Despite dissatisfaction, U.S. Jews won’t be abandoning Israel that soon

It is true that many in the U.S. Jewish community are not happy with current Israeli policies. But in the face of countervailing trends, it is not clear this will change the community’s overall levels of attachment and support.

By Brent E. Sasley

In a recent op-ed in Haaretz, Bradley Burston argues that U.S. Jews are moving away from Israel because of the government’s illiberal domestic politics and intransigent foreign policies. He believes that by 2013 they may just “secede” altogether from a country doing things they don’t want done in their name.

There are certainly signs pointing in that direction. Peter Beinart identified these trends in 2010, and in 2001 Steven Rosenthal wrote a (not very good) book about it, Irreconcilable Differences?

But there are other factors militating against such an outcome, or at least slowing down the process far more than liberals and progressives think.

First, although Burston correctly notes that most of the American community is composed of liberal-leaning Jews, the emerging role of Orthodox and (politically) conservative Jews within U.S. politics on Israel is mitigating their influence. The growing Orthodox community in the U.S. is far more conservative on social and economic issues than the rest of the Reform-dominated community.

The Orthodox are therefore more likely to tie themselves to Republicans who, according to the Pew Research Center, are themselves more likely to express strong support for Israel than Democrats. The results of the New York 9th Congressional District election in September 2011 underline this: the Orthodox Jewish constituents of the heavily Democratic electorate in that district voted for Republican Bob Turner despite the fact that the Democratic candidate was himself an Orthodox Jew.

Second, Jewish hawks, who are primarily Republican, are increasingly shaping the public debate on Israel in the U.S. These groups (such as the Emergency Committee for Israel) and individuals, by contrast to the big organizations like AIPAC, the JCPA, and the AJC who are more measured, have adopted a very vocal and aggressive tone about Israel, and a political agenda closely identified with the Republican Party.

The public defense of Israel by these outspoken groups has two further effects: it strengthens the aforementioned groups by contributing to general institutional efforts on behalf of Israel, and it raises the bar for these organizations, causing them to adopt more explicitly public and assertive language.

Third, developments within the Middle East as they impact Israel can re-direct U.S. Jewish attitudes about Israel. The establishment of Israel in 1948 followed by its victory in 1967 changed forever the nature of Jewish attachment to Israel. American Jews began to identify far more closely with the Jewish state and became more active in politics to express their support for it.

Soon after Rosenthal’s book questioning whether U.S. Jews would tolerate an increasingly right wing Israel came out, the Second Intifada erupted. In the wake of large-scale violence against Israeli civilians, U.S Jewish support for Israel increased: donations were up, and there were indications of high levels of identification with Israel.

2013 is likely to see some type of confrontation with Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah in one way or another. The historical pattern indicates this will lead to an increase or intensification of U.S. Jewish support for Israel. At the same time, as Michael Koplow has pointed out, Israel enjoys broad support in the American electorate; in the case of hostilities, this is also likely to increase.

Burston is certainly right that many in the U.S. Jewish community are dissatisfied with current Israeli policy. But in the face of countervailing trends, it’s not clear this will change the community’s overall levels of attachment and support.

If Jewish attachment to Israel won’t decline, there is considerable evidence that American Jews are redefining what it means to support Israel. This is best represented by the increasingly heated debate among institutions of the Jewish community about what it means to be “pro-Israel.”

More broadly, Birthright programs are popular, and there is some evidence that it leads to a “bump” of increased attachment to Israel. Other research indicates U.S. Jews are supporting Israel in new ways. Theodore Sasson, for instance, contends that new partisan groups, direct philanthropy, non-denominational organized trips to Israel, and U.S. Jewish consumption of Israeli culture and media are facilitating less obvious but no less important attachments.

For those concerned about Israel’s current direction, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. There is still a big challenge in forming a critical mass to support change in Israel, as the shifting nature of support can lead to less direct concern with the policies of any given Israeli government. But the opportunity is that—contrary to Burston’s argument—there will still be significant numbers of Jews interested in and attached enough to Israel that they can be mobilized.

Brent E. Sasleyteaches Israel and Middle East politics at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs on Israel and Jewish identity at Mideast Matrix and Open Zion. Follow him on Twitter.