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The Wobbling Narrative: Reduced Knee-Jerk American Jewish Support For Israel

February 16, 2018

11-30-2016 Demonstration in front of the Jewish Community Center in Denver organized by new group of young Jewish radicals, “If Not Now, When?” It protested the anti-semitic overtones of the then just elected Donald Trump and criticize the silence of local mainstream Jewish organizations to address the rising wave of antisemitism. Several hundred people, almost all of them Jews of all ages, were in attendance.

(This blog entry – reflection I suppose would be more accurate – is a result of reading the article below this morning and…a lengthy meeting and discussion I had recently with a young Jewish member of Jewish Voice for Peace here in Denver.)

An article appeared in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz (The Land) entitled “Vast Numbers of Progressive California Jews Disengaging from Israel, Survey Finds.” Its subtitle reads “Only a minority of young Jews in San Francisco’s Bay Area believe a Jewish state is important and only a third sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians.” It goes on to add:

The survey targeted a variety of people in Northern California’s 350,000 Jewish Community, only 21% of whom identify themselves as “strongly attached to Israel.” So nearly 80% are not so attached.

Still,  the majority of American Jews remain, loosely speaking, Zionist. What is the new element in the Jewish Community was the fact that while only 8% actively sympathize with the Palestinians over Israel, “almost half said they either sympathized with both sides, neither or were not sure.” Thus the sea change in Jewish opinion concerning Israel and Palestine can be expressed in the following: While most American Jews remain Zionist to one degree or another, for nearly half of Northern California Jews, support for Israel is simply not that high a priority or they hardly care. 

Let us note that Northern California, especially the San Francisco area, has long been a haven and base for German Jews, an area with a long history of skepticism concerning Zionism from its earliest days and for a long time, until recently, the only region, or one of the few regions where there has been a long tradition of sharp criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, to one degree or another. It is there that groups like Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun and Jewish Voice for Peace took form and have had a consistent popular base, including in some (largely Reform) synagogues and other community organizations. In a more general sense, San Francisco has long been a base, a kind of laboratory for the country’s left politics as well.

To a certain degree, perhaps not as pronounced in the percentages, the Northern California trends are indicative of the nation as a whole. Main stream Jewish organizations themselves have done study after study indicating a general drift away from the synagogues..and from ardent support of Zionism. I haven’t seen the most recent statistics but the ones from a decade ago suggested that most Jews in the United States, who remain overwhelming liberal-to-left on domestic issues, are not affiliated with a synagogue and while they identify as Jewish to one degree or another, support for Israel among this growing group is lagging. There have been national campaigns to bring this growing group of religious non-believers and skeptics back into the fold.

One reason that I am aware of this is that many of my former students were recruited to participate in such campaigns. Funded by (very) conservative Jewish money, the organizations were created to bring Jews, especially young Jews who are more disaffiliated than their parents, “back into the fold.” Interestingly enough, they often sought out the very liberal (even left) Jews as their paid organizers. Literally millions of dollars and much organizing effort has gone into such projects, but from what I can tell – and this Haaretz article reflects it – such efforts have produced little by way of intended results.

This is also true for the millions of dollars super-reactionary gazillionaire orthodox Jewish Zionists like Sheldon Adelson have thrown at Zionist causes (or opposing openly pro-Palestinian social movements like the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement against the Israeli Occupation). Birthright – that organizations that sends young American Jews to all-expenses-paid trips Israel on carefully orchestrated public relations journeys (that carefully avoid the Occupied Territories) – might convince some of the more naive participants, but more and more the effectiveness of such trips recruiting young American Jews “to the cause” is either failing or backfiring.

Eroding Support for Israel Among American Jews Beyond California. Too Little Too Late?

This eroding support for Israel among American Jews has been going on for more than a decade, and not just in California. Let me say openly that this is a welcome (and for some of us) long-awaited trend. the argument is often made that it is too little to late. I can’t argue with that. The awakening of American Jewry has been painfully slow to oppressive reality that is the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories, to the racist nature which has characterized Zionism’s attitude and practices towards the Palestinian people in general. The Zionist narrative has held. Creating an alternative narrative has proven a difficult task. But the narrative – and with it – that unquestioned, reflex support for Israel that characterized such a large element of American Jewry is a thing of the past. Cracks in the narrative are opening and will continue to do so as American Jewry becomes increasingly polarized on its relationship with Israel.

It is not that American Jewry – if we can even speak of it in one voice – has become anti-Occupation or Anti-Zionist; it hasn’t especially in the mainstream organizations. Still there is a sea shift taking place in the community, especially among the young. I saw it in my last decades teaching and that repeatedly.

I am not certain for all the reasons but will give a sense of a few.

1. Younger Jewish generations (born after 1982 much less ideological where it comes to Zionism than their parents (people my age or there abouts who grew up in the period just after WW2). Younger American Jews might not be openly critical of Israel – they are in the main not anti-Zionist – but they know the Palestinians are an oppressed people and many sympathize with their fate.

2. Blaming the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in specific for the crimes the Nazis (and other European fascist types in Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary, Rumania) committed against European Jewry – the attempt, and near success, to exterminate European Jewry – has lost much of its potency. It is not the Arabs and/or the Palestinians that committed genocide against the Jews of Europe, but European fascists. This has become even more noticeable with the rise of a virulent anti-semitism Europe associated with regeneration of extreme, narrow ethnic nationalism in much of Central Europe. These fascist elements – and that is exactly what they are – are tried and true allies of NATO and the United States, interestingly enough.

3. The 2008 vicious Israeli attack on Gaza; the arguments that this slaughter was in any way justifiable just doesn’t wash with young Jews. Given the internet and alternative sources of media they saw the senseless horror of the Israeli attack and didn’t buy into mainstream Zionist narrative…and still don’t. It was little more than an effort to reassert Israeli military national pride after the bloody nose the Israelis received in their 2006 abortive invasion and air attack against Lebanon by attacking a people who could hardly fight back against a modern military machine that is Israel’s.

4. There is a proliferation of anti-Zionist Jewish and moderate Zionist groups – of a kind that did not exist before, or if they did, were very, limited in their membership. But now groups like Jewish Voice For Peace, Tikkun, If Not Now When, are permanent alternative fixtures in the American political landscape. Even groups like J-Street – which claims to be both “pro-Israel and pro-Peace” – something of an oxymoron – are indicative of a new and more permanent trend that refuses to accept old retrograde characterizations of Palestinians. Careful, perhaps too careful, not to appear “too left,” still J-Street has seriously worked for a less one-sided narrative on Israeli-Palestinian relation. It was also one of the only major Jewish organizations in the USA (that has some weight) to openly support and work for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal).  Obviously, even together (and they hardly do work together) these organizations don’t have the influence of long-established and well funded groups like the ADL, AIPAC – neither in the Jewish Community itself or nationally – but they have changed the mix and they are not going away.

5. The alliances that AIPAC other national and local openly Zionist organizations have made with proto-Nazi like elements like John Hagee and his “Christians United For Israel” – has left a bitter taste in the mouth of young American and may liberal Jews. As Jewish support for Israel continues to erode, Israel’s more zealous supports have depended more heavily on Christian Zionist groups, most of which, in their ideology are deeply anti-semitic (ie, in the Second Coming of Christ, most Jews will go (deservedly!!) to Hell except for a small number who “see the light” and convert to Christianity.)

La Lutta Continua…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2018 10:24 am

    Received this comment on the blog entry (through another medium) worth posting:

    “One comment about your blog post- the embrace of the Israeli govt. of the Trump government vs. how the Israeli govt. treated Obama will be a huge sticking point for many in the Bay Area Jewish community. I think many American Jews are just shocked to their core to see the Israeli right celebrate and partner with a guy who stood up for Nazis in Charlottesville and they don’t buy his Jerusalem policy- it’s pandering to the evangelical Nazis you mention.”

  2. February 16, 2018 10:30 am

    Rob, thanks, and please continue such “reflections”. A very good summary that brings together in one place my own sense (as a Catholic) of what is happening in this country among Jews and many others. John

  3. February 16, 2018 11:12 am

    From another (I think) Jewish friend, again through another medium:

    “An accurate assessment, from what little I know. I was concerned about the conditions the Palestinians face, and now after nearly a decade of endless nonsense from Israel first fringe right hate groups, it pleases me to quietly assist BDS where and when I can. Addressing this last surviving apartheid state as we did South African back when will do much to improve things both there and here.”

  4. Margy Stewart permalink
    February 16, 2018 12:04 pm

    Great piece. Very informative.

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