It is becoming increasingly clear to more and more thoughtful American Jews that blind support for Israeli policies–”whatever they may be–”is imperiling Judaism’s moral integrity.
There can be little doubt that those organizations which claim to speak for American Jews in fact represent only themselves. American Jewish opinion is more sharply divided than ever before.
A front-page article in the May 6, 2010 New York Times carried the headline, "On Israel, U.S. Jews Have Divergent Views, Often Parting From Leaders."
The article’s author, Paul Vitello, wrote that "…the recent tension between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over the stalled Middle East peace process…has raised serious questions about whether the traditional leadership of the American Jewish world is fully supported by the mass of American Jews."
Establishment organizations such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations criticized the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel and even accused the White House of sabotaging Israel’s very foundations. In a videotaped statement, former New York City Mayor Edward Koch addressed an angry crowd outside the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan, declaring that President Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem was nothing less than an orchestrated effort "to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel."
At the same time, however, other Jewish voices increasingly are being heard. "Most Jews have mixed feelings about Israel," Rabbi Tamara Kelton of the Birmingham Temple, a secular humanistic congregation in Farmington Hills, Michigan, noted. "They support Israel, but it’s complicated. Until now, you never heard from those people. You heard only from the organized ones who are l00 percent certain: ‘we’re right, they’re wrong.’"
States Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of the Washington, DC lobby J Street, the latest of several organizations representing the voice of liberal Jews who support Israel but not all of its policies: "People are tired of being told that you are either with us or against us. The majority of American Jews support the president, support the two-state solution and do not feel that they have been well represented by the organizations that demand obedience to every wish of the Israeli government. If you had taken their word for it, Obama should have gotten 12 percent of the Jewish vote. But he got 80. That should say something."
In an important article in the June 10, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books titled "The Failure Of The American Jewish Establishment," Peter Beinart, associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote: "Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world…And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generation, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster–”indeed, have actively opposed–”a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead."
Rather than fostering free and open discussion, Beinart pointed out, the organized American Jewish community has sought to stifle it: "In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups….The Conference of Presidents has announced that ‘biased NGOs include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, and Save the Children.’ Last summer, an AIPAC spokesman declared that Human Rights Watch ‘has repeatedly demonstrated its anti-Israel bias’…Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not infallible. But when groups like AIPAC and the Presidents Conference avoid virtually all public criticism of Israeli actions–”directing their outrage solely at Israel’s neighbors–”they leave themselves in a poor position to charge bias."
Beinart, whose family attends an Orthodox synagogue, lamented that, "This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemma you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Binyamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood–”a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967–”strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce."
Recently, leaders of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco learned that one of the film groups it supported had sponsored the screening of "Rachel," an Israeli documentary about Rachel Corrie, an American woman killed in Gaza, and critical of Israel’s security forces. They adopted new rules early this year prohibiting any of the cultural organizations it supports from presenting programs that "undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel."
This, in turn, produced a strong response, in the form of "An Open Letter To All Jewish Communities," which appeared as an advertisement in the May 7, 2010 issue of The Forward. The letter declared: "…our usually liberal community has set a dangerous precedent that may affect the range of American Jewish voices on issues concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict…In the interest of human rights and civil liberties for all people, we strongly advocate unfettered freedom of speech, open-minded public education, respectful discussion, and willingness to engage in that time-honored Jewish tradition of fruitful debate and meaningful dialogue. The Jewish community is riven by a fateful debate over the future of Israeli democracy and the occupation of Palestinian lands. Attempting to curtail that debate will only drive it into the shadows, where it will become ever more extreme."
Among those signing this letter were Profs. Robert Alter of the University of California at Berkeley, Joel Beinin of Stanford University, David Biale of the University of California at Davis, and Naomi Seidman of the Graduate Theological Union, filmmaker Alan Snitow, author Paul Kivel, Rabbi Lavey Derby and a host of others.
Dueling full-page ads concerning Jerusalem are another indication of the depth of division within the Jewish community. In April, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel published an ad in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The International Herald Tribune calling upon the U.S. to stop pressuring Israel over Jerusalem in an effort to move Palestinians to the peace table. In response, J Street placed full page ads in Jewish weekly newspapers containing a statement by former Israeli cabinet minister and political commentator Yossi Sarid.
Addressing Wiesel, Sarid wrote: "I read the beautiful open letter you penned…From it I learned that you know much more about heavenly Jerusalem, but less about its counterpart here on earth. An outsider reading your letter would probably have concluded that peace has already taken root in the City of Peace. He would learn that in Jerusalem, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship their gods unimpeded, that ‘all are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.’ Someone has deceived you, my dear friend. Not only may an Arab not build ‘anywhere,’ but he may thank his god if he is not evicted from his home and thrown onto the street with his family and property. Perhaps you’ve heard about Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah, having lived there since 1948, who are again being uprooted and made refugees because certain Jews are chafing from Jerusalem’s space restraints."
Blind support for Israel’s policies of occupation, argues Prof. Tony Judt of New York University, an active Zionist in his youth, has eroded Judaism’s moral position. Writing in the May/June 2010 issue of Tikkun, he declared that, "If there is one cast-iron law of history, it is probably that occupations and other forms of colonial rule are sooner or later resisted, and when that point comes, the occupier has a straight-forward choice between leaving and allowing the native population to exercise its independence and self-determination–”or staying. When the time came, Israel made the disastrous decision to stay. The rest was predictable."
Referring to those American Jewish groups which have supported whatever Israeli governments have chosen to do, Judt asked: "How…does a reputedly intelligent people, with traditionally strong humanistic values, manage constantly to delude itself about what is going on, what lies in store and what needs to be done? And how has it allowed the Jewish Star of David, and by implication the Jewish religion and Jewish people, to become associated in the eyes of growing numbers of people with repression?"
As we move further into the 21st century, American Judaism stands at a crossroads. It must decide what it wants to be. Shall it be a thoughtful religion, giving meaning and purpose to the lives of its adherents and having an influence for good upon our larger American society? Or will it become an inward-looking group focused upon the notion of Jewish "ethnicity" and dedicating itself to advancing the interests of the State of Israel, whatever that state may do? Is it to be part of our religious community, or is to be part of the foreign policy establishment?
The majority of American Jews appear increasingly alienated from the groups which speak in their name. They reject the Zionist idea and share the philosophy proclaimed as early as 1841 at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Olohim in Charleston, South Carolina, at which Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared: "This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple." In its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, American Reform Judaism declared: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community."
The growing politicization of Judaism has alienated increasing numbers of American Jews, in particular in the younger generation. Its moral integrity is under attack. Surely, now is the time to take stock and change course.