Can Israel and American Jews stay together?

Rather than telling those we strongly disagree with that they simply “don’t get it,” we should aim to come from a place of curiosity, empathy and compassion.
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Signs protesting New York senators' support of Israel are viewed on October 6, 2014 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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We’re curious… 

Where is the relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews headed next? In a recent interview on the American Jewish Committee’s “People of the Pod” podcast, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai issued a stark warning in response to this question:

“If we see more of the radical left and progressive liberal Jews continuing to support BDS, and Black Lives Matter as similar to the Palestinians, and they relate to Israel as a genocide state or an apartheid state, we may lose America,” Shai said. “The bridge to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party goes through the American Jewish community, and that’s the only bridge I believe in.”

Shai’s comments came after a poll released last month by the Jewish Electorate Institute — a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats — found results that were shocking to many. Among the American Jewish voters surveyed: 

  • 25% agreed with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state”
  • 34% agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the U.S.” 
  • 22% agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” 

Agreement with these statements was higher among voters under 40. One-third of younger voters agreed that Israel is committing genocide, and more than a third agreed that Israel is an apartheid state. 

(Watch our new video exploring how the misappropriated connection between apartheid and Israel came to be.)

Recent surveys have found that younger Jews are more critical of Israel and less emotionally attached to it compared to older generations. (For example, the 2021 Pew study found that two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older say that they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, compared with 48% of those ages 18 to 29.) But the Jewish Electorate Institute poll is different because it showed that a sizable minority agreed that Israel is committing apartheid and genocide. 

The survey sparked a conversation in the Jewish world about whether the findings are accurate — and, if they are accurate, how did the Jewish community reach this point? It also prompted speculation on a big question: Can the world’s two largest Jewish communities stay together or have they become torn apart? And what role can other Diaspora Jewish communities play in this situation?

​​Was the survey accurate?

Some questioned the survey’s methodology and argued that this led to exaggerated results. According to reporting by Jacob Magid, U.S. correspondent for The Times of Israel, pollsters and members of mainstream U.S. Jewish organizations said that the poll used “leading questions intent on getting a shocking response.”

Magid said on “The Times of Israel Daily Briefing” podcast that he spoke with Jim Gerstein, who oversaw the poll and has conducted surveys for progressive groups including JStreet and the New Israel Fund. Gerstein said that there would be no point in “engineering results” in a poll and that “the goal was to see how American Jews are responding to common phrases that they’re hearing in the media.” However, Gerstein agreed that phrasing the questions differently, and including definitions of “apartheid” and “genocide,” could have produced different responses. Still, he maintained that the goal was to gage reactions to the statements as written.

The survey was conducted from June 28th to July 1st and included 800 voters. It had an overall margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; for the responses of those under 40, the margin of error was 6 percentage points.

Reactions from American and Diaspora Jews

Reactions to the survey were split: Mainstream American Jewish groups cited a gap between how young Jews perceived Israel and the reality. They emphasized the need to educate students and increase their understanding about the “real” Israel. On the other hand, left-wing groups understood the results as proof that many American Jews have a problem with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and blamed Israel education that glossed over the Jewish state’s faults.

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), told The Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “deficient education” about Israel was to blame for the situation. “Greater efforts at educating American Jews, especially younger cohorts, about all aspects of Israeli society, and connecting them with their counterparts in Israel, are critical for ensuring nuanced understanding about Israel and strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations,” Harris said.

Sam Eilertsen, who is creating a film about young Jews’ relationships with Israel, agreed that the problem relates to Israel education. Eilersten told The Forward that he spoke with many Jews who said their Jewish education growing up downplayed Palestinians’ perspectives and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “A lot of people come to college with a very simplistic perspective on the conflict, and when they try to figure out the truth, they tend to end up with much more pro-Palestinian views,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hadar Susskind, president of the left-leaning group Americans for Peace Now, told The Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the best way for the Jewish community to respond to those who believe that Israel is committing apartheid or genocide is to end “Israel’s status as an occupier of Palestinian areas and people.”

“The answer to this isn’t another college fellowship to show people the sandy white beaches in Tel Aviv, it’s ending the occupation,” Susskind said.

Susannah Heschel, chair of the Jewish studies department at Dartmouth, attributed the survey findings to controversial actions taken by the Israeli government. “Young people come and say, ‘Why expel people from Sheikh Jarrah? Why? Why expel Palestinians? Why can’t they live there?,’” Heschel told The Forward, referring to an East Jerusalem neighborhood that has been a focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, reached a similar conclusion, suggesting in a Haaretz op-ed “that an occupation lasting more than half a century has finally caught up with Israel, shaping attitudes and political perceptions… Jews and non-Jews who are under 40 know Israel only as an occupying power, and they are much less supportive of Israel than their elders. And while Israel may be more of a benevolent occupier than not, winning support for an occupier of any type is a hard sell.”

What role could Diaspora Jewish communities play in this situation? Rolene Marks, an Israeli who grew up in South Africa in the height of the apartheid state, argued in a Times of Israel blog post that South African Jews and Israelis must lead the fight against the claim that Israel is practicing apartheid.

“The contributions made by South African Jews to the fight against apartheid were extraordinary and disproportionate to the size of the community,” Marks wrote. “We have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share in the fight against the narrative that claims Israel as an apartheid state.” She added that South African Jews must be “engaged and involved” in educating other Diaspora communities.

Meanwhile, Hannah Weisfeld, director of the left-wing Zionist group Yachad, based in London, addressed similar polarization in the British Jewish community, arguing on “The Jewish News Podcast” that “Israel has become a fault line that has destroyed the community’s ability to be unified… The divisions that we now see — between the right and the left [and] the left and the left — and the lack of center ground is evidence of the fact that we lack something that brings Anglo-Jewry together.”

However, Paul Charney, former chair of the UK Zionist Federation, challenged Weisfeld’s claim that the Jewish community lacks a center ground. Charney acknowledged that “the extremes on the left and right remain extreme, maybe they’ve gone slightly more extreme. But the center ground hasn’t changed much. The center ground overall supports, loves, wants to see Israel exist.”

Reactions from Israeli Jews

Israeli-American author Daniel Gordis wrote in a blog post that the survey marks a shift not only in American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel, but in Israelis’ attitudes toward American Jews as well. “If for decades, the ‘news’ [in Israel] has been that progressive American Jews are slowly abandoning Israel, the newest development now may just be that some Israelis are also beginning to wonder if there’s any basis for a continued relationship,” Gordis wrote. 

Gordis said that Israeli news outlets covering the survey have captured “some of the subtleties in the American picture,” acknowledging that the American Jewish community is not monolithic. At the same time, “Increasingly, what the news is covering is that Israeli Jews are losing patience with what seems to them an outrageous, myopic take on Israel.”

He cited a letter that was signed by dozens of American rabbinical students during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. In the letter, the students accused Israel of “violent suppression of human rights” and “enabling apartheid in the Palestinian territories,” while making no mention of Hamas or that Israel was under attack.

In a JNS op-ed, Israeli-American author Caroline Glick argued that “the purpose of the poll was to promote an agenda, not measure public opinion,” writing that “even more distressing than the responses was the fact that the progressive Jewish establishment wanted to ask these questions.”

Glick further argued that “the moderates who comprise the majority of the American Jewish establishment” are to blame for the state of American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel because they “won’t fight progressives to defend the truth” about Israel and have “given up the fight for Jewish rights.”

Meanwhile, in a Tablet Magazine op-ed, Natan Sharansky and historian Gil Troy coined a new term for Jewish anti-Zionists: the “un-Jews.” By rejecting Israel and Zionism, Sharansky and Troy wrote, these critics “are trying to disentangle Judaism from Jewish nationalism, the sense of Jewish peoplehood, while undoing decades of identity-building…they believe the only way to fulfill the Jewish mission of saving the world with Jewish values is to undo the ways most actual Jews do Jewishness.”

The authors called for the Jewish community to “have empathy for one another,” underscoring the importance of “a broad, welcoming dialogue… But those who are set on denying the essence of Jewish peoplehood are rarely interested in the kind of respectful, mutual exchange that builds us all up. Rather, they are bent on destroying the most powerful force that has kept us together as a people through the ages.”

The bottom line

Assuming that this poll shows an accurate picture of American Jews’ attitudes, how should the Jewish community move forward? Where do we go from here? First, as 0.2% of the world population, the Jewish people don’t have the luxury to be disunited. Jews have had different lived experiences and ideologies throughout history. There is certainly political polarization in the Jewish community (as well as in society in general), but let’s remember that diverse perspectives have always been a part of the Jewish experience.

To move forward and begin to heal these rifts, we need to start interpreting each other charitably. Rather than telling those we strongly disagree with that they simply “don’t get it,” we should aim to come from a place of curiosity, empathy and compassion. Instead of making assertions that end in exclamation points, we can encourage each other to ask more questions about the other. This is critical not only for relations between Israeli and American Jews, but for the different groups in the American Jewish community as well.

Additionally, we need to do more to include Jewish communities from Australia, South Africa, the UK, France, Argentina, Canada and other countries with big Jewish populations. Let’s move beyond the American-Israeli divide and start thinking about the Jewish people as one people with different lived experiences across the globe. If we do all of this, then we can promote greater empathy and compassion for one another and create a brighter Jewish future.

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