On May 4, I went to Temple Israel in New Rochelle to hear Jewish historian Dov Waxman speak about his important new book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel. Waxman underscored trends in Jewish political life that we have chronicled here: American Jews are undergoing a historic transformation in their relationship to Israel in which criticism that was once only expressed in private is at last being expressed openly and angrily.
There’s an increasingly toxic debate happening within the Jewish community about Israel, and this debate is having a pernicious impact upon local Jewish communities. It’s leading to bitter arguments between members of the same synagogue. It’s discouraging rabbis from talking about Israel to their congregations. It’s forcing Jewish community centers to avoid inviting controversial speakers or putting on events that might become controversial. And it’s frightened many Jews from talking about Israel altogether in case such conversations end up in bitter arguments as they often do.
This is not news to our readers, but I have to say it was a joy to hear Waxman, a professor of political science at Northeastern, talking about it at a synagogue. The public battle inside the Jewish community we have long called for is happening. And only one guy walked out of the talk.
The most compelling part of Waxman’s talk was his repeated assertion that dissent was not allowed inside the Jewish community on Israel because it was understood to threaten American government support for Israel. A taboo on debate was enforced.
Waxman launched this idea by saying that for many years Israel was the glue that held the American Jewish community together — just look at the Israeli flag on the dais behind him. “Support for Israel became in many respects the one thing that all Jews had in common.” That support was congregational, communal, educational, financial, political. They engaged in hasbara and lobbying.
American Jews were “deferential” to Israel, and that deference had important political consequences:
So Aipac emerges as the dominant pro Israel lobby. So American Jews then gave Israel money and lots of it, and political support. And what’s important to note here is not only that this was a lot of money and an important amount of political support, but that it came with no strings attached. In other words it was essentially unconditional support for Israel. American Jews had a deferential attitude toward Israel. They saw their job to support Israel, to provide Israel with financial and political support it asked for, but not really to ask any questions. Not really to challenge Israeli government policies or actions. There was generally an uncritical attitude and this uncritical attitude allowed the Israeli governments to take this support largely for granted, confident in the knowledge that they had American Jews backing them overwhelmingly whatever they did.
Remember that when Walt and Mearsheimer broached this idea ten years ago, they were smeared as anti-Semites. That smearing served a political function. Zionist Jews needed to enforce a taboo on criticism:
Even if American Jews disagreed with the Israeli government, on the rare occasions that they did, they didn’t see it as their job to do so publicly. So in public there was a prevailing taboo against public criticism of Israel. The view was that such criticism of Israel suggested Jewish division, weakness even, and it might undermine crucial American government support for the fledgling Jewish state.
Even in private American Jews were reluctant to criticize Israel. The belief was that it wasn’t the business of American Jews or indeed diaspora jews in general to criticize Israel. Because it wasn’t their sons and daughters serving in the IDF, it wasn’t them paying taxes to the Israeli government. Diaspora Jews didn’t really have the right to criticize Israel. At best they should keep such criticisms to themselves.
All that’s over. Now criticism of Israel is “viral” and “nasty,” and it’s breaking up the Jewish American party. Younger American Jews see settlers beating up Palestinian farmers, and soldiers harassing Palestinians, and they speak out against it. And– cue Walt and Mearsheimer again — that has political consequences:
To some people this development is a worrying sign. This development is something that threatens to erode the unity of the American Jewish community and could possibly end up undermining American government support for Israel. so Some view this spread of dissent in a very negative way as a very alarming sign.
Waxman said that American Jews were able to break the taboo because they have overcome the initial psychic legacy of the Holocaust and they feel safe in the west:
But another very fundamental change has taken place in the American Jewish collective psyche, if you like. That is that American Jews today for the most part are less insecure and fearful than they once were. Their threat perception has declined. [Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day] And that reminds us of how profoundly the Holocaust has affected Jewish collective memory and identity. In the wake of the Holocaust the perceived threat to Jewish survival was very very real and very very palpable. The perception that Jewish survival was at risk and that Jewish survival worldwide was going to be at best threatened by a hostile non-Jewish world or perhaps at least the non-Jewish world was indifferent to Jewish survival– these attitudes shaped American support for Israel. The belief that since Jewish survival ultimately depended on Israel, Jews had to support Israel. And the lack of support for Israel endangered not only Israel but the survival of the Jewish people itself– this perception that Jewish existence was threatened by a hostile non Jewish world.
This perception has not entirely disappeared, to be sure, but it is less compelling for many Jews today. Many Jews today do not feel Jewish survival to be at risk, do not feel the non-Jewish world to be as hostile or at least as indifferent as they once did.
In describing the nasty battle inside the Jewish community, Waxman’s catalogue of abuses was almost entirely what the right is doing to the left. Not only does the right accuse the left of disloyalty and selfhatred– “tantamount to being antisemitic.”
It goes beyond invective… The right has also tried to curtail or limit expression of leftwing perspectives and opinions. In a number of major cities, like San Francisco, Washington DC, and New York, there have been pressure campaigns, concerted efforts made to limit or deny funding to Jewish cultural agencies that support activities that are viewed as contributing to the delegitimization of Israel.
Right. And here he made his most interesting point of all:
Finally I think that another reason for the incivility is that at the heart of the argument over Israel today is not just a difference of opinions about Israeli policies and actions but also a more fundamental disagreement about the legitimacy of dissent itself. A debate about whether dissent should be allowed and accepted within the American Jewish community. And I think that underpins some of the arguments that we’re having.
The legitimacy of dissent itself. This is about the end of the ghetto; this is about the end of a Jewish identity based on an outsider status in western society that required us to stick together. Anti-Semitism preserved that outsider status; and many Jews collected evidence of anti-Semitism with the goal of preserving the ghetto walls. Look at Abe Foxman and Jeffrey Goldberg. But those walls have fallen, and Jews must accept a new identity, as an empowered group in the U.S. establishment. That status means that there will be scrutiny, criticism, self-interrogation that has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
Bear in mind that the entire political impetus of the Jewish establishment is, We must support Israel and preserve American support for Israel. The community enforced a prohibition on talking about Israeli atrocities because dissent (“weakness,” as Waxman put it) would undermine the effectiveness of the Israel lobby. That’s why I started this site, I remind readers: My brother told me in 2003 that he had demonstrated against the Vietnam War but his Jewish newspaper said that the Iraq war would be good for Israel. The Jewish establishment harbored and lined up behind the neoconservatives, who were operating out of concern for what was good for Israel. That’s the factor Waxman left out: The awareness among American Jews in the wake of the Iraq war that a dual-loyalty faction of the community was claiming to speak for Jewish interests and, because that component’s hidden agenda was so patent to anyone who saw them in action, threatening the Jewish position in American society. That sure broke the taboo for me. In college the neoconservative Eric Breindel had warned me not to go near the Israel issue with my leftwing inclinations because I didn’t know jackshit about the place and had never been there, and I accepted that taboo for 25 years, till I saw what a mess the neocons were making of US foreign policy.
The legitimacy of dissent. Ask yourself how many anti-Zionist columnists there are at the New York Times. Zero. (Even as four staffers have had children serve in the Israeli army.) Ask yourself how many anti-Zionist Jews have been interviewed by Israel supporters Jodi Rudoren and Roger Cohen.
Waxman ended his talk by saying that Jews must learn to argue about this issue in a more tolerant manner so that the “poison” doesn’t destroy the community. I don’t buy that. That’s like saying, have dialogue with the White Citizens Council in Mississippi in the 1960s. This battle has to get more open and more critical. Just look at the young Jews who are angry at being lied to about ethnic cleansing and apartheid. They are making documentaries about this and hollering. They shouldn’t be having a civil dialogue over these matters, they should be undertaking civil disobedience against a corrupt and oppressive power structure. In fact, they are doing so. The taboo isn’t working on them.