John L. Rosove
John L. Rosove

Young Progressive American Jews and Israel  

The claims are spurious; that Israel is a state founded on the displacement of the Palestinians; that Israel’s Jewish character excludes millions of people based on religion; that Israeli policy inevitably leads to ethnic cleansing; that Israel is an illegitimate state.

These wild and largely untrue assertions are being disseminated more brazenly by anti-Israel proponents and are accepted by many far left American progressives including some young Jewish Americans. How many Jews believe this is not known. Regardless of the numbers, progressive Zionists need to understand what is motivating these Jews, consider what their extreme positions say about the character of their Jewish identity, and the impact upon the well-being of American Judaism in its relationship with Israel itself.

The 2020 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community is not specific about the numbers of Jews who hold anti-Israel positions, but it does report that younger Jews generally feel less emotionally connected to Jewish peoplehood and the State of Israel than their older counterparts:

“Eight-in-ten U.S. Jews say that they feel at least some sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and three-quarters say that ‘being Jewish’ is either very or somewhat important to them…

Young U.S. Jews are less emotionally attached to Israel than older ones. As of 2020, half of Jewish adults under age 30 describe themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel (48%), compared with two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older…

Among Jews ages 50 and older, 51% say that caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them, and an additional 37% say it is important but not essential; just 10% say that caring about Israel is not important to them. By contrast, among Jewish adults under 30, one-third say that caring about Israel is essential (35%), and one-quarter (27%) say it’s not important to what being Jewish means to them.” (https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/)

There has not been much change in these numbers since Pew last studied the American Jewish community in 2013. Nevertheless, it seems that there are more American Jewish progressives who are critical of Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians than there used to be. But, this does not necessarily mean that these Jews have turned their backs on Israel or joined with Israel’s enemies in attacking Israel’s legitimacy. It would be a serious mistake to lump into the same pot responsible critics of Israeli policy with delegitimizers of Israel.

I have always believed that criticism from love is the highest form of patriotism. There are many who love Israel in the progressive American Jewish community but who oppose Israel’s hardline right-wing policies towards the Palestinians. There are others, however, probably a small minority among America’s 7.5 million Jews, who feel no love for Israel and challenge Israel’s legitimacy. All that said, something new seems to be happening amongst younger American progressive Jews that progressive Zionists ignore at ours and Israel’s peril.

We have to ask what motivates those far left American progressive Jews who hold anti-Israel views?

Being an American progressive Jew legitimately can be confusing. Historically, Jews have experienced oppression, and now Israel has become an oppressor in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel occupied after the 1967 War. The occupied lands are not de jure part of Israel, though Israel’s right wing presumes de facto that they are. These Palestinian areas are administered under the Israeli military and not according to Israel’s democratic institutions and processes. The IDF often confiscates Palestinian-owned land, demolishes Palestinian homes built without permits, threatens the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarah and Silwan, and humiliates Palestinians at check-points and in middle-of-the-night raids. Settler violence against  West Bank Palestinians and their olive groves and crops continues with few arrests and prosecutions of the culpable extremist Jews. The people living under occupation are oppressed and victimized, and that is intolerable and unsustainable for a democratic Israel.

Gaza is something else entirely. Hamas rules over it, though Israel and Egypt control its borders, and its policies and intentions are clear – to kill Israeli civilians, destroy Israel, and replace the Jewish State with a Palestinian-Hamas State from the river to the sea. Hamas cares little about the lives and safety of its own civilians or it would have built shelters with the millions of dollars and tons of cement it used to build tunnels to move Hamas fighters and weaponry and attack Israelis in their homes.

The consequences of every war are awful, with many innocent dead. But, as difficult as it is for a progressive Zionist like me to say it, I do not know what Israel was supposed to do except to fight back in response to Hamas firing 4500 rockets at Israel’s civilian population centers with the sole intent to kill and terrorize as many Israelis as possible. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system vastly limited the damage, but that does not diminish Hamas’ evil intent.

Of course, negotiations must happen with Palestinian leadership to reach a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. But Israel has no negotiating partner in Hamas and never did. Hamas is maximalist. It does not nor will it accept Israel’s legitimacy. To think otherwise is delusional.

Perhaps the difference between young progressive Jews who challenge Israel’s legitimacy and people like me is based in our different generational experiences. The Pew statistics suggest as much. I was born a year after the establishment of the State and raised with the narrative that Zionism and the State of Israel are responses to historic Jewish vulnerability and powerlessness, the need for Judaism to blossom culturally in its historic homeland, and as a way to test Jewish ethics in the context of having and exercising sovereignty and power.

I know Israel’s history and Jewish history well, and I understand the Palestinian’s history and narrative too. I suspect that most young progressive Jews do not know that history nor do they remember personally the Oslo process or an Israeli government trying to make peace with the Palestinians. All they know is an increasingly hard-line right-wing Israeli government supporting the settlement enterprise, oppressing Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and fighting wars against Hamas in which apartment buildings collapse and hundreds of Palestinians die, including many children. Over the last decade, they’ve watched as PM Netanyahu favored a relationship with the right wing of the Republican party, with the despised Donald Trump, and with American evangelical Christians instead of maintaining a non-partisan relationship with American Jewry as a whole and dismissing the needs of 75% of the American Jewish community that votes with the Democratic Party. Is it any wonder that many progressive Jews feel outrage and alienation?

As American progressives, they support cultural diversity and intersectional politics. Their political values are simple, based in what’s right and wrong. They affirm equality, justice, and respect for the “other” as means to building a better America. They are not wrong. I agree with them. But, the situation in the Middle East is not simple nor is it America.

American Jews are faced with the challenge of squaring our connections with the Jewish people and the State of Israel and our concern for fairness, justice, and the well-being of other oppressed groups in our imperfect American democracy. But American institutional racism is not similar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict is not a racial conflict. Israel is not a racist nation, though there are many racists in Israel. Nor is Israel an apartheid state as the far left in American politics is claiming with more and more frequency. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about two peoples who claim the same land as their people’s homeland.

In Israel itself (i.e. the 1948 armistice lines) Israeli-Palestinian citizens enjoy the same rights as Israeli-Jewish citizens. Palestinian Arab-Israelis are members of the Knesset and now an Arab political party will be in the ruling government coalition for the first time in Israel’s history. There are many Arab-Israeli judges including an Arab-Israeli Supreme Court Justice. This isn’t to say that Israel’s Palestinian citizens are treated equally to its Jewish citizens. They aren’t. They deserve equal treatment and equal rights as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

All this said, I ask two questions of progressive Jews who are anti-Israel:

Do you believe that even the most progressive secular Jewish state is an anathema?

Do you believe that Judaism cannot live with a Jewish state, that your being a Jew is inconsistent morally with the idea of a State of Israel?

If your answer is yes to either or both of these questions, what are you saying about Judaism itself?

Judaism that devolves into universal humanitarianism is no longer Jewish. Judaism teaches that essential to Jewish identity is a commitment to Jewish peoplehood on the one hand and to ethical values on the other. At times, they may clash – but holding both together is essential to maintaining Jewish integrity. To teach one to the exclusion of the other results in a truncated and reductionist Judaism that is ultimately destructive to the Jewish people and to the Jewish State.

What worries me the most is that a growing (albeit currently relatively small) number of young American progressive Jews have become so alienated from Israel and the Jewish people that they have turned their backs on who they are as Jews in history and on the Jewish right to self-definition as a people. Critics of Israeli policies are not antisemitic. However, when critics say that Jews have no right to a state of our own, that is antisemitism.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and immediate past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the newly created Union for Reform Judaism's Israel and Reform Zionism Committee (IRZC). John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of two books - “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing Company, 2017) and "Why Israel [and its Future] Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019). Both are available at Amazon.com. John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has one granddaughter.
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