This summer, like every summer, the beaches and highways of Israel will be clogged with fleets of buses bearing thousands of participants on Birthright, a program that has brought more than half a million young Jews on free tours of Israel. This is not an ordinary summer, of course: it is the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. But few of the participants on Birthright will be forced to grapple with this on their ten-day tours—even though it has become an increasingly divisive subject back home.
It is a myth that American Jews are a monolithic bloc when it comes to Israel, though they used to be. Before 1967, their attitude could be best characterised as disinterest. Only a few hundred people emigrated each year, and financial support for the newly-established state quickly dried up, dropping by more than half by the end of Israel’s first decade.
The Six-Day War changed that. It brought a sense of pride over Israel’s overwhelming victory—along with, ironically, a paralysing fear over Israel’s perceived vulnerability. “The Six-Day War demonstrated that Israel was more secure than anyone had dreamed,” JJ Goldberg noted in his 1997 book Jewish Power. “What the American Jewish community learned from the war was the reverse: that Israel might be destroyed at any moment.”
Support for pro-Israel groups surged, and tens of thousands of American Jews voted with their feet, with immigration from North America climbing from 826 people in 1968 to 8,122 three years later, a tenfold increase.
The unanimity was short-lived, though. The Likud party came to power in 1977, and liberal American Jews quickly began to criticise its policy of expanding settlements in the occupied territories. Then came the first Lebanon war, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and the first intifada, shattering what one prominent Jewish leader at the time called the “romantic idealisation” of Israel.
Today even the formal Jewish community is deeply fragmented, spanning a spectrum from the far-right Zionist Organization of America to the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports boycotts and economic sanctions against Israel.
One thing remains constant: American Jews feel an emotional attachment to Israel. Though there is a notable generation gap, surveys find that a majority of almost every Jewish demographic feels such a connection. Indeed, as the Jewish community has become more assimilated, support for Israel has become a central marker of Jewish identity.
In a 2016 poll, Pew asked both American and Israeli Jews what it meant to be Jewish. 43 percent of the Americans said "caring about Israel" was important. Just 19 percent chose "observing Jewish law" (which ranked well below "having a good sense of humour"). The Israelis, on the other hand, couldn't agree on an answer. The only choice that elicited majority support was "remembering the Holocaust."
Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire founder of Birthright, is even setting up charter schools in the United States that explicitly aim to change American Judaism, replacing a millennia-old religion with a much newer ideology. “The schools fund a trip to Israel and there’s a great deal of emphasis on Israel, Zionism, stuff like that, but zero [on Judaism] as a religion,” he said in a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Yet the same polls find that Americans are attached to an imaginary sort of Israel. To pick one telling example: Pew asked both groups of Jews to name Israel's biggest long-term challenge. Fully two-thirds of American Jews said security and terrorism. Just 38 percent of Israeli Jews agreed. Instead, a plurality of the Israelis selected "economic problems," a choice that received just 1 percent of the American vote. This should come as little surprise. 57 percent of American Jews have never visited the country, and those who do visit often cannot fully engage with the culture, since 83 percent cannot hold a conversation in Hebrew.
For decades, the American Jewish community has fought passionately for issues that are only a passing concern for the average Israeli. They have campaigned, for example, to establish a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall, the holiest spot where Jews are permitted to pray. It falls under the purview of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, and is thus segregated. American Jews have led the campaign to change the status quo, raising the topic repeatedly in meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Most Israelis support the campaign—but the issue rarely comes up in domestic politics. They would much rather break the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on family law (civil marriage does not exist) or public transportation (largely unavailable on Shabbat).
The biggest issue, in recent years, has been the occupation. The American writer Peter Beinart touched off a debate with his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism, which argued that the ongoing occupation was both corroding Israeli democracy and eroding American Jewish support for the country. The debate has only sharpened since then—as it becomes clear that the Oslo process has failed and the occupation is intractable.
Again, all of this prompts less concern in Israel. When the leader of almost every major political party gathered for a debate before the last election, the word “peace” was mentioned exactly five times—three of them by Ayman Odeh, the head of a faction that represents Palestinian citizens of Israel. A poll released earlier this month by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly two-thirds of Israeli Jews don’t even believe the West Bank is occupied territory.
Liberal American Jews often try to thread the needle by distinguishing between the state and the settlements—supporting sanctions on Israel, for example, but only up to a point. "A settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel,” Beinart wrote in the New York Times in 2012.
But this, too, is an imaginary distinction. Last winter, Israeli politics were consumed by the saga of Amona, a tiny settler outpost built on a hilltop outside of Ramallah. It was built without official permission, on privately-owned Palestinian land; even the Israeli government considered it illegal, and the supreme court ordered its demolition. The state eventually approved a $36 million plan to evacuate Amona and build a new settlement for its inhabitants—a cost of nearly $1 million per family.
All of this money, of course, comes from “democratic Israel," and this is the inevitable contradiction that has become increasingly vexing for American Jews. Fifty years into an occupation that has been supported by most of Israel’s major political parties, there is no longer an operative distinction between the state and the settlements. And the balance between Israel’s Jewish identity and its democracy—always a tenuous one—is tipping ever more towards the former. It is becoming ever harder to view Israel as an outpost of American Jewish liberalism on the Mediterranean.
How long can this duality last? Israel has openly aligned itself with a president loathed by the vast majority of American Jews. Though Netanyahu has assented to Donald Trump’s efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, few Israelis expect him to succeed. There has always been a tension between liberalism and Zionism. It may soon become an unbridgeable chasm.