columnIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

As Israel bleeds, American Jewry stands at a crossroads

The community that rallied behind the Jewish state in 1967 and 1973 no longer exists. Can once formidable Jewish groups provide wartime leadership?

Israeli security forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a shelter in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Israeli security forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a shelter in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the days since Hamas launched its barbaric assault on Israel, there has been a lot of discussion about possible analogies between the current struggle and past chapters of Israeli history. The comparison with the 1973 Yom Kippur War with its heavy casualty toll and a surprise attack on a Jewish holiday is obvious. Some have raised the precedent of the 1948 War of Independence in which the country as a whole was under assault by multiple invading Arab armies and Palestinian Arab militias with a high number of civilian as well as military casualties suffered by the Jews.

But in both cases, the differences outnumber the similarities. In 1948, Israel’s existence and the possibility of total military defeat were present in a way that—for all of the horror of the Hamas atrocities—is not a possibility today. In 1973, the full force of the Egyptian and Syrian militaries was matched and then beaten by that of the Israel Defense Forces, creating battles on a larger scale than those of 2023. Moreover, as much as the attack on the holiest of Jewish days shocked the Israeli people, the government still had the option of striking first in the hours before the assault but refrained because of worries about American disapproval. On Simchat Torah 2023, the surprise achieved by Israel’s enemies was total.

There is one other element that is completely different today from those conflicts and from the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel seized the initiative and struck first before its foes could attack its borders. That is the belief that Israel could count on the passionate support of the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

A unified response

In each of those conflicts, but especially in 1967 and 1973, the response from the organized Jewish world as well as the grassroots was loud, heartfelt, and more importantly, politically effective.

The mass gatherings held in support of Israel throughout the United States were attended by huge numbers of ordinary American Jews, and the massive fundraising for Israel during all three of those conflicts was on a scale that not only reflected the relative wealth of the community but also made a genuine difference for the Jewish state. Just as important, the strength of the communal response had an impact on American policy.

The fundraising slogan, “We are one,” was always more aspirational than descriptive. But at the height of those crises, the atmosphere in American synagogues, community centers and other organizational venues was at such a fever pitch of anxiety and a readiness for activism that it was easy to forget that prior to the Holocaust, many, if not most, American Jews had been decidedly cool towards the Zionist case.

If for decades after the last of those trials many non-Jewish politicians were still under the misapprehension that Jewish votes could be won or lost solely on the basis of a stand on Israel (a lesson that former President Donald Trump still has trouble accepting), it was in large measure because the communal response to those crises was so strong.

If there is anything that is a given about the debate about the current war, it is that the response from American Jewry is not going to be anything remotely like the outpouring of activism and donations during those conflicts.

Revulsion for Hamas should be universal

In some ways, it doesn’t make sense.

The atrocities committed in the last few days and the toll of those murdered, injured, raped and kidnapped far exceed even the terrible price in human life that Israel paid during the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars. Indeed, what happened on Oct. 7 should shake every American to the core. Moreover, in the age of cell-phone cameras and social-media platforms, graphic shocking evidence of these unbelievable crimes—much of which was posted by the Palestinians themselves—is now easily accessed in ways that were unimaginable in the past. Outrage over the callous cruelty of a people that mainstream media outlets are still calling “militants” or “fighters” rather than terrorist murderers ought to be even greater than the worries that American Jews had in the past about Arab armies carrying out a second Holocaust. In an era where sensibilities are so delicate that “trigger warnings” are required for even the mildest of controversial material, one would think that the gruesome images flooding social media would be enough to fuel a massive surge of public outrage.

Jews turned out in impressive numbers to rallies during the wars fought 50 and 75 years ago without seeing pictorial and video evidence of the barbarism of those dedicated to eliminating Israel. Will they do as well now?

It’s highly unlikely.

Some of the reasons for this are due to history and demography, and have little or nothing to do with politics.

In 1973 and 1967—let alone in 1948—the Holocaust was a fresh memory for Jewish adults. Moreover, most Jews alive then remembered what it was like to grow up in a world without a Jewish state. They instinctively knew that such a world was inherently more dangerous for Jews wherever they lived. Contrary to Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl’s expectations, the triumph of Zionism didn’t put an end to antisemitism; instead, it gave the virus of Jew-hatred a new target.

Nevertheless, Israel’s creation still changed the lives of every Jew, Zionist or non-Zionist, religious or non-religious, allowing all to hold up their heads higher, helping in no small measure to create the self-confident and influential Jewish community that would make its mark on the nation’s politics in this era. And that was something that post-war American Jewry implicitly understood.

Fast-forward 50 years, and it’s not just that most of those who were Jewish leaders are no longer alive. That Jewish community that defined itself by its memory of the Holocaust and devotion to the survival of Israel against the odds is itself dead.

In its place is a Jewish world that is markedly different in a number of respects.

A lack of Jewish peoplehood

Surveys, like those conducted by the Pew Research Center, paint a picture of American Jewry in which most are highly assimilated, and less connected to Judaism and synagogues, as well as Jewish organizations and Israel. It is a community in which universal values are prioritized over Jewish particularism. If the fastest-growing group that may soon be the largest demographic sector is referred to as “Jews of no religion,” then it is unsurprising that it is one whose members are increasingly unlikely to care much about a sectarian Jewish state. Though today’s Jews are not ashamed of being Jewish, more and more of them lack a sense of Jewish peoplehood—the key factor in building a sense of communal identity.

It is also a politically polarized Jewish community in which the overwhelming majority are members of a party where support for Israel is on the wane. GOP politicians gain no traction outside of the minority who are Orthodox or politically conservative for standing with Israel, and Democrats don’t pay a price for undermining it, as their votes on the dangerous Iran nuclear deal proved.

Moreover, the intersectional left, which promotes toxic ideas like intersectionality and critical race theory that normalize antisemitism because they falsely define Jews as possessing “white privilege” and Israel as an oppressor state of people of color, has made some inroads within the Jewish community. Mainstream liberal groups like the Anti-Defamation League have bent their knee to woke ideas like the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) catechism that leads to quotas that harm Jewish interests and the principle of equality. Indeed, the theme of anti-Israel protests that have been held in cities across the nation is to link Zionism, Israel and the Jews with “white supremacy.”

Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that support for Israel is down among Democrats, and that more American Jews are willing to support anti-Zionist and even antisemitic groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow that target Israel.

Can liberal Jews find their voices?

As dismal as the situation appears and as much as the demographic implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry bodes ill for the pro-Israel community, there is still some hope.

Since the Hamas atrocities, some of the legacy groups that had lost their way to the point of being reflexively critical of Israel seemed to have remembered that standing with the Jewish state is their job. Though many of them have acted as if Jew-hatred is only to be found on the political right, the vile attitudes of Hamas and its leftist Western apologists have forced them to confront the factor that is really driving modern antisemitism.

Even ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has been outraged by the way liberal media outlets, like MSNBC, which he says he “loves,” is committed to moral equivalence between Israelis and the terrorists who are massacring them. The same can be said of American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutsch.

It’s encouraging to hear liberal Jewish leaders find their voices in this manner. But having squandered their political capital on non-Jewish liberal causes, it’s far from clear they are still capable of rallying American Jewry to face the challenge of the coming days.

As with President Joe Biden, the test of American Jewry is not so much whether they have something to say in support of Jewish victims, but whether they are willing to stand with Israel once a ground invasion of Gaza begins. At that point, they will have to decide whether they are prepared to pressure their Democratic Party allies in the White House to stand with an Israeli campaign whose necessary goal will be to defeat Hamas and evict it from the Gaza Strip as the terrorists employ human shields—both Jewish hostages and Palestinian civilians—they will employ to save themselves.

Will they support measures to end all aid to the Palestinians resumed by the Biden administration after Trump’s cuts?

Will they demand that the United States rescind its ransom payments to Hamas’s Iran co-conspirator and end the quest to appease Tehran?

Will they support not just U.S. resupply of arms to Israel but oppose any efforts to pressure Israel to stop short of victory, as well as make concessions to achieve a mythical two-state solution the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected rather than force them to pay a price for terrorism—a central theme of “liberal Zionist” activism in the last generation?

Will they unite in support of a traditional fundraising campaign to which a broad cross-section of American Jewry will commit to the rebuilding of the communities devastated by the terrorist attacks, help for the bereaved families and the building of a stronger defense infrastructure?

If not, all the sound bites and social-media posts expressing their solidarity with Israel will be meaningless.

We know the crowds at this week’s pro-Israel rallies will be smaller than those in the past, but they will still be filled with those who care about the Jewish state, and who want to answer the demonization of Jews and the antisemitism that drives those supporting the terrorists. The test they will face in the days to come is one that their leaders and organizations are ill-prepared to meet after so many years of neglecting their pro-Israel brief. Still, there is still an opportunity for a generation of failed Jewish leaders and ordinary Jews to step up and follow in the footsteps of those who rallied for Israel and Soviet Jewry. The beleaguered people of Israel and history will judge them harshly if they fail.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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