This year has seen a dramatic shift in American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel. In January many liberal Jews were shocked by the Gaza war, in which Israel used overwhelming force against a mostly defenseless civilian population unable to flee. Then came the rise to power of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose explicitly anti-Arab platform was at odds with an American Jewish electorate that had just voted 4 to 1 for a minority president. Throw in angry Israelis writing about the “rot in the Diaspora,” and it’s little wonder young American Jews feel increasingly indifferent about a country that has been at the center of Jewish identity for four decades.
These stirrings on the American Jewish street will come to a head in late October in Washington with the first national conference of J Street, the reformation Israel lobby. J Street has been around less than two years, but it is summoning liberal–and some not so liberal–Jews from all over the country to “rock the status quo,” code for AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee).
Sure sounds like a velvet revolution in the Jewish community, huh? Not so fast. The changes in attitudes are taking place at the grassroots; by and large, Jewish leaders are standing fast. And as for policymakers, the opening has been slight. There seems little likelihood the conference will bring us any closer to that holy grail of the reformers: the ability of a US president, not to mention Congress, to put real pressure on Israel.
First the good news. There’s no question the Gaza conflict has helped break down the traditional Jewish resistance to criticizing Israel. Gaza was “the worst public relations disaster in Israel’s history,” says M.J. Rosenberg, a longtime Washington analyst who reports for Media Matters Action Network. For the first time in a generation, leading American Jews broke with the Jewish state over its conduct. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said he was “shamed” by Israel’s actions, while Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Guardian that Israel’s killing of hundreds of civilians as reprisal for rocket attacks was “brutal” and probably “futile.”
Even devoted friends of Israel Leon Wieseltier and Michael Walzer expressed misgivings about the disproportionate use of force, and if Reform Jewish leaders could not bring themselves to criticize the war, the US left was energized by the horror. Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, threw herself into the cause of Gazan freedom after years of ignoring Israel-Palestine, in part out of deference to her family’s feelings. In The Nation Naomi Klein came out for boycott, divestment and sanctions; later, visiting Ramallah, she apologized to the Palestinians for her “cowardice” in not coming to that position earlier.
These were prominent Jews. But they echoed disturbance and fury among Jews all around the country over Israel’s behavior. Rabbi Brant Rosen of Evanston, Illinois, describes the process poetically. For years he’d had an “equivocating voice” in his head that rationalized Israel’s actions. “During the first and second intifadas and the war in Lebanon, I would say, ‘It’s complicated,'” he says. “Of course, Darfur is complicated, but that doesn’t stop the Jewish community from speaking out. There’s nothing complicated about oppression. When I read the reports on Gaza, I didn’t have the equivocating voice anymore.”
In the midst of the war, Rosen participated in a panel at a Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston organized by the liberal group Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and read a piece from a local Palestinian describing her family’s experience in Gaza. “It was a gut-wrenching testimonial. It caused a stir in the congregation. Some people were very angry at me; others were uncomfortable but wanted to engage more deeply,” Rosen says. The rabbi has gone on to initiate an effort called Ta’anit Tzedek, or the Jewish Fast for Gaza. Each month over seventy rabbis across the country along with interfaith leaders and concerned individuals partake in a daylong fast in order “to end the Jewish community’s silence over Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza.”
Grassroots Jewish organizations have experienced a surge in interest since the Gaza war. The Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace has seen its mailing list double, to 90,000, with up to 6,000 signing on each month. Executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson says JVP is finding Jewish support in unlikely places, like Hawaii, Atlanta, South Florida and Cleveland.
Jewish youth have played a key role. A group of young bloggers, notably Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman and Dana Goldstein, have criticized Israel to the point that Marty Peretz of The New Republic felt a need to smear them during the Gaza fighting, saying, “I pity them their hatred of their inheritance.” Rosenberg is overjoyed by the trend. “None of them, none of them, is a birthright type or AIPAC type. You’d think that one or two would have the worldview of an old-fashioned superliberal on domestic stuff, pure AIPAC on Israel. But they are so hostile to that point of view.”
Dana Goldstein personifies this spirit. A 25-year-old former writer and editor for The American Prospect, she grew up in a Conservative community with close ties to Israel and has made her name doing political journalism. Years ago she vowed never to write about the Middle East; it was a thorny topic, and she felt nothing was to be gained by addressing it. But when Gaza happened, she felt she had to speak out. “The Israeli government is doing little more than devastating an already impoverished society and planting seeds of hatred in a new generation of Palestinians,” she wrote in TAP. Gaza was especially dismaying to her because Barack Obama’s election had felt like a new moment. “The Jewish community helped elect Obama, and Obama had a different way of talking about the Middle East,” she says. Mainstream Jewish organizations’ steadfast support for Israel’s assault seemed very old school to her.
In this sense, Gaza is the bookend to the 1967 war. Israel’s smashing victory in six days ended two decades of American Jewish complacency about Israel’s existence; many advocates for the state, including neoconservative Doug Feith and liberal hawk Thomas Friedman, found their voices as students at around that time. In the years that followed, American culture discovered the Holocaust, and the imperative “Never again!” gave rise to the modern Israel lobby: American Jews organized with the understanding that they were all that stood between Israel and oblivion.