Jews who sit outside
It’s hard to believe it is possible to be more disturbed by the details of Hamas’ butchery on Oct. 7 and the harrowing experiences of hostages taken into Gaza, and yet new photos and interviews and investigations continue to bring new revelations to light. Despite all this, and even as social media and traditional news outlets continue to document increasing instances of antisemitism, there are still Jewish public figures and organizations in America who are choosing at this moment to focus their energies on critiquing Israel’s policies or even questioning the legitimacy of its existence.
Looking back at our history, do we find cases or situations when American Jewish organizations changed their anti-Zionist — or, in some cases, more neutral “non-Zionist” — stance in favor of the State of Israel? And does the past offer us any insight into the mindset of those who remain undeterred in their vocal opposition to Israel and the present war?
Prior to and during the early years after the establishment of the State of Israel, many American Jews were unfamiliar with Zionism or uncertain about the creation of a Jewish national homeland. As a result, various Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, for example, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now URJ) did not immediately embrace the idea of supporting a Jewish nation, preferring to identify as “non-Zionist” instead.
There were also Jews who opposed the ideas of Zionism and sincerely believed as Jewish Americans that the establishment of a Jewish state would lead to charges of dual loyalty and trigger antisemitism. Groups such as the American Council for Judaism saw Jewish nationalism as a challenge to their efforts to assimilate into their home culture. As a result, there was a conscious effort to eliminate or minimize the use of Hebrew in religious worship and classroom teaching, prevent the presence of the flag of the State of Israel in public Jewish settings including synagogues and remove textbooks and teaching materials that spoke about Zionism and the Jewish State.
The Six-Day War was a turning point after which both American Jews and more Jewish organizations became more deeply connected with Israel, with support for the state eventually becoming a core mandate of Jewish community relations. Jonathan Woocher writes about the incorporation of support for Israel into the “civil religion” of American Jewry following the 1967 and 1973 wars: “This civil religion defined a way of being Jewish that enabled its adherents to give meaning to their identities as Jews by connecting them to a great historic drama of destruction and rebirth. Such Jews made the survival of the Jewish people their sacred cause.”
Over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, he writes, American Jews embraced a five-part platform that embodied this idea: remembering the Holocaust; advocating for the State of Israel; fighting for Soviet Jewry; promoting a focus on Jewish education and communal connection; and opposing antisemitism.
As we know, there are various reasons why some Jews still withhold support for the Zionist cause. A few Jewish sects, such as Neturei Karta, oppose Zionism and call for its “peaceful dismantling” because they hold the position that Jews are forbidden to have their own state until the arrival of the Messiah.
For most, though, political and ethical considerations are what drive them. In Tablet, Samuel J. Abrams notes that a 2022-2023 national survey of American Jews, sponsored by Keren Keshet, found that 8% of American Jews identify as “progressive,” and “[t]heir views and voices are increasingly radicalized and divergent from the political center.” Prior to Oct. 7, reports The Guardian, “[o]ne poll showed that while most Jews see caring about Israel as important to their Jewish identity, more than half disapprove of the country’s rightwing government. Another found that a quarter of American Jews agree Israel is an ‘apartheid state,’ and one-fifth of those under 40 do not think the Jewish state has a right to exist.”
In early November, the Jewish Electorate Institute published a study of attitudes among American Jews about the Biden administration’s measures in defense of Israel. It found that younger Jews did not embrace America’s pro-Israel policy nor endorse Israeli actions.
Still, we have found examples of Jewish progressives who felt let down by their political allies. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the New Israel Fund, and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR have shared their disappointment and anger over the failure of so many on the left who either remained silent on Oct. 7 or, even more problematically, were quick to condemn Israel.
It is clear there are Jewish critics of Israel who sincerely believe that the policies of its government violate Jewish social justice norms. Bret Stephens offers a contrary view of where this value proposition fits within the tradition: “Social justice may be a foundational biblical value, but it is neither the only nor the central value. Tikkun olam is an evolving aspect of Jewish tradition, not the sum total of it, just as social justice can be only one component of true justice, not a substitute for it.”
To be clear: there is space for legitimate, constructive and essential criticism of Israel. But how such messages are conveyed and when and where they are delivered clearly defines their intent.
American Jews do not fit neatly into today’s standard categories for defining one’s status in society. Jewish identity transcends contemporary elements of identity formation — religion (ironically), culture, class, race or skin color, for instance — without even getting into the differences within the Jewish community when it comes to defining “Jewishness.” For some Jewish individuals, holding specific views and observing particular religious practices can place them outside of the comfort zone and core norms of the social milieu in which they feel they belong. If being Jewish comes at a price, individuals who don’t want the stigma of being “lumped in” as a Zionist or an Israel supporter may claim their American and/or progressive credentials by distancing themselves from these particularistic Jewish connections.
On a personal note: My grandparents believed that Hitler would be a passing phase. As loyal Germans who had fought in World War I for the kaiser, they took pride in their national identity. They rejected the parochial calls in 1936 to move to Palestine, questioning the Zionist cause. They perished in concentration camps during World War II.
How one understands and acts on their identity can define their existence.
Steven Windmueller is a Jewish communal professional and a scholar of contemporary political issues and American Jewish affairs. He is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.