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Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel

Review By: 
Rabbi Robert Orkand
Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel, by Dov Waxman
Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel, by Dov Waxman

In Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel (Princeton University Press, 2016), Northeastern University’s Professor Dov Waxman argues that Israeli politics and policies are a growing source of tension and division within the American Jewish community to the point that he questions whether there is still an identifiable Jewish voice on Israeli affairs.

Citing opinion polls, Waxman points out that there is a gap between older Jews (those over 50) and younger Jews, with the latter being less supportive of Israeli policies. This is not a new phenomenon. In 1990, the renowned historian of Zionism, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z”l, observed that American Jewry could be divided into two basic groups along the Israel divide: an aging group moving to the right, and a younger, more liberal group, increasingly abandoning Zionist organizations. Waxman concludes, “The era of uncritical American Jewish support for Israel – of Israel right or wrong – is now long past.”

Younger, more liberal Jews who have become increasingly alienated from the organized Jewish community and from Israel, he says, are “driven not only by changes in Israel and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict... but also by changes within the American Jewish community itself.” These forces include assimilation, secularism, and an emphasis on the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is, for many, at odds with Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank. In short, many younger American Jews do not share their elders’ veneration of the Jewish state and do not feel as constrained to criticize Israeli policies and actions. If the views of this younger generation are ignored and their voices silenced, Waxman warns, they will simply walk away, as so many have already done.

Jews who criticize Israel are routinely condemned by leaders of organizations who believe that dissent demonstrates disunity and a lack of resolve, empowering Israel’s enemies. Jews who do not fall in line with Israel lobby positions are essentially branded as disloyal. A case in point: Back in the 1970s, a Zionist peace group calling itself Breira (which means “there is a choice” in Hebrew) was demonized by the Jewish establishment for urging Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. As author Anne Roiphe observed, “Not since Holland’s Jews read Spinoza out of the people, have Jews so quickly drawn lines of who is acceptable and who is outside, and used those lines one against another.”

J Street, the progressive alternative to AIPAC in Washington, D.C., was barred from membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations because of J Street’s opposition to the policies of Israel’s right-wing government. The groups founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has decried what he calls a crackdown on Jewish dissidents: “All across the country, rabbis, Hillel directors, and other organizational leaders are forced to consider whether they can or want to deal with the headaches, slander, and vitriol, from conservative voices in the community before they think of giving a platform to views outside the party line.”

Peter Beinart’s 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism ignited a firestorm, in part for asserting that the organized Jewish establishment appeared to be out of touch with a younger generation of Jews. He portrayed the American Jewish establishment as being “merely a mouthpiece of Israeli governments” and urged Jews “to accept that in both America and Israel we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power, and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.”

Waxman suggests that the arguments surrounding Israel are also indicative of the growing polarization of American Jewry between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews over issues such as the nature of the Jewish state, final status of the settlements in the West Bank, and Israel’s borders.

According to recent surveys, the younger generation does have an emotional attachment to Israel, though it is often at odds with the political actions of the Israeli government. A critical but activist relationship to Israel, Waxman suggests, can help bring about changes in Israeli policy if American Jewish leaders and Israeli policy makers will listen rather than reject. If that happens, he says, “the American Jewish conflict over Israel, though divisive and often acrimonious, may turn out to have been productive.”

Trouble in the Tribe is a meticulous, precise, well-organized survey of divergent views within the American Jewish community today. It can serve as a much-needed resource to facilitate civil and constructive conversations about a topic that sadly has become taboo within the Jewish community.

Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is immediate past-chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

View all posts by Rabbi Robert Orkand