The new government is forcing, among some liberal American Jews, a reassessment of their support for Israel over the past several decades—ever since the occupation began in 1967 and Israel moved to the political right in the following decade, if not even earlier. Some American Jews are now confronting, more fully than ever before, the possibility that this extremist government is less outlier than culmination of a process that has been unfolding in Israel for a very long time. “The fundamental question all of us have to confront is: Is this government an aberration, or is this government a logical outcome of what’s been going on for the last 50 years?” said Shaul Magid, distinguished fellow in Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. He then put it another way. “How could this be happening?” he asked, immediately answering his own question: “It was always happening.”
There is, and has been for decades, one story about American Jews and Israel, and that story goes like this: Early in the twentieth century, many American Jews were wary of Zionism, not wanting to render themselves especially distinctive from other Americans or be accused of loyalty to any other country. The AJC was opposed to Zionism at first. But eventually this changed. Louis Brandeis, who in 1916 became the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, led the U.S. Zionist movement from 1914 to 1921. “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism,” argued Brandeis, who stressed that Zionism was a democratic and just movement, compatible with the ideals America held most dear. “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists,” said Brandeis, in a sentiment echoed by Judge Julian Mack, a U.S. circuit judge and Jewish activist who, in the early twentieth century, was one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee and the first honorary president of the World Jewish Congress.
After the Holocaust and World War II, American Jews supported the advent of Israel. It was not only an important—many argue the most important—Jewish political project. It was, in more practical terms, finally a state that Jews could call their own, where, whatever else happened, they would not be persecuted as Jews. In the subsequent decades, and particularly following the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel moved to the center of American Jews’ politics and self-imagination. To be an American Jew, including a liberal American Jew, was to support Israel. Yes, there was an occupation, but American Jews could tell themselves that one day there wouldn’t be an occupation anymore, and that they supported a two-state solution. Yes, in the 1970s, Menachem Begin and his right-wing Likud Party came to power. Yes, in the 1990s, Likud’s Netanyahu led a mock funeral at an anti-Rabin rally months before his assassination, and yes, he became prime minister the following year. Yes, when J Street, an organization that called itself both “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace,” was founded, it was met with furious pushback and denounced as anti-Israel. And yes, Netanyahu embraced Trump tightly during his four years in office, even as most American Jews recoiled. But it was still the world’s only Jewish state.
In addition, there were moments of genuine hope. There was Rabin declaring, “You don’t make peace with friends,” and deciding to try for peace with his enemy, shaking hands with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House South Lawn and signing the Oslo Accords of 1993. There was, at the end of President Bill Clinton’s time in office, the Camp David summit of 2000, where an accord was nearly struck. Yes, peace remained unachieved, and no, there were not two states, and yes, Oslo—and seemingly any peace process at all—appeared to slip into history. But liberal American Jews could tell themselves that these moments had happened, and they could, maybe, one day, become present politics again.
This moment, though, seems different. The new governing coalition is open in its extremism and illiberalism. For liberal American Jews, if this, our current moment, is an inflection point, it’s because “it undermines what I think was always a myth: Somehow American liberalism and Israel are symmetrical in some way,” Shaul Magid said. The liberal elements of Zionism were always marginal, he told me. Israeli forces expelled Arabs at the country’s advent. They placed Arab citizens under martial law for nearly 20 years after the country’s inception, and then, a year after that was lifted, began an occupation that continues to this day.
Settlements expanded. Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank have the same rights and freedoms as other Israelis; Palestinians in the West Bank do not. As of May 2022, just 5 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem had received citizenship since 1967. Kalmanofsky and many others have passionately made the case that Israel is not an apartheid state; Human Rights Watch, however, wrote in 2021 that, in some cases, deprivations of Palestinians were “so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” Magid, who coined the term “Zionization of American Jewry” to describe how central Israel and Zionism became to American Jews, said that today “Israel is just an illiberal country. That’s what it is.”
Liberal American Jews, said Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, have long been like the little boy with his finger in the dike. “‘Yeah, things are bad, but it’ll take a tweak here and a new election there and we liberal Jews can go back to love of and adulation for the Israel that used to be,’” she said. And many now “continue to engage in a fantasy” that, until this election, or until Netanyahu, Israel was defensible as a liberal project. “They kind of leave out the fact that from 1949 to 1966, Arab citizens lived under martial law,” she said.
In 2016, Diner, a giant of Jewish studies and author of numerous acclaimed books on Jewish history, renounced Zionism in an op-ed in Haaretz. “It’s really hard to say, ‘Well, what we were taught and what we have propagated and what we’ve written and orated on and argued about is kind of built on a house of sand,’” she said. But the reality is that you “can’t have an oppression of one part of the population and have democracy. It’s going to come back and bite you in the neck.”