Book Review

Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel

Dov Waxman

 

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Approximately five weeks after winning the election, President-elect Donald Trump announced David Friedman as his choice to serve as envoy to Israel. The nominee — who supports expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, rejects a two-state solution for the conflict with the Palestinians, and favors moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — publicly berated the liberal American-Jewish group J Street and its followers as "worse than kapos," a reference to Jewish inmates in Nazi concentration camps who collaborated with the SS. J Street, in turn, called Trump's nominee "a horrible choice" and initiated a campaign to block Senate confirmation (Jeff Jacoby, "Trump's Envoy to Israel Will Slay Sacred Cows," The Boston Globe, December 21, 2016, p. A13). While Friedman's positions are far to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish American supporters of Israeli settlements rejoiced at the nomination (Isabel Kershner and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Trump's Pick as Envoy to Israel Is Hostile to Two-State Efforts," The New York Times, December 17, 2016, p. A13).

That the selection of an Orthodox American Jew as ambassador to Israel would lead to internecine conflict within the American Jewish community should come as no surprise to readers of Trouble in the Tribe, an illuminating analysis of the ever-changing relationship between American Jewry and the state of Israel, by Dov Waxman, professor of political science, international relations and Israel studies at Northeastern University. The book's central thesis is this: "The pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding, and Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry."

According to Waxman, the extent and intensity of American Jewish support for Israel have evolved during the past seven decades from an initial lack of interest to devotion to the current disillusionment. He notes that from 1948 to 1967, Israel was of little interest to most American Jews. Very few of them immigrated to Israel, and there was a gradual decline in membership of American Zionist organizations and in levels of Jewish financial support of Israel.

In the wake of Israel's unexpected, rapid and decisive military victory in the June 1967 Six- Day War, there followed an unprecedented outpouring of American Jewish political, financial and emotional support for Israel that lasted a full decade. American Jewry's intense devotion to, and pride in, Israel's achievements coincided with the emergence of Holocaust consciousness and identity politics in the United States.

Following the rise of several Likud governments in the late 1970s, American Jewry's romance with Israel was replaced by disillusionment and growing dissent over various Israeli government policies. During the last three decades, Israel has become "more right-wing, more religious, more intolerant, more unequal, and more aggressive and expansionist than the Israel that American Jews had fallen in love with."

The continuous building and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank since the late 1970s appeared to preclude the possibility of future territorial compromises. Furthermore, most American Jews held Israel partially responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut in September 1982. The idealized image of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was further undermined by its harsh response to the first Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980s. In a 2007 survey, 40 percent of American Jewish respondents believed that "Israel occupies land belonging to someone else," and one-third admitted to feeling ashamed of Israeli actions in the West Bank. From that time to the present, Israel has been increasingly perceived by American Jews as "a dominant military power, an oppressor of Palestinians, and an illegal occupier of their territories."

Waxman attributes the changes in American Jewish perceptions of Israel to three factors:
(1) the emergence of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians as the central element of dispute following Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan; (2) the dramatic change in the nature of warfare between the IDF and non-state actors (i.e., Hamas and Hezbollah), involving high numbers of noncombatant casualties and destruction of public infrastructure and private civilian property; and
(3) considerably better knowledge of, and familiarity with, Israel among American Jews.

Waxman argues that Israel's occupation of the West Bank, its settlement building in the occupied areas, and its harsh treatment of the Palestinians have, in turn, led to increasingly frequent, public and acrimonious debates and conflicts among four major ideological camps within the American Jewish community. The center-right, exemplified by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), absolves Israel of any responsibility for the conflict with the Palestinians and blames them solely and entirely for their failure to accept Israel's right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state. This group would accept the evacuation of a few outlying Israeli settlements and the eventual emergence of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank as long as these outcomes result from a peace negotiated directly by the two parties without undue American pressure or intervention.

The far-right bloc, exemplified by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), denies that the Palestinians have a right to self-determination, and hence opposes the emergence of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. It rejects any and all Israeli territorial withdrawals and concessions, objects to the peace process, supports unlimited settlement construction and expansion, and offers the Palestinians nothing more than personal autonomy under Israeli political jurisdiction.

The center left, exemplified by Peace Now and J Street, regards Israel as partially responsible for perpetuating and exacerbating the conflict with the Palestinians and seeks to reconcile Zionism with the Palestinians' right to national self-determination. It condemns Jewish settlements in the West Bank as politically senseless and morally unacceptable and regards the two-state solution and territorial division of Jerusalem as the only way to fulfill the legitimate national aspirations of Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Lastly, the far left, exemplified by the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), regards Israel as an apartheid state that violates international law and is guilty of war crimes. It alone among Jewish groups supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and opposes the provision of American arms to Israel. Skeptical that the two-state solution can ever emerge, the far left now favors creation of a single binational state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

On the basis of public-opinion surveys, interviews with dozens of American Jewish communal leaders, activists, journalists and scholars, Waxman concludes that a plurality of American Jews are centrists leaning slightly to the right or the left. They support a two-state solution but remain distrustful of the Palestinians and are pessimistic about achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He also maintains that the intracommunal disagreements over the establishment of a Palestinian state and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank tend to be reinforced by denominational, ideological, partisan and generational divisions. That is, the more religiously pious, politically conservative, Republican and older American Jews generally lean to the extreme right, are more deeply attached to Israel, and tend to oppose any territorial compromise with the Palestinians. On the other hand, the more secular, ideologically liberal Democratic and younger American Jews generally lean further to the left, are less attached emotionally to Israel, and favor almost total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Waxman notes that, although there has always been some debate about Zionism and Israel within American Jewry, what is new and unprecedented about the current disputes is that they have become much more public, increasingly polarized and considerably more vitriolic. Acrimonious charges are regularly lobbed by the right against the left, and vice-versa, in the American and Israeli media, on the Internet, and at Jewish community centers, synagogues and university campus venues. While the right claims that the left condones Palestinian terrorism and global anti-Semitism, the left accuses the right of supporting Israeli expansionism, racism and fascism.

Waxman attributes the rise of such ugly and uncivil discourse to four factors. First, for many American Jews, the debate over Israel is essentially a debate about Jewish identity, Jewish history, and Jewish ethics and values. In addition, the internal war of words within American Jewry has become more virulent due to the generally more rancorous political climate in the United States. Furthermore, the vicious American Jewish debate has been influenced by and mirrors the intensely partisan disputes in Israel. Lastly, the anonymity and accessibility of social media have also contributed to the shrillness and anger in the disputes over Israel within American Jewry.

According to Waxman, the growing fractures over Israel among American Jews are also reflected in the fairly recent fragmentation of the once solid and allegedly powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington. For example, whereas right-wing groups have opposed the peace process, the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the nuclear accord with Iran, and any future political division of Jerusalem, Jewish groups on the left have been opposed to Israeli settlement construction, the 2008-09 IDF "Operation Cast Lead" against Hamas in Gaza, new housing construction in and around East Jerusalem, and a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

Such advocacy of diametrically opposed perspectives on identical matters makes it "much harder for members of Congress to know whom to listen to and, more broadly, to know what American Jews think about a particular issue." As a matter of fact, due to the proliferation of contending American Jewish lobbying organizations, each with its own particular agenda, there is no longer any consensus on what policies and which groups can be regarded as pro- Israel. With the erosion of communal unity, the political influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Congress and the White House will continue to wane.

Waxman concludes that there is a growing divide about Israel between secular, liberal Jews and more observant, right-wing Jews in both the United States and Israel. He maintains that the political chasm between these groups in Israel and the Diaspora is very likely to deepen, with the numerical scales eventually tipping in favor of the right. Due to rather low birth rates and very high rates of intermarriage among American secular Jews, the relative numbers of progressive and left-leaning Jews who are emotionally attached to Israel are very likely to decline. As a result, "the potential erosion of support for Israel among non-Orthodox American Jews is thus ultimately a long-term threat to U.S. government support for Israel."

On the other hand, as a result of the growing numbers of Orthodox Jews in the United States, "the future American Jewish community would be more politically conservative, more Republican, and even more supportive of Israel." The expansion of religiosity and political conservatism within American Jewry is likely to diminish future American-Jewish backing for Israeli-Palestinian peace, protection of civil rights for Israeli Arabs, and the enhancement of religious pluralism in Israel.

Waxman's predictions about the deepening fissures within American Jewry regarding Israel have come true since the publication of Trouble in the Tribe. In addition to the contretemps over the ambassadorial nomination of David Friedman, serious political conflict manifested itself in the diverse reactions of various American Jewish groups to the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank that was approved unanimously on December 23, 2016, following a very controversial U.S. abstention.

The resolution and the White House were heavily criticized for being one-sided and detrimental to the peace process by the American Jewish political right, including the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). On the other hand, left-leaning J Street lauded both the resolution and the Obama administration's decision not to block it (Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone, "U.S. Abstains in U.N. Vote against Israeli Settlements," The New York Times, December 24, 2016, p. A7).

Likewise, the scathing critique of Israeli policies in the West Bank contained in Secretary of State John Kerry's 70-minute speech on December 28, 2016, elicited a cacophony of diametrically opposed reactions from the organized American Jewish community. The speech was heavily criticized for its alleged one-sidedness by the ADL, ZOA, AIPAC, AJC, B'nai B'rith International, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. On the other hand, Kerry's admonition that Israeli settlements in the West Bank endangered prospects for a two-state solution was welcomed and praised by J Street, the Israel Policy Forum and the New Israel Fund (Adele Nazarian, "Jewish Groups Blast Kerry's Mideast Speech," Breitbart News, http://www.breitbart.com/ jerusalem/2016/12/29; and "Kerry's Speech, UN Resolution Drive Peace Further Away, Say U.S. Jewish Groups," Times of Israel, December 29, 2016).

Waxman deserves plaudits for tackling an important and very timely subject that has heretofore been ignored by the scholarly literature on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He analyzes a complicated and contentious topic with rare objectivity, ample research and calm reasoning. Trouble in the Tribe is an indispensable volume for anyone seeking to understand why American Jews quarrel over Israel and why such fraternal infighting will further complicate the quest for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.