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Alienation of American Jews from Israel Will Dramatically Affect U.S. Policy

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2019

Israel claims to be the “homeland” of all Jews and has frequently declared  
that Jews in other countries were in the process of disappearing through  
assimilation and intermarriage. Zionism’s mythical understanding of Jews  
and Judaism, we can now see, bears no relationship to reality.  
In the past seven years, the American Jewish population has grown 10 per  
cent. “The cynicism about American Judaism, and this belief that we are a  
shrinking population, we are a vanishing population, is incorrect,” said  
Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Center at Brandeis University. “The  
prophecy of the vanishing Jew has not come to fruition.”  
The study found that as of 2018, there are approximately 7.5 million Jews in  
the contiguous United States, home to the largest Jewish community in the  
world. According to recent government statistics, Israel has 6.7 million  
Jews. The “homeland” of American Jews, it is clear, is the United States.  
They are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other  
Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim.  
Israel’s 51-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its  
retreat from democratic values has alienated many American Jews, including  
groups which once embraced it. In October, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical  
Association (RRA) endorsed legislation designed to protect the rights of  
Palestinian children imprisoned by the Israeli military sponsored by Rep.  
Betty McCollum (D-MN). H.R. 2407 would prohibit U.S. funding to “the  
military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of children in  
violation of international humanitarian law.”  
Rep. McCullom thanked the RRA : “This is a tremendous boost of support...I  
thank these respected rabbis for helping to lead the fight for human rights.  
Their endorsement sends a strong signal to people of all faiths that every  
child deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Now it is time for  
the U.S. to send a clear signal that no U.S. tax dollars should enable the  
detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children by the Israel Defense  
Since 2000, an estimated 10,000 Palestinian children have been detained,  
prosecuted, and incarcerated by the Israeli military in the occupied West  
Bank. Rabbi Alissa Wise, acting co-director of Jewish Voice For Peace  
(JVP), points out that, “A few years ago, the idea of legislation for  
Palestinian rights introduced in the U.S. Congress was inconceivable, let  
alone that a leading association of rabbis would endorse it. The RRA’s  
decision to endorse HR 2407 is the clearest proof yet of the American Jewish  
community’s growing support for Palestinian rights.”  
In Rabbi Wise’s view, “The RRA’s endorsement powerfully contradicts  
previously held orthodoxies about American Jewish communities and advocating  
for Palestinians, and is a bellwether of a seismic shift in what is  
possible. In this volatile and uncertain political moment it is a welcome  
and needed reminder of the dynamism in D.C. and the American Jewish  
community more broadly. I am deeply proud to be a Reconstructionist rabbi.”  
JVP Government Affairs manager Beth Miller said: “This bold and historic  
stance from the RRA clearly shows that the ground is shifting. Progressive  
movements across the U.S., including progressive American Jews, demand  
concrete steps toward justice and equality for Palestinians...We are  
thrilled and grateful to the RRA for sending a clear message to Capitol Hill  
that blind support for Israel is no longer the status quo and Congress needs  
to catch up.”  
The concern American Jews are showing about Israeli policies are already  
having an important impact on the debate over U.S. policy. Reporting on the  
J Street conference held in Washington in October, The New York Times (Oct.  
28, 2019) reports: “Pete Buttigieg compared Israel’s relationship with the  
U.S. to that of a close friend —-one who needed and should accept more  
guidance. Bernie Sanders put it in starker terms, saying the U.S. should  
demand more from Israel. But whatever the language, one thing was clear:  
Democratic attitudes toward Israel are shifting in the highest echelons of  
the party.”  
Among the speakers at the J Street conference, which attracted thousands of  
Jewish activists, was Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of the New Israel Fund. She said  
that American Jews are losing interest in Israel, are tired of fighting over  
Israel and that rabbis are quietly dropping Israel from Hebrew school  
curricula and no one is noticing.  
She said: “When I think about the language of a rift, I think about active  
conflict, I think about moments that have stood out as crisis points between  
American and Israeli Jews—-I’m sure Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the  
whole issue around the Iran deal, the Jerusalem Embassy. But I think on a  
daily basis...what we are experiencing is a very troubling cooling of  
interest, of curiosity, of engagement between American Jews and Israelis and  
vice versa. I think for many of us it’s about despair, it’s about averting  
our eyes, it’s about misalignment of values...People who were deeply  
connected to Israel are tired, they are constantly feeling a need to justify  
why they feel connected to this place, they’re constantly disappointed,  
experiencing a lot of shame about this place—-always hoping that it will  
rise to the occasion, be something it’s not.”  
Rabbi Cohen urges American Jews to listen to the voices of Israeli Jews and  
Arabs who challenge their government’s violation of human rights: “The best  
thing we can do is connect with and hear from Israeli activists (like those  
appearing at J Street) who are deeply concerned with what’s going on. The  
best thing we can do is tell their stories, lift up their voices, remind  
ourselves that as American Jews that there are Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs,  
who are working every day. They do not have the luxury of averting their  
eyes, it is not an option. So for us to be truly in relationship, we have  
to look too and have to listen...”  
In the post-World War II years, many believed that Israel and American Jews  
shared common values. Slowly, it has become clear that this was not really  
the case. American Jews, for example, believe in religious freedom and  
separation of church and state. In Israel, there is a theocracy, with  
state-employed Chief ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Reform and Conservative rabbis  
cannot perform weddings, funerals or conversions. Jews and non-Jews who  
wish to marry must leave the country to do so. At the same time, millions  
of Palestinians are without political rights, a challenge to the American  
Jewish commitment to equal rights for men and women of every race, faith and  
As a result of these many contradictions there is a major transformation in  
the thinking of American Jews now under way. In the book, “Reclaiming  
Judaism From Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation,” edited by Carolyn  
L. Karcher, a professor emeritus at Temple University, are gathered a  
powerful collection of personal narratives from forty Jews. They represent  
diverse backgrounds and tell a wide range of stories about the roads they  
have traveled from a Zionist worldview to activism and solidarity with  
Palestinians and Israelis striving to build an inclusive society founded on  
justice and equality.  
Of particular interest is Dr. Karcher’s Introduction, “History of Zionism  
and Anti -Zionism, 1880-1948.” She writes, “What is the relationship  
between Zionism and Judaism? Zionism is a political ideology of Jewish  
nationalism and Judaism is a religion...”  
Zionism, she points out, immediately brought opposition from Orthodox Jews  
as well as those Jews who rejected the idea of a separate Jewish  
nationalism. In America, Reform Jews rejected the Zionist idea. In 1897,  
the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution disapproving  
any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution declared, “Zion was  
a precious possession of the past...as such it is a holy memory, but it is  
not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.”  
This tradition has been kept alive, Karcher notes, by the American Council  
for Judaism (ACJ), which remains committed to the classical Reform belief  
in a religion of universal values free of nationalism. “The ACJ and its  
chief spokesmen of the 1940s—-the Reform rabbis Elmer Berger and Morris  
Lazaron and the philanthropist Lessing Rosenwald, son of the better-known  
philanthropist and Sears Roebuck heir Julius Rosenwald—-continued not only  
to warn against the dangers of creating a Jewish state in Palestine but to  
promulgate alternative solutions to the plight of the Holocaust survivors  
languishing in post-war displaced persons (DP) camps. Although they went  
down to defeat and subsequently were written out of history by Zionist  
scholars, their ideas deserve renewed attention.”  
Contributors to this volume include rabbis, academics, students, writers and  
men and women from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds.  
Rabbi Linda Holtzman, one of the first women rabbis to preside over a  
synagogue, describes her movement away from Zionism: “Golda Meir was my  
hero and when she said there was no Palestinian people, how could I not  
believe her? Israel really was, as I learned over and over again ‘a land  
without people for a people without a land.’ I did not know the truth for a  
long time. I did not try to learn the truth...When signs proclaiming  
‘Zionism is racism’ appeared at rallies that I went to or at protests that I  
marched in, I worried about the other causes I was supporting...I tackled  
the question of Zionism and racism myself...I can no longer call myself a  
Zionist because the memories of Palestine will never let me. I am deeply  
saddened by the loss of something I treasured...Now, as I serve on the board  
of Jewish Voice for Peace, or work for Palestinian rights in any way that I  
can, I feel a connection to the values that underline my Judaism.”  
In an essay, “Moving Away From Zionism,” Gael Horowitz, a recent graduate of  
Wesleyan University, writes that, “ During my gap year in Israel there was  
very little explicit education on the occupation...In this narrative, the  
occupation was only a post-1967 issue and not a larger issue of settler  
colonialism....Two friends and I decided to take it upon ourselves to  
complete the part of our experience that seemed to be lacking, We went on a  
trip to Hebron, Susya, and the South Hebron Hills with a group that  
included ...a tour guide from the Israeli veterans organization Breaking  
the Silence, dedicated to informing the public about the violence that  
maintaining the occupation requires...we saw Shuhada Street and the  
settlement on top of the hills. The intentionally crafted and manipulated  
geography of settler colonialism became clear and I began to wonder why this  
was the first time I had been able to see it....we learned about the morally  
reprehensible occupation, but the movement’s belief system did not, and  
perhaps could not, entertain the idea that nationalism was inherently  
Horowitz concludes: “I deeply understand that my Judaism is political and  
as Jews we have a responsibility to be in solidarity with Palestine—-not  
because it proves expectations wrong but because Israel is a country that  
says it speaks for all of us. If we remain silent, then we are tacitly  
agreeing. We must be able to speak up powerfully, Jewishly and consistently  
to be able to say ‘Not in my name.’”  
In a thoughtful afterward, Carolyn Karcher writes: “In the wake of World  
War II, irresistible forces propelled the world toward the creation of  
Israel: the overwhelming ghastliness of the Holocaust, the guilt felt by  
both American Jews and Western nations for not having done enough to prevent  
the tragedy, the urgency of resettling the Holocaust’s surviving victims;  
the unwillingness of the United States and other Western nations to admit  
these victims in sufficient numbers coupled with the insistence of Zionist  
leaders that Palestine be the refuge offered them, and the colonialist  
mentality that led Europeans, Americans and Zionists alike to ignore the  
indigenous Palestinian population.”  
In Karcher’s view, the Zionist leaders, from the very beginning sought to  
remove as many of the indigenous Palestinian population as possible by a  
calculated campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” In this connection, she reports  
that in March 1948, two months before the end of the British mandate, the  
Haganah adopted a “blueprint for ethnic cleansing: plan Dalet.” This plan,  
she notes, “involved terrorizing the population through massacres that  
provoked mass flight, driving Palestinians out of villages and urban  
centers, and reducing nearly all the structures in the depopulated areas to  
rubble...The number would rise to between 700,000 and 800,000 when the  
organized ethnic cleansing finally ended in the summer of 1949.”  
This book shows that a new generation of American Jews is rejecting  
nationalism and seeking to restore the humane Jewish moral and ethical  
tradition. This has already had an impact upon how candidates for political  
office view U.S. Middle East policy. With dissenting views increasingly  
being heard, Israeli policies are undergoing increasing scrutiny. There is  
no doubt that the growing alienation of American Jews from Israel and its  
occupation will alter how American policy makers view Middle East policy in  
the future. A new era lies ahead, one which provides hope for a U.S.,  
policy which embraces both American and Jewish values of respect for the  
human and political rights of men and women regardless of background.*

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