Liberal Jews and Israel / a case of split personality disorder

Posted: January 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: the US and us, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »


Last Saturday I met an Israeli-American friend who came for a short visit from his studies in Europe. We talked some politics, and finally came to an issue which always puzzles me: the fact that American Jews are unwilling – almost unable – to criticize Israel, both in public and in private, and even when Israeli policies contradict their own believes. My friend noted that if some of the articles on the Israeli media – and not even the most radical ones – were to be printed in the US and signed by none-Jews, they would be considered by most Jewish readers like an example of dangerous Israel-bashing, sometimes even anti-Semitism.

I’ve became more aware of this issue myself since I started writing this blog. Things I say or write which are well within the public debate in Israel are sometimes viewed as outrageous by American Jewish readers; at the same time, events which would make the same readers furious if they happened in the US – for example, the Israeli municipality which tried to prevent Arabs from dating Jewish girls – are met with indifference.

Naturally, I’m generalizing here. Between millions of Jews you can obviously find all kinds of voices – and this is part of the reason I hesitated before writing this post – but I think one can recognize some sort of mainstream opinion within the Jewish community, which both echoes the official Israeli policies, regardless of the identity of the government in Jerusalem, and at the same time, turns a blind eye on events which might distort the image of Israel which this community holds. And this is something which is hard to understand.


All known data indicates that the vast majority of US Jews supports the democratic party, and many consider themselves as liberals (Barack Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote). Yet except for a group of well known activists, you can hardly hear these people criticize Israel, which is not exactly a picture-perfect liberal democracy.

I am not talking here about the old Jewish establishment or about AIPAC. AIPAC are professional politicians. Their status is based on their connections to the Israeli governments, and their ability to promote Israeli interests in Washington. Breaking up with Israel – even just criticizing Israeli politics – will not just hurt their status, it will simply leave them unemployed. Expecting AIPAC or other Jewish leaders with good ties in Jerusalem to declare that, for example, Israel should lift the siege on Gaza, is like asking an insurance lobbyist to speak in the name of the public option.

Naturally, I don’t expect anything from Jewish neo-cons either. These people like Netanyahu, they supported George Bush, and they will go on speaking about culture wars and Islamo-Facists versus Judo-Christians even on the day Ismail Haniya converts to Zionism. You can agree or disagree with them, but at least their views are consistent.

With the Liberals it’s quiet a different story. It’s obvious they care much about Israel, and some of them are very passionate about politics and extremely well-informed about what’s going on here, but from time to time, I get the feeling they hold back some of their views.

I don’t think many liberals, if they really are ones, can accept the siege on Gaza. Even if they think that Hamas is to blame for the current state of affairs, surly they don’t support collective punishment against 1.5 million people, do they? What would they say if the US was to seal the areas in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan where the insurgents are hiding, not letting even basic supply in or out, preventing civilians from growing food or working, and practically leaving the entire population on the brink of starvation? I presume many Americans will oppose such policies.

But let’s leave geo-politics aside, and talk about the current wave of anti-Arab legislation in Israel. There are things happening here on a daily basis which would make most American Jews go out of their minds if they occurred to Afro-Americans in Alabama or to Native-Americans in Oklahoma, rather than to Arabs in the Galilee. Take for example the temporary order preventing Arab citizens who marry none-Israelis to live with their partners and children here, or the new legislation which will make it legal for Jewish neighborhoods and settlements to refuse to accept Arabs. Is this something Americans – not just liberals – would tolerate? I’m not even talking here about the de-facto discrimination of Arabs, but on a legal effort to introduce ethnic segregation in Israel. Isn’t that the same issue Jews fought against throughout our entire history? Weren’t American Jews an important part of the civil right movement? What’s the difference between Blacks in Birmingham and Arabs in Katzir?

I guess that part of the reason for not criticizing Israel is that many Jews are extremely sensitive to the existential threat Israelis sense, so they don’t like to speak against security measures taken by Israel, since it’s not them who would be hurt when these measures are lifted. This is understandable, but many of the problems the Arab minority faces has nothing to do with national security, but with the desire of many in the Israeli public – and their elected officials in the Knesset – to make Israel not just a Jewish state, but a state for Jews, and Jews only. It’s not about terror, just racism.


Given the sense of shared history and even close family ties between the two communities, there is something very natural with the American-Jewish community’s desire to take side with Israelis in what seems as its conflict with the Arab world. I guess taking sides also means avoiding looking at some of the faults of your partner. But the problem with the Jews’ attitude towards Israel is much deeper than that, and it shows the most on issues which have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and are purely an internal matter of the Jewish people.

Here is an example: as we all know, the Orthodox Jewish establishment has an official statues in Israel (unlike most Western countries, state and religion are not separated here, and the chief Orthodox Rabbi has a position similar to this of a supreme court justice). The same Orthodox establishment is very hostile to none-Orthodox Jews, which happen to make most of the American Jewish community. A few weeks ago, Fifth-year medical student Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel. I expected all hell to break in the States. After all, this concerns Jews’ right to practice their faith in the most holy place in the world. I wouldn’t say the event went unnoticed – I saw some blog posts and articles referring to the incident, and Forward published Frenkel’s account of the day – but it certainly wasn’t enough for people in Israel to notice. If American Jews spoke on this matter, it was with a voice that nobody heard.

Now imagine the public outrage if Frenkel was arrested anywhere else in the world for wearing a talit. For some reason, many Jews accept the fact that only in Israel – the same country which asks for their political and financial support – they are seen almost as Goyim. Very few of these Jews will admit that Israel is simply not a very tolerant place, to say the least.

What followed the incident in the Kotel was even more interesting: speaking at a convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren said that Frenkel was not arrested but just “led away” by police from the area after offending some people’s feelings there. This was simply not true – she did get arrested – and two weeks later Oren admitted to this fact and claimed he was given “incomplete information” from Jerusalem (even though the fact of Frenkel’s arrest was widely known and never disputed, both in Israel and in the US). Yet even then the ambassador didn’t provide any explanation for the arrest itself, and nobody seemed to demand it from him anymore. More importantly, if there was some discomfort felt in the Jewish community regarding the way ambassador Oren handled the whole affair, it failed again to reach the Israeli media or the Israeli public.


About ten years ago I worked in one of these programs which bring American Youth to Israel. It was a fairly good one: unlike the Taglit-Birthright tours, which last 10 days, we spent 5 weeks on the road, holding seminars and visiting places from Eilat in the south to Mt. Hermon in the north. But as far as politics and history goes, it was elementary school level, with the whole program avoiding any issue that might seem too complex or controversial.

Sometimes I feel that with regards to Israel, the entire Jewish community never got off the Taglit bus. Jews are almost desperate to hold on to some sort of a naïve image of this country, its people and its institutions. This is most evident with the way they see the IDF. It’s not just that they don’t believe what the Palestinians are saying – they can’t even imagine the Israeli army doing bad things. The US army – yes; the IDF – never.

What’s understandable for 16 years old kids is becoming absurd when intelligent, powerful and influential grown-ups are concerned. What is it that makes people think that the Israelis enlisting to join the IDF paratroops are any different than their own Marines during the Vietnam War, or from Blackwater operators today? You get better and worse people everywhere, so we shouldn’t fool ourselves – the Israeli army is a perfectly normal one, able of heroic acts as well as atrocities.

As I said, this whole approach never seizes to puzzle me. I was always fascinated by American history and culture – to the point of obsession – and I admire the role Jews played in it. But something in the current Jewish politics and ideas regarding Israel don’t fit the long tradition of fighting for civil liberties, freedom and tolerance by this community, both at home and around the world.

More than ever, I wonder what role this naïve image of Israel – almost an abstract Israel, which has nothing to do with the actual Middle Eastern country – plays in the way Jews see themselves, and how are they going to look back on it ten or twenty years from now.

15 Comments on “Liberal Jews and Israel / a case of split personality disorder”

  1. 1 Aviv said at 1:21 am on January 6th, 2010:

    Don’t worry, Noam. I think as time goes on, American Jews just care less.

  2. 2 Joel Katz said at 1:50 am on January 6th, 2010:

    Thanks Noam for an interesting post. You’ve raised some interesting questions.

    I believe that American Jews have the opportunity to gain a more complex view of Israel due to the quantity and variety of news that can now be read online.

    On the issues of religion and state, I urge your readers to check out Religion and State in Israel @religion_state on Twitter.

    Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.


  3. 3 Zvi said at 7:37 am on January 6th, 2010:

    This is a very complex subject which is further complicated by the fact that many people conflate ‘Jewish’ with ‘Israeli’ and vice-versa. Split personality disorder is an apt metaphor – with the emphasis on disorder!

    Having an opinion is one thing, but to what extent one should be expressing that opinion and to whom is a big gray zone. And whose opinion really matters anyway? In *my* opinion, it is only the people who are directly involved in the conflict who can resolve things. As an Israeli who no longer lives in Israel, I personally take issue with anyone who does not live in the region telling one side or the other what to do. I even consider myself in that category now.

    I occasionally will explain the complexity of the situation to someone who is spewing complete rubbish, but in general I keep my opinions to myself. On the other hand, I enjoy very much having conversations with Palestinians from all walks of life – their opinions matter, and they do not often have the opportunity to talk to an Israeli who is not telling them what to do.

  4. 4 Lamerkhav said at 9:08 am on January 6th, 2010:

    very good point.
    it’s not simple split, but the multidimensional split in various axes

  5. 5 Shunra said at 9:38 am on January 6th, 2010:

    Have you ruled out the possibility that the “nice” liberal American Jews are just as evil as any other powerful group that ignores the effects of its actions on others?

  6. 6 K. said at 1:49 pm on January 6th, 2010:

    Yes, indeed, Noam. Thanks for this excellent post.

  7. 7 Jami said at 7:45 pm on January 6th, 2010:

    Great post! I had to Tweet it, by the way.

    You should clarify American-Jews in the post title though. It seemed a little vague to me until I started to read.

  8. 8 noam said at 4:30 am on January 8th, 2010:

    Aviv – that’s what I’ve been hearing too, but is that good or bad?

    Zvi – one of the problems is that US and Israeli politics became inseparable, so I think the Jews’ opinion actually plays a big role in the way the conflict is heading, whether we like it or not.

    Jami – you are right, for some reason I though that just because I had American Jews in mind everybody else saw it that way too. But there are liberal Jews elsewhere of course (I ended up not changing the headline because I’m kind of a printed version person – once something is done, unless it’s a real mistake, I usually rather leave it the way it is).

  9. 9 Haya said at 8:30 am on January 8th, 2010:

    First of all, to follow a utilitarian attitued, one has to fight for minorities’ rights at home, otherwise he himself might be at risk… So it is natural for jews to have liberal and even extreme liberal views at home (which is the US). Secondly, as you mentioned they know that israeli citizens will pay the price for security neglect, so better not interfere. Israel media tend to describe many internal affairs as security problems and people outside the country everywhere in the world tend to accept it. And finally I think you expect too much from people who live outside the country. Distance makes the difference. People are flooded by everyday troubles and all-serounding culture and cannot get into inner problems of another country and so are the american jews who keep one rule: Israel must survive and florish, no matter what.
    Thank you for raising an important question about the “comunity integrity” (if we can talk about something like that) and touching basic issues of the immigrants liasons with the homeland in general.

  10. 10 Haya said at 8:33 am on January 8th, 2010:


  11. 11 Rafi said at 10:08 am on January 9th, 2010:

    Mahmud Haniya? call him Ismail.

  12. 12 noam said at 10:09 am on January 9th, 2010:


  13. 13 JC said at 6:06 pm on January 10th, 2010:

    I think this has a lot to do with how Jews see themselves, as you said in your post. Younger Jews (really, post-’67) are taught to identify Israel as a core part of their Jewish identity. They want to see themselves as good and they want to believe Jewishness is good and in their (our) minds Israel is thus projected as good. The reality is I think American Jews on the whole are very ill-informed about the realities in Israel. This is due to awful American media and deliberate policy of most Jewish institutions here that portray a fairy-tale Israel and shield American Jews from the ugly reality.

    The problem with this is that Jews in the U.S. who reject Israel also tend to reject Judaism along with it since they are taught to conflate the two. Virtually every American Jew I have ever met who was critical of Israel also had disdain for Judaism or the Jewish community. Of course not all American Jews who criticize Israel think this way, including me, but most seem to.

    One can almost immediately spot an American Jew who has the romantic fairy-tale view of Israel. Then after I spot them I groan because I know all about the hand-wringing and crying that they’ll do as they deprogram themselves.

  14. 14 noam said at 10:02 am on January 11th, 2010:

    JC- interesting point about the Jews who criticize Israel ultimately tend to start distancing themselves from Judaism. One wonders how many community leaders are sensitive to the dangers – not just the benefits – of identifying Judaism with Israel.

    What will happen if things get uglier here? Will it turn more people away from their heritage?

  15. 15 JC said at 6:27 pm on January 11th, 2010:

    “What will happen if things get uglier here? Will it turn more people away from their heritage?”

    I think that ultimately will happen. If there were a moderately religious Jewish movement critical of Israel then I think American Jews would flock to it. But there is simply no organized religious movement here that is critical of Israel at all aside from a few small and obscure Reform and Haredi groups (American Council for Judaism and Satmar). These Reform groups barely exist anymore and no one likes the Haredim. So this is really the fault of the organized Jewish community in America (in my opinion) for taking a no-holds-barred attitude towards Israel and conflating Israel with Judaism.