American Jews and Israel: The End of ‘Israel, Right or Wrong’

Although Jews make up just 2 percent of the United States population, they have exercised a disproportionate influence on the relationship between the United States and Israel. The strength of the U.S.-Israeli alliance is driven by numerous strategic, political, cultural, and economic factors, but American Jews have played a key role in the promotion and defense of the U.S.-Israel alliance in large part through the work of the pro-Israel lobby (represented by powerful groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Today, however, American Jewish political support for Israel can no longer be taken for granted, as growing numbers of American Jews become increasingly critical of Israel. In contrast to the old attitude of “Israel, Right or Wrong,” more and more American Jews, especially younger ones, are challenging the Israeli government’s policies and actions, particularly those concerning Palestinians. In short, the age of unconditional American Jewish support for Israel is over.

The relationship between American Jews and Israel is far from static, having changed considerably over the years. Before the State of Israel was established in 1948, most American Jews were decidedly lukewarm toward Zionism, and major Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee regarded the Zionist project as a potential threat to Jewish assimilation and integration into American society. It took the destruction of most of European Jewry in the Holocaust to shift American Jewry’s attitude in favor of Jewish statehood. Consequently, in the immediate aftermath of WWII, American Jews pushed the Truman Administration to support the partition of Palestine and to recognize Israel, while providing money and arms to help the new state survive.

After Israel’s establishment, however, most American Jews were more concerned with their own economic needs and social mobility (not to mention overcoming domestic anti-Semitism), than they were with the needs of the fledgling state. It was not until Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967 that American Jews really fell in love with Israel. In the following decade, support for Israel dominated American Jewish public life and politics. Indeed, during a time of rapid assimilation and diminishing religious devotion, support for Israel became the one thing that almost all American Jews had in common.

In that era, American Jewish support for Israel was automatic and uncritical. Most American Jews had a deferential attitude toward the Israeli government, accepting and endorsing whatever course it took. Instead of questioning or criticizing Israeli actions or policies, American Jews saw their roles as providers of financial and political support. Even if they disagreed with what the government did, American Jews generally toed the line in public as vocal criticism of Israel was taboo within the American Jewish community. Even in private, criticism was frowned upon; the prevailing belief was that only Israelis had the right to criticize their government since it was their lives at risk.

While many older American Jews still retain this attitude, it is becoming increasingly anachronistic. Nowadays, American Jewish support for Israel is much more complicated. To be sure, most American Jews still care about Israel and feel emotionally attached to it—in surveys, about two-thirds of American Jews consistently express a connection to Israel—but they are becoming more politically divided over Israeli government policies.

This was clearly evident in a major survey of U.S. Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 (based on interviews with 3,500 Jews in all 50 states, it was the largest survey of American Jews in more than a decade). The Pew survey revealed widespread skepticism among American Jews concerning Israeli policies, with 48 percent believing that the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had not been making a “sincere effort” to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Furthermore, 44 percent thought that the ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank threatened Israeli security (contrary to the view of the Israeli government, and for that matter, most Israeli Jews).

Largely, American Jews still fundamentally support the existence of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state and care about its welfare. However, many now feel conflicted between their emotional attachment to Israel and their discomfort with, or outright disapproval of, the actions and policies of its right-wing government. Consequently, they are no longer willing to provide blanket support for the Israeli government’s policies and actions, and are becoming more willing to publicly criticize them.

American Jews now furiously argue about Israeli policies and debate what it means to be pro-Israel—whether one can be a supporter of Israel yet also criticize its government’s policies and actions. More and more are starting to believe that supporting Israel no longer necessarily means supporting its policies. In fact, for some it may involve active, vocal opposition. Increasing numbers of American Jews who are critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians are now speaking out and mobilizing politically, demonstrated by the rise of groups like J Street and, further to the left, Jewish Voice for Peace. But it is not only liberal and left-wing American Jews who are outspoken in their criticism of Israel. Right-wing Jews have been equally vociferous in their criticisms of the more centrist and center-left Israeli governments—those led by Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and especially the late Yitzhak Rabin—albeit generally for very different reasons.

Thus, the taboo against Jews publicly criticizing Israel has eroded. Though still controversial, it is now becoming increasingly acceptable for American Jews to openly question, debate, and challenge Israel’s policies. However, the growing debate among American Jews over Israel’s policies is not a sign of their declining attachment to the country, as some commentators have suggested. On the contrary, it testifies to their attachment. American Jews argue about Israel because they care about Israel.

The argument concerning Israel, and particularly its conflict with the Palestinians, has ramifications not only for the American Jewish community but also for U.S.-Israeli relations. The Israeli government cannot count on American Jewish political support in the way that it once did. It faces growing pressure to change its policies, especially towards Palestinians, and American policymakers can no longer expect to hear a consensus from the American Jewish community. Instead, they have to contend with a more fractured community and a more varied, contentious definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. This allows American policymakers to adopt a broader range of policies vis-à-vis Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while still calling themselves pro-Israel.

Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the co-director of the university’s Middle East Center. He is the author of three books: The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave, 2006), Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (with Ilan Peleg, Cambridge University Press, 2011), and Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (Princeton University Press, 2016).