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The Jews Are Not Alright
By Amy Burke Shriberg, Ph.D.
In the wake of the recent violence in Israel and of the more serious troubles last May, one thing became clear: American Jews are not alright. Ok, don’t get alarmed. We have survived far worse for far longer. However, what’s changed is the nature of the Jewish community within the United States itself. Much like American society at large, our community has always been multifaceted and richly diverse—ashkenazi, sephardi, mizrahi, orthodox, conservative, reform, and more. What has held us together across the millennia are our core beliefs, traditions, and ethos. Chief among these has been the commitment to Israel, Am Israel Chai. These words, however, once embraced by Jews around the world, especially during Passover when we say “next year in Jerusalem,” have now become politicized.
Unlike for so much of our history, Israel is a fact and not an aspiration. Many Jews do celebrate Passover in Israel, and many more could if we chose to or had the time and money for such a visit. And yet, pronouncing Am Israel Chai in certain circles is tantamount to uttering a profanity. It can get you booted from FB pages (trust me) and makes one an easy target throughout social media and even in the real world. Indeed, those words, when uttered to indicate support for Israel, may not even be welcome in all synagogues.
I believe we are at a crossroads, and the hyperpartisanship swirling around us is making it even more difficult for the Jewish community to respond to growing internal divisions around Israel. It is no longer a given that the overwhelming majority of American Jews support Israel across the board and with few reservations, and if this trend continues unabated, it will weaken both our ties to Israel as well as the social fabric of the American Jewish community.
As the Pew Foundation reported last May, a wider range of views about Israel exists among Jewish people in the United States now than, perhaps, at any time since the birth of the nation in 1948. According to Pew, “Among U.S. Jews overall, 58% say they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, a sentiment held by majorities in all of the three largest U.S. Jewish denominations.” Not surprisingly, Jews who identify as Orthodox or Conservative identify the most ardently with Israel, at 82 percent and 78 percent respectively. That number goes down to 58 percent for those who identify as Reform Jews. However, that support comes with more caveats and less concern about publicly criticizing Israel than ever.
This trend has impacted Reform clergy as well. Indeed, it is no longer shocking to find Reform (or other) Rabbis who won’t stand up for Israel. But words matter, and voicing support for Israel, most especially while Hamas’ rockets rain down on its cities, reminds us that Israel should matter to all Jews. When leaders stand with Israel, it emboldens the rest of us to do so, and models for our young people just why it’s important. Not surprisingly, a growing number of younger Jews are themselves becoming increasingly critical of the idea of Israel itself and not just of certain Israeli policies. What’s even more troubling, at least to me, is that, “among U.S. Jews who do not belong to any particular branch, a majority say that they feel not too or not at all attached to Israel.” Making matters more challenging in this regard, as the Pew Poll found, is that American Jews are growing less religious more quickly than other Americans.
Support for Israel differs based on party affiliation as well. Pew found that about 72 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning American Jews “say they are very or somewhat attached to Israel “compared with about half [52 percent] of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Jews.” The problem for Israel is that more than 70 percent of American Jews lean Liberal. Apart from the Orthodox community, younger Jews in this country are already less likely to feel connected to Israel than their older counterparts, at least according to Pew. This highlights the growing challenge Progressive Zionists face in this country, which is not to say that there are no problems on the Right. It is, afterall, Republican Sen. Rand Paul who is holding up passage of legislation that would allow for replenishing of the Iron Dome, a purely defensive system, and it was former President Donald Trump who placed neo-Nazis right in the White House.
What has changed?
For starters, Progressive Zionists, like myself, have awoken to a political landscape in which our natural allies on many issues are repulsed by our Zionism. Never has it been more okay to condemn and to isolate those who support Israel. For example, during the most recent round of Hamas’ rockets, I was kicked out of a FB group of mostly liberal academics for merely supporting Israel and criticizing Hamas—and by the way, that group is run by someone who seems to identify as Jewish. My views also were roundly condemned by conservatives in a FB group that was supposed to be a safe space for Pro-Israel Jewish Women.
Even within Jewish circles, there is little unity and weakening support for Israel. The number of American Jews motivated to speak out vociferously against our communal homeland is quite shocking. How do we build cohesion within the American Jewish community when we cannot come together to share in the joy of living in a time when our ancient communal homeland is now a sovereign nation?
While there are legitimate reasons for criticizing some Israeli policies, many of those critical of the Jewish homeland really don’t care about that level of nuance. Anti-Zionism is providing cover for those who dislike or outright hate Jews to come out of the shadows, and they are doing so in droves. While the Holocaust pushed antisemitism out of polite society, condemning Israel has created a way for those folks to bring it back.
That brings me to my final, and most important, point: The scourge of Jew hatred is rising, and we need to fight it together. Our community, and especially our children and young people, whether progressive, conservative, reform, orthodox, unaffiliated, or anything in between, are being subject to a steady stream of antisemitism in so many places. From Tik Tok to Instagram, in classrooms and beyond, there is little tolerance for support of Israel and widening enthusiasm for attacks on Israel’s right to exist at all. Jews have been attacked on the streets of New York and California; synagogues have been vandalized; pro-Israel demonstrators have had to flee from a march in a Chicago suburb; mezuzahs have been ripped off of dorm room doors; swastikas appear more and more often; Jews are excluded from more and more spaces; triple parentheses continue to target Jews online, and security at Jewish organizations around the country, from preschools to senior centers, exceeds anything I could have imagined as a child. And let’s not forget the Tik Tok posting Holocaust survivor in England who was attacked online last May simply because she’s Jewish, irrespective of the fact that she hadn’t said anything about Israel at all (though doing so does not legitmize such a reaction).
Since Israel’s founding, the Jewish community has stood united with our ancestral homeland. After all, the Holocaust didn’t end with the destruction of Europe’s Jews, or with Arab nations’ efforts to tag team with Hitler, but rather, with the rise of Israel. A strong and secure Israel was understood as the way to make good on the promise of Never Again. If American Jews no longer agree about that, how will anybody else? More importantly, how will Diaspora Jews maintain our broad-based communal life when one of its centerpiece ethos is being discredited from within?
We can look to another tradition of ours, l’dor v’dor, as a guide for how to respond. But the problem is that we no longer agree on what we should transmit to the next generation. Jewish communal organizations are well aware of this challenge and of the need to respond. Their ability to do so is stymied by this lack of consensus around Israel. Yes, we can change our language and use less loaded words. We can speak about personal connection and meaning. We can do all of those things, and none of it will change how much many people simply hate Jews and Israel. And by the way, they hate Jews who are publicly critical of Israel just as much as they hate Zionists like me. If we keep going down this road, that will become more and more obvious.
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