Distant Relations


The past decade has been a troubled one in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel. While most American Jews have remained emotionally attached to Israel — contrary to widespread concerns that they would grow indifferent towards it — they have also become more critical of Israel and more willing to publicly voice their criticisms. Most American Jews no longer believe that supporting Israel necessarily means supporting its government’s policies. In surveys, a majority of American Jews now say they support Israel and are also critical of its government’s policies, especially towards the Palestinians.

Growing numbers of them have also been speaking out and mobilizing politically, as the rise of J Street since its formation in 2009 clearly demonstrates. Nor is it only Israel’s policies that American Jews have been questioning and challenging. There has also been growing criticism of the American Jewish establishment’s approach toward Israel, and by extension, of the sacred status of Israel in the mainstream American Jewish community, particularly in its communal institutions, day schools and summer camps. IfNotNow, a group founded in 2014 by young Jews who want to end what they see as the organized Jewish community’s financial and political support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, has been most outspoken in this regard, staging numerous noisy protests against major Jewish organizations. The popularity among younger Jews of leftwing groups like IfNotNow, and further to its left Jewish Voice for Peace, has highlighted a generational conflict.

But the biggest division over Israel is between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, with the former more devoted to Israel, emotionally and politically, and much more right-wing and hawkish in their opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (most Orthodox Jews, for instance, oppose a two-state solution, while most non-Orthodox Jews still favor it). American domestic politics over the past decade has reinforced this division: Orthodox Jews have become reliable Republican voters (and close allies with conservative evangelical Christians), whereas most non-Orthodox Jews continue to vote for Democrats and identify as liberals. Donald Trump’s presidency has further sharpened this division, especially as Orthodox Jews now enjoy unprecedented political access and influence in the White House.

But no individual has done more over the past decade to exacerbate these divisions and drive American Jewish criticisms of Israel than Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister since 2009. Netanyahu’s hardline policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, his clashes with President Obama and his embrace of President Trump, his inflammatory rhetoric about Israel’s Arab citizens, his illiberal assault against Israel’s judiciary and media, and his capitulation to his ultra-Orthodox allies over religious pluralism in Israel (especially the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall) have alarmed, angered and alienated many American Jews. Tensions between American Jews and Israel have been brewing for a lot longer than Netanyahu’s tenure. But once a new, less polarizing Israeli leader takes power, the relationship that American Jews have with Israel, and with each other, could at least become a bit less acrimonious, if only temporarily.

Dov Waxman is professor and Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA, where he also directs the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. His latest book is, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know.

More essays from The Decade In Review: 2010 – 2019 as well as snapshots from our editorial team on the last ten years in Jewish journalism, including the key issues they covered locally and nationally.