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Examining the Increasingly Troubled Relationship between American Jews and Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2016

Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel  
By Dov Waxman,  
Princeton University Press,  
316 Pages, $29.95  
American Jewish opinion concerning Israel is increasingly divided. The fact  
that non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are not recognized means that Reform  
and Conservative Jews have fewer rights in Israel than anyplace in the  
Western world. Israel’s nearly 50 year occupation of the West Bank and East  
Jerusalem sharply divides American Jewish opinion. The nuclear agreement  
with Iran was opposed by leading organizations which promote themselves as  
speaking for American Jews while the vast majority of American Jews  
supported the agreement, and most Jewish members of Congress voted to  
approve it. While Jewish religious bodies proclaim that Israel is “central”  
to Judaism, American Jewish opinion seems to challenge this understanding.  
“There are really two Jewish Americans,” the journalist Peter Beinart has  
written. “One is older, more Republican, more Orthodox and more interested  
in shielding Israel from external pressure than pressuring a two-state  
solution. The other is younger, more secular, less tribal, overwhelmingly  
Democratic, less institutionally affiliated and more troubled by Israel’s  
Polls show that only a quarter of Jews aged 18-29 (compared to 43% of those  
over 50) believe that the government of Israel is making a sincere effort to  
make peace with the Palestinians. A quarter of young Jewish Americans  
(compared to 5% of their elders) say U.S. support for Israel is excessive.  
In his book, Trouble In The Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,  
Professor Dov Waxman of Northeastern University, argues that for younger,  
non-Orthodox American Jews, who have grown up in a country in which Jews are  
powerful and privileged, and have married non-Jews in large numbers,  
solidarity with Israel and an “us versus them” worldview has diminished  
drastically. Indeed, only 30% of them think that “caring about Israel is  
essential to being Jewish.”  
Age of Unquestioning Support Is Over  
According to Waxman, his book’s central thesis is “that a historic change  
has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel. The  
age of unquestioning and unstinting support for Israel is over. The pro-  
Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding, and Israel is  
fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry … A  
new era of American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the old era of  
solidarity. In short, Israel used to bring American Jews together. Now it is  
driving them apart.”  
The depiction of American Jews as a monolithic lobby or voting bloc  
committed to promoting Israel, Waxman argues, is wrong: “While this is  
certainly true of some American Jews, for others Israel may be a distant  
concern, or an object of sharp criticism. The consensus about Israel that  
prevailed … in the 1960s and 1970s has long since disappeared. Instead,  
there is now a rancorous and divisive debate pitting left against right,  
critics against defenders of Israeli government policies. Jews against  
It is difficult for American Jews not to have an opinion about Israel and  
its policies and claims. “Since Israel claims to speak and act in their  
name, not only on behalf of its own citizens, it is almost impossible for  
Diaspora Jews to ignore Israel, even if they wanted to,” states Waxman.  
The relationship between American Jews and Israel, Waxman shows, “… is  
primarily driven by American Jewish needs and desires … Israel is an  
‘imaginary homeland’ for American Jews — ‘imaginary’ not just because it is  
not their actual home, but also because it exists primarily in their  
imagination. American Jewish attachment to Israel is based upon an  
imaginary, not real, Israel. Few of them know much about, let alone  
experience, the real Israel, even if they do visit the country (which most  
have not). For most American Jews, Israel has been more of a mythic land  
than an actual place. It functions, therefore, as a kind of screen on which  
American Jews may project their hopes, fantasies, and fears.”  
Division over Zionism  
Division about Zionism in the American Jewish community, Waxman points out,  
is nothing new. The current debate, he notes, “… echoes earlier debates  
about Zionism that occurred before 1948. Then, as now, there were fierce  
disagreements among American Jews and the American Jewish establishment … It  
was only after Israel’s founding that the communal consensus came to  
dominate American Jewish politics. Thus, from a historical perspective, the  
pro-Israel consensus that once reigned within the American Jewish community  
is the aberration, rather than the rule. Jewish division on Israel is  
historically the norm.”  
The author would have done well to explore the prophetic vision of those  
within the American Jewish community who sharply criticized Zionism from the  
start. In 1885, a group of Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and wrote an  
eight point platform. It emphasized that Reform Judaism denied nationalism  
in any variety. It stated: “We recognize in the era of a universal culture  
of heart and intellect, the approaching of Israel’s great Messianic hope for  
the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men.  
We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and  
therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor a sacrificial worship  
under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning  
the Jewish state.”  
In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution  
disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution  
stated: “Zion was a precious possession of the past … as such it is a holy  
memory, but it is not our hope for the future. America is our Zion.” In  
1904, “The American Israelite,” edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader  
of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century, noted: “There is not one  
solitary prominent native Jewish American who is an advocate of Zionism.”  
Jews Are Not a Nation  
In a speech to the Menorah Society Dinner in New York City in December 1917,  
Chief Judge of the New York State Supreme Court Irving Lehman, brother of  
Governor Herbert Lehman of New York, stated: “I cannot recognize that the  
Jews as such constitute a nation in any sense in which the word is  
recognized in political science, or that a national basis is a possible  
concept for modern Judaism. We Jews in America, bound to the Jews of other  
lands by our common faith, constituting our common inheritance, cannot as  
American citizens feel any bond to them as members of a nation, for  
nationally we are Americans and Americans only, and in all political and  
civic matters we cannot recognize any other ties. We must therefore look for  
the maintenance of Judaism to those spiritual concepts which constitute  
When Zionists urged President Woodrow Wilson to embrace the idea of a Jewish  
state in Palestine after World War I, in 1919 a petition was presented to  
Wilson entitled “A Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the  
dominant American Jewish position on Zionism and Palestine. It criticized  
Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political unit … in Palestine or  
elsewhere” and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of  
any state upon the basis of religion or race. The petition asserted that the  
“overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland,  
Switzerland and the other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of  
surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a  
‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine.”  
Among those signing were Rep. Julius Klein of California, Henry Morganthau,  
Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Simon Rosendale, former Attorney  
General of New York, Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston Texas, E.M. Baker,  
president of the New York Stock Exchange, Jesse L. Strauss, president of  
Macy’s, and New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs.  
Establishment of American Council for Judaism  
As Reform Judaism embraced the Zionist idea in the wake of the rise of  
Hitler, the American Council for Judaism was established in 1942, to  
maintain the older idea of a universal, prophetic Judaism shorn of  
nationalism. It proclaimed that Judaism was a religion of universal values,  
not a nationality. American Jews, it declared, were American by nationality  
and Jews by religion, just as other Americans were Catholic, Protestant or  
Muslim. In his keynote address to the Council’s June 1942 meeting in  
Atlantic City, Rabbi David Philipson declared that Reform Judaism is  
religious while Zionism is political: “The outlook of Reform Judaism is the  
world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of eastern Asia.”  
An early leader of the Council, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who served from 1915  
to 1946 as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was originally a  
supporter of cultural Zionism but later altered his views. Slowly, he  
discovered that Zionist nationalism was not different from other forms of  
nationalism. He said: “… Behind the mask of Jewish sentiment, one can see  
the specter of the foul thing which moves Germany and Italy. Behind the  
camouflage of its unquestioned appeal to Jewish feeling, one can hear a  
chorus of ‘Heil.’ This is not for Jews — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”  
Speaking in 1937 at the annual convention of the Union of American Hebrew  
Congregations in New Orleans, Lazaron declared: “Judaism cannot accept as  
the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy of nationalism which is  
leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German,  
but accept it as Jewish?”  
One of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century,  
Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  
for civil rights for all people, said: “Judaism is not a religion of space  
and does not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the  
climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people  
and the competence of Israel.”  
“The mirage of Jewish nationalism”  
It was not only among American Jews that Zionism had little appeal. In  
response to Theodor Herzl’s plea for a Jewish state, enunciated at the First  
Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland in August, 1897, the chief rabbi  
of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, criticized what he called “the mirage of Jewish  
nationalism.” He declared that, “Belief in one God is the unifying factor  
for Jews,” and that Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teachings. “The  
Jewish Chronicle” of London judged that the Zionist scheme’s lack of  
religious perspective rendered it “cold and comparatively uninviting.”  
Adolf Jellinek, who became the greatest Jewish preacher of his age and a  
standard bearer of Jewish liberalism from his position as rabbi at the  
Leopoldstadt Temple in Vienna, deplored the creation of what he called “a  
small state like Serbia or Romania, outside Europe, which would most likely  
become the plaything of one Great Power against another, and whose future  
would be very uncertain.” He argued that, “Almost all Jews in Europe would  
vote against the scheme if they were given the opportunity. We are at home  
in Europe and feel ourselves to be children of the lands in which we were  
born, raised and educated, whose languages we speak and whose cultures  
constitute our intellectual substance.”  
Indeed, prior to the mid-20th century, the overwhelming majority of all Jews  
rejected Zionism. In 1929, Orthodox rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that  
the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was “a  
contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.” He declared: “Judaism at root  
is not some religious concentration which can be localized or situated in a  
single territory. Neither is Judaism a ‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern  
nationalism, fit to be woven into the three-foldedness of ‘homeland, army  
and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics, and exaltation of spirit.  
If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any  
particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah, ‘Its measure is  
greater than the earth.”  
Ethical Monotheism Is Core of Judaism  
The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the  
distinguished rabbi and scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), argued that  
Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s  
revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new  
truth became available to every generation. The underlying and unchangeable  
essence of Judaism was its morality. The core of Judaism was ethical  
monotheism. The Jewish people were a religious community, destined to carry  
on the mission to “to serve as a light to the nations,” to bear witness to  
God and his moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for  
their sins, but a part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the  
universal message of ethical monotheism. Geiger deleted all prayers about a  
return to Zion in a Reform prayerbook he edited in 1854.  
In the years after Israel’s creation in 1948, the organized American Jewish  
community embraced it, with dissenters largely ostracized. But, Dov Waxman  
points out, the overwhelming majority of American Jews, while supporting  
Israel and wishing it well, were never really Zionists. He writes that,  
“Classical Zionism … has never had much relevance or appeal to American  
Jewry. Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews reject the basic tenets of  
classical Zionism — that Diaspora Jews live in exile, that Jewish life in  
Israel is superior to life in the Diaspora, and that Diaspora Jewish life is  
doomed to eventually disappear. American Jews do not think that they live in  
exile and they do not regard Israel as their homeland (except in so far as  
they might believe that it is the place from which their distant ancestors  
In 1950, Jacob Blaustein, the president of the American Jewish Committee,  
wrote in a famous “exchange of views” with David Ben-Gurion: “American Jews  
vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile.  
American Jews — young and old alike, Zionists and non-Zionists alike — are  
profoundly attached to America … To American Jews, America is home.”  
America as a Kind of Zion  
Indeed, writes Waxman, “For many American Jews, America is more than just  
home; it is itself a kind of Zion, an ‘almost promised land.’ The United  
States is not just an alternative to Zion, but in many respects an  
alternative Zion. Zionism has never succeeded in winning over the majority  
of American Jews. From its establishment in 1898 right up until World War  
II, the American Zionist movement failed to gain mass support among American  
Jews, and encountered a lot of resistance from the … leadership of American  
Jewry who were concerned that Zionism might jeopardize the position of  
American Jews by calling their national allegiance into question. Throughout  
this period anti-Zionism was a widely held and respectable opinion within  
the American Jewish community (a fact that has been largely erased from the  
collective memory of American Jewry).”  
In order for Zionism to gain support in the U.S., it was fundamentally  
reformulated. Louis Brandeis, then a Boston lawyer, later a Supreme Court  
justice, was the leader of the Federation of American Zionists from 1914-  
1921. He set forth the idea that Zionism was the solution for European Jews  
who faced persecution, not for American Jews who were at home in the United  
States. Instead of urging American Jews to move to Palestine, then and now  
an intrinsic ingredient of Zionist philosophy, he merely encouraged them to  
philanthropically support the efforts of Jewish pioneers there. Neither  
Brandeis nor other Zionist leaders expressed any awareness of the indigenous  
population of Palestine or of what its fate would be in the future.  
In Waxman’s view, the focus on Israel on the part of America’s Jewish  
establishment really dates to the 1967 war. He notes that, “Israel also  
became an ‘object of secular veneration’ for many American Jews, the  
centerpiece of what Jonathan Woocher termed ‘the new civil religion of  
American Jews.’ So intense was the devotion to Israel among American Jews  
during this time that it was characterized by David Elazar as  
‘Israelolatry,’ implying that it was a kind of idolatry. This Israelolatry  
was marked by unequivocal popular support for Israel, near total unanimity  
of opinion concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict (according to which Israel  
was the innocent victim of Arab animosity and aggression) and a massive  
grassroots mobilization in Israel’s behalf.  
Love Affair with Israel Is Short-Lived  
If American Jews fell in love with Israel during the 1960s and early 1970s,  
it is Waxman’s view that by the end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s,  
this support was wearing off: “The American Jewish love affair with Israel  
was short-lived, lasting only about ten years. What followed it was not so  
much disaffection, but disillusionment and dissent over Israeli government  
policies … For more than three decades, the American Jewish relationship  
with Israel has been marked more by ambivalence, unease, and an almost  
constant chorus of criticism than unequivocal support.”  
Under right-wing Likud governments, Israel became a different kind of place  
than the one most American Jews imagined it to be. “Of particular concern,”  
writes Waxman, “was Likud’s settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza  
Strip, which seemed aimed at preventing the possibility of any kind of  
territorial compromise in the future… A turning point in American Jewish  
attitudes to Israel came following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June  
1982. At first, most American Jews supported the war in Lebanon … But this  
quickly changed in the wake of the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian  
civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut by Israel’s  
Lebanese Christian Phalangist allies … The Sabra and Shatila massacre was a  
watershed in American Jewish attitudes to Israel, as it undermined their  
idealized image.…”  
The first Palestinian intifada, which began in December 1987 and lasted  
until 1991, generated an unprecedented amount of American Jewish criticism  
of Israel, as well as international condemnation. The largely nonviolent  
mass uprising met a harsh crackdown. Albert Vorspan, one of the lay leaders  
of Reform Judaism, expressed the disillusionment many American Jews were  
expressing at the time: “Beyond any issue in recent years, American Jews are  
traumatized by events in Israel. This is the downside of the euphoric mood  
after the Six Day War when we felt 10 feet tall. Now, suffering under the  
shame and stress of pictures of Israel’s brutality televised nightly, we  
want to crawl into a hole. This is the price we pay for having made of  
Israel an icon — a surrogate faith, surrogate synagogue, surrogate God.  
Israel could not withstand our romantic idealization … Now Israel reveals  
itself, a nation like all others.”  
“Israel. Right or Wrong”  
The organized American Jewish community, however, continued to adopt an  
“Israel, right or wrong” philosophy and sought to censor, or silence,  
critics. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a Conservative rabbi and scholar, wrote in  
1979: “One can no longer be excommunicated in Modern America for not  
believing in God, for living totally outside of the tradition, or even for  
marrying out. Instead, a new heresy had now emerged to mark the boundaries  
of legitimate Jewish identity, the heresy of opposition to Israel and  
Zionism.” Jews who spoke out against Israel’s behavior could find themselves  
ostracized and stigmatized as ‘self-hating’ Jews (a charge that is  
tantamount to calling them anti-Semitic). Thus, though there were always  
some critical voices within the Jewish community, dissent was largely  
In the aftermath of the 1973 war, a group was formed called “Breira (meaning  
‘alternative’ in Hebrew): A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel  
Relations.” This, writes Waxman, “was a completely new phenomenon — a Jewish  
and explicitly Zionist organization that claimed to support Israel. But was  
also strongly critical of its policies … Breira called for the establishment  
of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories (both major political  
parties in Israel at the time opposed this) and even more controversially,  
it called for Israel to negotiate with the PLO … Breira broke the taboo on  
public criticism of Israel within the American Jewish community … It  
directly challenged the organized American Jewish community, accusing its  
leadership of muzzling communal debate over Israeli policies, and called for  
‘the creation of a grass-roots democratic structure for American Jewry.”  
The organized Jewish community moved quickly to destroy Breira. Its members  
were removed from boards of local Jewish Federations, rabbis identified with  
Breira were fired, and Breira members working for Jewish organizations like  
B’nai B’rith were pressured by their employers and faced with the threat  
that they could lose their jobs if they continued their activities. The  
group was forced to disband after its first and only national conference in  
March 1977. Breira had about 1,500 members and nearly one hundred  
Conservative and Reform rabbis on its advisory council, which was chaired by  
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, the director of the Yale University Hillel Society.  
It included such prominent rabbis as Eugene Borowitz, Everett Gendler and  
Balfour Brickner and had the support of prominent intellectuals such as  
Irving Howe and Nathan Glazer.  
From the Heart of the Jewish Community  
Dov Waxman provides this assessment: “Although Breira was small, it was not  
a marginal, fringe organization. It came from the heart of the American  
Jewish community and, as such, it threatened to overturn the status quo and  
legitimize Jewish dissent about Israel at a time when such dissent was still  
forbidden in mainstream Jewish circles. Breira’s members could not easily be  
dismissed as ‘self-hating Jews,’ and their active roles and prominent  
positions in the organized Jewish community meant that they were well placed  
to spread their dissenting opinions to other American Jews.”  
By the 1980s, a host of liberal Jewish groups emerged, such as New Jewish  
Agenda, Americans for Peace Now, Project Nishma and the Jewish Peace Lobby.  
More recently, groups such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace have  
emerged, and have attracted much support. Established in 2008, J Street, by  
2013, had around 180,000 registered supporters, 20,000 donors and over 45  
local chapters. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was established in Berkeley,  
California in 1996. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) publicly listed JVP as  
one of the “ten most influential anti-Israel groups” in the U.S.  
Efforts to prevent Jews who are in any way critical of Israel from speaking  
at Jewish events continue to be widespread. The organized Jewish community  
seems prepared to continue to promote the illusion that American Jews  
overwhelmingly support Israel and its government’s policies. In November  
2010, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami’s scheduled speaking appearance at a  
Reform synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts was cancelled because of pressure  
from right-wing members of the congregation. In November 2012, journalist  
Peter Beinart was disinvited by the organizers of a Jewish book festival  
held in the Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, reportedly after complaints  
from some of its members. Even individuals who have been invited to speak or  
perform in Jewish venues, and where opinions about Israel have nothing to do  
with their talks or performances, have had their invitations rescinded  
because of critical statements they have made about Israel or Zionism. In  
January 2014, David Harris-Gershon, author of a memoir about his response to  
his wife’s injury in a Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel was disinvited  
by the Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C. because of comments he  
had made in a blog post that were deemed to be supportive of boycotting  
Israel. The performance of a Jewish feminist rock group at a music festival  
organized by the Washington, D.C. JCC was also cancelled because its lead  
singer was critical of Zionism.  
Censorship in the Jewish Community  
Pages can be filled with examples of censorship within the organized Jewish  
community. In July 2009, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco  
issued guidelines about the kind of “Israel-Related-Programming” it would  
fund. It would not provide funding to any group that has programs about  
Israel that “undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel” or any group  
that co-sponsors programs with groups that undermine Israel’s legitimacy.  
What these guidelines mean is not defined. Writing in The Forward, Alan  
Snitow and Deborah Kaufman charged that these guidelines would have “a  
chilling effect on the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish community.”  
In the fall of 2013, a group of right-wing Zionist activists waged a public  
campaign to stop the Washington, D.C. JCC’s Theater J from performing the  
play The Admission by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. The play deals  
with claims that Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre of Arab civilians  
in the village of Tantura during the 1948 war. The scheduled performance of  
the play was canceled and replaced with a workshop about it. The next year,  
the JCC canceled Theater J’s annual Voices from a Changing Middle East,  
which had previously staged plays that were critical of Israel. After  
issuing a statement criticizing censorship at Theater J, its longtime  
artistic director Ari Roth, a celebrated figure in local theater, was fired.  
In 2010, Hillel International, the organization that oversees Jewish student  
life on college campuses, issued guidelines similar to those issued in San  
Francisco. Among other things, the Hillel guidelines barred Jewish student  
groups from cosponsoring events or conducting activities with Palestinian  
student organizations, since most supports boycotts of Israel. This led the  
Hillel at Harvard University to pull out of hosting a planned talk by  
Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset and former chairman of the  
Jewish Agency, because a pro-Palestinian group at Harvard was involved in  
sponsoring the event. “The ambiguity of Hillel’s guidelines,” writes Waxman,  
“what, for instance, constitutes ‘demonizing Israel’ or applying a ‘double  
standard’ to it — has also made it harder for some campus Hillels to host  
speakers from the left-wing Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, since it was  
accused of being ‘anti-Israel.’ It even became problematic to screen Israeli  
films that are critical of the Occupation, such as the Oscar-nominated  
documentaries Five Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers.”  
Efforts to Silence Critics Have Backfired  
The Jewish establishment’s efforts to silence dissenting views have  
backfired. A group of Harvard students started a campaign called “Open  
Hillel” and distributed an online petition, signed by more than 1,200 Jewish  
students, calling upon Hillel’s leadership to change its Israel guidelines.  
In December 2011, the Hillel chapter at Swarthmore College declared itself  
an “Open Hillel,” and announced that it would not abide by Hillel’s  
guidelines. Open Hillel chapters have formed on other campuses and in  
October 2014 the first Open Hillel conference was held at Harvard. They  
heard from prominent critics of Israel such as Judith Butler and Rashid  
Khalidi, who are prohibited from speaking in Hillels and other mainstream  
Jewish venues.  
It is Waxman’s view that the American Jewish establishment “only represents  
a small segment of American Jewry, which is more right-wing and religious  
than the majority of American Jews. Most American Jews, especially younger  
ones, are largely, if not entirely, disconnected from the American Jewish  
establishment, and thus effectively disenfranchised … Social, cultural,  
economic, and technological changes within the Jewish community and the U.S.  
in general … threaten the very survival of the American Jewish  
establishment, and by extension, its ability to represent and collectively  
mobilize the Jewish community.”  
What makes the American Jewish establishment especially subject to  
criticism, declares Waxman, “is the fact that its leadership is not elected  
by the American Jewish community. At best, only a handful of American Jews  
get to vote on the leadership of Jewish organizations, and even when  
elections do take place they are rarely competitive. Most of the leaders of  
the most prominent organizations … are unelected and some have been in place  
for decades (Abraham Foxman, for instance, headed the ADL for 28 years  
before his retirement in 2015, and David Harris has been in charge of the  
American Jewish Committee for more than 25 years). The organized American  
Jewish community is not a democracy. It is run by an oligarchy.”  
Cultural Creativity, Spirituality and Social Justice  
While the organized Jewish community has focused its attention on supporting  
Israel and fighting anti-Semitism, younger American Jews, Waxman reports,  
“are more concerned with cultural creativity, spirituality, social justice  
and the environment than with Israel and anti-Semitism. A generational  
divide … is at the heart of the estrangement of young American Jews from the  
Jewish establishment … While younger Jews mostly steer clear of Jewish  
establishment organizations, they have flocked toward Jewish social justice  
and environmental groups (such as American Jewish World Service, Bend the  
Arc, Avodah, and Hazon) … The Jewish establishment can no longer  
legitimately claim to express a communal consensus over Israel since that  
consensus is unraveling.”  
For more and more non-Orthodox Jews, especially younger ones, Judaism and  
Jewishness is a source of personal meaning and spirituality. Being Jewish,  
for them, is a matter of personal choice and they define their Jewish  
identities and Judaism itself in their own individual ways. “More than ever  
before,” writes Waxman, “non-Orthodox Jews are choosing not only whether  
they want to be Jewish or not, but also the content and meaning of their  
Jewishness … They are becoming less committed to what is known as ‘Jewish  
peoplehood.’ … American Judaism itself is becoming ‘post-ethnic’ in the  
context of a wider multicultural and multiracial society.… For younger, non-  
Orthodox Jews … their Jewish identity is just one of their many identities,  
with the whole concept of ‘Jewish peoplehood’ seeming to many of them too  
tribal and exclusivist, even racist … Since they do not see the world as  
such a threatening and hostile place for Jews, they are much less inclined  
to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Jews and non-Jews), as older  
generations of Jews have done.”  
Among the reasons for the decline of “Jewish peoplehood” among non-Orthodox  
Jews, Waxman notes, “is surely the simple fact that so many of them are  
intermarried or the children of intermarried couples.” Since the early  
1970s, intermarriage rates among American Jews rose from less than 20 per  
cent to almost 60 per cent between 2005 and 2013, according to the Pew  
survey. Among non-Orthodox Jews it is even higher, at 71 per cent. Nearly  
half of Jewish “millennials,” those born after 1980, have one Jewish parent.  
Sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman write that, “Intermarriage  
represents and advances more open and fluid group boundaries along with a  
commensurate drop in Jewish tribalism, collective Jewish identity and Jewish  
Peoplehood.” They argue that increasing intermarriage is largely responsible  
for undermining American Jewish attachment to Israel, especially among the  
Partisan Divide over Israel  
Supporting Israel may, in the future, become merely an Orthodox cause, not  
one that unites most American Jews. Waxman believes that this will have an  
impact on U.S. Government support for Israel, “… as it would exacerbate the  
partisan divide over Israel that is already developing. Since Orthodox Jews  
tend to support the Republican Party (as do evangelical Christians, who are  
also staunch supporters of Israel), supporting Israel could become a  
Republican cause, and no longer a bipartisan one … The potential erosion of  
support for Israel among non-Orthodox American Jews is thus ultimately a  
long-term threat to U.S. Government support for Israel.”  
A particular challenge to the Jewish community at the present time, declares  
Waxman, “is the incivility and intolerance that frequently accompanies the  
debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some local Jewish  
communities, this debate has become so nasty that a moratorium on talking  
about Israel has effectively been put into place … .There is a pervasive  
atmosphere of trepidation, even intimidation, within the organized American  
Jewish community today when it comes to Israel … Such intolerance … only  
serves to alienate a younger generation of American Jews, who are more  
critical of Israel and less interested in joining the organized Jewish  
community. If their views are ignored and their voices silenced, they will  
simply walk away from the organized Jewish community, as many have already  
In the end, Waxman states, “Censorship, red lines and blacklists cannot put  
the proverbial genie back in the bottle … The days when Israeli governments  
could count on the unequivocal support of American Jews are long gone … Even  
leaders of American Jewish establishment organizations have become  
frustrated by what is widely perceived to be the tendency of Israeli  
governments to ignore American Jewish concerns and feelings … American  
policymakers must remember that no single group speaks on behalf of American  
Jews … just as most American Jews have come to believe that one can care  
about Israel and criticize its policies, so too should American policymakers  
… It is hard to believe that any Israeli government, including the present  
one, is completely immune to criticism, and that an increase in this  
criticism, by American Jews and others, will not eventually encourage, if  
not compel, Israeli policymakers to alter Israel’s present course. If that  
happens, then the American Jewish conflict over Israel, though divisive and  
often acrimonious, may turn out to have been productive.”  
Impossible to Have an Honest Discussion  
Dov Waxman has been harshly criticized for his analysis. Responding to  
critics in an article in The Forward (June 20, 2016), he writes: “Instead of  
addressing the claims and evidence I actually present, these critics have  
misrepresented my arguments or even deliberately distorted them. They have  
also resorted to ad hominem attacks. I have been accused of being a self-  
hating Jew … Sadly, the American Jewish conversation about Israel has not  
only become argumentative and angry … It has become a dialogue of the deaf.  
Nowadays, it seems impossible to have an honest, non-politicized discussion  
of Israel … Rather than address the real challenges facing American Jews and  
Israel today, it’s easier to simply shoot the messenger.”  
Shooting the messenger does not alter the importance — or accuracy — of the  
message. By any standard, this book is essential reading for an  
understanding the growing divisions within the American Jewish community  
about Israel. Zionism is in retreat and, as Waxman shows, never really  
enjoyed the widespread support is advocates claimed. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.