The crisis of liberal American Jews

Trying to reconcile American liberalism with a Jewish Zionism that holds separateness as a defining principle is like trying to mix oil and water.

A boy wears a yarmulke (photo credit: REUTERS)
A boy wears a yarmulke
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The New York Times Magazine recently ran a lengthy article on the crisis liberal Zionism in America is facing and whether Hillary Clinton, who has expressed what some people consider hawkish positions on Israel, can offer a solution to that crisis. But in considering a possible political solution to this crisis of liberal Zionism in America, the piece offers a deeper, maybe inadvertent glimpse into its roots.
The piece opens with a description of Rabbi Daniel Zemel, “a contemplative 62-year-old with horn-rimmed glasses, a bushy mustache and a bald dome from which his skullcap incessantly slips,” who gives flesh to the archetypical liberal American Jewish Zionist. Though it focuses on the Hebrew calendar year of 5774, or 2014 – “a trying one for Zemel and other liberal Zionists, who increasingly find themselves torn between their liberalism and Zionism” – the piece somehow feels incredibly dated, as if Zemel, who, we learn, spent two ostensibly life-changing weeks in Israel in 1966, stepped right out of a mid-1980s Phillip Roth novel.
A year after that seminal Israel visit, the young Zemel was “ecstatic” when Israel emerged triumphant in the Six Day War. Today, however, he is extremely worried – though that may be an understatement. Having witnessed the Gaza war over the past summer, having wept on his couch with congregants who came to him with tears in their eyes, crying that Israel is “killing children,” Rabbi Zemel felt he had to speak out during the High Holidays that followed on the heels of the war.
“Fighting a nasty cold,” Zemel gave a fiery Rosh Hashanah sermon about the direction of the Jewish state, calling out his shame over the three Jewish Israelis who murdered a Palestinian boy in retaliation for the three Jewish boys murdered by Palestinians. His hope: to influence the congregants of his synagogue, many of whom have connections to Clinton.
The feelings of many liberal American Jews towards Israel are a tangle of shame, anxiety, sadness and anger. Having fought for an Israel that was determined to strive blindly (in Shimon Peres’ words) for peace, that was led by stalwart doves like Rabin and Barak, and even put its faith in peace-at-all-costs movements like the one led by Yossi Beilin, liberal American Jews can only surmise that an Israel that could elect, and possibly re-elect, a center-right or rightist government has gone wildly astray. Liberal American Jews like Rabbi Zemel are convinced that Israel cannot continue along its present course; it must change.
But the irony is that Israel has changed – and that change, long in the making, was condensed during the last war. In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, and even many of the politically leftist kibbutzim where Zemel once “lunched in cafeterias with the kibbutzniks he idolized,” the view on peace has not fundamentally changed. Israelis across the board still want it, and are still willing to make substantial sacrifices for it.
What has changed is the Israeli belief in the possibility that peace can be achieved in the near term. It’s this belief, that Palestinians are not ready for a meaningful peace agreement, that explains the success of politicians like Naftali Bennett, a rightwing political leader who has shot to prominence over the past few years with a message that Palestinian economy and society have to be developed before we can realistically speak about forging a lasting deal.
This idea was driven home this past summer as Israelis watched the unfolding of a brutal and cynical war engineered by Hamas, which forced Israel to turn Gaza Palestinians into unwitting or involuntary human shields for the terror organization that rules the Strip. It was as if Israelis were witnessing a chemical formula they’d learned in the classroom come into full, horrifying effect as rockets aimed at Israeli population centers prompted an Israeli response that, predictably, would be ferociously condemned (and in some cases distorted) by the international press.
No doubt the war did not change the minds of Israelis on the far Left, many of whom were out protesting against the use of force and for immediate talks. But it did influence the way Rabbi Zemel’s political counterparts in Israel on the center and center-left see the conflict. For them, the notion that Israel can simply keep hopefully extending its hand was one too ridiculous to bear, as the idea was being thunderously disproved in real time by exploding rockets and the even louder explosions of often admittedly one-sided news headlines and the consequent statements of indignation issued by foreign leaders and cultural figures.
But the truly interesting thing here is looking at reaction of American Jews like Zemer. As the center-left in Israel shifted and evolved over the years, the institution of American Jewish liberal Zionism has remained implacably the same. Not just its thinking, but its experience of the conflict has gone unchallenged and unchanged for the past three decades.
For these Jews, Israel is still the lonely Jewish state that, largely on account of its own actions, is steadily becoming a pariah. But the concern for Israel’s diplomatic position in the world (which, in many ways, has never been stronger) is felt by liberal Zionists as an anxiety or an alienation as, the Times piece notes, liberal Zionists find themselves torn between their liberalism and their Zionism, “stranded in the disappearing middle between the extremes of a polarized American Jewish community.”
Further complicating their situation, liberal American Jews are aghast at the anti-Semitic rage they witnessed during and after the summer war. But, ashamed of the violence they believe was needlessly perpetrated by Israel upon innocent Palestinians, these Jews are doubly disturbed by the fact that the source of their shame and outrage is the same source of outrage and hatred expressed by the anti-Semites. Caught in an existential paradox, liberal American Jews feel themselves trapped in an impossible position, one they can’t help but see as the result of Israeli policy.
Nevertheless, the central concern they express is not for their own wellbeing but for Israel’s, an idea New York Times columnist Roger Cohen gave voice to in an aptly-titled column, “What Will Israel Become?,” published days after the magazine piece, which focuses on the danger of Israel degenerating into an “ultra-nationalist” ghetto.
“Uneasiness inhabits Israel,” Cohen writes, as Israeli Jews are “questioning their nation and its future with growing insistence.” Cohen cites Israeli novelist Amoz Oz, who speaks in similar language about “growing uneasiness” that Israel is becoming the kind of ghetto the country’s forefathers sought to escape.
Perhaps an acute an observer as Oz can see things others cannot and there is a deep anxiety running through Israeli society. But if there is, it’s not clear what makes that anxiety new. Certainly, it’s not war – not even serialized war, or asymmetric war or brutal war, all of which Israel has not only confronted but, in a tragic way, learned to accept. And nor is it economic instability, exorbitant prices, or the specter of global isolation, for all these things have been features of Israel’s national terrain and reactions to them part of the Israeli persona (of which Israelis are very proud). The question is what is the real source of this newfound anxiety? THE SOLUTION that’s being offered up as a potential cure to this anxiety gives a hint to what its real source might be. Like Zemel’s solution – a turn toward liberal policy on Israel, possibly embodied by the election of Hillary Clinton – Cohen presents a political solution in the form of Labor leader Isaac Herzog who speaks of a “deep inherent worry as to the future and well-being of our country.” But if there is any universal statement in politics, it’s the politician’s pre-election claim of the dark times that lie ahead. (If the status-quo is sustainable, or even preferable to the unknown, why vote for a change of power?) For liberal American Jews, the anxiety is not, as it is with Israeli politicians, a matter of political populism.
Rather, it’s what the Times Magazine recognized at the outset: a placelessness, an exile, a lack of an ability to assert control. Like with any individual who feels a lack of control, the natural byproduct is despondence and a temptation toward passivity – something seen in the statistic, cited in the Times Magazine piece, that onethird of young American Jews do not find caring about Israel to be part of their personal identity.
For Israelis, caring about Israel is not a part of their identity, but a question of daily necessity. It’s not anxiety and uncertainty, but anger and frustration they feel. The anger is not toward the Israeli government because it bombs Palestinians, but toward the Palestinian government in Gaza because it bombs Israelis; the frustration is not existential but practical, tied directly to the outdated, ineffective, inefficient, overly-bureaucratic and sometimes corrupt mechanisms of governance that can make daily life in Israel unremittingly frustrating.
Liberal Jewish Americans claim that Israel has somehow lost touch with its true self, that it’s drifted. But this is only true if we privilege one observer, since on the other side, far away in the Land of Israel, the perspective would be that liberal American Jews have lost touch with Israel – that is, if Israelis were in any way concerned about how liberal American Jews see them.
In truth they’re not. They’re not only too busy, but they have bigger fish to fry than the anxieties of what they still often see as their rich, nebbish cousins from America. Certainly, Israelis see, and feel, their isolation. They understand the damage that war causes – to themselves and to the Palestinians, both in defeat and in victory.
But they also understand, perhaps only intuitively, by virtue of an inescapable experience, the core idea that’s shaped the worldview of millions of Jews, including Herzog’s uncle, the brilliant foreign policy expert and statesmen Yaakov Herzog, who wrote of “the unique quality of the Jewish people and its separate path” – a people apart, one not to be reckoned among the nations.
How a liberal American Jew could be expected to understand this, much less internalize it, is difficult to say.
Trying to reconcile American liberalism, which at its heart is a doctrine of universal integration, with a Jewish Zionism that holds separateness as a defining principle (if not by desire then by necessity) is like trying to mix oil and water. It’s an endlessly frustrating endeavor, the attempt at which can only give rise to question of hopelessness.
The author is a writer who lives in Israel.