Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2012, Pages 42-43

Israel and Judaism

Growing Concern About Israeli Behavior Exposes Limited Appeal of American Jewish Groups

By Allan C. Brownfeld

altUltra-Orthodox Jewish men throw and smash television sets during a Dec. 6, 2011 protest in front of the Israeli TV compound in Jerusalem against “indecency” on all secular television channels. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Concern is growing on the part of respected Jewish voices both in Israel and the U.S. about Israel's future as a democratic society given its pursuit of additional settlements rather than moving toward peace with the Palestinians.

At the same time, Jewish extremism and terrorism appears to be on the rise. In its Oct. 7-12 edition, The International Jerusalem Post reported that, "The attack against the mosque in the Galilee on Oct. 2 [see December 2011 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 14] is a clear escalation, and if proven to have been carried out by right-wing extremists it will be just the latest sign that terrorism is gathering steam...While attacks on mosques in the West Bank have sadly become something of the norm in recent years, an attack on a mosque in an Israeli town is quite rare, particularly in a Bedouin village like Tuba Zangariya, whose residents serve in the IDF."

This attack, declared the Post, "needs to serve as a long-overdue wakeup call...In recent months, the Shin Bet (Israel Security agency) has recorded a growing number of so-called 'price tag' attacks, amounting to several dozen over the past year. These include attacks on mosques, the uprooting of olive trees, the puncturing of tires on military vehicles, and the harassment of left-wing activists, IDF officers and Shin Bet officials and others...In most cases no one is arrested and those detained are let off without charges."

In the Oct. 14, 2011 Forward, columnist Leonard Fein lamented that, "the ship of the Israeli state and, for that matter, of its people lists rightward...things that were unthinkable 20 years ago and unspeakable 10 years ago are now part of daily discourse, are now proposed as legislation by Knesset members; that survey after survey shows a coarsening of attitudes regarding Palestinians, whether Israelis or not..."

In their recently published book, Israel's Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press), Profs. Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman write that Palestinians "suffer from numerous inequities, tacit discrimination, government neglect and social prejudices. They are largely excluded from the country's public life, they have not been integrated socially or economically, and they are generally treated with suspicion by the state and by Israeli Jewish society. As such, collectively, Arabs are very much second-class citizens in Israel."

More and more Jewish voices are being heard in criticism of the direction in which Israel is now moving. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on Aug. 21, 2011 that "Jews with their history cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel's isolation and ultimately its vulnerability."

It is becoming increasingly clear that American Jewish organizations, which tend to support and promote whatever policies the Israeli government pursues, "do not speak for most American Jews," argued Forward columnist Jay Michaelson on Oct. 14, 2011. Citing a "peculiar dynamic" in American Jewish organizations, Michaelson continued: "These institutions are inherently to the right of most American Jews. People who, facing a wide range of philanthropic options, choose to devote considerable resources to Judaism and to Israel fund them. This is laudable. But it also selects for those philanthropists who tend toward more nationalistic and particularistic points of view. Non-particularist Jews give more to non-Jewish causes. Jewish particularists fund Jewish causes."

In Michaelson's view, "Most progressives have less interest in Jewish particularism, and are more likely to be found at The New Yorker or Amnesy International than at specifically Jewish institutions...Because of this 'liberal drain,' what's left in our Jewish communal institutions tends naturally to the right."

Michaelson went on to describe the views perpetuated by much of the Jewish establishment as "bad for both America and Israel." He explained: "I think they are self-fulfilling: Treat others as enemies and they will be your enemies. This has now come to pass in Israel, as its ostensible partner has given up on the peace process (which has been neither peaceful nor a process) and gone to the U.N. instead...The Palestinians did so because Netanyahu's negotiating/delaying tactics left them no other visible option."

A new study by the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) by demographer Stephen Cohen shows a generation gap among rabbis with regard to Israel. The study found that older ones tend to identify more closely with AIPAC, while younger ones favorably view J Street, the more liberal lobbying group.

According to Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy research at Hebrew Union College, "It is a major shift in a Zionist worldview—a movement toward a more progressive Zionist position."

Cohen surmised that younger rabbis identify as more liberal because "they grew up at a time when Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbors was more complicated than the binary relationship that the older generation grew up with." Because the rabbis are closer and more exposed to "real life" in Israel because their rabbinical programs require them to spend a year there, Cohen suggested, they are "more willing to adopt views critical of the Israeli government."

The survey of JTS-ordained rabbis and JTS rabbinical students found that 58 percent of students and 54 percent of rabbis ordained since 1994 view J Street favorably, while 42 percent of students and 64 percent of rabbis view AIPAC favorably. In the older group—rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994—80 percent view AIPAC favorably but only 32 percent had a favorable view of J Street. The survey also found that students and younger rabbis were more concerned than their elders about social issues in Israel, such as the treatment of Arab citizens, women and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The organized American Jewish community has been so concerned about the falling away of support for and connection to Israel on the part of younger Jewish Americans that, beginning in 1999, the Birthright Israel program was established to send young people on free trips to Israel.

Thus far, it has sent 260,000 young Jews to Israel at a cost of almost $600 million. The goal, in the words of co-founder Charles Bronfman, is "the selling of Jewishness to Jews." His founding partner in Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, who describes himself as an atheist, described the program as "a substitute for theology."

In fact, argues Kiera Feldman, who participated in Birthright, it is largely a propaganda enterprise tied closely to Israel's right-wing and to the settler movement.

In an article, "The Romance of Birthright Israel," in the July 4-11, 2011 Nation, she pointed out that far-right casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a supporter of West Bank settlements, is the largest individual donor, having given Birthright $100 million over the past five years. The Israeli government provided Birthright $100 million during the program's first decade and Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced another $100 million in government funding.

Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright's curriculum, explained in a 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers "are bombarded with information." The goal is to produce "an emotionally overwhelming experience."

Wrote Feldman: "'Welcome home' is a predominant message, a reference to the promise of instant Israeli citizenship for diaspora Jews under the 1950 Law of Return. (About 17,000 Birthright alumni now live in Israel, according to The Jerusalem Post.) It serves as a pointed riposte to the right of return claimed under international law by the 700,000 Palestinians expelled in l948 upon the creation of the Jewish state, and their descendants."

The stimulus for the Birthright program, she reported, were the findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which found that 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the faith. Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and educator, was named to direct the foundation that would incubate Birthright. "I felt I'd been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming," he said, hoping Birthright trips would shore up a social order in decline.

"Today, at a time of rising criticism of Israel, the program has taken on a different meaning," Feldman noted. "No longer is it simply a project to shore up Jewish identity. Birthright has joined the fight for the political loyalties of young Jews."

Beyond this, it is an effort to promote what Feldman described as "flings among participants, or between participants and soldiers. 'No problem if there's intimate encounters,' an Israeli Outdoors employee told American staffers during training. 'In fact, it's encouraged.' Birthright boasts that alumni are 51 percent more likely to marry other Jews than nonparticipants."

Birthright participants receive a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian question, Feldman wrote: "Birthright's boosters seem strangely unaware of the...more visible woes, the 44-year illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel's ethnocracy...Our guide was Schachar Peleg-Efroni...Several times a day he...used 'Palestinian' interchangeably with 'terrorist'...A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster, has become an ideology machine..."

In January 2011, J Street announced plans to sponsor a Birthright trip. "Shortly thereafter," Feldman noted, "Birthright said a miscommunication had occurred—as a 'political' organization, J Street was ineligible. Yet a Birthright trip run by AIPAC, the far more conservative Israel lobby group, has been renewed for years...Several Birthright donors, including family foundations operated by the Gottesmans, Grinspoons, Steinhardts and Schustermanns, have financially supported illegal Jewish settlements...On my trip we were given maps of Israel that referred to the West Bank as 'Judea and Samaria'—biblical terminology typically favored by settlers and their sympathizers."

One senses an element of desperation on the part of the Jewish establishment concerning the fact that young people—and many others—are drifting away from their embrace of Israel's current government and its policies. That drift, it seems clear, will continue as Israeli policies and traditional Jewish values appear to be in conflict. It is less than clear who these groups really speak for—other than themselves. 

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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