A unique but critical conversation on Israel and Palestine is taking place outside the traditional discourse of Israeli colonialism and the Palestinian quest for liberation. It is an awkward and difficult — but overdue — discussion concerning American Jews and their relationship with Israel as well as their commitment to its Zionist ideology.
For many years, Israel and its Jewish supporters have conveniently dubbed Jews who do not support the state, or worse, advocate Palestinian freedom, as “self-hating”. This term used to describe dissident anti-Zionist Jews is similar to the accusation of “anti-Semitism” made against non-Jews, which includes Semitic Arabs, for daring to criticise Israel. Such an approach, however, is no longer as effective as it once was.
Recent years have demonstrated unequivocally that there is a quiet rebellion happening within the American Jewish community. This anti-Israel rebellion has been brewing for a long time, but only fairly recently did numbers begin reflecting the rise of a new phenomenon where US Jews, especially the younger generations, are openly dissenting from the typical Jewish conformity in matters pertaining to Israel and unquestioned, undying love for Zionism. In the past decade or so, this new reality has sounded the alarm within various Zionist institutions in the US and in Israel itself.
Several opinion polls and surveys point to an inescapable conclusion that the emotional and political rapport between Israel and US Jews is weakening rapidly. A poll published by Laszlo Strategies for non-profit organisation Jerusalem U in August 2013, for example, concluded that 87 per cent of American Jews over the age of 50 strongly agreed that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish,” while only 66 per cent of young Jews in America between the ages of 18 to 29 felt the same.
Other polls since then reached similar conclusions, showing that the number of young Jews strongly supportive of Israel continues to decline. A particularly telling and important survey was that of the American Jewish Committee in June 2018. That was the time when the US-Israeli alliance reached its zenith under the administrations of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Though 77 per cent of all Israelis approved of the US government’s handling of US-Israeli relations, only 34 per cent of American Jews did. In fact, 57 per cent of American Jews disapproved outright of Trump’s policies, which basically granted Israel all that it wished.
The downward trajectory continued unabated. Research published in May this year by Pew indicated that one in five US Jews believes that the US is “too supportive of Israel”. Those who hold such a belief, 22 per cent of the US Jewish population, have doubled in number since an earlier poll released in 2013.
Data gathering for the above poll, though released during the deadly Israeli onslaught on Gaza (10-21 May), was, in fact, conducted in 2019 and 2020. The number of unsupportive US Jews must have risen since then as if there is a clear correlation between Israeli wars resulting in massive civilian casualties, and the ongoing split between US Jews and Israel.
Libby Lenkinski, Vice President for public engagement at the New Israel Fund, told Rolling Stone magazine that she sees a “noticeable shift in American perception” on Palestine and Israel since the deadly Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, a war that killed over 2,200 Palestinians. For Lenkinski, though, US Jewish perception should follow an ethical paradigm: “It’s a moral issue. It’s right or wrong.”Similar sentiments emerged after the May 2021 war, when over 260 Palestinians were killed, including many women and children. In a recent article, American Jewish writer Marisa Kabas explains the dilemma felt by many in the US Jewish community regarding Israel. “Because the conflict has so often been boiled down to a binary — you either support Israel or you support its destruction — for many of us it felt like a betrayal to even consider the other side.” Not least because of the likes of Kabas and Lenkinski and numerous others, the “other side” is finally visible, resulting in the obvious shift in American Jewish perception of and relationship with Israel.
While more space for dissenting US Jews is opening up, the discussion in Israel remains confined and is hardly concerned with ethics and morality. Recently, the understanding that Israel is losing the support of US Jews has been accepted by the country’s main political parties, with disagreement largely focused on who is to blame for this seismic shift. Netanyahu was often held responsible for making Israel a partisan American political issue through his alliance with Trump and the Republican Party, at the expense of Israel’s relation with the Democrats.
However, the Netanyahu-Trump love affair was not as uncomplicated as Netanyahu’s critics would like to believe. Indeed, the idea of Israel has changed in American society. The notion that Israel is a supposedly vulnerable little state facing existential threats by Arab enemies, which flourished in the past, has become almost entirely irrelevant. The new concept of Israel, which is Tel Aviv’s main selling point in America, is that of a biblical Israel, a place of prophecies and spiritual salvation, which appeals mostly to right-wing Evangelical Christian groups. Young US Jews, many of whom support the Black Lives Matter and even the Palestinian boycott movements, have little in common with Israel’s backers among American Christian zealots.
Israel is now at a crossroads. It can only win back the support of US Jews if it behaves in such a way that is consistent with their moral frame of reference. Hence, it would have to end its military occupation, dismantle its apartheid regime and reverse its racist laws. Specifically, this would mean having to abandon Zionism altogether or abandon US Jews in favour of complete reliance on the Evangelicals. Some top Israeli officials are already advocating the latter.
On 9 May, former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, argued that, since Evangelical Christians are the “backbone of Israel’s support in the United States”, Israel should prioritise their “passionate and unequivocal” backing of Israel over American Jews who are “disproportionately among our critics.”
If Israel opts for this choice officially, perhaps with no other viable option, then a near-complete breakdown between Israel and US Jews becomes inevitable. As far as justice and freedom for the Palestinian people are concerned, that would be a good thing.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.