Polarization in America II

Once considered treasonous to question the Israeli government’s wisdom in dealing with the Palestinians, American Jews are becoming increasingly divided on the subject.

stars (do no publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
stars (do no publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
THE AMERICAN JEWISH WORLD IS SUDDENLY ALIVE like a long dormant volcano with new fires stirring in its depths.
For many years the official American Jewish position, the one held by all major Jewish organizations and their leaders, was complete and unquestioning support for the Israeli government of the day with a special tilt toward right-wing administrations.
It was considered treasonous to question the Israeli government’s wisdom in dealing with the Palestinians. Those who dared to do so were called names and mocked, even though Israelis themselves held an open and noisy dialogue, left and right, peaceniks and settlers, moderates and zealots, banging on the communal drums. The leaders of American Jewish organizations were far more right-wing than many of their members, who dared not question the received wisdom and accepted Israeli government arguments as word from Sinai. Criticism in America for any Israeli action or diplomatic position was firmly rejected.
The federations and the major organizations presented a unified view to the non-Jewish politicians in Congress, to the political parties and to the press. The elected officials became afraid of Jewish political power and thought they had to adhere to the word of AIPAC or Jews would not vote for them. The Jewish community successfully assured Israel of the American funds needed to build the army, to create deterrent capability and to partner the US in achieving regional political goals.
The Likud came to power in Israel in the late 1970s and started funding organizations to promote its political vision inside American communities.
It sent speakers to college campuses, to UJA dinners, to campus Hillels and synagogues from Maine to Alaska. And when in the 1990s many people in Israel were still hoping for the Oslo peace negotiations with the Palestinians to succeed, even if that meant giving up the West Bank or significant parts of it, on the understanding that it was in Israel’s interest to achieve a peace, to reach out, to keep pushing towards the saner part of the Arab world, American Jews heard that it was hopeless, that the Arabs would never give an inch in their determination to drive the Jews into the sea. That conviction justified stalling the peace process, increasing mistrust and hatred among Jews for Arabs and Arabs for Jews. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and the assassin’s opposition to Oslo was finally accepted by most of official American Jewry.
And only now, in part because of J Street, are gentile Americans realizing that all Jews are not exactly of the same mind. All of us want Israel safe and strong and are proud of its achievements and connected heart and soul to the Israeli nation; but all of us do not agree about what needs to be done and how to do it. In true Jewish fashion, inside J Street there is hairsplitting and argument about the degree to which the Obama Administration should support Israeli policies. However, we are clear that all of us are not willing to see a state that oppresses a minority (or eventually a majority) within its borders or that remains Jewish because it deprives occupied peoples of real citizenship.
Some of us in America are worried that the settlers will succeed in destroying the two-state solution, although others agree with the rightwing parties in Israel that Jews should give not an acre of the land to the Palestinians. Some of us in America care very deeply about the democratic nature of the Jewish state, whereas others would be content with theocracy or some form of fascism.
American Jews today have several points of view on Israeli issues. Now non-Jews in office need not fear losing the entire Jewish vote, (which is shrinking as I write), because we are not so monolithic, not so knee-jerk, not so clear that a Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem is a good idea.
To a large extent, the people who are pushing for peace and accommodation on the left in America are feeling despair and know that our organizations are in trouble, financial and other. However, history has a strange way of turning on a dime, uprooting the accepted wisdom and replacing it sometimes with something better. The current arguments rising from American Jewish politics may lead to a better future than any of us can imagine at the moment.
In other words, American Jewry now reflects more closely the cacophony of opinions that exist today in Israel on the crucial subject of negotiations and a solution that might bring peace in so volatile a situation.
This does mean we are more polarized than ever before and that we do not have the political power we might have had if we spoke with one voice. But it also means that some Jewish young people who are less cowed by the official organizational view will speak out, will join in the fray and help fight for a peaceful, democratic solution for all peoples in the area. Most importantly, it means that it is still possible to be an American Jew who loves Israel and democracy and whose embrace of both is unwavering.

Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.