American Jews’ Problems With Israel

Among some in the U.S. diaspora, the doubts are not limited either to the rank-and-file or to the Palestinian issue

American Jews’ Problems With Israel
A child stands out of a car’s sunroof waving Israeli flags during a car parade marking the 73rd anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence, in New York / Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

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“If you can’t endure the bad, you’ll not live to witness the good.”

— Jewish proverb

It’s tradition among families celebrating a bar mitzvah to attend Sabbath services on the Friday night before the ceremony, which is usually held on Saturday mornings. Thus, some 20 years ago, I found myself in a suburban New York synagogue pew along with extended family when a younger relative — turning 13 and having studied to become a fully practicing member of the faith — was about to be so honored. As is often the case when a Sabbath gathering is significantly smaller than what you might see on the High Holidays — the time in early fall when Jews celebrate the religious new year and atone for their misdeeds — the rabbi gave not so much a sermon as an invitation to the congregation to engage in a colloquy about an issue recently on his mind. (To me, one of the great features of liberal American Judaism is the frequent opportunity to discuss and debate within the temple walls, and not just be lectured by the rabbi on how the Torah and Talmud apply in our day-to-day life. I believe it would be a good thing for all religions and sects to make this a practice, but I’ll leave that argument to wiser counsel.)

On that Friday night two decades ago, the rabbi wanted to hear from us about a recent kerfuffle involving The New York Times. A few days earlier, he explained, the newspaper had covered the city’s annual Israeli Independence Day parade, during which thousands of Jews and all manner of other supporters of Israel across all walks of life marched down Fifth Avenue expressing their enthusiasm for the Jewish state. The parade was taking place during a fraught time. The devastation of the 9/11 attack, which had shaken the city to its core only eight months earlier, was still raw, and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff was at a relative low point. 

While the vast majority of those in attendance at the parade were pro-Israel, there was a tiny contingent of protesters attempting to disrupt the mood. A photo that appeared on the front page of the Times, to alert readers to the full story inside the paper, depicted one of the protesters holding a placard that read, “End Israeli Occupation of Palestine.” In the photos adjacent to the story itself, “a photo of a pro-Israel marcher was outweighed by a larger picture of protesters, one waving a sign that likened Zionism to Nazism,” the Times wrote in an Editors’ Note that was published on Page A2 the day after the original story. The note resulted from, one assumes, complaints from readers who believed that the photos had obscured the overall festive tone of the day; in the note, a semi-apology of sorts, the Times called the photos “disproportionate” to the makeup of the assemblage as a whole.

The rabbi wanted to know our thoughts about the story and its aftermath. At that point I immediately, almost reflexively, shot my hand in the air and stood up (surprising myself, as it is an action I almost never take in public). I made it clear that I believed that if anything was “disproportionate,” it was the way the Times had cravenly capitulated to some upset subscribers. Anyone who had bothered to read the story could have found out from the written coverage about how the pro- and anti- camps were weighted. And as a newsperson, you don’t ignore a protest just because it represents a distinct minority of attendees. (I didn’t say so at the time, but I was thinking that the complaints were akin to fretting about the intense newspaper coverage we always see of a plane crash: Well, what about the tens of thousands of aircraft that landed safely yesterday? How come we don’t read about those!?)

I knew ‌I might be ruffling the feathers of my family flock, seated around me in the temple. Many of my loved ones are longtime advocates for Israel. But by and large they backed me, which was not true of everyone in the congregation. For some at least, I had touched a nerve.

I thought about this event a few days ago after reading and editing a piece we published by Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, a nonresident fellow at the New Lines Institute who wrote about how the feelings of his family, long supportive of Israel, have grown more complicated, especially in recent years as so many powerful citizens of the Jewish state have stubbornly avoided reflecting on their country’s treatment of Palestinians. While Ghosh-Siminoff points out the uniqueness of the Holocaust and how that seminal horror forever animates and informs the views of many Jews in both Israel and the diaspora, he notes that for a prominent segment of Jews, especially liberals, there’s more to consider, with the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli Defense Forces only the most recent flashpoint. (And while no one died, the “flag march” a few days ago in which Israelis provocatively paraded with the Star of David banner through Arab east Jerusalem did not ease the tensions.)

While the trauma at the hands of a centurieslong history of discrimination, and worse, against Jews is all too palpable, Ghosh-Siminoff notes, “like all communities … we have blind spots. In particular, a sizable portion of Jewish Americans still have a blind spot for the increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic actions of the Israeli government.”

He then unveils a personal and less recalcitrant perspective, retracing his family’s own difficult journey with respect to Israel. Ghosh-Siminoff writes, “I … have watched my family’s viewpoints change from cautious but largely uncritical support for Israel to disillusionment and anger with the way the powers that be in Israel have become anti-democratic and unwilling to engage in any substantive form of negotiations to end the conflict with the Palestinian people. The ‌discriminatory acts by the Israeli state against Palestinians, such as illegal seizure of land and homes, the indefinite jailing (known as administrative detention) of Palestinians and the consistent use of lethal force by Israeli security forces when confronting Palestinian protesters, show the Israeli state’s disregard for Palestinian lives. Most Jewish Americans would oppose these same policies if they were implemented in the United States. So I often ask: At what moment will we address this blind spot? How do we reconcile these structural injustices with our own fight against extremism, disinformation and efforts to silence journalists here at home? There is no straightforward answer, but there must be a conversation. Our values as a community may be at stake if we do not.”

This feeling of disillusionment about Israel among liberal American Jews is not limited to laypeople or to the Palestinian issue alone. In recent years, I have occasionally seen and heard rabbis use their precious moments before their congregations to raise other troubling items of concern regarding Israel that affect progressive Jews in particular. 

One theme is how Jews of different stripes are treated differently in Israel. It was only last year, for example, that the Israeli Supreme Court, after a 15-year battle, ruled that conversions to Judaism performed by Reform or Conservative clergy in Israel must be recognized as legitimate when it comes to applying for citizenship. The ultra-Orthodox who head the country’s chief rabbinate and have historically had a stranglehold on religious law had argued that, for those converted in Israel, only the Orthodox version should be recognized for the purposes of citizenship. Even to this day, the non-Orthodox conversions, while now all right for citizenship, are still not recognized for religious purposes by the chief rabbinate, meaning for example that you can’t have a Jewish wedding if the rabbinate says no. (For a conversion performed outside Israel, citizenship had long been granted no matter which branch conducts it.) But even with that relatively liberal ruling, there remain roadblocks to equality for all Jews in Israel. One issue: While the “Law of Return” allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate, absent conversion, an Israeli must have a Jewish mother to automatically gain full religious recognition as a Jew, such as the right to be married by a rabbi. (The Reform movement in the diaspora has long recognized patrilineal descent as bona fide evidence of being a Jew, though the Conservatives remain aligned with the Orthodox on that issue.) 

And this is not even to mention the restrictions against mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. 

For many longtime allies of Israel, it has been painful these past few years to watch the country fail to live up to its ideals. At the same time, many also continue to believe that Israel, supposedly struggling in a “bad neighborhood” and surrounded by hostile actors, must be supported and sustained. But the country does itself no favors among the wider Jewish community by turning a blind eye to a journalist’s killing or the way it discriminates, including against some Jews.

From this week (May 30 – June 3, 2022)

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