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Book delves into Jewish community’s division over Israel

"Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,” 

by Dov Waxman, Princeton University Press (April 12, 2016)

The period from the 1967 war to the first Lebanon War in the early 1980s can fairly be said to have been a halcyon era in the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel.

During that period — and during that period alone — American Jewry spoke in one voice about Israel: In solid support of the actions of the elected Israeli government. Ever since, things have been a little more complicated. 

The fissures in the American Jewish community over Israel are examined in detail in Dov Waxman’s new book, “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel.” Waxman, a professor of political science and Israel studies at Northwestern University, uses survey data and contemporary records to trace the development of the American Jewish “conversation” (more recently, “argument”) over Israel from the early ’70s through today. He finds that although the opinions of American Jews on Israel’s actions — particularly around its treatment of the Palestinians under its control — have changed, their emotional connection to Israel (consistently at 60-75 percent over the years) has not. 

Waxman opens his story by tracing the development of the pro-Israel left in this country. In the 1970s, the first of these organizations, Breira (“choice”), was made up of Jewish professionals and called for a Palestinian state and talks with the PLO — almost two decades before Oslo. But the Jewish community then was dedicated to uni-vocal support of Israel, and Breira was outside those lines, so it was destroyed, its participants blacklisted from communal employment. 

Since then, numerous other such organizations have arisen. The most successful of these, J Street, describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” supporting a two-state solution and — here’s the innovation — American pressure on the Israeli government to help convince it to come to such a political deal with the Palestinians. A more radical organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This, Waxman notes, puts it “beyond the pale” for a Jewish organization, and thus JVP is not included in the American Jewish “tent,” and Waxman pays little attention to it.

Waxman notes that the question of whether the more moderate J Street belongs “in the tent” is a vexing one. In 2014, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted not to allow J-Street to become a member, with the vote going according to the usual fissures these days: the bigger, more liberal organizations — the Reform and Conservative denominations, the Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women — voted to include J-Street. The smaller, more politically conservative and Orthodox organizations, such as the National Council of Young Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, voted against. 

Here the author brings up an interesting point: Criticism of Israeli policy does not only emanate from the left. The rightist organizations are often quite vocal in opposition to certain Israeli policies, particularly accommodation with the Palestinians and territorial compromise. Whether or not leftists are allowed in the tent remains ever-controversial. Waxman notes, as I have, that rarely are rightists, no matter how extreme, prohibited from speaking at a synagogue or Hillel. 

Concurrently with all this, Waxman traces the growth and development of the mainstream Israel advocacy organizations, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. The question of who, exactly, these organizations represent is an important one. The answer, according to Waxman, is that they represent the people in the room. AIPAC draws over 14,000 people to its yearly conferences, and it has activists in virtually every congressional district in the country. However, its membership skews older and more politically conservative than the Jewish community as a whole. And as with Jewish Federations, the focus on financial support means that the “target audience” is a smaller group of wealthy people, rather than the larger body of Jews.

Many Jewish professionals, including the author, note that we’re in a time when younger Jews, when they choose to be Jewishly active, prefer to affiliate with organizations that they develop and that reflect their priorities — social justice, environmental, participatory spirituality — rather than join mainstream organizations with huge infrastructure and a particularistic vision, such as fear of anti-Semitism or uncritical support of Israel.

We are also in a time when an entire generation of Jews from intermarried households are coming of age and, as Waxman points out, such young people are less committed to religious practice, institutional membership and political support of Israel. If the community doesn’t meet their needs, they are as likely to drop out as to put in the time and effort to change it. Meanwhile, the rates of birth and affiliation within the Orthodox community are higher, and rates of intermarriage are virtually non-existent. While the Orthodox currently comprise around 10 percent of the American Jewish community, another 50 years of the current demographic trends might show another story. 

Waxman’s sympathies are clearly with the Zionist left. He thinks it is foolish for mainstream communal organizations to oppose groups like J-Street, which want to be part of the conversation and which, while small in comparison with AIPAC, represent significant numbers of (particularly younger) Jews. 

To me, this book highlights how difficult it has become for people to have conversations with each other beyond the boundaries of their various camps. Invective flows freely — typical in this internet age. Progressive rabbis and other communal professionals are so fearful of triggering a negative reaction that they choose not to discuss Israel at all. Thus, as Waxman convincingly demonstrates in this valuable and important book, the very thing that once united the American Jewish community — Israel — now is the thing that divides us most of all.