The myth of the Israel-Diaspora ‘schism’

Every year, the American Jewish Committee, in its annual survey of US Jewish public opinion, asks respondents how much they care about Israel. And every year, the results are the same.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Some 58 years ago this spring, an Israeli secret agent stepped off a plane in the Buenos Aires airport, armed with false identity papers and a cover story about working in the Foreign Ministry’s accounts department. He was actually on the trail of one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals. He could not have imagined that he would soon trigger one of the most unpleasant clashes in the history of the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community – a clash with important lessons for those who are worried about the state of Israel-Diaspora relations today.
The Israeli agent, Isser Harel, arrived in Argentina on March 1, 1960. Two months later, Harel’s team captured Adolf Eichmann. When the news broke, more than a few prominent Diaspora Jews were outraged.
Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, condemned the Israeli action, declaring that since “the Nazis killed not only Jews,” Eichmann should be tried by an international tribunal rather than an Israeli court.
Alan Stroock, a prominent official of the American Jewish Committee, asserted that the capture of Eichmann constituted “an unlawful abduction,” and his trial would be “doubtfully legal.” Stroock claimed the episode could transform Israel from “a whole generation of idealists into hangmen.”
Harvard University history professor Oscar Handlin claimed Israel’s “underhanded kidnapping, the violent spiriting of an individual away from a foreign jurisdiction” was a violation of “the right of refuge – the principle that fugitives could be seized only be a legal process and only for crimes they had personally committed.”
When Eichmann was sentenced to death, American Jewish voices of opposition were again heard. The Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis urged clemency for Eichmann, on the grounds that capital punishment was immoral under all circumstances.
Chicago rabbi Arnold Goodman, writing in the official magazine of the American Jewish Congress, argued that taking any human life, no matter what the reason, was morally wrong and “might open Israel to changes of vengefulness and rancor.”
Journalist and activist Paul Jacobs wrote that the Eichmann episode demonstrated “Israeli parochialism, chauvinism and distrust… of the Gentile world” (although he somewhat condescendingly conceded that he now “understood better” the reasons for the attitudes he ascribed to Israel).
So, was there a schism between American Jewry and Israel over Eichmann, comparable to “The Great Schism” today about which journalist Jonathan Weisman recently wrote on the op-ed page of The New York Times?
Yes and no. Since Israel’s earliest days, there has always been a minority of American Jews who are deeply troubled by some Israeli policies, or even uncomfortable with the very existence of a sovereign Jewish state.
The voices of the critics are amplified precisely because their perspective runs contrary to that of most American Jews. From the point of view of the news media, Jews supporting Israel is a boring dog-bites-man story; Jews denouncing Israel, however, is man-bites-dog. The Internet and 24-hour cable news have created new and faster ways for the minority to make itself heard.
But the notion that there is a substantial new split between American Jews and Israel, that relations are reaching “a breaking point,” as Weisman and others are claiming, is contradicted by years of public opinion polling.
Every year, the American Jewish Committee, in its annual survey of US Jewish public opinion, asks respondents how much they care about Israel. And every year, the results are the same.
For the past 20 years – whether Israel’s prime minister was Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, or Benjamin Netanyahu; whether America’s president was Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump – between 70% and 75% of American Jews have said they care “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” about Israel, and between 20% and 30% have said they feel “fairly distant” or “very distant” from Israel.
The number who feel “very” distant is always the smaller of the two, ranging from 2% to 13% (during the period from 1997 to 2018). The number who care “strongly” about Israel (as opposed to just “somewhat strongly”) has actually been increasing steadily over the years. It was in the 20s in 1997-2002, the 30s in almost every year from 2003 to 2015, and has reached the 40s each of the past three years.
A “great schism” between American Jews and Israel? Hardly. It’s loud, passionate, and interesting – but it’s a small fracture, the size of which has remained unchanged despite the latest well-publicized quarrels.
The writer is the co-author, with Chaim I. Waxman, of The Historical Dictionary of Zionism.