only a shift in Israeli policies will turn this situation around (disclaimer: I have not yet read the book so I cannot definitively assess whether Abrams’ summation is accurate, but it seems to be from what I have seen). Abrams then goes on to argue that this conventional wisdom is wrong, and that the real driving force here is not Israel but American Jews themselves; as a sense of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish community has eroded, American Jews relate less and care less about their Israeli cousins. In Abrams’s words, “But the beginning of wisdom is surely to understand that the problem is here, in the United States. The American Jewish community is more distant from Israel than in past generations because it is changing, is in significant ways growing weaker, and is less inclined and indeed less able to feel and express solidarity with other Jews here and abroad.”
I vigorously agree with some of Abrams’ conclusions, and just as vigorously disagree with others. Abrams is certainly correct in my view that there is a crisis of Jewish identity in the U.S. that is backed by the Pew statistics, and that support for Israel among American Jews is going to continue to slide by some degree so long as intermarriage rates rise and the proportion of “Jews by background” versus “Jews by religion” goes up. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, and there is no reason beyond ethnic or religious solidarity to specifically identify with it and support it in a stronger or special manner above other democracies or U.S. allies. If Judaism is only ancillary to your identity, then you likely have no particular reason to care about Israel one way or another. In discussing this identity gap, Abrams writes, “A deeper analysis suggests that we are dealing here with a far broader phenomenon, and one in which sheer indifference may count as much as or more than critical disagreement with Israeli policies or an active desire to disembarrass oneself of association with an ‘ethnonational state.’” The point about indifference is a smart one, and it follows from an erosion of Jewish peoplehood.
But this same sentence penned by Abrams also demonstrates where he goes wrong. One can argue that a lack of Jewish identity leads to apathy about Jewish causes, including Israel, or one can argue that a lack of Jewish identity leads to active disagreement with Jewish causes, including Israel, but it cannot be both simultaneously. The former suggests someone who doesn’t care; the latter suggests someone who deeply cares. And this is where Israel itself comes in, because unless you want to argue that American Jews who are critical of Israel are all self-loathing – and to be clear, I do not think that Abrams is arguing this at all – then the fact that many of them are put off by specific Israeli policies is incredibly relevant. It actually points to the very opposite conclusion at which Abrams arrives, since the greater likelihood is that someone whose American Jewish identity is extremely important to him or her will react viscerally to Israeli policies with which he or she disagrees than someone whose Judaism is well in the background. Abrams’s mocking contention that American Jews today cannot possibly know more about Israel than their parents or grandparents is surprisingly obtuse; despite the fact that Bernie Sanders somehow got it into his head that Israel killed over 10,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge (Hamas itself puts the figure at 1,462, which is surely inflated too), American Jews today can read half a dozen daily Israeli news sources in Hebrew or English and literally get up-to-the-minute updates via Twitter, and they don’t like much of what they see. This is not the same phenomenon as Jews who are drifting away from Israel on the tide of assimilation.
Identity can manifest itself in different ways. Some American Jews who maintain a strong Jewish identity will support Israel right or wrong out of ethnic and communal solidarity. Others who maintain a strong Jewish identity will feel the need to criticize Israel precisely because their identity creates an unbreakable bond with Israel that makes them feel personally invested in and responsible for what Israel does. And somewhere on that spectrum will be others who feel ashamed and embarrassed by Israel and want to do everything they can to bash it, not out of affinity but out of hate. Finally, there is the category that Abrams importantly identifies of those who are simply apathetic because their Jewish heritage is relegated to the background. Some criticism of Israel is driven by anti-Semitism and blatantly discriminatory double standards, but much is not, and it also isn’t coming exclusively from those whose Jewish identity or sense of ethnic solidarity is weak. The point is that there are many moving parts here, and to draw a broad sweeping conclusion that applies to all of these segments of American Jewry misses the different phenomena that are working in tandem. To suggest that the effect of Israeli policies is negligible in driving American Jews away from Israel is either myopic or willfully blind, and it betrays a black and white vision of an issue that is slathered in shades of gray.