Election may exacerbate tensions among American Jews

We have Israel advocates, we have pro-Israel critics, and we have BDS advocates, says sociologist.

March 19, 2015 00:01
3 minute read.
Pro-Israel rally

Young Jews rally in support of Israel in New York, July 20.. (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)

Tuesday’s electoral victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may serve to further exacerbate tensions among American Jews, according to a prominent Jewish sociologist specializing in the Diaspora’s largest community.

“Over the last few years American Jewry has been increasingly dividing over matters relating to Israel,” explained Hebrew Union College’s Dr. Steven M. Cohen, who flew in to Israel from New York earlier this week in order to cast his ballot.

“We have Israel advocates, we have pro-Israel critics, and we have BDS advocates,” he explained. “In the pro-Israel camp, both [sides] accuse the other of being unfaithful to Jewish values and ignoring physical and political dangers to Israel. The people who are pro-Israel but anti-occupation have a two front battle: one is with pro-Israel advocates who seem to support Israeli government policies no matter what and the other is with the BDS camp that seeks to delegitimate Israel. The apparent election of a prime minister who disavows Israeli readiness to accept a Palestinian state will motivate all three camps to become much more active and to become more critical of each other.”

In a pre-election analysis in The New Republic, Cohen cited the rise of J Street, which offers itself as an alternative to the long established AIPAC lobby, as symptomatic of this split.

While he believes that divisions between views over the direction the Jewish state should take will definitely further sharpen existing divides, Cohen also rebuffed the idea that Israeli political developments would estrange American Jews (who according to the Pew Research Center are increasingly liberal and suspicious of the Israeli Right’s willingness to compromise with the Palestinians) from their emotional connection to the Jewish state.

“Overall engagement with Israel is much more a function of Jewish engagement in general and of patterns of in marriage and intermarriage,” he asserted.

Asked about how she thinks the election will impact Diaspora- Israeli relations, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, replied that she believes that the American Jewish community is “committed to Israel and will work with the new government once it is established.”

“It is real and true that the bonds are unbreakable,” she said.

No matter in which direction Israeli politics goes, however, she said that many American Jews view it as critical that their Israeli co-religionists work on issues of religion and state, which she believes will eventually alienate American Jews in the long term if left unaddressed.

“Israel and the Diaspora agree that there are long term security issues that relate to pluralism and tolerance and a greater understanding of what Judaism means to the Diaspora and that is a key security issue,” she said. “One of the key questions is if the new government will move faster than previous governments to advance pluralism in light the centrality of pluralism to Israel’s security.”

However, it is impossible to know which candidates or parties will be best on this issue, she cautioned, saying that only history will decide that.

“We have to see what the whole coalition looks like to understand what will be the policies of the next government and what their priorities are. I think we aren’t there yet.”

On the other side, Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of American, believes that the election results will not have much of an impact on American Jews.

“Most young American Jews are really not involved with Israel politics and US-Israel relations,” he explained. “It will have a minimal impact.

This is just not something that they really think about very much. Only a small percentage pay attention to what is going on in Israel.”

In fact, he asserted, he believes that American Jews have begun to repudiate the American administration’s Israel policies and that students on campuses at which he has spoken in recent weeks seemed to have been energized by Netanyahu’s recent congressional speech.

“I wonder if young American Jews are proud to have a strong articulate Jewish leader protecting Israel from the evil of a Jew-hating Iran,” he said.

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