The Disquieting Divide: Liberal American Jews and their Israel Dilemma

starBy Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

At we observe Israel’s 68th anniversary of statehood, one finds a deepening divide on the part of younger Jews toward Israel. The internecine warfare around Israel that today seems to dominate the American Jewish political landscape has led some Jews to jettison their involvement with Israel and its politics or at times to adopt positions hostile to the Jewish State.

This growing frustration on the part of a segment of American Jewry with Israel and its policies has resulted in a series of political transitions. Among some Millennials and other Jewish Americans, it has rekindled a growing attention to domestic issues, including same-sex marriage, voting rights, the equal pay initiative, and the minimum wage campaign. In many ways such attention to these liberal causes has been a mainstay within the American Jewish political tradition.

Similarly, the Sanders campaign has triggered an interest on the part of a segment of Jewish activists to refocus their politics on the social revolution that has framed the Senator’s agenda. In response, these American Jewish progressives are directing their energies to the collective bargaining rights of workers, the issue of educational equality and access, and the cause of reducing medical care costs while providing for universal coverage.

In reacting to Israeli intransigence and drawing on their social justice impulse, a sector of disenchanted American Jews have embraced the campaign of divestment, boycott and sanctions as an expression of their political disconnect with the Jewish State over its settlement policies and human rights practices.

One must understand that Jewish voters enter the political fray with a broad range of interests, where Israel is seen as one of the competing policy factors. This was dramatically demonstrated in a 2015 American Jewish Committee study and confirmed in a number of other opinion surveys.

What are the concerns of American Jews?

Economy 41.7%
National Security 12.3%
Health Care 12.0%
Income Inequality 11.6%
U.S.-Israel Relations 7.2%
Supreme Court Appointees 5.6%

Other issues that were listed included the Iranian Nuclear Program, Race Relations, Immigration, and Church-State Policies. As is quite evident, the “U.S.-Israel Relationship” scored fifth among the primary contending political and economic issues. This pattern of projecting a highly diversified set of political priorities has been a constant within the Jewish electorate, as it mirrors the range of issues that Americans in general consider important.

As I have written elsewhere, it is essential to realize the liberal or progressive orientation of many American Jews. There are a number of entry points that help explain and define the themes of “Jewish Liberalism.”

Jewish Historical Experience: Scholars have suggested that since Jews often lived under arbitrary systems of rule, they as victims came to understand the need to protect themselves and other minorities from the abuse of power. As political outsiders “Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that …reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.”

Radical Chic: Through their career choices, cultural values, educational experiences, and social ideas, Jews would be exposed to the principles of liberalism. Their politics would be seen as an extension of their socio-economic orientation and would represent as well a socially accepted form of political participation.

Jewish Religious Values: The exposure to such core religious ideals as “Tikkun Olam” and “Tzedakah” served to frame the political identity of Jews. Reform Jewish leaders have advocated that social issues ought to be examined through a Jewish lens. Jewish tradition, they would argue, can inform and challenge Jews to act in a manner that serves the collective interest of the United States.

Universal Ethic: This theory contends that liberalism serves as the great unifying force among peoples, minimizing religious, cultural, and social differences. Through this view of society, with its emphasis on the values of internationalism and universalism, it is possible to see human progress as continuous. Broad social values are considered integral to advancing Jewish political interests. Jews could align their political orientation with their religious beliefs, allowing them to construct a continuum between their personal and religious convictions and the broader social enterprise.

American Exceptionalism: The uniqueness of the American experience for Jews with its constitutional guarantees, its embodiment of diversity has fostered a different political environment. In turn, their political behavior would reflect not a conservative orientation as seen elsewhere in Jewish history.

The movement of liberal Jewish Americans away from their involvement with Israel and in some cases with the Jewish community itself represents a challenge in identifying ways the community can rebuild and strengthen these connections. The strategy here is two-fold; first to sustain a pro-Israel voice within the Democratic Party which is showing increasing signs of jettisoning its historic Israel relationships. The second involves the question of how communal institutions will continue to market their Israel agenda to younger Jews, who remain more skeptical and disconnected from that message.

This is not to suggest that Jews who have grave misgivings around the Israel agenda are always comfortable moving outside of the Jewish tent to express their political passions. Yet, the quality and substance of the Jewish discourse around Israel has become so toxic that there exist few points of communal access where constructive dialogue can occur.

Over time, some within the Jewish community have attempted to create certain artificial markers that define “insiders” verses “outsiders.” These definitions were designed in part to categorize who and what remains as acceptable political rhetoric and communal policy or “Jewish Speak” in connection with the Israel conversation. However, the growing reality today is that one can no longer speak of “the” Jewish community but rather a series of communities reflecting these very real political and social divides.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found at www.thewindreport.com