As I travel through North American Jewish communities, on a lecture tour about
Israeli society in the aftermath of the election, I sometimes feel as though I
am in a time warp.
Visiting an Orthodox community, I may find myself back
in the 1970s and 1980s, before the first intifada convinced a majority of
Israelis that the occupation is a mortal threat to the Jewish state; instead,
right-wing American Jews will insist, Israel must continue building settlements
and creating facts on the ground.
And when I visit a liberal community, I
may find myself back in the 1990s, before the second intifada convinced that
same majority of Israelis that a one-way peace process is likewise a mortal
threat to the Jewish state; instead, left-wing American Jews will insist, a
peace agreement is always within reach and just a matter of Israeli
And so I try to explain that most Israelis have internalized the
Left-Right divide and agree with the Left’s anxiety over the occupation and with
the Right’s anxiety over a delusional peace.
For most Israelis, I note, a
Palestinian state is an existential necessity that would save us from the
demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – and also an
existential threat that could turn greater Tel Aviv into the next Sderot, the
Israeli town near Gaza that has absorbed thousands of rocket attacks in the past
Most polls confirm the centrist persona of the Israeli
majority. Asked whether they support a two-state solution, upwards of 70
percent of Israelis respond affirmatively. Asked whether a two-state
solution would bring peace, upwards of 80 percent say no. In other words:
Israelis want to be doves, but reality forces them to be hawks.
of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party – appearing from nowhere to become the
secondlargest party in the Knesset – is only the latest example of the longing
of many Israelis for a centrist politics that embodies the realism of the Left
about the occupation and of the Right about the peace process.
depresses me is that this insight – by now commonplace in Israeli discourse –
comes as a revelation to many American Jews. The two most important Jewish
communities in the world aren’t communicating.
During the recent
election, a puzzled American Jewish journalist asked me: Why aren’t Israelis
debating the collapse of the peace process? My response was: Most of us have
already resolved the issue. If there were a credible partner able to contain
Hamas and address our red-line issues, like the right of return, we would make
the necessary territorial concessions.
In the absence of a credible peace
partner, we’re moving on with our lives.
American Jews today are divided
over two anxieties relating to Israel’s future. Like Israelis, many American
Jews are keenly aware of the external dangers facing the Jewish state. In a
Middle East that is imploding and turning increasingly fundamentalist, and with
Iran approaching the nuclear threshold, there is a whiff of May 1967, the
anxious weeks before the Six Day War, when threat pressed against Israel’s
borders and war seemed imminent.
For many liberal American Jews, though,
the focus of their Israel anxiety is on internal issues: the fraying of
democracy, the seemingly irreversible occupation, the receding promise of
A healthy people knows how to set its priorities of anxiety. It
knows how to focus first on imminent threat. Yet a healthy people also knows
that it cannot afford to allow even immediate threat to serve as pretext for
denying long-term dangers. Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice
of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember
that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is:
Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of
Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert,
and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive.
The first command is
the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim,
commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of
“Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed;
“Purim Jews” are motivated by by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one
without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of
Jewish history and values.
One reason the Palestinian issue is so
wrenching for Jews is that it is the point on which the two commands of our
history converge: The stranger in our midst is represented by a national
movement that wants to usurp us.
And so a starting point of a healthy
American Jewish conversation on Israel would be acknowledging the agony of our
Imagine an Orthodox rabbi, a supporter of the settlers in
Hebron, delivering this sermon to his congregation: My friends, our community
has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our
concern for its survival, we have failed to acknowledge the consequences to
Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.
Now imagine a
liberal rabbi, a supporter of J Street, telling his congregation: My friends,
our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish
state and our concern for its democratic values, we have failed to acknowledge
the urgency of existential threat once again facing our people.
American Jews internalize or at least acknowledge one another’s anxieties, the
shrillness of much of American Jewish debate over Israel will give way to a more
The good news is that parts of the US Jewish
community have begun that process.
Jews from Left and Right are quietly
meeting across the country, trying to nurture a civil conversation on
But civility is only the starting point. The goal is to create
multidimensional Jews, capable of holding more than one insight about Israeli
reality. It is to translate the centrist Israeli ambivalence into American
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Hartman
Institute and a member of its iEngage Project. Go to iengage.org.il for more