The UCLA Law School lecture hall hummed with chatter as attendees carried their tea and cookies to their seats, awaiting the event speaker. Couples and friends flipped through the fresh pages of their newly purchased books, and shared commentary on the author’s previous works.
The April 7 event was an author-led discussion of Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel by Dov Waxman, a book which explores the increasingly controversial place that Israel has in the American Jewish community.
Waxman, a professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University, also authored two other books titled The Pursuit of Peace and The Crisis of Israeli Identity. Waxman opened the event by discussing contents and themes in his new book in order to explain the evolved relationships American Jews maintain with Israel.
The title of the book playfully alludes to the 12 Tribes of Jacob mentioned in the Bible, collectively known as the Israelites. Because of the inability of the Israelites to cooperate and unite in Israel, the tribes were ultimately conquered by various invaders and scattered throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, creating the Diaspora Jews still alive in to this day. Waxman used this background to begin his discussion of American Jews’ switch from unconditional support for the State of Israel to deep criticism of Israel and shame at Israel’s geopolitical decisions.
Waxman described the original unconditional support Jews in America always gave to the State of Israel: Jews living in the United States during the 1940s and ’50s were incredibly familiar with the atrocities committed against the Jews in the Holocaust and the dire need for the Jewish people to have a sovereign state of their own. Soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, the developing nation was bombarded with wars from its hostile Arab neighbors who hoped to quickly remove the nascent Jewish State from the map of the Middle East. American Jews, who lived relatively privileged in the US, gave both financial and moral support to the people of Israel who struggled to keep their state.
As American Jews lived away from constant warfare and the gradual development of Israel as a state, they typically refrained from commenting or criticizing Israeli politics and society. They did not live in the State and thus were not in the place to decide how life should be lived by Israelis or the government. American Jews simply sent their donations through organizations such as the JNF (Jewish National Fund), Israel Bonds and FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Force) that would go towards funding and development for Israeli organizations and the military.
Jews also supported (and continue to support) Israel through advocacy. Groups such as AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) served to strengthen the political ties between Israel and the United States through public affairs and lobbying. This unified support for Israel by American Jews came with no strings attached and was reinforced by the American Jews’ guilt for living comfortable lives in the US while Jews in Israel constantly struggled.
This total and unified support for Israel shifted at the beginning of the Lebanon War in the 1980s. Israel implemented preventative war tactics on southern Lebanon and was targeted internationally as the aggressor. This began the change of American Jewish support of the State of Israel from unconditional support to critical engagement. The generation of Jews who were born and grew up in the 1980s and 90s now maintain a different opinion of Israel than the older generations who remember Israel’s conception and early struggles.
Jews from the older generations remember the days of the Holocaust or the countless wars in Israel’s beginning, in which all odds were against the Jewish State, yet miraculously, Israel was triumphant each time. The younger generation does not share the same image of Israel being a new state constantly at war with its enemies. They see it as an aggressor and occupier implementing preventative war over the Palestinian populations.
The older generation remembers Israel being part of the Arab-Israel conflict, an issue that was between the Jewish State and nearly all the neighboring nations which wanted its elimination. Today, younger Jews living in the United States see what has become an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and view Israel as a power much greater and united over the scattered and weak Palestinians.
Growing numbers of American Jews are willing to openly criticize Israel and stand by the ideal that their criticism is a way of being pro-Israel. They want to see Israel be the best and most fair it can be, which is why they believe they must address the State’s flaws.
Four Camps of the Jewish Debate
Waxman describes the American Jewish support for Israel as falling into one of the following four camps that he believes exhibit the levels of support for the Jewish State:
First is what Waxman labeled the “far left,” a category that maintains anachronistic beliefs of Israel as an aggressor. Jewish Voice for Peace is an organization that maintains far left views of Israel as the guilty party within the Israel-Palestine conflict. Jewish Voice for Peace has received growing support for a one-state solution and encourages the BDS (Boycott Divest and Sanction) Movement that strives to weaken Israeli society and economy via harsh economic pressures.
Second is the “center left” group which can be demonstrated by groups such as J-Street which, unlike the far left, believe Zionism is legitimate, and maintain that Israel needs to be liberal when addressing political and social issues both within the nation and internationally. The center left rejects the defamatory claim that Israel is an apartheid state, yet believes that the recently constructed wall separating the West Bank from East Jerusalem has the potential to create an apartheid nation. Center left groups like J-Street maintain opinions of Israel both within the Green Line and outside of it. Still, though displaying milder critique of Israel, the center left continues to oppose the BDS Movement.
Third is the “center right” category, which consists of organizations such as AIPAC, which advocate for a bipartisan effort to support Israel. The center right believes that Zionism is right and does not see problems with Israel, maintaining the traditional, unconditional support for the Jewish State without any pressures on the Israeli government or economy. The center right supports the proposal of a two-state solution, yet blames Palestinian aggression for the inability to reach peace.
Finally, the “far right” that Waxman refers to is illustrated by groups such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) which are influenced by a neoconservative approach to the conflicts within the Middle East, including fierce opposition to radical Islam. The American far right rejects the two-state solution, opposing a Palestinian State now and in the future, while supporting the establishment of settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).
Waxman explains that American Jews are divided over how far they will go for Israel. Still, he asserts that most Jews are centrists who support Israel and want peace, worry about Israeli security and are suspicious of Palestinians who claim to want peace yet do little to achieve this desire.
Ultimately, Waxman reminds readers and listeners of the history of the Jewish people and Israelites, and our origin as the 12 Tribes of Jacob. It is natural for the Jewish people to maintain and argue a bevy of opinions that stretch from liberal to conservative and right to left. Waxman explains that the prevalent discourse of the State of Israel is part of who the Jews are, although Israel is slowly moving from a source of consensus to division, losing its role as the social glue of American Jews.
Still, Waxman maintains that it is important for Jews to engage with Israel and find questions about the politics and society of the nation. Waxman asserted at the end of his presentation that “not caring is more of a problem. Even criticism is coming from the place of engagement and care.” The trouble in the tribe we face today does not indicate lack of support for Israel, but the prevalent Jewish opinions and passion for a thriving Jewish State.