Let’s not talk about it: American Jews’ problem discussing Israel

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: the US and us | Tags: , , , | 15 Comments »

My piece on last weekend’s Haaretz Magazine, and some other thoughts on the issue

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

While visiting New York last year, I got into a long political conversation with a friend, after which he invited me to dinner at his house. “But you must promise me we won’t discuss Israel,” he warned me. “It might ruin the evening.” About the same time, a friend wanted to introduce me to her new Jewish-American partner. “The one thing we can’t talk about is Israel,” I was told.

I wasn’t the last time I heard such comments. In other cases, I saw people get extremely upset, even hostile, when arguing about Israel. I knew that Israel was a complicated issue for Jews, but it seems that in recent years, the debate over Israel has become so polarized and tense, that it’s gotten to a point where many people would rather avoid it altogether.

When I got back to Israel, I offered my editors in Haaretz to write a piece about this issue. I spent a long time speaking to scholars, community leaders, activists and writers. Some of them were quoted in my piece, many weren’t. The interesting thing was that nobody – not even one person – denied the problem. Furthermore, once the article was published, people commented on one detail or another, but once again, the feeling that reform and conservative Jews have a tough time reaching a consensus over the role of Israel in their community was something that everyone shared:

“Our communities have really been torn apart surrounding Israel,” says [retired Rabbi Sheldon] Lewis. “People have attacked each other personally, friendships have ended, people have left synagogues because of it and have even disappeared entirely from the community. When I was a community rabbi I experienced that myself. The film festival may have been the most dramatic and well-known incident, but things have been going downhill for years.”

This is from writer Eric Alterman:

“In the past, you could say to liberal friends who criticized Israel ‘What would you do if you were in their place?’” says Alterman. “After all, no country would agree to undertake security risks [like] those that are required from Israel. But in recent years it’s more and more difficult to say it. It’s much more complicated to justify the raid on the Turkish flotilla, or the way Israel handled Gaza, or the attacks on human rights organizations. It looks like we we’re reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel. And many, alas, are going to stick with their values. There’s a sense of failure of an idea with regards to Israel. This is something very painful for me to say.”

You can read the entire piece here.


Defining the problem is easier than reaching a conclusion on its political implications. More than anything, I felt a growing cultural gap between Israel and American Jews, and cultural issues manifest themselves politically in unexpected ways.

What was most interesting for me was to hear so many people saying that violations of civil and human rights in Israel contradict Jewish values. I expected people to speak of political values, and identify themselves as Liberals, and therefore at odds with the current trends in Israeli politics, but I realized that what I call liberalism was, for many people I’ve spoken to, part of their cultural and even religious identity as Jews.

Which makes things even more complicated.

Israel was never a very liberal place. Until the 80′s, the Israeli left had nothing to do with liberalism (one could probably argue that the Likud was more liberal than Mapai, the old Labor party). Liberals (in the American sense of leftwing politics) took the lead in Israeli politics only for a brief moment in the 90′s, when, during Rabin’s government, they got some important laws passed and benefited from a very active Supreme Court.

By the end of the decade, it was all over. Netanyahu’s government with its racist laws and the toxic atmosphere it spreads is just part of a process that has been going on for more than a decade. In a way, I think that liberal Jews in the US wanted to see something of them in Israel, and recently, they are having a hard time finding it. That is the reason for all the anger and frustration.

I would be very careful to conclude that this process will damage Israel’s ability to gain political support in the US, or to advocate its policies in Washington. Many people I’ve spoken to said that the evangelical right more than makes up for the loss of Jewish support for Israel – if there is such a loss. I tend to agree. Also, Israeli politicians are extremely capable at manipulating the anxieties of American Jews, as Netanyahu’s successes in confronting pressure from the White House regarding construction in East Jerusalem has taught us. Yes, many Jews resent Avigdor Lieberman, but only a few would translate these feelings to positions that have something to do with the political reality.

This is not to say that Israel doesn’t face a major diplomatic crisis – only that this crisis has to do with the growing desire in other parts of the American establishment to see the end of the occupation. Even more important is the rest of the international community, which is clearly impatient with Jerusalem. But this dynamic won’t be affected by the difficulties of a Newton synagogue with hosting a political debate or by the backlash following a show at a Jewish theater in DC. The problem of liberal American Jews with Israel will remain what it is – a problem of American Jews.

15 Comments on “Let’s not talk about it: American Jews’ problem discussing Israel”

  1. 1 Tom Mitchell said at 1:04 pm on April 5th, 2011:

    I think that if most of the non-Orthodox Jews had gone to Israel instead of to the U.S. they would have become secular Jews. The basis of Judaism is different for American non-Orthodox Jews than for Israelis: for the secular in Israel it amounts to living in Israel and speaking Hebrew; for the Orthodox it means attending synagogue and performing daily ritual religious actions. For American Jews it means attending synagogue and then performing in their civic and private lives actions that reflect what they are taught as the values of Judaism. Traditionally this has meant liberalism. For those Jews still attached to Israel, there may be a contradiction between the learned values of Judaism and the ethnocentric values of defending one’s own people. Some people respond differently to this than others. Eventually it might lead to a further distancing of non-Orthodox American Jews from Israel.

    I agree with you that Israel is not a liberal democracy, but then neither was the United States when it was still engaged in a conflict with its native population. Liberal democracy in America is largely a 20th century phenomenon.

  2. 2 maayan said at 3:50 pm on April 5th, 2011:

    The greatest accomplishment of Palestinian and Arab anti-Israel propaganda, assisted by leftists such as yourself, Noam, is to have caused such a rift among Jews. You have turned the discussion into one where the blame for the conflict, for the plight of the Palestinians, for the enmity and hatred of the Muslim world, for the bias dominating the UN and other international bodies, supposedly lies with Israel.

    This is a total fabrication, of course, but who cares about the truth? Hey, why don’t we show another carefully edited Joseph Dana video…

  3. 3 timy said at 5:49 am on April 6th, 2011:

    There is a comparison to be made with support for the Soviet Union. Many western communists in the mid-20th century excused or explained away any Soviet crime or misdemeanor, because to admit to themselves that the dream had died would be the hardest act of all. Of course, the geopolitical context of Israeli crimes is very different, but the mindset of Israeli apologists is fundamentally the same.

  4. 4 Maayan said at 1:33 pm on April 6th, 2011:

    Actually, Timy, it’s the mindset of the Palestinian supporters that is fundamentally the same. When they’re not defending rocket launches, suicide bombings and the like, they like to ignore what the Palestinians are doing to their homosexuals (or they blame it on Israel), to their women, to their Christians, to their reporters (here’s the latest on that – http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4052976,00.html), to their children with all of that murderous brainwashing extolling “shahids” who died murdering Israelis, and so on.

  5. 5 timy said at 6:22 am on April 7th, 2011:


    Although what you’re saying is tarring with a wide brush (‘Palestinian supporters’ are a pretty disparate bunch), you’re right: it’s often true that some ‘Palestinian supporters’ defend indefensible actions.

    That’s beside the point, however. All forms of nationalism generate their own cruelty and absurdities. It just so happens that defending Israeli nationalism requires more mental cartwheels than most, and the last time that there was a similar historical situation was with western defenders of the Soviet Union.

    The cognitive dissonance generated by defending Israel’s actions is significant. No wonder many of them prefer to say “Let’s not talk about it,” as Noam points out.

    Thanks for the link. To return the favour, here’s the best piece of writing about nationalism in the last hundred years — a bit dated, sure, but always worth a re-read. :)


  6. 6 Corey said at 4:20 pm on April 10th, 2011:

    Noam is describing the polarization of attitudes toward Israel he experienced among American Jews. As one of the latter, I can vouch for the accuracy of his perceptions. Seems to me some Diasporaniks feel that since they have chosen to live outside The Land, they have no permission to criticize anything any Israeli government does. Israelis, on the other hand unburdened by such guilt feelings, express a healthy diversity of opinion.

    What’s new in the US Jewish community is the use of bullying and intimidation on the part of right-wing, triumphalist, frightened and xenophobic elements who are now doing their best to silence any expression — be it artistic, literary, journalistic, etc. — that they deem to be less than fully supportive of Israel. Their latest tactic has been to wage a kind of culture war within local Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Centers to convince these organizations to impose thinly disguised loyalty tests (to Israel) before giving support to any program, project or organization in the community. I’m old enough to remember the cruel rending of the social fabric done by McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s. That was bad enough. But now, to see the birth of a similar vigilante mentality bent on rooting out “un-Israeli” activity within the Jewish community feels like I trapped in one of Phillip Roth’s nightmares.

  7. 7 maayan said at 10:14 pm on April 10th, 2011:

    Of course Corey is right, the US Jewish community should fund the anti-Israel tripe that we get from organizations like Jewish Voices for War (oops, Peace). Let’s help Hamas and Hizbullah. Let’s help the UNHRC defame Israel. Let’s help call Israel an apartheid or Nazi state. Let’s treat Israelis like war criminals. Yes indeed, what an excellent use of resources and how “McCarthyistic” to even think of preventing these manipulative, propaganda-minded shills for Israel’s enemies from using community funds to spread the word. After all, it’s not as if enough resources are being expended on this project by the Palestinians, Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, EU, UNHRC, UNESCO, UNRWA, news organizations like BBC and Guardian and Ha’aretz, Al Jazeera, A certain former US President, UN General Assembly, Amnesty, HRW and such a long list of NGOs that it boggles the mind AND a number of extremely active Jewish groups including one significant political group (J Street) that use their being Jewish as both a shield and a machete with which to attack Israel. You are trapped in a Philip Roth nightmare and Israel and its supporters are trapped in a global Dreyfus Trial.

    Here’s a good read for you:


    Regardless of its manifest moral and intellectual inadequacies, however, his recantation carries inescapable consequences. All those who have used Goldstone’s report as a basis for their own delegitimisation of Israel now also stand revealed as having endorsed one of the worst officially sanctioned international falsehoods in history. All their attacks on Israel which relied upon Goldstone’s report are now shown to be equally baseless and discredited. Any future such attacks which use this report as an authority will be demonstrably false and malicious. The UN should now declare the Goldstone report null and void. Any less will make it knowingly and demonstrably party to a travesty of justice.

  8. 8 maayan said at 10:25 pm on April 10th, 2011:

    Timy, I’ve just seen your response for the first time, sorry it’s taken so long to respond.

    I understand that we have a different viewpoint about the conflict, but all you did was repeat your first false charge. What mental cartwheels do I have to do in order to defend Israel from its critics?

    Let’s see: they defend dictators, I defend democratically elected governments (which I also criticize, by the way). They defend people who use violence and threats to influence their press, I defend a country that cherishes and protects the work of subversive reporters and newspapers. They defend a culture that for a century has made a point of attacking Jewish civilians, while I defend a culture that seeks to minimize civilian casualties. They defend a culture that ignores and denies Jewish history, I defend a culture that permits the most free religious worship experienced in this region in a couple of thousand years. They defend a people who seek to extricate every last Jew from among them, I defend a people that gives greater rights to their 20% minority of non-Jews than those non-Jews would experience living under Arab (including Palestinian) rule. They defend a people that for a century has lit the embers of this fire and I defend a country that has proposed peace and compromise at least 5 times during that century.

    Orwellian indeed.

  9. 9 Corey said at 10:32 am on April 11th, 2011:

    And, Maayan, what mental cartwheels do I have to do in order to allow you to hear that not _every_ deviation from a particular Israeli government’s policy (ies) represents a “Criticism” of Israel and that every criticism is not a coded existential threat. Some are, granted. I’m not naive. I have no illusions about the existence of anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli sentiments among the entire political right-left spectrum. As a Jewish American leftist by birth, I find left-wing anti-Semitism truly disgusting. But the trend I’m talking about is the new right-wing Jewish American attempt to silence Jewish theatre companies, filmmakers writers, and other artists who do nothing more extreme than suggesting that it might be possible to hold more than one idea in one’s consciousness at a time. A case in point is Theater J in D.C. Because their artistic director programmed plays by Israeli playwrights that some right-wing Jews did not approve of, and because he invited a group of Jewish playwrights to write short plays in direct response to Caryl Churchill’s infamous “Seven Jewish Children” which were then presented with Churchill’s piece in the context of a community discussion, a donor to the DC Jewish Federation is attempting to force his own cultural/political agenda on the community by withholding his support for the Federation unless they exert pressure on the DC JCC which houses Theatrer J to keep their artistic director on “a tighter leash”

    The idea that a donor to a community organization with its own mission and mandate can dictate policy flies in the face of the tradition of non-profit philanthropy (as distinct from buying politicians and lobbyists) in the US and seems pretty Stalinist to me. Moreover, such tactics can drive away those Jews who are often the ONLY pro-Israel voice in the progressive world here.

    More about the Theater J story here:

  10. 10 maayan said at 3:20 pm on April 11th, 2011:

    No, Corey, donors ALWAYS dictate the mission, mandate and activities of the recipients of their munificence. Always. You think Soros is a hands-off kinda guy? Or do you think he knows exactly why and where his money is going and then he ensures that it is spent in certain ways? I know many donors to Jewish and non-Jewish charities and they often let their will be known when giving the money.

    Now, I have never said that deviating from Israel’s government’s policy is a coded existential threat. However, when J Street goes to the Obama administration and actively lobbies it to affirm and UNSC resolution making the Kotel Palestinian and any Israeli presence there illegal, then that deserves to be criticized as anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic to boot, but that’s a different issue). That does go to the bottom of the question of existence. And for that matter so does that piece of tripe, “Seven Jewish Children.”

    As I pointed out above, there is no shortage of anti-Israel funding out there, groups and governments who do this dirty work, and among them many Jews who use their Jewishness to add legitimacy to their anti-Israel claims. Why on earth should the Jewish community support this? So that their children and grandchildren hide on campus when the bullshit apartheid week comes up? There are plenty of outlets for the Palestinian propaganda machine to voice its position, so why do we need to also allow the propaganda into the Jewish community? It’s not a question of free speech, it’s a question of integrity. There is no integrity in promoting lies such as those in Seven Jewish Children or in a piece of art equating Palestinians with Holocaust victims. It’s pure, putrid, puerile propaganda. Jewish donors who care about Israel are better served contributing their funds to any number of Israeli charities and organizations that don’t serve as mouthpieces for Fatah.

  11. 11 timy said at 7:42 am on April 12th, 2011:


    You asked, rhetorically: “What mental cartwheels do I have to do in order to defend Israel from its critics?” and then proceeded to do exactly those cartwheels. If you don’t see it, I can’t make you see it, but in the light of ongoing occupation and injustice, the points you make are fundamentally unpersuasive to a fair-minded observer.

    It is this kind of mental habituation, this kind of rote up-is-down-ism, that reminds me of mid-20th-century western defenders of the USSR.

    I appreciate that you see things very differently. Such is life.

  12. 12 maayan said at 1:29 pm on April 12th, 2011:

    Timy, I just watched an Israeli late-night variety program with an Arab female hostess who is a partner to two Jewish Israeli hosts. Earlier tonight, there was a sort-of Mizrahi American Idol clone show and the Jewish music star who ran it made it a point to choose one winner who will record an album of Arabic music.

    On the other hand, every second day I have to hear Hanin Zuabi attack Israel – the country which pays her salary as an MK and which grants her more rights than she would have in ANY Arab country in this region – as if it’s a Nazi state. And, of course, she can do this openly and freely.

    I’m not engaged in mental cartwheels, those who attack Israel disproportionately are the ones who delude themselves and others. And to be perfectly clear, the dictatorships are on the Arab side, just like the Soviets, not the Israeli side. The absence of free press is on the Arab side, not the Israeli side, just like with the Soviets. The absence of a free judiciary is on the Arab side, just like with the Soviets, not with the Israelis. I could continue listing differences, but I think it’s time that you stop doing the cartwheels and recognize that the side resembling the Soviets isn’t Israel and the defenders who defend that side are the ones doing a disservice to truth, peace and justice.

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  14. 14 timy said at 7:05 am on April 14th, 2011:


    I suspect we’re at the point in the conversation where we’re talking past each other, rather than with each other, but nonetheless, here’s a last crack at it.

    I’ve been talking about a mindset. For almost half a century, Israel has been engaged in a cruel, unjustifiable, illegal occupation. Israel is also a parliamentary democratic state. The latter does not justify the former, though many of the defenders of the status quo try their best to avoid this obvious conclusion.

    (My initial, rather minor, point, was a simple historical analogy: avoiding the obvious, and denying reality, leads to a particular frame of mind. This frame of mind is similar to the mindset of mid-20th-century western defenders of the USSR. To be honest, it was an off-the-cuff thought, unrelated in large part to the content of Noam’s original post, but I think the point still stands. All occupations corrupt the occupiers.)

    That’ll be my last word on all this, though I’ll continue to read any replies. All yours!

  15. 15 Maayan said at 9:11 am on April 14th, 2011:

    Thanks for the floor, Timy.

    I agree that the occupation corrupts. I’d rather there was no occupation. Actually, most Israelis would rather there was no occupation. Israelis, however, don’t have to travel far to understand why there is an occupation. Just take a look at Gaza and what happens when Israel vacates an area that it occupies. Israelis also know they’ve offered peace 3 times just in the past decade and those deals would have culminated in no occupation and a Palestinian state. However, the non-partner Palestinians preferred the occupation to peace for many reasons, some of which are unfolding presently.

    That’s the first problem with your statement.

    The second problem with your statement is that the occupation is completely legal. Just refer to UNSC resolution 242 and 338 if you have any doubts about this.

    Beyond that, I have to agree that it is such a cruel occupation that if you look at pro-Palestinian propaganda videos like the one Joseph Dana recently put out about supposedly violent Israeli arrests in Judea and Samaria, at the very end you have a bunch of Palestinian children openly taunting a soldier with a Palestinian flag. What fear of the violent, criminal, cruel Israeli soldiers! The kids are obviously scared to death.

    The occupation is so horrendous and criminal that during this occupation the Palestinian economy has grown by about a compounded 30% over the past 3-4 years and has achieved a status wherein both the UN and the IMF have declared that they are ready to lead a state. You can only imagine how stifling the occupation must be for them to suffer so. Gosh!