Israel now causing bitter divisions among U.S. Jews

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NEW YORK -- Once a unifying cause for generations of American Jews, Israel is now bitterly dividing Jewish communities.

Jewish organizations are withdrawing invitations to Jewish speakers or performers considered too critical of Israel, in what opponents have denounced as an ideological litmus test meant to squelch debate. Some Jewish activists have formed watchdog groups -- such as Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, or COPMA, and JCC Watch -- to monitor programming for perceived anti-Israel bias. They argue Jewish groups that take donations for strengthening the community shouldn't be giving a platform to Israel's critics.

American campuses have become ideological battle zones over Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories, with national Jewish groups sometimes caught up on opposing sides of the internal debate among Jewish students. The "Open Hillel" movement of Jewish students is challenging speaker guidelines developed by Hillel, the major Jewish campus group, which bars speakers who "delegitimize" or "demonize" Israel. Open Hillel is planning its first national conference in October.

And in a vote testing the parameters of Jewish debate over Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a national coalition that for decades has represented the American Jewish community, denied membership in April to J Street, the 6-year-old lobby group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace and has sometimes criticized the Israeli government. Opponents of J Street have been showing a documentary called "The J Street Challenge," in synagogues and at Jewish gatherings around the country, characterizing the group as a threat from within.

"I believe this has reached a level of absurdity now," said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of the IKAR-LA Jewish community in California, which is considered a national model for reinvigorating religious life. "Even where people are acting from a place of love and deep commitment that Israel remains a vital and vibrant state, they are considered outside the realm. It's seen as incredibly threatening and not aligned with the script the American Jewish community expects."

American Jews have always vigorously debated Israeli policy, but mostly within the community and with an understanding that differences would be set aside if the Jewish state faced an existential threat. But the discussion within the U.S. has become more reflective of the very broad debate within Israel.

"It's a very old issue that many countries face and now Israel faces: to what extent should domestic debate carry over when you're abroad?" said Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University scholar of American Jewish history. "The critics of J Street and the like say, 'Of course, it's fine in Israel because the minute they call up the reserves, all politics disappear. Moreover, they have to live with the results of their decision.' Their argument is that there should be a great difference between what you can do and say in Israel and what you can do or say in America. There are all sorts of enemies who make use of the words in America differently than they do in Israel."

The split among U.S. Jews has its roots in the Jewish settlement building in the occupied territories after the 1967 Six Day War, which sparked debate in the U.S. and in Israel over the settlements and Israeli security. At the same time, American Judaism was splintering. The strictly traditional Orthodox population grew, but so did the number of Jews who left organized religious life. Meanwhile, liberal Reform Judaism, which has worked for years to underscore its deep commitment to the Jewish state, grew to become the largest movement in American Judaism.



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