OpinionJewish Diaspora

American Jews and Israelis at the crossroads

For the first time since the founding of the experiment in Jewish nationalism, the events that have unfolded in Israel raise questions about the “Zionist dream.”

U.S. and Israeli flags. Credit: defenseimagery.mil via Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. and Israeli flags. Credit: defenseimagery.mil via Wikimedia Commons.
Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller

For 70 years, from 1948 to 2018, American Jews experienced a period of political access, social influence and winnable outcomes. This period has been described as “the greening of the American Jewish experience.” 

Since 2018 we have begun to see the unraveling of our influence and security. What happened? And why is it happening?

The story of the political demise of American Jewry parallels the ideas of historian Simon Montefiore, whose recent book addresses what I am calling the beginning of the end of a 70-year peace: “humanity’s creeping and possibly inexorable return to a time where people around the world aren’t enjoying the fruits of liberty and democracy, but instead are subject to the mercurial, self-interested actions of dynastic rule.”

Correspondingly, for the first time since the founding of the experiment in Jewish nationalism, the events that have unfolded in Israel, culminating with the trauma of Oct. 7, raise questions about the “Zionist dream” and the capacity of the Jewish state to meet the security requirements of its citizens. We will return later to the Zionist challenge.

The American Jewish dilemma

For a minority community, American Jews enjoyed this extraordinary era of power connections. What was distinctive about this experience is that there existed a dual track of social influence. On the one hand, bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship allowed the Jewish state to enjoy a unique economic and military bond with America. This special connection would be accompanied by a corollary Jewish alignment with democratic liberal politics that framed a social justice and civic affairs agenda that would change this nation in such areas as women’s rights, civil liberties, economic advancement and health care.

Within the context of the American story, such distinctive periods of power are rare; in most settings, minorities are fortunate to succeed selectively. In this case, the Jewish community was able to achieve its shared political interests on multiple fronts.

There is however a countervailing trend. When a minority is perceived to be excessively successful, there is often a counter-response by its opponents. This is the moment in which we find ourselves now, as we experience a very real push-back from those who are hostile to the perceived success of the Jewish community.

In some measure, this current time frame serves as a “come to reality” moment, where we suddenly understand that we may be returning to our historical role as petitioner, as the power and influence we believed we held and the results we thought that we had created may have been a sad illusion or only a temporary interlude.

I believe that the liberal agenda we helped to forge and embrace is no longer in play, and that in this setting we will need to redefine our political interests while engaging in a quest for new alliances. Our core beliefs about the American democratic story are radically and rapidly changing. As the progressive left seeks to both isolate Jews as legitimate players and provide an alternative agenda in connection with both our pro-Israel and domestic affairs portfolios, our place at the table is disappearing. We are being politically erased.

Social media, more than any other platform, has been employed not only to deconstruct Jewish historical facts but also to disassemble truths about Jews, Judaism and Israel.

Various factors are contributing to this power transformation, but none more than the emerging generational transition under way. The recent Harvard study of young Americans defines in stark and radical terms this dangerous new reality: “The Harvard CAPS-Harris poll found that two-thirds of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 believe Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated that way, while 73 percent of all voters said this notion is false.”

No doubt, as I and others have suggested, the post-modernist political agenda with its focus on woke culture, intersectionality and critical race theory has reframed the academic conversation around Jews, culture and America. Beyond the emergence of the progressive left, we are confronting a growing neo-isolationist camp on the political right. Extremism tends to generate outcomes including an increased flirtation with authoritarian ideas and beliefs.

Writing about these political developments and their impact on Jewish Americans, Adam Garfinkle notes that the “dilemma of political homelessness will split the American Jewish community into three quarreling pieces: loud but relatively small numbers of leftist, anti-Zionist secular Jews who will fawn like Hannah Arendt’s parvenus over Democrats who openly loathe Israel and indulge in anti-Semitic tropes; even smaller numbers of right-oriented Jews, many religious but many not, who will essentially beg or try to bribe the Republicans for their favor; and a far larger clot of confused Jews who will either become fuzzily apolitical or, perhaps, seek out third-party alternatives that may be waiting in the wings.”

In this new moment, we Jews have an opportunity to redefine our political agenda and refocus on alliance building while using this opportunity to politically engage and educate a new generation of Jewish Americans. The political road ahead, no doubt, will be less certain. The realization that we as a polity are undergoing change, just as our society is experiencing significant demographic and cultural shifts, has garnered our attention. The U.S.-Israel partnership will undoubtedly also endure significant readjustments, as Israel itself must deal with its new political realities.

The questions facing Israel

If we believe that our role and power are shifting, most certainly in the aftermath of this Gaza encounter, Israel and Israelis face their own reality moment. As a society, Israelis will emerge from this nightmare having to deal with questions and doubts that will force the Jewish state to delve deep into its Zionist soul.

The case for Zionism has been built on the premise that the establishment of a Jewish national homeland would ensure Jewish security and remove antisemitism, and enable Jews to thrive. Did Oct. 7 and the ensuing events in some measure undermine this sense of normalcy?

The Jewish state’s first 70 years provided its founders the opportunity to define and create a particular vision of what the Zionist experiment would represent. Recent events, involving the governmental crisis of these past several years and the more immediate confrontation with Hamas, are generating some new and pressing challenges requiring Israelis to re-evaluate the Zionist proposition and to recalibrate what type of Jewish and democratic society this nation must create.

While the rawness and trauma of this conflict will not allow for immediate outcomes or the resolution of the many unresolved existential issues facing Israel, this moment has brought these unresolved matters front and center with greater emphasis than ever.

Most certainly, among the major questions will be the capacity of the state and its military to defend and protect its people. Moving forward, can Israelis reconstruct a political consensus focusing not only on how they can and will govern themselves but also on the character and content of the Jewish state? Israelis will need to reconsider how the Zionist idea matches up with the current realities of nation-building.

Israelis will need to confront the central organizing issue of two peoples living in one land. The complex questions regarding the future status and legal standing of both Gaza and the West Bank require answers.

The challenges ahead

In this moment, both American Jewry and Israelis will be required to address their respective challenges. For us, our growing discomfort with the rhetoric of antisemitic hate and our increasing sense of political homelessness will require us to redefine our contract with America. For Israelis, the current political and military conditions will ultimately introduce the difficult conversations and ultimately the policy questions about how they will reframe Zionism, realign their politics and rethink their political options with the Palestinians.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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