It is a commonplace among Jews to say that Zionism faces a crisis, what with 50 years of Israeli occupation. But the more important development is the crisis of the American Jewish community. What defines that community? Who feels themselves to be a member? In fact there is no center today in the Jewish community, the community is fracturing, and nothing this exciting has happened in more than a generation, because it will transform American politics.
The crisis of course involves Israel. The two sides are represented by two comments at a forum a week ago on How to talk about Israel at the secular Birmingham Temple outside Detroit.
Howard Lupovitch has many cousins in Israel. A professor of Judaic studies at Wayne State University, he said at the forum that American Jews have the “luxury” of living far away from Hamas. “Jews have an obligation to criticize the state, but this criticism has to be constructive.” He appeared to question the existence of “the occupation,” and said Jews must “engage the gray” of what Israel is, rather than take extreme positions. “The goal is to be a Zionist and a critic of the state simultaneously.”
Sam Molnar is a graduate student in environmental information at the University of Michigan and he also has cousins over there. He described an important moment in his life. He was visiting his uncle in the settlement of Neve Daniel two years ago when his ten-year-old cousin said that the family would soon be moving to an outpost on a nearby hillside “because if we don’t move there the Arabs will.” Molnar told her, “I work with Arabs, I live in the same building as Arabs, I party with Arabs.” She looked at him in disbelief. On her neck was a necklace with a Jewish star and a bullet.
Lupovitch and Molnar’s definitions of community are irreconcilable. Molnar has rejected his cousin’s community. He is part of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has called for boycotting Israel because of the intolerance and militarism he witnessed in his own family. Lupovitch opposes boycott and would call on Molnar to air his differences at the temple and then stand with the Jewish community supporting his cousins in uniform over there.
Lupovitch’s idea of Jewish community has been intact for more than 100 years. It is based on the understanding of an insular American Jewish community that cannot fully trust the wider society and that must stand together as Zionists because Jews need a Jewish state and that Jewish state requires American political support.
Molnar’s idea of community is more diverse, and is not strictly Jewish. He says Jews will only be liberated when Palestinians are liberated; so he expresses greater kinship with some Palestinians than he does with most other Jews.
He will stand with a diverse community to boycott Israel, Lupovitch will oppose him.
A few years ago, Molnar’s position was a fringe position; and the Jewish community could say that it was united and had a center; and for two or three generations that center was support for Israel. Americans for Peace Now stayed on the board of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations even though that body supported the settlements that Peace Now was opposing, because Peace Now saw a greater need for Jewish political cohesion in the United States than it did to oppose settlements. Peace Now, and Lupovitch, apparently regard the Jewish community as a small minority community that needs to speak with one voice to be heard at all.
These days of unity are ending. The middle is the most tortuous ground, which is why liberal Zionists are having a crisis. A “Jewish Walk for Israel” in Detroit led by the largest Jewish organizations refused to allow Americans for Peace Now and Partners for a Progressive Israel (a Meretz-aligned group) to appear with them this year on the false ground that they support BDS, according to Jeffrey Falick, the rabbi of the Birmingham temple. And J Street was rudely rejected as a member by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, because it can be critical of Israel.
But non-Zionists are not tortured or in crisis. Jewish Voice for Peace doesn’t want to be in the Walk for Israel, or in the Conference of Presidents. And it would seem to be growing faster than all other Jewish organizations. It is appealing to the young people of Open Hillel, who are breaking away from Hillel International rather than accept its rules against talking about BDS.
JVP has a broad definition of American community, one in which Palestinians help lead us out of the conflict. It sees this as the only way forward. And leading Jewish organizations refuse to debate JVP or acknowledge its existence. For now anyway!
Nostalgists would like to believe that the Jewish community can be put back together. President Obama addressed Adas Israel in Washington the other day and said that Jewish values of making the desert bloom were the same as the civil rights values that had inspired him as a young man. This is rhetoric of a glorious past, designed to win the oldline Jewish community to support the Iran deal. Obama has to know that today’s Israeli regime is completely inconsistent with the values of the civil rights movement.
Falick also seems to think he can unite the Jewish community. He said last week that Jews are capable of talking these issues out, and when he learned that the Zionist Organization of America was in the house that night promptly invited a young PhD candidate named Jonathan on to the panel to give it diversity, and said the ZOA was welcome at any temple event on Israel going forward. It was a nice stunt theatrically, but politically it was meaningless. As my friend Tova Perlmutter of Jewish Voice for Peace made clear in a patient dialogue with Jonathan that night, he is a religious fundamentalist who gives weight to the 613 commandments of Rambam which Perlmutter’s grandparents rejected in Eastern Europe. And he believes that Jews owe something to their tribe, above the call for justice, tikkun olam. Perlmutter is for BDS and Jonathan says that Jews must be opposed to BDS. Two people with such profound differences cannot be in the same community; though I hope Perlmutter continues to debate him, she is a soulful person with a very wide definition of community and exposes Jonathan’s worldview as narrow.
There is a reason that criticisms that were once contained by the Jewish community are now openly dividing it. America. Molnar cited the Yiddish word doykkeit, meaning hereness. American Jews are comfortable here and project our futures in this society. Our principal community is fellow Americans. We are privileged, not persecuted, and our experience causes many of us to take exception to Israel’s persecution of Palestinians. We don’t want to work inside the Jewish community, because that community proved itself incapable of criticizing the occupation.
These differing ideas of political community have far reaching implications. As the scholar and author Ron Aronson said that night at the Birmingham Temple, this process can’t be undone. The Jewish community will divide more and more clearly in the next year or so between Zionist Jews and non-Zionist ones. This open division will license politicians who depend on Jews (as donors, or as voters in blue states, or as an opinion-forming elite inside the Democratic Party) to divide themselves. The next election season will feature open debate about the special relationship, mark my words.
The American Jewish population is coming of age. It is an American group with American values first and ever greater distance from the Jewish state. Some large segment of the Jewish community that has long been at the center of the community will never abandon the Jewish state. Fine; let the community split, and the debate begin.