Trouble in the Tribe:
The American Jewish Conflict over Israel
Princeton University Press
2016, pp. 328, $29.95
A Decades-Long Divorce
by Jay Michaelson
If you ever want to convince someone not to be Jewish, invite them to an argument over Israel. The rancor, the ignorance, the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism—there’s a reason the topic is often banned from polite conversation: The conversation is rarely polite.
How did we get to this point, where what was once a uniting force is now so divisive?
Longtime Middle East politics expert and Northeastern University professor Dov Waxman attempts to tell us in his new volume Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (too jocular a title for such an important, depressing book). He has succeeded, but has also managed to surprise this bruised, cynical veteran of the “conflict” (I play a bit part in the book) several times—and to make me even more pessimistic about it.
As a primer on the American Jewish machloket (argument) over Israel, Trouble in the Tribe is extremely useful. Its data is copious but skimmable; its charts are handy; its perspective mostly balanced. (Waxman tilts a bit leftward at times, but center-left.) It is an excellent guide for the perplexed.
I suspect that most Moment readers are familiar with the basic contours of the debate, so I’m going to skip to the surprising parts.
Here’s one: Most American Jews aren’t Zionists. Of course, an overwhelming majority supports the State of Israel, but American Jews don’t see themselves as living in exile, don’t see Israel as their primary home and don’t have any real understanding of Zionist ideology per se. They are powerfully attached to the Jewish state, but for tribal, sentimental and religious reasons, not ideological ones.
Moreover, Waxman shows that the love affair between American Jews and Israel is, itself, mostly myth. Waxman shows how little Israel mattered—prior to 1967—to a postwar American Jewish populace struggling to make it here at home. And today, fewer than one-third of non-Orthodox American Jews believe that “caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.”
In fact, Waxman argues (supported by an impressive aggregation of data), the American-Israeli honeymoon was only ten years long. The Six-Day War was when we fell in love. It transformed U.S. policy toward Israel, shifting from Eisenhower’s ambivalence to Nixon-Kissinger’s full-on support, thus removing the stigma of dual loyalty. Moreover, a growing American engagement with the Holocaust promoted the “from Holocaust to rebirth” narrative that cast Israel in the victorious role not just over Nasser but over Hitler, too. Most importantly, the Six-Day War made Israel into a source of pride for American Jews. Israel was the Jewish Superman myth made real.
According to Waxman, the American Jewish honeymoon ended a decade later with the sudden rise of the Israeli right, whose policies bitterly divided American Jews. The marriage hit the skids in 1982 after the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese Shiites by Israeli-backed militias. Despite a brief rekindling of the flame in 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and P.L.O. Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, the American Jewish community has been undergoing a slow, grinding divorce for decades now.
The divorce is, in part, between American Jews and Israel, but it is more between different segments of the American Jewish community. This is Waxman’s central point: that our arguments about Israel are, in large part, actually about fissures in the American Jewish community itself.
On one side are Orthodox Jews (roughly 10 percent of the Jewish population), the “Jewish Establishment” and the donors and activists to whom that establishment is accountable. Waxman unearths some great quotes from former Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations head Malcolm Hoenlein and others, admitting proudly that they represent not all Jews, but only those Jews who care enough to get involved, or at least give money to the cause. Not surprisingly, those most motivated to get involved and give money tend to have higher levels of Jewish pride and patriotism, so the Jewish Establishment inevitably tilts rightward.
On the other side, though, are not the peaceniks—Waxman’s data shows that they, too, are a somewhat small minority of American Jews. Rather, the real other side is the “silent majority” of basically centrist American Jews who are not particularly connected to the Jewish Establishment and thus are not represented by it. These Jews, Waxman says, support a two-state solution and real negotiations to get there—but they don’t really trust the Palestinians, either. They support President Obama’s occasional pressure on the Netanyahu government—but not too much pressure. They oppose settlements—but don’t think they’re a primary cause of the impasse. They would be Labor party voters in Israel, J Street supporters in the U.S.—but they tend not to care enough, in sufficient numbers, to move the needle of American Jewish opinion.
Waxman quotes my Forward colleague J.J. Goldberg as noting, ruefully, that politics is often like this: the extremes are loud and angry, and the sensible majority in the middle is ignored. Of course, the middle isn’t just apathetic; those centrists who do get involved are often pilloried by right and left. Here, while Waxman does discuss the Open Hillel movement and other efforts to carve out space that is pro-Israel but also inclusive of debate, nuance and ambivalence, he pays less attention to how a handful of mega-donors—Schusterman, Adelson and others—work hard to destroy those very spaces.
The divorce is, in part, between American Jews and Israel, but it is more between different segments of the American Jewish community…our arguments about Israel are, in large part, actually about fissures in the American Jewish community itself.
Arguably, there are gag rules on all sides: It’s close to impossible to be an open Zionist in some academic associations today. But the center isn’t just ignored by the Jewish establishment; it is often shunned, silenced and excluded. Ironically, as Waxman observes, these efforts often accomplish the opposite of their objective: Insisting that college students’ BDS-supporting friends are, in fact, inveterate anti-Semites is a good way to alienate those students.
Waxman may also go too far in making his case that the “conflict” is mostly about American Jews themselves. Is it? At the end of the day, if Israel weren’t enforcing an occupation, fewer American Jews would be conflicted about it. What’s changed over the past 40 years is that the Israeli right has moved further and further rightward, and—a bit like Donald Trump in our country—made previously unthinkable policies (transfer, loyalty oaths, indefinite occupation) part of the Israeli conversation.
Of course, that, too, is an American phenomenon: American Jewish and Evangelical dollars are building the settlements, paying for right-wing propaganda (such as Sheldon Adelson’s Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom) and underwriting Israeli right-wing candidates. Maybe the conflict is about American Jews after all—just not in the way Waxman describes.
In dourly looking toward the future, however, Waxman seems spot-on—and devastating. Having noted that Orthodox Jews radically disagree with Conservative, Reform and other Jews on Israel, Waxman traces the trendlines and predicts a Jewish community increasingly fragmented between a growing Orthodox community and, well, everyone else. We are likely moving toward a time in which a religious, conservative, particularistic American Jewish community supports a religious (or religio-nationalistic), conservative, particularistic Israeli one.
In Israel, religious Zionism and revisionist Zionism used to be minority opinions, far outweighed by a mostly secular, mostly liberal consensus (a consensus that, again, American Jews never quite absorbed). But if Zionism now means not “a nation like other nations” but “the return of God’s chosen people to God’s chosen land,” the results will be a lot like what Israel’s government looks like now: anti-democratic, sectarian and despised by much of the Western world.
“Supporting Israel could become merely an Orthodox cause, not one that unites most American Jews,” Waxman concludes. Looking around at the Celebrate Israel parade and the recent AIPAC conference, where Donald Trump was loudly applauded for defaming President Obama, there does seem to be strong evidence for this warning. And that should give pause to all of us who find ourselves between the extremes, praying for peace and overwhelmed by a nasty, alienating shouting match.
Jay Michaelson is an ordained rabbi, a weekly columnist for The Forward and The Daily Beast, and the author of six books, most recently The Gate of Tears: Sadness & the Spiritual Path.