The Uneasy Relation Between American Jews and Israel A new book explains why Israel deeply divides the diaspora.

Trouble In The Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel

By Dov Waxman (2016, Princeton University Press) 316 pages including footnotes, bibliography, and index

When the AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby held its annual policy conference in March 2017, Israel’s ambassador to the United States delivered a speech that pointedly intoned his government’s favored metaphor for relations with its superpower ally: “no daylight.” Not in years, perhaps not even in decades, had Washington and Jerusalem been so synchronized, Ron Dermer declared, as they now were, thanks to the “meeting of the minds” between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, during the eight years when the previous president Barack Obama was paired off with Netanyahu, the Israeli leader and his then-ambassador, Michael Oren, spoke the phrase “no daylight” in tones of betrayal. Putting the blame entirely on Obama, they bemoaned the testy relations that had developed over Israel’s ongoing settlement project and American agreement with Iran on a deal to dramatically slow that hostile nation’s nuclear program.

But if the shocking election of Trump gave Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition much of what it desired—de facto abandonment of the two-state solution, tacit acceptance of settlement expansion, the promise of relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, confrontational rhetoric against Iran—then “no daylight” was a deeply flawed way of describing the condition of American-Israeli relations.

The Trump-Netanyahu bromance, and the all-but-official embrace of the Republican Party by the prime minister during the Obama years, opened a vast amount of daylight between the current Israeli regime and the majority of American Jews. Three-quarters of them voted against Trump, and even those who were not ready to publicly criticize Israel, as protestors outside the AIPAC convention did, were privately troubled to see the Jewish state co-branded with Trump’s record of racism, misogyny, nativism, and Islamophobia.

Indeed, Trump’s campaign had even trafficked in anti-Semitic images (Hillary Clinton surrounded by $100 bills and Jewish stars) and stereotypes (a television commercial identifying Jews as the embodiment of rapacious global capitalism). And who came to the rescue against charges that the new president was soft on Jew-hating? Benjamin Netanyahu.

Such a climate attests to the timeliness of Dov Waxman’s book Trouble In The Tribe, which explores the way Israel has gone from one of the unifying pillars of American Jewish identity to perhaps the single most divisive issue in the community. For a newcomer to this conflict—that is, the many Americans who innocently and passively assume that American Jews support Israel on all issues all the time—Waxman has provided a useful overview. In a slender volume dense with data, he sweeps through history, theology, partisan politics, generational difference and other elements of the widening chasm. For anyone already familiar with the American Jewish fissures over Israel, however, “Trouble In The Tribe” largely amounts to a repurposing of existing secondary-source material.

The Trump-Netanyahu bromance, and the all-but-official embrace of the Republican Party by the prime minister during the Obama years, opened a vast amount of daylight between the current Israeli regime and the majority of American Jews. Three-quarters of them voted against Trump … 

There is very little original research here, whether in terms of quantitative social science or qualitative journalism. Other than several interviews with Israel advocates that Waxman conducted in 2011, he relies almost entirely on the opinion polling done by organizations such as the Pew Research Center, books by liberal American critics of Israel including J.J. Goldberg and Peter Beinart, and the vast amount of newspaper and magazine coverage of the subject.

In drawing on these sources, Waxman makes no secret of his own political views, which happen to coincide closely with mine. An Israel that under Netanyahu makes barely any pretense of seeking realistic peace terms with the Palestinians is an Israel that will estrange many American Jews—especially those younger than the baby boom cohort and those who are not Orthodox. In other words, Israel as now constituted stands to lose the allegiance of ever-greater numbers of American Jews.

In that respect, one has to give Netanyahu a certain perverse kind of credit. He has made the decision to build Israel’s American political base not primarily among Jews but among conservatives, meaning the Republican Party and the religious right. He all but formally endorsed Mitt Romney over Obama in the 2012 presidential race and he took up a GOP invitation to address Congress in 2015 as part of his all-out opposition to the Iran deal. Israeli and American Jewish leaders still habitually speak in terms of American Jewry being a “strategic asset” to Israel, and were there to be a genuinely existential war or terror assault along the lines of 1967, 1973, or the second Intifada, I have little doubt that a critical mass of American Jews would rally to Israel’s cause. But when the scenario is one of moribund peace talks, unending occupation, and volitional wars against Hamas, the American Jewish drift away from Israel seems likely to continue.

Waxman is at his best in providing some historical perspective for that recent alienation. As he points out, Israel has not always been a primary binding factor for American Jews. In terms of donations, immigration, and lobbying clout, Jews here warmed rather slowly to Israel in its first generation of existence. It took the 1967 war—with its risk of a second Holocaust and the lightning victory of the Israeli military—to abruptly increase all those elements of American Jewish attachment. And with the first Intifada in the late 1980s, one in which Israelis often played Goliath to the Palestinians’ David, American Jewish dissent from Israel reemerged. Though temporarily quelled by the horrors of the second Intifada with its suicide bombings of such civilian targets as a dance club and a Passover seder within sovereign Israel, American Jewish criticism of Israel reached new intensity during the toxic eight years when Netanyahu and Obama led their respective nations.

So, as Waxman points out, the seemingly longstanding and consensual norm of “Israel right or wrong” is actually a relatively short-lived and contested position. Similarly, he effectively calls into question the supposed omnipotence of AIPAC, the widely-used acronym for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The dominance of AIPAC is a myth eagerly adopted both by Israel advocates and anti-Israel conspiracy theorists. The reality is more complicated. While AIPAC is undeniably powerful in terms of organization and money—its recent policy conference drew 18,000 attendees, it has 100,000 dues-paying members, and its annual budget exceeds $65 million—it has also lost on some of its biggest battles. In defiance of AIPAC, Ronald Reagan sold AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, George H.W. Bush suspended loan guarantees in protest of settlement-building, and Barack Obama consummated the Iran nuclear agreement. For that matter, Yitzhak Rabin negotiated and executed the Oslo accords in the face of tepid tolerance for the peace process by AIPAC.

As Waxman points out, the seemingly longstanding and consensual norm of “Israel right or wrong” is actually a relatively short-lived and contested position. Similarly, he effectively calls into question the supposed omnipotence of AIPAC, the widely-used acronym for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The organizational alternatives to AIPAC, as Waxman notes, started with Breira, a group composed mostly of young, left-wing Jews, in the early 1970s. The emergence of  Shalom Achshav (Hebrew for “Peace Now”) within Israel in response to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and particularly the Israeli army’s complicity in the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, inspired formation of Americans for Peace Now. Most significantly, J Street arose in the early 2000s as a self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” alternative to the increasingly Orthodox, conservative, and bellicose AIPAC. Indeed, the determined efforts by American Jewish establishment to marginalize J Street have had the opposite effect, making it the address of choice for liberal Zionists.

Far from the dismissive stereotype, Israel’s American Jewish critics are neither self-hating nor ignorant of the issues. In fact, as Waxman shows, such dissent grew more common in the years when American Jewry became more familiar with actually-existing Israel rather than Israel of the romantic legend, thanks to affordable tourism, access to English-language Israeli media, and the proliferation of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies courses at American colleges.

It would be far easier for Netanyahu and his political allies if indeed American Jewish critics were detached from Israel. They could be more readily dispatched. Yet, as a recent article in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out, even one of Israel’s most severe foes among American Jews is intimately attached to the country. Rebecca Vilkomerson, the leader of the pro-boycott, anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace, is married to an Israeli, lived there for three years, and visits there annually. She even has relatives in the West Bank settlements.

It would be far easier for Netanyahu and his political allies if indeed American Jewish critics were detached from Israel. They could be more readily dispatched. Yet, as a recent article in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz pointed out, even one of Israel’s most severe foes among American Jews is intimately attached to the country.

The counterpoint to American Jewish liberals and radicals is the fast-growing and increasingly sophisticated population of Orthodox Jews here. As Waxman indicates, these Jews are far more likely than the non-Orthodox to study in, repeatedly visit, and have friends and relatives in Israel. Moreover, for both theological and political reasons, they largely support the concept of “Greater Israel” that includes “Judea and Samaria”—in other words, the occupation of the West Bank. And on American domestic issues, the Orthodox do share the social conservative positions of the Christian Right on issues from school vouchers to same-sex marriage.

Waxman should have devoted more time and space to exploring the development of the three-way political partnership between the Israeli right, the Republican Party, and American Orthodox Jewry. That configuration defines Israel advocacy, and it does so to the peril of the American Jewish unity and bipartisan Washington support that Israel has traditionally cultivated and counted upon.

“To be sure,” Waxman writes, (213) “there will probably still be times when many, perhaps most, American Jews will come together to support Israel—when it is under violent attack by its enemies—but these occasions will be fleeting. The more normal and enduring state of affairs will be American Jewish division, not unity, over Israel.”

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