Michael Ben-Chaim

American Jews and the Future of Israel

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become in recent decades a source of widening divisions among American Jews. A growing number of American Jews, especially of younger generations, criticize Israel for violating Palestinians’ human rights in the occupied territories. Others believe that the occupation demonstrates the enduring spirit of the Zionist vision of a Jewish sovereign state in the Promised Land. For many, supporting Jewish Israelis in an environment that is hostile to their very existence is an unquestionable act of Jewish solidarity. The current war in Gaza intensifies and polarizes contrasting positions about Israel across Jewish American communities. American Jews show unprecedented solidarity with Palestinians in denouncing the massive destruction of Palestinian lives in Gaza as genocide. Many others have been traumatized by Hamas’ terrorist attack on Jewish civilians on October 7, and claim that IDF’s war against Hamas forces is a just exercise of Israel’s indisputable right to defend itself.

But no matter how justified such positions may seem to be, their combined effect amounts to a dialogue of the deaf and the polarization they generate is self-defeating. The exclusive attention of some people to the suffering of innocent Palestinians does not move those shocked by the terror inflicted by Hamas. Justifying IDF bombings of Gaza does not arouse compassion among pro-Palestinian American Jews for the Jewish Israelis who fall prey to Hamas terror. When Jewish American discourse is shaped by a polarizing dichotomy ‘for or against Israel’, it bolsters, rather than helps mitigate, the conflict between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. The failure to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians and the failure to denounce terror targeting Israeli civilians only add fuel to a conflict that is already ridden with escalating levels of hatred, fear, vengefulness, and violence. Furthermore, when views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict engender the dehumanization of the other, antisemitic sentiments are revitalized and polarized Jewish American communities are less able to debunk them. Can American Jews transcend this polarization and reunite to help bring about a future in which Jewish Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors alike live more peacefully?

American Jews have always been a small minority in the United States, but their number and prosperity steadily increased by virtue of their liberal democratic rights as citizens—notably religious freedom and the right to take active part in all aspects of public affairs irrespective of their religion and ethnicity. American Jews’ liberal democratic experience is their most vital civic asset as a minority, and promoting it is an existential interest. By contrast, Jews have always been a majority in Israel. Jewish Israeli society is by far more democratic and liberal than any other society in the Middle East. But unlike the American Jewish minority that benefits from the liberal democratic culture of the United Sates, Jewish Israelis use their majority status to dominate the non-Jewish minorities in their midst.

The idea of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Zion—Zionism’s political vision—originated in the context of the expansion of nationalist movements in 19th century Europe but was modified in the Middle East context in which it was later implemented. During the era of British colonization, Palestinians and surrounding Arab communities were hostile to Zionism. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the modus operandi of the Jewish government was to establish a Jewish majority rule over a Palestinian minority to secure the survival of the Jewish state in that hostile geopolitical environment. The democratic principle of the sovereignty of the people came to mean the sovereignty of the Jewish people. The rights which the Palestinian minority could enjoy were the rights the Jewish majority decided to grant it in accordance with Jewish national interests. Thus, the Israeli government enjoys a de facto despotic majoritarian mandate: Having a Jewish identity is the defining characteristic of the majority the government rests on, and it uses its political power to determine the liberties of the non-Jewish minority.

Israel’s rule over the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967 demonstrates the scope and limits of the sovereignty of the Jewish people. The Jewish majority successfully holds on to the means to defend its interests against hostile elements in the Palestinian population. But the strategy inevitably perpetuates the conflict with Palestinians who refuse to succumb to their inferior political status. In the absence of democratic means to gain more equal rights, Palestinians resist the Jewish majority by means of violence and especially terror attacks against Jewish civilians. In turn, the government of the Jewish majority takes actions to decimate Palestinian resistance and maintain Jewish rule. And when incidences of resistance and its decimation perpetuate, they gradually increase mutual hatred, fear, violence, and dehumanization—as the terrible massacre carried out by Hamas on October 7 and IDF’s massive destruction which followed suit painfully demonstrate.

Furthermore, the despotism of the majority leads to a gradual erosion of liberal democratic values even in areas of public life that are not specifically related to the conflict with Palestinians. A turning point in the process is the current Netanyahu right-wing coalition’s policy of “judicial reform”. The policy is intended to enhance the power of the executive branch vis-à-vis the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court of Justice. But, as the spirited opposition to the reform warns, undermining checks and balances within the structure of Israeli government is bound to infringe upon the basic right of all citizens— Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Empowering the rule of the Jewish majority over Palestinians is a slippery slope that enhances a despotic rule over individuals and minority groups within the body of Jewish citizenry itself.

The liberal democratic culture that enables a minority of Jews to flourish in the United States is designed to forestall the emergence of a despotic majority—especially a majority defined by ethnic and religious characteristics. Furthermore, the vital importance of liberal democratic values points to an inherent deficiency in the internationally proposed framework of a two-states solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Jewish and Palestinian communities live side by side throughout the disputed territories, and a two-state solution cannot possibly be based on a complete geographic separation between them. A two-states solution will fail to achieve its purpose if the two states harbor ideologies that legitimize the rule of one ethnic or religious population over another. The solution can only work if Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are determined to adhere to common political values. And experience shows that the only values that can make the solution work are liberal democratic.

The relationships between Jewish Israelis and American Jews have always been, at their core, a matter of Jewish solidarity. American Jews’ support for the Jewish state has been commonly regarded as an affirmation of the biblical identification of the Jewish people with the Promised Land. Yet it is practically impossible to separate Jewish identities from Jewish people’s political lives and political cultures. Liberal democratic values are the greatest and most unifying political asset American Jews can use to express their solidarity with Jewish Israelis and to help them bring about a more peaceful coexistence with their Palestinian neighbors. Practically, it means that American Jews’ care for the well-being of Jewish Israelis is and ought to be conveyed by supporting policies, projects, and organizations that are dedicated to the promotion of liberal democratic relationships with Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

American Jews can share their liberal democratic experience with Jewish Israelis in contexts that involve interactions with Palestinians and pertain to various aspects of public life, such as health, education, industry, commerce, and the arts. By sharing their experience, American Jews initiate a process of learning and cultural change. The goal is the gradual development of values, expectations, and practices that enhance trust and collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than a once-and-for-all solution to their current conflict.

Guided by their liberal democratic conscience, American Jews can reshape the future of Zionism. In the context of its European birthplace, Zionism was meant to declare Jews’ right of self-determination. With the founding of the State of Israel, Zionism meant, especially to Jewish Israelis, the right to form a majority that rules over non-Jewish minorities, especially Palestinians. But the relentless exercise of the Jewish majority right only perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its fatal consequences for people in the region and beyond. American Jews’ steadfast advocacy for a liberal democratic form of Zionism contributes to a more peaceful Jewish-Palestinian coexistence and a safer future for Israel. At the same time, it helps broaden the coalition in support for Israel within US government and sends a clearer and stronger message across American society that antisemitism’s offence against the Jewish minority is an offence against America’s liberal democratic values.

About the Author
Michael Ben-Chaim has a PhD degree in history and philosophy of science (University of Cambridge, UK). He has also studied and taught courses in political sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He currently lives in Amherst, MA, and develops an educational program in science and civic literacy for elementary and secondary school students.
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