What Should the Role of American Jews Be With Respect to Israel Today?

By | Nov 16, 2021
Israel and its ties to American Jews

What should the role of American Jews be with respect to Israel today?

What should the role of American Jews be with respect to Israel today? What, if any, obligations do we have toward Israel? Amid seismic shifts in geopolitical alliances and the widespread concern that many American Jews are drifting away from the Jewish homeland, this question continues to trouble the American Jewish community. Based on the principle that it is better to know what others think than to be in the dark, we have gathered a variety of voices: old and young, known and lesser-known, American and Israeli. Be forewarned: wherever you stand on this issue, you may find some responses unsettling or even objectionable.  Honest and open communication, despite its difficulties, is fundamental to understanding one another and building trust, both between American and Israeli Jews and within the American Jewish community itself.

INTERVIEWS BY Diane M. Bolz, Suzanne Borden, Sarah Breger, George E. Johnson, Lilly Gelman, Noach Phillips, Amy E. Schwartz, Francie Weinman Schwartz, Ellen Wexler & Laurence Wolff

Salute to Israel parade, New York City, 2011.

Susie Linfield

American Jews—like all Americans—often overestimate our importance. Israel isn’t just a replica of the United States, with the only difference being that in Israel the Jews have guns. Israelis created a new nation, a new culture, a new language, a new identity—which was precisely the aim of the original Zionists. Too often, Americans—on both the right and the left—project our fantasies and obsessions onto Israel and Israelis. We assume, wrongly, that “they” are really “us.” And too often, American Jews view Israel simply as a cause rather than as a country. 

For me, the most distressing development—which has been a long time in coming, but was most evident in the recent Israel-Hamas war—is the abandonment by the American left, and particularly the Jewish-American left, of the democratic forces in Israel (both Jewish and Arab). A tsunami of rage (often based on historically ludicrous assertions and metaphors) washed across position papers, petitions and demonstrations. Israel is (take your pick) a settler-colonialist, colonialist (those aren’t the same), racist, imperialist, capitalist, inherently violent, apartheid state. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis working to end the occupation, to oppose the nation-state law, to equalize the status of Arab citizens, to strengthen the terribly weakened democratic institutions: All have been erased. Manichean thinking and lazy metaphors—“Ferguson is Palestine!”—substitute for politics.

Too often, we Americans project our fantasies and obsessions onto Israel and Israelis.

At the same time, Israelis—or, rather, some Israelis—expect diaspora Jews to be what Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer called “slavishly loyal” to Israel. Just as the left tries to blackmail so-called progressives into advocating disastrous positions that would undermine Israeli sovereignty (the return of millions of diaspora Palestinians, the establishment of one state, etc.), the right tries to blackmail diaspora Jews into conflating support for Israeli sovereignty with endorsement of, or at least silence about, disastrous and immoral Israeli policies (the occupation, settler violence, etc.). In my view, diaspora Jews should resist both tendencies—or, rather, that is how this diaspora Jew sees her role.

Susie Linfield teaches cultural journalism at New York University and is the author of The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. 

Aaron David Miller

American Jews should speak their mind on Israel—fairly. Israel’s continuing reliance on the United States does provide a certain margin for American citizens, Jews and non-Jews, to express criticism of Israel when they believe that Israeli policies are crossing lines that fundamentally erode American values and interests. The notion that speaking out will only weaken Israel and provide ammunition to its enemies has never been very compelling to me. Israel isn’t some piece of driftwood floating aimlessly and passively on a turbulent sea without agency to act. It can handle informed, fair, well-meaning criticism. If the United States and Israel are truly allies, then it would seem incumbent on both to be honest with each other. 

American Jews should speak their mind on Israel—fairly.

But the frame of that criticism is important. America and Israel do not have the same kinds of problems. Each country is screwed up in its own unique way. Two points here. First: Effective criticism should take into account that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not pitting the forces of goodness against those of evil. Both sides bear their share of responsibility for the current impasse as well as responsibility for helping to end it. Second: Unlike the United States, which has non-predatory neighbors to its north and south and fish to its east and west (what one historian called our liquid assets), Israel has legitimate security challenges that require understanding and often provide context for some of its actions. 

The other important point is that the American Jewish community isn’t a monolith when it comes to Israel. Take a look at the diversity of Jewish organizations espousing views on Israel—from the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd to those whose sole organizing principle is lobbying for a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, to those who support a two-state solution but are wary of slamming Israel’s occupation policies, to those who seem to have made that criticism their reason for being. It’s probably safe to assume that the majority of the 7.6 million Jews in America believe in the necessity of a Jewish state and want to see it live in peace and security. But I can ask three different Jews I know about their opinions on Israel and get three different or highly nuanced views on the subject. This is particularly the case among a younger generation, whose views seem to range from indifference to unwavering support to skepticism and hostility. 

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focusing on U.S. foreign policy. He has served as State Department historian, intelligence analyst and negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Ellie Cohanim

American Jews need to understand that Israel is part and parcel of Jewish identity. The Jewish story begins with Abraham, who is considered the founder of the Jewish religion and of monotheism, being commanded to leave what would be present-day Iraq and go live in what is now Israel. These are the foundational principles of the Jewish story—Israel and monotheism.

What is disturbing to see now in the United States is that American Jewry has failed to educate its children and grandchildren in Judaism, so that young Jews today don’t really know what the Jewish connection is to the land of Israel. Whether in high school or in college, young Americans don’t know how to respond to the anti-Zionist hatred that greets them. It behooves American Jewry to start educating our children on the foundational Jewish connection to Israel.

American Jews need to understand that Israel is part and parcel of Jewish identity.

Once a young Jew understands the Jewish people’s relationship to the Jewish land, everything else flows from that understanding. Certainly, American Jewry should support the government of Israel, the State of Israel and the people of Israel. We’re in a situation right now where half of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel and half is scattered throughout the world. At the same time, we’re seeing Jews fleeing countries such as France, Sweden and Germany because of the rise in antisemitism. And where do they go for refuge? Israel. How can we not support the country that is the refuge for Jews?

 There has been a narrative shift on Israel. With every Israeli military success, American Jews have bought more into the narrative that Israel is no longer David battling Goliath and question whether they should continue to support Israel. To my mind this is unfathomable: Israel is still a small country that is fighting for her survival and facing an existential threat from the Iranian regime as well as the relentless threat of terrorism from Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc. It is mind-boggling to me that American Jewry would question its support of Israel merely because the Israelis have succeeded in surviving.  

Ellie Cohanim served as Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism at the State Department in the Trump administration. She is currently a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.

Palestinian rights activists and supporters rally in front of the White House and marched to the Washington Convention Center to protest the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yearly meeting, Washington, DC, 2017.

Arielle Angel

The role of American Jews should be to put pressure on Jewish institutions and the American government to push the Israeli government to end the occupation. If people care about the future of what it might mean to have a Jewish state, they have to contend with the actions of the Jewish state as it is presently constituted. Am I saying every American Jewish person needs to care about this? No. But if you are engaged in Jewish life, I don’t think that you can put Israel off to the side. I have seen people try to do that, but it’s impossible because these issues are rooted deeply in all of our institutions. Even if you want to have a program unrelated to Israeli politics, focused on diaspora, cultural figures or learning, the politics of Israel are already in the room because of who funded the program, what the speakers in that program can and can’t say and who is selected to be a part of that program. There is no part of the Jewish community, as it is presently constituted in the United States, that is free of the politics of Israel-Palestine. It’s the root of a broader moral and discursive degradation in the Jewish community, here and in Israel, to decide to accommodate the injustice of the occupation.

The role of American Jews should be to put pressure on Jewish institutions and the American government to push the Israeli government to end the occupation.

It is the responsibility of the Jewish community in the United States to hold Israel accountable. That means potentially divesting from the Jewish organizations that uphold the status quo. I think that there’s a sense of belonging that people get from participating in, for example, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), or giving to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) or to various regional Jewish Federations. But some of these organizations are not transparent about where that money goes and whether any of it ends up over the Green Line and in settlements, or are engaged in Israel advocacy that prevents Israel from being held accountable for human rights for Palestinians. Jews need to make it clear that these organizations do not represent them, and put their money and resources behind organizations and initiatives that do. 

​​In the National Survey of Jewish Voters for 2021 by the Jewish Electorate Institute, 25 percent agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state.” The results show that young Jews especially are extremely concerned about human rights violations and that our institutions are not actually representative of the range of public opinion in the Jewish community. Still, I think that there’s a lot of social and communal pressure to stay out of it or to stay within “accepted bounds.” 

I’ve often wondered why I’ve invested so heavily in work regarding Israel-Palestine. Why not devote my time to, say, climate justice instead? In the end, there is no issue in which my voice is as important as it is in this one, because this is something that is being done in the name of, and with the support of, the Jewish community in the United States.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, a quarterly magazine and daily news site covering the Jewish left. 

Michael Oren

The first thing that American Jews have to do is educate themselves. If a foreigner or an Israeli came to the United States and made far-reaching pronouncements about American security issues or domestic policy without speaking English, without knowing any American history, without understanding the Constitution or even having read the Constitution, most Americans would take umbrage. Yet large numbers of American Jews do precisely that. They don’t necessarily speak Hebrew, or Arabic for that matter; know little about the country’s history and geography; know little about our politics and security issues, which are immensely complex, and yet make far-reaching pronouncements about how Israeli policy should be formulated. So the first thing that American Jews have to do is learn, and I think that’s not too much to ask.

The second task is to appreciate and respect Israel’s democracy. We don’t necessarily have to like the choices made by Israelis at the polls, but know that these choices are very often made from a place of existential fears. It’s been my experience, both while ambassador and subsequently, that there is little understanding in the United States of the choices Israelis make at the polls. 

The third thing would be to understand the nature of antisemitism and the shapes it has taken in the United States. One of perhaps the greatest difficulties American Jews are having in fighting antisemitism is their inability to define it. The New York Times can run a whole front-page display of pictures of Palestinian children who were allegedly killed by Israel during the recent conflict in Gaza. They’re not running pictures of the numerous civilian children killed by American forces in the world. That, to me, is antisemitic. It’s a blood libel. But a part of the American Jewish community says that’s a great front-page article. 

American Jews should uphold the alliance between the United States and Israel. It’s the deepest and most multifaceted strategic alliance the United States has had with any foreign country in the post-World War II period. It is in the profound interest of America to support that alliance, and American Jews should educate themselves about the nature of that alliance and the great benefits that it provides, not just for Israel, but for the American people.

American Jews should uphold the alliance between the United States and Israel.

American Jews should let their voices be heard about issues that are Israeli issues that impact them, whether it be pluralism at the Kotel and other holy sites, or issues related to conversion—who’s a Jew—or issues related to marriage. On other issues—for example, whether the IDF should remain a citizens’ army or should become a professional army—I don’t think American Jews should have much to say. But there are issues about which American Jews not only should have their voices heard, but must have their voices heard, and compel Israel to live up to the definition that we have set for ourselves, which is that we are the nation-state of the Jewish people, irrespective of where those Jews live, or how they practice or choose not to practice their Judaism. We are a nation-state, we are not a theocracy. That bestows a responsibility not only on Israel, but on American Jews as well to stand up for those issues that impact their identity as Jews, as members of the Jewish people.

Michael B. Oren, an American-born Israeli historian and author, has served as the Israeli ambassador to the United States, a member of the Knesset for the Kulanu party and deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Donniel Hartman

The vast majority of North American Jews are committed to Israel but troubled by some of the things Israel does; they’re troubled by issues of state and religion, by some of the Israeli army’s actions and by what’s happening in the West Bank and in Gaza. It’s like a family. I love you, I’m committed to you, but I’m not always happy with what you do. What’s been changing in the last few years is that being troubled and being uncommitted  is becoming more mainstream within the American Jewish community. 

The more you’re on the right, the more you’re “committed,” and the more you’re on the left, the more you’re “troubled.” What I’ve discovered is that what we identify as problematic in young Jews already exists in their parents, but the parents just don’t want to admit it. They know that there is a disconnect between American Jews and Israel. It’s like a couple who are not getting divorced, but they don’t know why they’re married anymore. 

In the past, Israelis had to have a relationship with North American Jews because they needed them, and so the need required them to couch their feelings in more politically correct language. Israel doesn’t need North American Jews, or thinks it doesn’t need them, as it used to. Today, Israelis are much more powerful. American and American Jewish aid is not as significant, and there are other groups to whom Israel can turn.

Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people belongs to all of the Jewish people. And that means if we Israelis want North American Jews to care about Israel, we have to embrace their involvement with Israel. We have to develop a much more sophisticated ethic of involvement. Israelis say, “If you Americans want a role, your job is to make aliyah.” But that’s not going to happen. If North American Jews can only be involved in Israel by making aliyah, most will simply walk away from Israel.

So what should the role of American Jews be? If you are a liberal American Jew, the first thing you have to do is to develop the language to talk about Israel. And the second thing you have to do is ask, how do I deal with my liberal Zionist values and what’s my relationship with the history?

North American Jews have to support institutions in Israel that fight for the Israel they want.

There is a difference between telling Israel what you think and telling Israel what to do. North American Jews have to be much more proactive in developing vibrant avenues to support institutions in Israel that fight for the Israel they want. If your issue is occupation and Palestinian rights, if your issue is the environment and refugees, if your issue is Israeli Arabs, social justice, women’s rights—there are partners you can work with in Israel. North American Jews have plenty of avenues that don’t involve coercing Israel. They involve creating a framework within Israel in which your voices are heard with Israelis who are willing to be your representatives. Once you develop your voice and develop Israeli partners who will be your voice, then you’re a player in the building of Israel. 

Donniel Hartman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi and president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research and education institution based in Jerusalem and New York City.

Susie Gelman

American Jews feel connected to Israel and invested in its future. But that can lead to problems in the Israel-diaspora relationship, because our preferences are not always, or even often, the same. We’re not the same people. I’ve got really long and strong ties and I feel passionate about Israel—its right to exist as a sovereign state, its future as Jewish and democratic and secure. That’s my guidepost. But having said that, the idea that American Jews are just going to blindly support Israel, right or wrong, is gone for good. 

Israel is not only the Jewish state for Israelis, it’s the nation-state for all Jews. That fact gives Israel added responsibilities and challenges. If Israel wants American Jews to feel invested in and embraced by Israel, it also needs to acknowledge American Jewish concerns. We’re seeing some movement on that front from the new Israeli government, certainly from what Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid is saying, as well as Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is also signaling the importance of that relationship and understands that there needs to be a reset after the Bibi years, when things tilted so firmly to one side of the equation—meaning Republican or evangelical—not taking into account the opinions of the majority of American Jews.

At the same time, we as American Jews need to understand and acknowledge that we’re not Israeli. We don’t live with the direct consequences of Israeli policy choices. And although my son made aliyah and served in the army,  generally American Jews don’t send our kids to serve in the Israeli army. We don’t pay taxes in Israel. We don’t deal with whatever the threats are, whether they be rockets coming from Gaza, violence in the West Bank, or other dangers. And therefore, Israel may sometimes do things we don’t like or necessarily approve of. That doesn’t mean, and cannot mean, that we reject or disconnect from Israel. It just means that we’re not always going to agree.

In terms of what we should be doing, certainly one of the key things is supporting the idea of Israel’s right to be a sovereign nation. We also need to work to promote our interests inside of Israel, and fight for our role as Jews with a stake in the Jewish state—particularly on issues that impact Jews as Jews, such as religion and state, conversion, the Law of Return, etc. 

American Jews need to promote our interests inside of Israel, and fight for our role as Jews with a stake in the Jewish state—particularly on issues
that impact Jews as Jews.

American Jews need to strongly advocate for the two-state solution: It is ultimately the only way to resolve the conflict and preserve Israel as secure, Jewish and democratic. It’s not going to happen anytime soon—the stars are not currently in alignment—but at the same time, taking actions that make a two-state solution more elusive, such as continuing to build settlements in areas that would eventually be part of a Palestinian state, and retroactively recognizing illegal outposts as settlements, is counterproductive. The alternative is one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into which 2.9 million West Bank Palestinians would be absorbed. In that case, Israel would have to choose between being Jewish or being democratic, because it could no longer be both.

Susie Gelman serves as the board chair of the Israel Policy Forum. She was the inaugural chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation and cochair of what was then the UJC (now the JFNA) Israel.  

Birthright group from Israel Outdoors, 2016.

Avi Shafran

American Jews are, first and foremost, American citizens, and owe no political allegiance to Israel as a country. But, of course, all Jews feel—or at least should feel—connected to all of their fellow Jews, by their faith (to whatever degree, if any, they may observe it) and their collective history. And so it is only natural and proper for Jewish Americans to be deeply concerned with happenings in Israel.

 In the end, Israel’s citizens, through their duly elected leaders, will have the final say about the political and military issues their country faces. But American Jews, particularly those of us with family members and close friends in Israel, do have a right and a responsibility to offer our opinions about domestic or foreign policy issues Israel faces.

 That can be a fraught proposition, since misinformation and disinformation abound. Before taking stands on Israel-related issues, American Jews must objectively explore them in depth, with an understanding of Israel’s special nature as a self-defined Jewish state—many of whose neighbors are committed to its annihilation.

The establishment of a Palestinian state is something about which reasonable American Jews may disagree. But taking a stand in favor of such a state without considering the result of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the state of the current Palestinian leadership is a mistake—as is not thinking about what effects the lack of such a state will have on Israel’s future.

There are places where American Jewish advocates should not go. Criticizing Israeli military responses to attacks or second-guessing Israeli security measures are things that American Jews would best avoid, unless they have professional military or security credentials. And seeking to promote an Israel reconstituted in our own country’s image, complete with the separation between religion and state, in effect would negate the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state.

American Jews seeking to promote an Israel reconstituted in their own country’s image, complete with the separation between religion and state, negates the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state.

Similarly, trying to foster an American-style “multi-winged” model of Judaism in Israel, with the accompanying multiple standards in religious matters, will only result in a crippled bird. As much as some American Jews would like to see a reflection of their own pluralistic world in Israel, the fact is that would foster severe societal disunity in a state that identifies as Jewish.

Above all, what American Jews most need to do to express and solidify their relationship with Israel is not to give her advice, but to visit her, support her security needs and pray for the welfare of her citizens.

 Avi Shafran, an Orthodox rabbi, serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. 

Peter Beinart

Our obligation is to show our commitment to the welfare of Jews who live in Israel, because Jews wherever they are have an obligation to look out for one another, and simultaneously to respond to what I consider to be the very grave and profound injustice that Israel is doing—injustice that is not just the product of one particular government or political party but that is built into the fabric of the state, and into the way it functions as a state that is built on Jewish supremacy over Palestinians. Many people, if they even accepted the latter premise, would see those two imperatives in deep conflict with one another. I don’t see them in as much conflict as others might. There is tension between them—between our legitimate particularist obligation to our fellow Jews and our universalist obligation toward justice—in this instance, justice toward Palestinians. But I also believe, and I’m in a minority in this view, that in the long run the safety and well-being of Israeli Jews would be better served in a state that provides equality under the law to Palestinians—by which I mean a state that did not privilege Jews over Palestinians, one that was not constituted as a Jewish state.

Our obligation is to show our commitment to the welfare of Jews who live in Israel and simultaneously
to respond to the very grave and profound injustice
that Israel is doing.

That’s not today a widely held view, but I start from the premise that now there is in reality one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River that includes two nations, a Jewish nation and a Palestinian nation, and that almost certainly isn’t going to be partitioned, even if it could be done justly, which I doubt. So the question for me becomes, is it better for Palestinians in that one state to not be citizens, as most of them are not—and I’m talking here about Palestinians mostly in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but also even those who are in Israel, who are very much second-class citizens—and then a whole population of Palestinians who are not even in Israel/Palestine because they were expelled. 

It seems to me inarguable that Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza deserve the right to be equal citizens of the country in which they live. This is a universal principle of any country, but I also believe what political science tells us, which is that in deeply divided societies, which Israel/Palestine is, things long-term tend to be more stable if all citizens have a voice in the government that controls them. (When I say Israel controls Gaza, I mean that it is Israel that fundamentally makes decisions as to who can come and go.) So excluding one population, the Palestinian one, is in the long run going to be a driver of violence. And though Palestinians have suffered more violence than Israeli Jews in recent years, that violence will ultimately have a severe impact on the lives of Israeli Jews as well. So I don’t see a contradiction between my special commitment as a Jew toward the Jews of Israel and my commitment to the rule of law. 

Peter Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic, is the author of three books, including The Crisis of Zionism. 

Eric R. Mandel

Although surveys show that America’s Jews still sympathize with the Jewish state, the youngest cohort are the loudest and angriest and have become its full-time critics. They increasingly believe they know better than Israelis what is best, they are ignorant of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some have crossed the Rubicon, advocating to end the Jewish state through binationality.

American Jews’ primary role concerning Israel will continue to be advocating for the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is indispensable for American and Israeli national security interests. However, the strength of the connection to Israel is as much about our survival as it is about Israel’s. That is in part due to the multi-generational consequences of a more than 60 percent intermarriage rate. American Judaism is in decline, so we need to get our own house in order regarding our role in the survival of the Jewish state.

The core disaffection toward Israel is routinely attributed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and settlements. But the actual problem is ignorance, social media echo chambers and a lack of willingness to look beyond false narratives and binary solutions. Whenever I give a talk and show evidence of the multiple offers Israel has made for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, those who are still open-minded but unaware of the history are astonished.

American Jews who care about Israel’s survival have never shied away from joining the conversation about the state’s future direction. But it is not the role of American Jews to lobby against the democratically elected government of Israel, claiming to know better than Israelis what is best for them. American Jews need Israel, and Israel needs American Jews, but it is Israelis who place their children and homes in harm’s way to ultimately decide their fate.

Unfortunately, the only prism many young American Jews view Israel through is colored by a simplistic understanding of a conflict. It is a distorted “intersectional” lens that sees Israel as a colonialist, victimizing exploiter of an indigenous people. We have sent our children to the best universities, where they have met an uncompromising administrative and academic elite of anti-Zionists. Students are made to feel ashamed of their Jewish particularism. Antisemitism is described to them as emanating from the far right, while a crusade to defame, delegitimize and disarm Israel is portrayed as something completely other than antisemitism.

It is not the role of American Jews to lobby against the democratically elected government of Israel, claiming to know better than Israelis what is best for them.

Most American Jews are unaware how much Jewish history is centered in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, and not in Tel Aviv, which is just over 100 years old. Even some advocates of the two-states-for-two-peoples solution are pained about giving up the birthplace of Jewish history, especially knowing that the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly denied the Jewish historical connection to the West Bank despite the overwhelming archaeological evidence. A true two-state solution would guarantee not only Israel’s security needs in those territories but would guarantee a Palestinian obligation to allow safe Jewish access to its historical holy sites such the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. 

Our role is to see Israel in all its wonder and tumult, an imperfect but extraordinary nation that is the life jacket for the survival of “the Jews,” whatever that expression means to each of us—a people, a nation, a civilization, a religion, an idea, a tradition or a culture.

Should American Jews have a say in the future of Israel? Absolutely. Cultivating an appreciation for the vitality of the Jewish state, warts and all, is a crucial role for American Jewry. American Jewry should be part-time critics but full-time loving cousins—for the sake of all Jews, the security of the United States, the rights of minorities and the betterment of the world in general.

Eric Mandel is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network and the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Post.

Etan Nechin

The times when American Jews would defend Israel no matter what are over. And this is a welcome change to all Israelis and Palestinians who strive for peace and civil normalcy. However, it seems that despite this vital shift in public opinion, the old paradigm in relation to Israel is still there: Instead of critiquing Israel as a rogue nation-state, many American Jews, especially on the left, are lambasting it for going against their Jewish values. Here lies the paradox: They have simply replaced their parents’ adulation of Israel with general disdain. Their Jewish identity is still centered on Israel and its actions. In essence, they are the other side of the same coin.

This is not entirely the American Jewish community’s fault. When Israeli prime ministers speak on behalf of the Jewish people on the podium of the United Nations General Assembly or in front of Congress, it puts the community in a bind. Whenever this happens, there needs to be a denunciation from Jewish groups and an insistence on Judaism as a religion with many communal and historical manifestations rather than a singular nation-state entity. 

Leaning in on a Jewish-values-based critique of Israel does a disservice to Jews and Israelis and Palestinians because it reinforces the notion of Israel as the center of Jewish existence. The zealousness of some seems to be spurred by the fact that the American Jewish community hasn’t been part of a meaningful political struggle since the civil rights movement. This latching on to the conflict is an attempt to find meaning in one of the most consequential political arenas in history. 

Leaning in on a Jewish-values-based critique of Israel does a disservice to Jews and Israelis and Palestinians: It reinforces the notion of Israel as the center
of Jewish existence.

The debate around Zionism and its discontents is at the center of discourse about Israel. Many writers and historians, especially on the left, peg Zionism as a settler-colonial project. Some offer critiques of Zionism in its relation to white and Jewish supremacy. These discussions not only do nothing to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, but ignore internal sociological, historical, cultural and religious aspects of Israeli society. Israel isn’t a monolith, nor is it inherently right or left. Like any nation-state, it is what the public makes of it.  

​​In the end, American Jews should realize that they aren’t impacted by this conflict in the same way Israelis and Palestinians are. This will give them the freedom and moral weight to offer solidarity without appropriation.

Etan Nechin is an Israeli journalist based in New York. He is currently the online editor of The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee writers.

Lori Palatnik

If I opened up an atlas and asked my sisters-in-law in Chicago to show me where Israel is on a map, I promise you they could not. They would not know the difference between Bibi, Bougie [Israeli President Isaac Herzog] or Bennett [Prime Minister Naftali Bennett]. The Kotel issue? Who is a Jew? It does not take up even a fraction of a centimeter of their minds. They and the vast majority of American Jews do not know and do not care. And yet, somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves and one another that these issues are the most pressing, and demand immediate funding and political action.

 One of the best things about 2020 for me was the lack of in-person gatherings of American Jewry to discuss their relationship with Israel—the subject of the multitude of Jewish events that we used to feel obliged to attend. It was hard for me to listen at such events, knowing that 85 percent of the Jewish people were not in the room, not because they couldn’t make it or afford the price of admission, but because it meant nothing to them.

 Jews do not turn their backs on Israel because of what they know, but because of what they don’t know. Malcolm Hoenlein, a prominent leader in the Jewish world, has pointed out that this is the first time in history that all Jews are free—no Jew is imprisoned behind any geographical border. The Iron Curtain fell. No longer is it “Let My People Go.” Now it is “Let My People Know.” This should be the number one issue that is discussed, solutioned, actioned and funded.

American Jews do not turn their backs on Israel because of what they know, but because of what they don’t know.

Recent studies have shown that Israelis have little knowledge about Jews in the diaspora. Historically, American Jews who visit Israel often meet few Israelis other than the tour bus driver or the hotel concierge. Solving the Israel-diaspora divide is not rocket science: It is simply a matter of meeting, connecting and sharing a meaningful experience, focusing on what unites us and not what divides us. That means we have to leave politics at the door and focus on our commonality. For Jewish mothers, whose lives are driven by relationship and connection, that is easy.

Lori Palatnik is the founding director of Momentum (formerly Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project), an initiative that brings women to Israel to learn about their Jewish heritage and connect with Israel. 

Jonah Platt

The role of American Jews is very simple and has been made overcomplicated. The role of American Jews—and all Jews around the world—is to treat Israel as family, for it is the homeland of our people. It is our home, and we should simply treat it as such.

The role of American Jews—and all Jews around the world—is to treat Israel as family.

What does that mean? Well, how do you treat your own home, your own family? You reserve the right to criticize them, call them out. But first and foremost you love them, you have their back, you feel a responsibility—an obligation, a blood bond—to stick up for your family, to love them unconditionally. We must never forget what family we belong to, even as we demand better behavior from them. To condemn, to abandon, to turn against—these are the actions of those who, due to their insecurities at how they are perceived by the rest of the world (or their peers, or community, etc.), forget themselves and the family that has loved them since before they were born.

Jonah Platt is an actor known for starring in Broadway’s Wicked. He is a 2020 Israel Policy Forum Bronfman Fellow and a current member of the advisory board for the Miller Intro to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.

Judea Pearl

The future of American Jewry rests critically on its connection to Israel and its embrace of Israel as the spiritual compass of Jewish identity. Religion used to be the cement that glued us together, but we have given up that cement. Most Jews today are secular, living in different countries and speaking different languages. The one glue that binds us together is our collective memory of our common history. Israel is both the culmination of that history and its custodian, holding and nurturing our precious trust-deeds: holidays, language, sites, landscapes, lore, heroes and miraculous revival. Sadly, half of American Jewry seems to have given up on this last remaining glue and is starting to see Israel as a liability as opposed to an inspiration.

I predict American Jewry will soon undergo a profound, painful and irreparable split. I cannot think of another period in Jewish history where the schism was so deep, and growing deeper so rapidly. I see the split in every aspect of life and on many levels. Zionist families who have lost a member to Jewish Voices for Peace cease to function as a family. The split is even deeper in academia. The animosity between Jewish professors who support BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and those who fight for the good name of Israel has reached frightful intensity. On the surface, most of our faculty and students are still sitting on the fence, true, but the polarization is growing; the Zionist group is becoming more assertive and is closing ranks rapidly, while the Zionophobic group is becoming louder, more organized and more aggressive.

The future of American Jewry rests on its connection to Israel and its embrace of Israel as the spiritual compass of Jewish identity.

 Today’s attitude toward Israel is really the most critical personal decision for every Jew concerned with the future of our people: Do I want to be part of the Jewish people in the next generation or not? While surveys indicate that most American Jews do not consider Israel their first priority, deep in their heart they know that the time for the inevitable decision is rapidly approaching. This is why the conversation is so intense, so fierce and so loud, ready for its final eruption. The eruption may actually be healthy, resulting in two barely communicating communities: Israel-inspired forward-looking Jews on the one hand and Israel-bashing yesterday-Jews on the other. A “two fate solution” for what once was one people. 

Judea Pearl is professor emeritus of computer science and statistics, director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at UCLA and author of The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect.

Peace rally at Detroit Central High School, 1948.

Cora Galpern

Given that Israel is currently a Jewish state, and American Jewish institutions are proud of that fact, we have a responsibility to make sure that it is upholding our Jewish values. Before we have a responsibility to the State of Israel, we have a responsibility to Jewish values of justice and tikkun olam. If a state that claims to be upholding our religion isn’t upholding our values, we have a responsibility to put pressure on that state to change so that it is reflective of the things that we are taught as American Jews.

Before we have a responsibility to the State of Israel, we have a responsibility to Jewish values of justice and tikkun olam.

A critical component of this role includes centering Palestinian voices and understanding Palestinian narratives. While our power mostly lies in pushing Israel to uphold Jewish values, we also have to acknowledge that in this situation, there is an entire population and culture that is being occupied illegally. The first thing to do when someone is experiencing an injustice is to center the voices of those people. Abuses such as home demolitions, violent checkpoints and brutality by the IDF need to be condemned. It’s also important to have conversations about what Jewish safety actually means to us and how we can feel safe and respected in a way that doesn’t delegitimize or harm another group in the process. 

Cora Galpern is the vice president of J Street U at the University of Michigan. 

Avram Mlotek

Israel is the eternal homeland of the Jewish people. Religiously, it is the permanent rental property of the Jewish people, as bestowed on them by God (so long as we keep up our covenant). Jews have but one tiny slice of land, roughly the size of New Jersey, that is finally under Jewish control after thousands of years of exile and persecution.

The role of American Jews regarding Israel today varies from supporter to staunch critic. American Jews are as diverse as the Israeli parliament. As a rabbi, I hope Jews invest in Jewish literacy. Engaging with Israel is an integral part of Jewish history and identity. I encourage all Jews to form their own unique relationship with Judaism and, in turn, with Israel. Often one’s relationship with Judaism will dictate the passion or dispassion one feels toward Israel. So, what does it mean to be an engaged Jew? Are the far-right Haredi and far-left Jews any less “engaged” because of their biting critique of Israel? Personally, I think it is a profound oversight and mistake to live a Judaism without a robust support of and engagement with the modern State of Israel, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe there are other ways of expressing or engaging in Judaism. 

It is a profound mistake to live a Judaism without a robust support of and engagement with the modern State of Israel.

We’re living at a unique moment in Jewish history where, after thousands of years of exile and persecution, Jews have returned to their historic homeland with sovereignty. With that comes the opportunity and potential to live out our prophetic mission of serving as a light unto the nations. So the question becomes for all Jews, those living in and outside of Israel: How do we want to be a part of our people’s unfolding story? I think Jews everywhere ought to rush to celebrate, support and be invested in their Jewish homeland so that it lives up to its Jewish ideals.

Politics isn’t religion and religion isn’t politics. The world has a responsibility to fight those who oppress Jews and who denounce Israel’s right to exist. American Jews and all people of conscience ought to discern when a defense of Palestinian rights becomes an assault against Jews, as often happens in some progressive circles.

Avram Mlotek is founder of Base Hillel, a home-focused rabbinic ministry now in ten cities worldwide. He is the author of Why Jews Do That or 30 Questions Your Rabbi Never Answered.

Natan Sharansky

American Jewry today is not doing Israel a favor by supporting it—American Jews are fighting for a very important part of their own identity. We are not in the beginning of the 20th century, when Zionism was an idea shared by a very small fraction of the Jewish people. We are not in 1948, when Israel was a poor and weak state. Israel is a strong country, which is going to continue to build itself up and develop itself as a Jewish state, whether American Jews agree or not. But at the same time, there’s no doubt that it is very important for the future of Israel as a Jewish state to be connected to every Jew in the world.  For the future of American Jewry and all diaspora Jews, it’s very important that Israel exists.

What we saw during the last military operation in Gaza was that some among our community—rabbis, Jewish community leaders, heads of Israel studies programs at universities—said that Zionism is a white, racist, colonial philosophy and that they don’t want to continue to support the ideology of Zionism. They were calling for a world without Zionism—more or less what Iran is calling for. I have termed these people un-Jews, as they are undoing big parts of Jewish identity.

American Jews must support Israel’s right to exist and fight against the ideology that Israel is a kind of Jewish white supremacist state.

Some years ago, I was in an Israel delegation meeting with some liberal American Jews. A rabbi in Boston told us, “The fact that Israel decided to kill 2,000 Palestinians after three Jewish boys were kidnapped and killed—as a result of this, you’re losing us American Jews.” Everyone from the delegation, from both the right and the left, was shocked. Then one of the members replied, “You know what? If I have to choose between losing you or losing more and more Israeli citizens, I have to choose to lose you.”

American Jews must support Israel’s right to exist and fight against this ideology that Israel is a kind of Jewish white supremacist state. There is a feeling among Israelis that often criticism of Israel by American Jews is simply meant to show that we are not like “them” [Israelis], that we are part of this woke movement and these progressive liberal Jews, not with those who are oppressing poor Palestinians. In the end, Israelis don’t even hear this criticism, because it’s not about them. So the more specific you are and the more understanding you show about the challenges of Israel, the greater the chance that you’ll be heard. We are one family. So people in the family know one another, understand one another. They disagree, but they know where it comes from. 

It is very important that during the sharpest criticism on both sides, everybody can feel that you’re speaking from the position of pain and concern for your family—not from the position of claiming the moral high ground.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister, was the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel from 2009-2018. His latest book is Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People, written with Gil Troy.

Woman at the Israeli-American Council's Celebrate IsraelFestival, Los Angeles, 2013.

Blake Flayton

American Jews should support the existence of Israel, full stop, bottom line. American Jews should remain Zionists, and we should continue to fight for and believe in a Jewish and democratic state, which means we should continue to push for and believe in a two-state solution.

That does not mean that we should refrain from criticizing Israel when it is necessary. But at the same time, we need to unify against the campaign to undo Israel completely. We need to accept that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. We need to understand that Israel is the only homeland, only refuge, only place in the world where Jews call the shots. And that’s precious. We need to unify in combating those who seek to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, whether they say it outright or call it other things, like a binational solution, which is a very naive geopolitical stance. And we need to make sure that idea does not make inroads into the Democratic Party, because that would mean a catastrophe, as we saw in the United Kingdom leading up to Jeremy Corbyn’s loss in 2019.

American Jews need to unify in combating those who seek to wipe Israel off the face of the earth—whether they say it outright or call it other things, like a binational solution.

American Jews should get into the business of “primarying” members of Congress who think that Zionism is racism and that Israel does not have the right to be a Jewish and democratic state, and work so that widely accepted definitions of antisemitism are adopted everywhere. American Jews also need to support young grassroots Zionist organizations. There are a handful of young grassroots anti-Zionist organizations that are making a significant impact on younger people, especially younger Jews, and I believe them to be a threat to American Jewish safety and security.

And this is the most important thing: We need to be able to call out antisemitism regardless of where it comes from on the political spectrum, regardless of who it comes from, regardless of race, gender, ideology, religion, etc. When it’s necessary, we also need to call our members of Congress and speak out against Israeli policies like home demolition, annexation or laws passed in the Knesset that favor one ethnic group in Israel over another. We need to make sure to speak out so that both the wider Jewish community and non-Jews in the United States know that we are able to see the nuance of this situation.

Blake Flayton is cofounder of the New Zionist Congress, a student group that believes in Zionism’s mission and its continuity today. 

Yehuda Glick

The way I understand the word of the Torah, the essence or the mission of the Jewish people is to actually live in Israel. And therefore, I’d say that the first role of American Jewry, just like that of all other Jews, is to move to Israel and fulfill the destiny of the people of Israel to serve as a light unto the nations.

Taking into consideration that most Jews are probably not going to be moving to Israel in the near future, I would be very happy if American Jewry, which speaks up very strongly and justly for allowing all Jews to pray at the Western Wall, would speak up similarly for permission for all people to be able to pray and worship God peacefully on the Temple Mount. It seems quite strange to me that American Jewry speaks loud and clear about allowing all Jews to be able to pray at the Western Wall, and at the same time criticizes people who want to encourage religious pluralism on the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount, which is sanctified to all believers in God, has the potential of becoming the world center of peace and a house of prayer for all nations. 

American Jews should speak up for all people to be able to pray and worship God peacefully on the Temple Mount.

I call upon American Jewry to join the call, to turn the Temple Mount into a place that represents inclusiveness, diversity and the ability to serve Hashem and to respect all people and the way they serve Hashem. 

Yehuda Glick, an Orthodox rabbi and former member of Knesset, is president of the Shalom Jerusalem Foundation, which campaigns for expanding Jewish access to the Temple Mount.

Alida Jacobs

There is a moral responsibility for Jews, as beneficiaries of the colonization of Palestine, to reject the terms and revisionism of Zionism and to advocate for Palestinian liberation. I think every person is responsible for everyone else, globally, but if a particular ethno-state weaponizes one’s identity to commit heinous crimes against humanity, one has a greater responsibility to reject and obstruct that. It’s common to find Jewish people in Palestinian-led organizing.

Jews should respect the call from within Palestine for outsiders not to come to Israel/Palestine at all.

A big way young American Jews can exercise solidarity with Palestinians is by refusing to go on Birthright. It falsely presents Israel’s past and present in a bid to gain our material and political support, and frames American Jews as having a sole claim to the land. To be consistent, I don’t think I should visit Morocco, India, the Gulf states, or many other countries with gross human rights records and/or instances of ongoing occupation or ethnocracy, especially given that tourist industries are often extremely exploitative of the environment and of local labor. So yes, I do hold other countries to the same standard as I hold Israel. But there’s a specific call from within Palestine for outsiders not to come to Israel/Palestine at all, as part of BDS. That should be respected. Talking to family members is definitely another important undertaking for American Jews, because many of us have relatives who are Zionists. Changing the minds of people around us is one of our main responsibilities. We have to clarify Israel’s history and its current role in the world, and position the Palestinian cause in conjunction with other causes, like feminism and environmentalism, and alongside the many other instances of occupation and colonialism around the world, past and present.

Alida Jacobs founded the Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) chapter at the University of California, Davis. This past year, the group worked to pass a BDS resolution calling on their school to divest from Raytheon, Viola Environments and Caterpillar.

Protesters from Jewish Voice for Peace, Seattle, 2006. Israeli Independence Day celebration, 2021.

Ruth K. Westheimer

I never talk about politics, but I do believe that all of us Jews, and especially those of us who live a wonderful life in the United States, have an obligation to make sure that Israel is safe and at least supported. My two feet are very much in the Jewish world, and every day I think about Israel. I never forget that Israel accepted me in 1945, no questions asked, no money. I lived on a kibbutz. Any Jew who comes to Israel is accepted with open arms. Today, with the influx of refugees around the world, this is an important lesson for other countries. We also have an obligation to raise money for scholarships for universities there. We are obligated because we live in a country where we can raise money rather easily. 

Young people should go to Israel on a program like Birthright Israel and hopefully find someone to marry.

My advice to young people is to go to Israel on a program like Birthright Israel, because it is an experience they’ll never forget. It’s important for young people to have that connection with Judaism in general and with Israel in particular. You have to say to them the Hanukkah phrase, Nes gadol haya sham, a great miracle occurred in 1948. I was there in Jerusalem when Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv declared the State of Israel. And one more thing, I hope that people who go on Birthright find somebody to get married to. I want to see more marriages and more babies. It’s a wonderful way for single people to find partners.

Ruth K. Westheimer is a sex therapist, author and TV personality. A Holocaust survivor sent on the Kindertransport to Switzerland, she served in the Haganah in Palestine in 1948. ​​

Izabella Tabarovsky

American Jews tend to believe that they understand Israel fairly well, because so many Israelis speak English and so much punditry happens in English. You go to Israel, and the receptionist at the hotel speaks to you in English, and so does your tour guide and a falafel stand’s owner, and you start to believe that you actually understand the country. But you have no access to the national Israeli conversation, to culture, to society. What songs do Israelis sing when they get together? What cult movies do they quote to one another? What rites of passage do they go through that they bond over? It’s as if someone tried to understand America without English. Vast chunks of Israeli experience just pass you by and you don’t even know about it.

American Jews need to change their posture from constant judgment and criticism to trying to understand and build bridges from a place of real knowledge. And that means, among other things, overcoming the resistance to learning languages and making an effort to learn Hebrew and to get to know Israel’s Hebrew-based culture.

Vast chunks of Israeli experience just pass you by and you don’t even know about it.

Is it an obligation for us to know what’s happening in Israel? If you believe in Jewish peoplehood, if you believe that we are a people, then yes, absolutely, we need to learn about one another. One of the things that happens with education is you develop empathy, and that’s missing right now. The role of American Jews should be to develop authentic relationships with Israel and Israelis, to build cultural bridges and to expand the conversation beyond our few pet political issues.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a senior program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute focusing on antisemitism, antizionism, and the Soviet Jewish identity and experience.

Nahum Barnea

The role of American Jews in Israeli life, not only in Israeli policies, is crucial. What to do? There is the old Zionist suggestion: “You want to influence Israel? Come and make aliyah!” I know it’s not so simple. I’m more worried about Israelis who move permanently to the United States. We used to call them “yordim,” those “going down.” Now, it’s called “relocation.” 

Will the new Israeli government use new arguments or new approaches to try to draw people into engagement with Israel? They have an advantage. They’re new. What happened or didn’t happen, and who is to blame and so on, is history now. They can really turn the page, and if they are wise, they will do it. The State of Israel has a problem with many young American Jews who feel detached from Israel. We have to convince them that that feeling is a mistake. One way to do it is to improve our policies, and I hope that this government will do it in the right way.

The State of Israel has a problem with many young American Jews who feel detached from Israel. We have to convince them that that feeling is a mistake.

I don’t know whether this will increase emigration to Israel. We have had waves of immigration from the West, mainly because of two things: Surges of antisemitism have brought a lot of Jews from other countries, like France. But many French Jews still live partially in France even if they have made aliyah to Israel. The second reason is economic. When there was a big economic crisis in the United States and the situation in Israel was better, people naturally looked at the option of aliyah. 

I wish more American Jews would come to Israel. What we saw in recent years was mainly immigration of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Let’s say, right after COVID-19, you are welcome in Tel Aviv! Just come.

Nahum Barnea is a prominent Israeli journalist and winner of the Israel Prize. He writes for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest circulating daily newspaper. 

Have an opinion? Let us know your thoughts on this Big Question at editor@momentmag.com.

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4 thoughts on “What Should the Role of American Jews Be With Respect to Israel Today?

  1. Allan W says:

    Thank you for publishing this. I appreciated the spectrum of responses.

  2. hag says:

    ENOUGH BS…. just another totalitarian regime …
    how can it be a democracy when half the country is denied citizenship””

  3. Marvin Steiner says:

    I’m a 92 year old American born second generation Jew.I could have written each and every word Micheal Oren wrote .Discharged from the Marine Corps in Jan1954 I enrolled at her University of California Davis where I became friends with 7 Israeli exchange students all ag majors all fought in the 1948 war of Independence.All kibbutz nicks That shaped my of views of Zionism. I’ve since read extensively on Zionism and antisemitism .In the abbreviated words of Hillel,”go study”.

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