iENGAGE: The anxieties of American Jews

A starting point of a healthy American Jewish conversation on Israel would be acknowledging the agony of our dilemma.

February 7, 2013 21:06
Americans in israel cast their ballots

Americans in israel cast their ballots. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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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 will.

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 decade.

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.

The rise 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.

What most 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 peace.

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 Amalek.

“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 dilemma.

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.

When 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 nuanced conversation.

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 Israel.

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 Jewish discourse.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Hartman Institute and a member of its iEngage Project. Go to for more information.

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