Sheldon Kirshner

American Jews Distancing Themselves From Israel

Though generally supportive of Israel, Jews in the United States are distancing themselves from it, claims American scholar Michael Barnett.

“American Jews are losing their love for Israel,” he said in a speech yesterday at the University of Toronto’s Monk School of Global Affairs. “It’s palpable and everybody is talking about it.”

As American Jews have become increasingly involved in humanitarian activism in accordance with the principles of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), they have moved away from Israel. “Identifying with Israel doesn’t feel so good any more,” he said.

Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., was in Toronto to promote his book, The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews, published by Princeton University Press in 2015.

According to Barnett, the vast majority of American Jews are liberal, pluralistic and secular in terms of their political identity. “Jews prefer to see themselves as part of America and a broader domestic political culture. In their foreign policy orientation, they’re liberal internationalists.”

Barnett, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged that the concept of Jewish internationalism is a sensitive one because it feeds into antisemitic conspiracy theories.

In keeping with their outlook, American Jews are wary of nationalism, which has usually worked against Jews. Even Jewish nationalism is “bad” for Jews because it’s chauvinistic and cliquish. “Jews prefer open-minded cosmopolitanism,” he noted.

If given the choice of spending time on a kibbutz or going to Ghana to help sex-trafficked kids, young American Jews would prefer to go to Africa, he suggested.

Throughout history, he added, Jews have had to decide whether to be particularistic or universal. Most American Jews have chosen the prophetic brand of Judaism, which leans toward cosmopolitanism, rejects tribalism and is dedicated to creating a world of peace and justice, he said.

American Jews strive to build a society respectful of human rights and international law and support international institutions like the United Nations.

Until the birth of Israel in 1948, they were dubious about the merits of Zionism and favoured a binational state over a Jewish state in Palestine.

The Six Day War galvanized the Jewish community behind Israel. Today, however, most American Jews tend to be ambivalent about Israel because they do not identify with one of its core values, ethnic nationalism.

Nor do they agree with the proposition that synagogue and state in Israel should be inextricably bound up with each other rather than separated, as in the United States.

In closing, Barnett said that American Jews broadly support Israel, but are more comfortable “fighting for humanity than for themselves.”

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,