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Realization Is Growing That American Jews and Israel No Longer Share a Moral and Ethical Worldview

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2017

American Jewish opinion concerning Israel is increasingly one of sharp  
division. In his book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict  
over Israel, Prof. Dov Waxman of Northeastern University declares that, “A  
historic change has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship  
with Israel. The age of unquestioning and unstinting support for Israel is  
over. The pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding,  
and Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity … A new  
era of American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the old era of  
solidarity. In short, Israel used to bring American Jews together. Now it is  
driving them apart.”  
The feeling is growing, particularly among young people, that Israel’s 50-  
year occupation, which is one of the longest military occupations of one  
people by another in modern history, its denial of basic political and human  
rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories, and its retreat from  
democracy within Israel itself, indicates that the moral and ethical values  
to which most American Jews are committed are not shared by those currently  
in power in Israel.  
Israel has, for example, declared war on the nonviolent movement calling for  
boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a means to end Israel’s  
occupation. In the process, it is alienating more and more American Jews who  
are sympathetic to the BDS movement, as well as others who see Israel’s move  
away from shared democratic values. In March, 2017 the Knesset passed  
legislation that prohibits the entry into Israel of anyone supporting and  
belonging to the BDS movement. Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Yonah Jeremy  
Bob asks: “Does this include a left-wing Jewish college student who calls  
for a boycott of Israel on his Facebook page? Does it include an individual  
who made a small, one-time contribution to a BDS organization? Are  
foreigners who wish to boycott only the settlements but not the rest of  
Israel included?  
Banned from Israel  
Peter Beinart, a contributing editor of The Forward, wrote a column (March  
17, 2017) headlined, “I support boycotting settlements — Should I be banned  
from Israel?” He notes that, “I’m one of those people at whom Israel’s new  
law is aimed because in 2012 I wrote s book that urged American Jews to buy  
products from ‘democratic Israel,’ the territory inside Israel’s original  
boundaries, in which Jews and Palestinians live under the same law, but not  
‘nondemocratic Israel,’ the West Bank, where Jews enjoy citizenship and  
Palestinians live under colonial rule. So while I oppose boycotting Israel  
as a whole, I support boycotting Israeli settlements, which I believe  
threaten Israel’s moral character and its long-term survival.”  
Rachel Stryer, a senior and co-chair of J Street U at Stanford University,  
wrote an article in The Forward asking, “Will Birthright Kowtow to Israel’s  
Right-Wing Government?” Discussing the Birthright Israel program, which  
sends Jewish students on free trips to Israel, she writes: “This summer I  
planned to travel to Israel through Birthright … I had long been looking  
forward to the voyage. Now, I don’t know whether I’ll be allowed on the trip  
… I am a strong supporter of the two-state solution as the only way to  
secure Israel’s future … and guarantee the rights of the Palestinian people.  
I see the occupation and the entrenchment and expansion of the settlement  
movement as a threat to these principles. Because of this, I make the  
personal choice not to buy products manufactured in Israeli settlements in  
the West Bank.”  
Because of the new law, Stryer notes, “Many pro-Israel American Jews are  
worried that, thanks to our political beliefs, we may no longer be welcome  
in Israel … There are many Jewish young people like me at Stanford and  
across the country who are excited about exploring Israel, but who also find  
ourselves in opposition to the country’s settlement policy and deeply  
concerned about the ongoing occupation … More than just my summer plans are  
on the line here. Israel’s future — and the future of the American Jewish  
relationship with Israel — hang in the balance.”  
Diversity and Social Justice  
In the view of Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the  
University of Pennsylvania, the Israeli law banning entry to supporters of  
BDS criminalizes thought, “since it would imply that anyone who helped  
organize a public discussion of whether to boycott the State of Israel would  
also be bannable from the country. In other words, it would be an attempt to  
stop people from thinking.”  
A Turning Point  
Writing in The Nation, Mairev Zonszein described the new law as marking a  
turning point in Israel’s relationship with American Jews. Israel, she  
argues, no longer cares what American Jews think: “Israel is sending the  
message. That it does not want or need American Jewish involvement if that  
involvement takes the form of pitched criticism or dissent and that the  
cultural or historic is just not that important to them.”  
Open Hillel has called on Hillel International to condemn Israel’s  
“dissenter ban,” which it says “will impact the thousands of Jewish students  
who travel to Israel to tour, study, research, intern or work.”  
In the opinion of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, “A law that  
stifles dissidents, that bars lovers of Israel from Israel itself, is not  
only repugnant on the face of it, but also additional evidence that  
occupation of the West Bank is corroding Israeli democracy. Israel may win  
the West Bank and lose its soul.”  
The legislation regarding banning BDS supporters from Israel is only one  
example of what many see as a movement away from democratic values. Today,  
there are 750,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East  
Jerusalem. There is now a growing movement in Israel to annex the occupied  
territories completely. Israel passed a law in February called the  
Regularization Law. It retroactively legalized at least a dozen settlement  
outposts built on privately-owned Palestinian land and laid the framework  
for easily legalizing other outposts in the future.  
Settlement Outposts  
Settlement outposts are Israeli communities in the occupied West Bank built  
without authorization from the Israeli government’s planning and zoning  
departments, many of which are located near larger settlements recognized by  
Israel. In many cases, settlement outposts are retroactively declared  
neighborhoods of already existing settlements, but in the past, before the  
Regularization Law, legalizing such outposts on private Palestinian land was  
more difficult, as Palestinians had the right to fight the existence of the  
outposts on their land in court.  
One of the main features of the Regularization Law is a legal mechanism that  
allows outposts built on private Palestinian land to be legalized under  
Israeli law, as long as the settlers living in the community can prove the  
outpost was created “in good faith,” or without knowledge that the land  
belonged to Palestinians. Both Israeli settlements and outposts are  
considered illegal under international law. International law is clear that  
an occupying power can take land only for military needs. It is widely  
believed that Israel committed a war crime in transferring more than 700,000  
Jewish civilians into the occupied territories. Dozens of settlement  
outposts were built across the West Bank, often on private Palestinian land.  
Despite the fact that they violated Israeli law, the outposts immediately  
received state services, from electricity to water to buses and schools.  
Many in Israel recognize that this behavior is in violation of international  
law. Dan Meridor, a former government minister from Prime Minister  
Netanyahu’s Likud Party, called the new Regularization Law “evil and  
dangerous.” Israel, he pointed out, can have jurisdiction over private  
Palestinian land only if Palestinians are able to vote for Israel’s  
parliament. What is taking place at the present time, he declares, is  
annexation by other means. This, in effect, “shuts the door on any kind of  
Palestinian state.” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog says that, “The train  
departing from here has only one stop — at The Hague.” This is a reference  
to the home of the International Criminal Court.  
Human Rights Organizations  
Another bill introduced in the Knesset in May would bar non-government human  
rights organizations from petitioning the High Court of Justice on behalf of  
Palestinians. It was proposed, reports Haaretz, “following the wave of court  
petitions filed seeking the evacuation of settlements built on privately  
owned Palestinian land … The bill would bar Knesset members from petitioning  
the court to challenge cabinet decisions and laws passed by the Knesset and  
would provide that no individual, organization or public agency could  
petition the court to challenge a government action unless that action  
directly and personally harmed either the individual petitioner, members of  
the petitioning organization or an interest that a public agency is  
entrusted to upholding.” The bill’s sponsors include members of almost all  
the parties in the government coalition. It is aimed primarily at human-  
rights organizations such as Yesh Din, Peace Now and the Association for  
Civil Rights in Israel, which routinely petition the court on behalf of  
Palestinians. It was prompted partly by the fact that such petitions have  
repeatedly led to the evacuation of neighborhoods of West Bank settlements  
and illegal outposts that were built on privately owned Palestinian land.  
The Netanyahu government now wants to downgrade the status of Arabic. A  
proposed law would strip Arabic of official language status and define  
Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” although more than 20%  
of its population is not Jewish, most of whom are native Arabic speakers.  
Only Hebrew is defined as “the national language” in this so-called  
“Nationality Bill,” which declares that “the right to self-determination” in  
Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” Ayman Odeh, a Knesset member who  
heads the mainly Arab Joint List alliance, said that this bill would mean  
trampling on minority rights and would “legally transform us into second  
class citizens.”  
Passed in the Knesset in a preliminary vote early in May, the “Nationality  
Bill” refers to Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people.” Its chief  
sponsor, Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter said that, “Israel is the state of  
all its individual citizens.” This, however, is not the case. Israel has  
citizens, but it has no “Israeli nationals”. Israel does not recognize such  
a category as Israeli nationality. The recent U.N. Report on Israel, which  
was shelved because of pressure from Israel and the U.S., makes this clear:  
“Palestinian political parties can campaign for minor reforms and better  
budgets, but are legally prohibited by the Basic Law from challenging  
legislation maintaining the racial regime. The policy is reinforced by the  
implications of the distinction made in Israel between citizenship (ezrahut)  
and nationality (le’um): all Israeli citizens enjoy the former, but only  
Jews the latter. ‘National’ rights in Israeli law signify Jewish national  
The sponsor of the Nationality Bill, Avi Dichter, agrees with this  
assessment: “It isn’t and won’t be the nation-state of any minority living  
in it. That is a right this bill gives to the Jewish people alone.”  
A Theocracy with an Established Religion  
But if Israel calls itself a “Jewish” state, it does not provide equal  
rights to non-Orthodox Jews any more than it does to Palestinians. More and  
more American Jews are coming to understand that Israel is a theocracy, with  
an established religion, Orthodox Judaism. In many respects its view of the  
relationship between church and state is far closer to that of its Arab  
neighbors than to Western democracies. In Israel, Reform, Conservative and  
Reconstructionist rabbis have no right to perform weddings, preside at  
funerals, or have their conversions recognized. In Israel, there is no such  
thing as civil marriage. Jews and non-Jews who wish to marry must leave  
Israel to do so.  
At the Kotel, or Western Wall, men and women are not permitted to pray  
together, despite the fact that the Israeli government has promised to  
provide for egalitarian prayer at this site. Jane Eisner, editor of The  
Forward, wrote of a recent visit to Jerusalem: “I was in Jerusalem for a  
week … and I never once went to the Kotel … Instead of being drawn to what  
is considered the most sacred site in Judaism, I felt repelled. The  
unwillingness of the Israeli government to follow through on its promise to  
expand the Kotel plaza to include a proper egalitarian prayer space left me  
resentful and alienated. If the Kotel didn’t want to welcome Jews like me  
well, then, I had better uses of my time in Jerusalem … Many men and women —  
including the vast majority of American Jews — wish to pray together in a  
space not dominated by an increasingly strict and unreasonable rabbinical  
The Netanyahu government introduced legislation in May that would reject all  
conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state  
system. If passed into law, this bill would deny citizenship under the Law  
of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform or privately  
run Orthodox rabbinical courts.  
Western Concepts of Religious Freedom  
An examination of this question reveals how far removed Israel is from  
Western concepts of religious freedom. Currently, Reform and Conservative  
conversions conducted in Israel are recognized only for the purpose of  
registration in the population registry. Unlike Jews who have undergone  
Reform and Conservative conversions in other countries, Jews who have  
undergone such conversions in Israel are not eligible for citizenship under  
the Law of Return or any of the financial benefits this law confers on  
immigrants to the country.  
The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel maintain that the draft bill  
is unconstitutional since the Law of Return applies to all individuals who  
have converted in recognized Jewish communities and does not distinguish  
between conversions performed in Israel of those performed elsewhere or  
between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform conversions. Rabbi Gilad Kari ,  
executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, warned that the draft  
bill would aggravate already tense relations between the government and non-  
Orthodox groups. “This is a bill,” he declared, “that undermines the mission  
of the State of Israel to serve as a home of the Jewish people.” Yitzhak  
Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement, declared that, “Even  
the cruelest monopolies become pathetic the moment before they collapse.”  
The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, and the 50-  
year occupation which has followed, has focused much attention upon the  
contradiction between Israel’s reality and its claim to be a Western-style  
democracy. In a cover article, “Why Israel Needs a Palestinian State,” The  
Economist (May 20-25, 2017) provides this assessment: “… the never-ending  
subjugation of the Palestinians will erode Israel’s standing abroad and  
damage its democracy at home. Its politics are turning towards ethnic-  
religious chauvinism, seeking to marginalize Arabs and Jewish leftists,  
including human rights groups. The government objected even to a novel about  
a Jewish-Arab love affair. As Israel grows wealthier, the immiseration of  
Palestinians becomes more disturbing. Its predicament grows more acute as  
the number of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean  
catches up with that of Jews. Israel cannot hold on to all of the ‘Land of  
Israel,’ keep its predominantly Jewish identity and remain a proper  
democracy. To save democracy, and prevent a slide to racism or even  
apartheid, it has to give up the occupied lands.”  
“Budding Fascism”  
In Israel itself, many voices have been raised to warn about the danger of  
current trends. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak talks of “budding fascism.”  
Moshe Arens, a former defense minister, and President Reuven Rivlin have  
expressed concern over the crass racism which is, more and more, in  
evidence. Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew  
University, notes that, “Likud was hawkish, but was liberal and democratic.  
It has been transformed. For ultra nationalists, the enemy is within — NGOs,  
the minorities, the courts.”  
The realization that more and more American Jews are becoming alienated from  
Israel, a society which repeatedly proclaims itself “Jewish” but seems to be  
moving away from the Jewish moral and ethical tradition, is being  
increasingly discussed by those in the Jewish establishment who have sought  
to defend Israeli actions in the name of a “solidarity,” not shared by those  
in whose name they try to speak.  
An article, “Why Many American Jews Are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile  
to Israel” appeared in the publication Mosaic (May 8, 2017). Its author  
Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the core curriculum  
at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He writes: “The waning of attachment to  
Israel among American Jews, especially but not exclusively younger American  
Jews, has rightly become a central focus of concern for religious and  
communal leaders … American Jewish disaffection from Israel … were  
underscored during the waning days of the Obama administration, when by far  
the greater portion of American Jews stayed faithful to the president and  
his party even after his decision to allow passage of an undeniably anti-  
Israel resolution at the U.N.”  
The reasons for this disaffection have been widely examined. In “The Star  
and Stripes,” Michael Barnett notes that while most American Jews embrace “a  
political theology of prophetic Judaism” and exhibit “cosmopolitan  
longings,” Israel is “increasingly acting like an ethnonational state.” To  
Dov Waxman in “Trouble in the Tribe,” the movement of Israel in an  
“increasingly illiberal” direction has forced young American Jews to “turn  
away in despair, or even disgust.” Making a similar point was a column by  
the veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas titled, “Sorry Israel, U.S. Jewry  
Just Isn’t That into You.” The reason, wrote Pinkas, was “the reality of  
decades of Israeli occupation” of Palestinians, compounded by “the  
dismissal, inconsiderate and at times arrogant Israeli attitude toward  
(American) Reform and Conservative Jews.”  
Fundamentally Different If Not Antithetical  
Beyond this, argues Gordis, “… the emerging impression among significant  
numbers of American Jews is that Israel and modern day progressive America  
are two fundamentally different if not antithetical political projects … In  
contrast to the U.S., whose neutrality in matters of religion, afforded Jews  
an opportunity for flourishing … a ‘Jewish and Zionist state’ could not, and  
cannot, be religiously neutral … The purpose of the two countries do  
diverge, and so do their visions of both democracy and the ideal society.  
The most obvious difference between the American and Israeli project lies in  
the ethnic particularism at the core of Israel’s very reason for being.  
American universalism hardly denies the multiplicity of ethnicities that  
make up the American people, what it does deny is the notion that any of  
them should be politically central or defining … American Jewish life and  
Israeli life reflect the difference between voluntary and non-voluntary  
communities … Add … the American idea of the primacy of the universal over  
the particular and the ideological insistence that religion is a strictly  
private matter, the more American Jews think of Judaism in religious terms,  
without the component of peoplehood, the less necessary and less justified  
Israel becomes, the more anomalous and abnormal. Religions, after all, do  
not typically have countries. Is there a Methodist country? A Baha’i state?”  
American Jewish ambivalence about Israel is nothing new. The historian  
Jerold Auerbach has observed: “Even the idea of a Jewish state, to say  
nothing of the reality of Israel, seldom inspired feelings of passionate  
attachment in the majority of American Jews.” In 1950, Prime Minister David  
Ben-Gurion’s assertion that Israel was now the de facto center of the Jewish  
world provoked an irate Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish  
Committee, to respond that, “There can be no single spokesman for world  
Jewry no matter who that spokesman might try to be.” At that time, David  
Ben-Gurion signed an agreement which stipulated, among other things, that,  
“Jews of the United States, as a community, and as individuals, have only  
one political attachment, namely to the United States of America.” Yet,  
today Israel claims to be the “homeland” of all Jews, and proclaims that  
those living elsewhere are in “exile.” No other country in the world claims  
to represent men and women who are citizens of other countries.  
Detachment Will Spread and Deepen  
Unless something changes dramatically, either in Israel or in the U.S.,  
concludes Gordis, “Sizable proportions of American Jews will continue to  
bristle not only at what Israel does but at what, to their minds, Israel  
represents and is. For at least as far as the eye can see, this self-  
administered detachment … with all its larger implications for Jewish  
cohesion as well as for American foreign policy in the Middle East, is  
likely to spread and deepen.”  
Clearly, Israel and American Jews are moving in quite different directions.  
Their worldviews are very much at odds and their concept of religious  
freedom, separation of church and state and living in multi-racial and  
multi-ethnic societies differ dramatically. Zionism and its notion of Jewish  
ethnicity, rather than the larger vision of Judaism being a universal,  
prophetic religion, is in retreat. If American Jewish organizations persist  
in making Israel “central” to their idea of Jewish identity, their future  
seems uncertain at best. A new dawn, which seems far more hopeful, is  
rising. •

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