In the last few weeks, among many other depressing stories, the Netanyahu regime has arrested and/or tried multiple non-violent Palestinian activists, the IDF trampled Palestinian lands and buildings near Hebron during exercises despite promising not to do so, the Jewish National Fund has made official its previous backdoor support for West Bank settlements, and an Israeli Arab family was harassed simply for daring to picnic near a settlement — or, frankly, simply for existing.
At other points in my life, any of these would have had me writing, protesting, taking to social media, donating, and working as hard as I could to counter them. But over time, the Netanyahu regime and the mainstream American Jewish community that enables and empowers it, whether proactively or silently, has started to succeed in convincing me not to.
Not because I have been persuaded that their right wing, intolerant, pro-Occupation, anti-democratic views are correct. But rather I am starting to be convinced that the Israel and American Jewish community I was fighting for all that time simply is not real. As veteran pro-peace activist Ilana Sumka said on Facebook recently in the context of the trial of Issa Amro, “Twenty years ago if someone had told me that Israel arrested nonviolent activists I wouldn’t have believed it. But that was the Israel I wanted to believe in, not the one that actually exists.”
I, too, am recognizing, perhaps belatedly, that the Israel I wanted to believe in not only doesn’t exist, but maybe cannot exist in the future, despite the work of so many good people in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere trying to make it so, often in the face of extreme personal risk and hardship.
On one hand, many readers and certainly the American Jewish community will say, “Big Deal.” I am, after all, not well-known, not wealthy, and not influential. So another lefty gives up on Israel? I probably didn’t care for real in the first place, they’ll say (as they have before), and am likely an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew anyway given the organizations I have supported and positions I have taken in my writing and elsewhere over more than 20 years of anti-Occupation activism.
On the other hand, I am precisely who the mainstream American Jewish community and Israel want engaged and connected. I am an active member and lay leader of a large and influential synagogue — even participating in its Israel committee — and sent my kids to Jewish day school through sixth grade. I have been to Israel many times and donated consistently to Israel-related and Jewish community organizations. My wife and I have taken our kids and had hoped to raise them to be closely connected to Israel. Already hard to do in a busy world, that sadly seems ever less likely.
What’s even more painful for me — and should be for the community — is that I chose and fought hard to develop my connections to Israel. I do not come from a religious family or one with any connections to Israel. I had the opportunity to visit on my own and was inspired to join in pursuing the Israel that I believed should exist, working in Israel and the West Bank in the 1990s for organizations devoted to human rights and civil rights issues and only then starting to attend synagogue and participating in the community back home.
Despite — indeed, precisely because of — its flaws, I felt closely connected to Israel and remained active around it, even during the busy time of starting and building a career and family and raising young kids. During the worst of the many conflicts, terrorist attacks, settlement expansions and settler violence, attacks on asylum seekers and the rights of Israeli Arabs, and overall expansion of the Occupation over the last 20 years, I could still see and wanted desperately to fight for the Israel that so many brave activists there themselves fight for every day and believed in the vision we shared of an Israel that lived up to its and Judaism’s ideals. Indeed, when I wrote this piece around annexation and communal social distancing in May 2020, I honestly never thought it would end up applying to me.
Over time, however, the Netanyahu regime has expanded the Occupation (as feared, not advancing with explicit annexation has simply led to more corrosive Occupation) from so thoroughly into an overall definition of what Israel is, both in things like the literal definition of Israel on its products and the figurative definition of what it means to support Israel, that that vision is simply disappearing from view for me. And with mainstream American Jewish organizations so completely dependent on this vision of Israel and complicit in its expansion, as such, so is my connection to Israel and this community at all. The impact on the ADL’s work and voice is just the latest example.
So what? So one disappointed American Jew gives up? Based on at least some of the data from the American Jewish community, I am not alone. Looking at its annual survey of American Jewish opinion, the American Jewish Committee (which, I note, is one of the foremost enablers of the Netanyahu regime in our community) showed in 2016 that 78% of American Jews said that being Jewish was “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives and that 73% said they agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” In 2018, 77% of American Jews said being Jewish was very or somewhat important, but the number agreeing with the “caring about Israel” statement was down to 70%.
By 2020, a steady 80% of American Jews continued to report to AJC that being Jewish was very or somewhat important in their lives, but only 59% said being connected to Israel was very or somewhat important to their Jewish lives. A blip? Or something more? Maybe it’s mostly liberal Jews, as the Ruderman survey claims, but even if that is true, for a community spending hundreds of millions of dollars on engagement and advocacy around Israel on campus and beyond, is the goal a community that only reflects the right wing views of Netanyahu and his enablers?
There is of course an incredible constellation of organizations and activists in Israel and the United States who continue the struggle, as there always have been and no doubt will be, despite the odds. And with Netanyahu or the more extreme right continuing to strengthen in Israel, immediate prospects for change on the ground seem limited.
The question is how the mainstream American Jewish community deals with it. Are there deeper and more engaged discussions? Efforts to develop broader programming that brings in a wider array of views? Acknowledgment of where past policy positions have been wrong?
Much has been written about the toxic divide in our community around Israel at the organizational level for decades, let alone the acceleration of that divide prompted by support for/silence in the face of the Trump Administration. But the persistent shift at the organizational level is now taking hold at the individual level in a way that many leaders may be missing. For now, the calculation seems to be mostly all in with this direction, other than in a few cases.
That may keep big donors and the loudest voices happy, but it does mean the quiet loss of those who have cared about Israel but feel ever more isolated and disillusioned. As with the Republican Party, answering questions of identity and meaning post January 6, this way may be convenient and expedient in the short term, but where does it leave each of us in the end?
For now, it leaves me about ready to answer that Israel is no longer “very important” to my Jewish identity for the first time in 25 years.