By Elliott Abrams, Mosaic Mag—
Everyone knows that American Jews and Israel are drifting apart—and everyone is confident of the reasons why. Israel, it is said, has become increasingly nationalistic and right-wing; “the occupation” violates liberal values; and the American Jewish “establishment,” with its old familiar defense organizations and their old familiar apologetics, has lost touch with young American Jews who are put off by outdated Zionist slogans and hoary appeals for communal solidarity. In brief, the fundamental problem resides in the nature of the Israeli polity and the policies of the Israeli government, which together account for the growing misfit between Israelis and their American Jewish cousins.
This, at least, is the new conventional wisdom. It is wrong—but the precise ways in which it is wrong, and by means of which it mistakes and overlooks deeper realities, are worth examining.
Two new books by political scientists try to do just that: The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews by Michael Barnett of George Washington University and Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel by Dov Waxman of Northeastern. The two books are being published almost simultaneously by Princeton University Press, presumably in the belief that the topic is not only intrinsically significant but should be of import and interest to experts and the wider public alike. And so it should.
Of the two books, Barnett’s offers the more careful analysis. But since Waxman’s more neatly captures the current wisdom—the author’s own views on Israel, as he is at pains to note, “evolved” from “uncritical support to a more critical engagement with the country”—it makes for a better starting point.
I. Goodbye Consensus, Hello Disillusionment
A British Jew who has lived in the United States for half his life, Dov Waxman in Trouble in the Tribe congratulates himself on having gained special insight into the American Jewish community and its psyche. But he also admits straight off that he is not exactly a detached observer. “My own politics surely come through at times,” he writes disarmingly—and about that he is entirely correct. Those politics will be familiar to anyone who has read (and believed) the writings of Peter Beinart.
The narrative goes like this: the “pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding,” and “American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the old era of solidarity.” In fact, while “Israel used to bring American Jews together,” it is now “driving them apart.”
How so, and how new is this problem? To his credit, Waxman does note that the story he’s telling has historical antecedents. Reviewing (too briefly) the history of the American Jewish community’s relations with Israel, from the rise of the Zionist movement through Israel’s birth and its wars, he acknowledges that Zionism always presented a dilemma to American Jews, who did not consider themselves to be “in exile” from their homeland. In that respect, at least, the “old era of solidarity” to which he alludes was never quite so solid as he himself posits. Continue Reading—