Peter Beinart has written a thoughtful and, I believe, an accurate article explaining American Jewish attitudes towards Israel that I reprint here in its entirety. Though Peter does not advocate in this piece for a post-Zionist position calling for a purely democratic Israel-Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (as he has argued elsewhere), I want to be clear that I do not agree with him. I remain convinced that only a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can preserve Israel’s democracy and Jewish character, and that a one-state solution cannot work and is a recipe for violence, the loss of Israel’s democracy and Jewish character. There is discussion amongst left-wing pro-Zionists of an interim confederate position that could lead to a two-state solution, but that discussion is for another time.
Here is Peter’s piece:
“What determines American Jewish attitudes toward Israel? Let’s say you had to guess an American Jew’s views on Israel-Palestine by asking a series of questions, none of which could involve politics. What would you ask?
Here are my top four.
Question One: How old are you?
The data is extremely consistent: Young American Jews are less connected to Israel, and less supportive of its policies, than their parents and grandparents. The less connected part is mostly a product of assimilation: Israel is a Jewish state and younger American Jews are less connected to almost everything Jewish (states, synagogues, holidays) than are their elders. According to the newest Pew Research data, roughly one in six Jews over the age of 65 deny that being Jewish is important to them. Among Jews aged 18-29, the figure is one in three.
But assimilation doesn’t fully explain why young American Jews are more alienated than their elders from Israel’s policies. Because even if you look at the least assimilated, young, and non-Orthodox American Jews—say, young Conservative and Reform rabbis—you find that they’re far more critical of Israel than their older counterparts.
The answer has to do with life experience. Older American Jews are more likely to have been shaped by Israel’s wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Younger American Jews have been more influenced by Israel’s recent history: Its invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s, the first and second intifadas, its periodic wars in Gaza, and its deepening occupation of the West Bank. The 1970s and 1980s constitute the generational dividing line. Older Jews came of age watching Israel battle Arab armies, which—at least in the American Jewish perception—threatened Israel’s existence. Younger American Jews came of age watching Israel battle stateless Palestinians (even Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was aimed at expelling the PLO). And since younger American Jews are more likely to see Israel’s adversary as a stateless people rather than a collection of enemy regimes, they’re more conscious of Israel’s massive power advantage and its denial of Palestinian rights.
Palestinians themselves are largely responsible for this shift in American Jewish consciousness. After the 1967 War, as Edward Said has observed, the Palestinian national movement came out from under the shadow of Arab regimes. Then Palestinians launched an intifada in the late 1980s and a global, non-violent, pressure campaign in the 2000s. Without these acts of national self-assertion, it’s less likely that younger American Jews would have defected from their parents and grandparents views.
Question Two: Are you Orthodox?
Everything I’ve just written requires a giant asterisk. While younger Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated American Jews are more critical of Israel than their elders, the generational division is far less stark among the Orthodox. Orthodox Jews of all ages are strongly pro-Israel (and pro-Republican). They’re also disproportionately young. That’s why it’s misleading to assume that American Jewry’s demographic changes will necessarily shift American Jewish politics to the left. Although the Orthodox remain a minority among American Jewish Millennials and Zoomers, they constitute a growing minority that generally cares more about Israel than do their more secular counterparts. And in the decades to come, their pro-Israel intensity may counterbalance the numerical advantage of their less Israel-enamored, non-Orthodox peers.
Why are the Orthodox (with the exception of a small group of ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists) so supportive of Israel and so unsympathetic to Palestinian rights? Because American Orthodox Jews are more influenced by the attitudes of Israeli Jews. They’re more likely to have family in Israel and to have lived there themselves. (Many American Orthodox Jews spend a year in yeshiva in Israel between high school and college). And American Orthodox Jews aren’t just influenced by Israeli Jews as a whole; they’re particularly influenced by Israeli Orthodox Jews—the most right-leaning segment of Israeli society. In part because of the Israeli Orthodox influence, American Orthodox Jews are far more nationalistic, and far less universalistic, than their non-Orthodox counterparts. They’re more likely to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in zero-sum, us-versus-them, terms.
Question Three: How long has your family been in the United States?
When I meet young, non-Orthodox, American Jews who lean right on Israel, the first question is ask is: When did your parents come to the US? More often than not, their parents are immigrants—from the former Soviet Union, from South America, from Iran, from South Africa or from Europe. This shapes their experience in two ways. First, Jews whose families hail from smaller and more precarious Jewish communities can more easily imagine needing Israel as a refuge than can Jews whose families have lived in the United States for more than a century. Second, Jews whose families haven’t lived as long in the US are less likely to conflate Jewishness with political liberalism. They’re less steeped in the story that many non-Orthodox American Jews proudly tell about the American Jewish role in the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. They’re less likely to have been raised on tales of Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman being murdered in Mississippi or Rabbi Heschel marching in Selma. Non-American Jews have their own traditions of leftist activism, of course. (Think of Joe Slovo or Jacobo Timmerman). But compared to other Diaspora Jewish communities, American Jews are more likely to put progressive politics—and less likely to put Zionism—at the center of their Jewish identities. Which means that young American Jews with stronger ties to other Diaspora Jewish communities are more likely to diverge from the (non-Orthodox) norm.
Question Four: How much time have you spent listening to Palestinians?
This is the game-changer. In my experience, nothing is as likely to make American Jews rethink their views on Israel as listening to Palestinians. The basic thrust of establishment American Jewish discourse about Palestinians is dehumanizing. Palestinians are talked about but rarely talked to. The average American synagogue, Jewish school or pro-Israel organization neither hosts Palestinian speakers, screens Palestinian films, nor assigns books by Palestinian authors. Hillel’s Israel guidelines—which prohibit inviting speakers who oppose a Jewish state or support BDS—virtually ensure that the primary Jewish institution on most college campuses never hosts Palestinian speakers. Birthright, which has taken hundreds of thousands of American and other Diaspora Jewish twenty-somethings to Israel, rarely takes them to meet Palestinians in the West Bank. For an essay I wrote in 2013, I counted the number of Palestinian speakers at the conferences convened that year by AIPAC and American Jewish Committee. Of AIPAC’s more than two hundred advertised speakers that year, two were Palestinian. Of the AJC’s 64 speakers, none were Palestinian.
It is precisely because so many American Jews live inside this Palestinian-free cocoon—and have absorbed racist stereotypes of Palestinians as violent, primitive, Jew-haters—that human interactions can be so transformational. I suspect that one reason American Jewish leaders worry so much about the experience of Jewish students at college is that it’s at college where many of these interactions first occur. It’s where Jewish students are most likely to encounter a poem by Mahmoud Darwish or a first-hand account of the Nakba or where they’re likely to make their first Palestinian friend. In establishment Jewish discourse, these encounters are often portrayed as menacing and anti-Semitic. But for many young American Jews, they’re liberating. They’re liberating because they involve a confrontation with discomforting and previously inaccessible truths—which is exactly what college should provide.
This isn’t only true for young people. I’m a huge fan of Encounter, which takes American Jewish leaders to the West Bank and East Jerusalem to meet Palestinians. In a testimonial, one participant admitted that, “After one day of your trip, I felt like I had never been to Israel before, and I am considered a professional Israel expert who travels to Israel several times a year.”
This is why I worry about “anti-normalization,” the decision by some Palestinian activists to oppose any “dialogue” about Israel-Palestine that “occurs outside the resistance framework.” In my experience, when American Jews listen to Palestinians, and thus witness both their humanity and the brutality they endure, many begin a journey that leads them to resist Israel’s policies. But that transformation comes as a result of the interaction. If you make resistance the prerequisite you lose the chance to influence those people who need influencing the most.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because listening to Palestinians (something I started doing too late in life) has had a profound impact on me. I’m fifty. My parents emigrated to the United States. I’ve attended Orthodox synagogues my entire adult life. My answers to questions 1-3 would peg me as an AIPAC guy. Question four has made all the difference. It’s a big part of why I write this newsletter at all.”