American Jewry and the Rise of the Israeli Ethnoreligious State

Michael Barnett, George Washington University

There are many rival explanations for why and how Israel evolved from a liberal democracy into an institutionalized ethnic and religious nationalism that discriminates against and disenfranchises the non-Jewish majority.  Most of these explanations focus on dynamics internal to Israel: Zionist discourse; demographic shifts; the role of war and violence; electoral rules and politics that favored center and rightist parties; the influence of a well-organized and determined settlement community; and security imperatives.  This memo suggests an external alternative: the enabling role of American Jews.  This is not necessarily an outcome that most American Jews wanted, but those in power offered little resistance and instead offered justifications and resources for Israel’s illiberal practices.  After discussing this role, I offer some thoughts regarding whether and how Israel’s increasingly pronounced ethnoreligious character might lead to a reassessment by American Jews regarding their near unconditional support for Israeli policies.

A bit of history is important here.  Many American Jews in the pre-statehood period actively worried that a future Jewish state (or homeland) in the current confines of mandatory Palestine could not be both democratic and Jewish.  Jews were a numerical minority, and their attempt to create a Jewish homeland was actively resisted by the Palestinian residents.  In order to guarantee a Jewish homeland or state, Jews would have to become the majority; and/or Palestinians would have to leave; and/or separate Palestinian and Jewish states would have to be carved from the Palestinian mandatory territory.  These options faced hard political, military, and ethical barriers.  There were few scenarios in which Jews would become the majority, particularly if Palestinians had veto power over Jewish immigration.  Palestinians were unlikely to voluntarily leave, and their forcible removal was difficult to imagine on military, political, or ethical grounds.  And, for the moment, neither the Yishuv nor Palestinian leadership supported partition.  Although American Jews shied away from having to make tough choices in order to guarantee the creation of a democratic and Jewish state in mandatory Palestine, Yishuv leaders, most notably David Ben-Gurion, were prepared to impose the costs on the Palestinian population.[1]

Because of these foreclosed options, many leading American Jews argued in favor of some sort of binational state in which Jews and Arabs would be equal and share political power.  Born in Baltimore in 1860, Henrietta Szold is best known for founding Hadassah and working tirelessly for a Jewish homeland.  But she also favored the idea of a binational state and created a political party, Ihud, in the Yishuv in 1940 for that purpose.  The San Francisco-born reform rabbi Judah Magnes helped found the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and became an advocate for a binational state. Both Szold and Magnes drew from their progressive Judaism and fear of the underside of Jewish nationalism to advocate for equality between Jews and Arabs.  For them and many others who favored a binational solution, principles and Jewish survival in America pointed in the same direction: American Jews could not be seen sanctioning discrimination against Palestinians and yet insist on their equal rights in the United States.  Equal rights were a matter of principle and politics.

The destruction of the European Jews and the creation of an Israeli state that had a clear Jewish majority created a scenario that only two decades prior was deemed highly improbable: a Jewish and democratic state.  American Jews tossed away whatever reservations remained, and organized to support the state of Israel.  Yet it is worth noting that while American Jews were “pro-Israel,” they showed little of the enthusiasm at this time that they would later.  American Jews bought bonds that had to be repaid, rather than offer grants that were gifts; they visited Israel, but not in large numbers; few emigrated, notwithstanding the historic return of a Jewish state.

The 1967 war set the stage for the return to these pre-WWII tensions between Israel as a Jewish state and as a democratic state; however, because most American Jews (and Americans) did not imagine that Israel would absorb the territories they never truly considered the possibility of Israel having to choose between its Jewish identity and its democratic character.  Instead of rehearsing the accumulating forces at work that turned hypotheticals into reality and friction into fire, I want to suggest four ways that American Jews poured gasoline on the flames.  First, the 1967 war led to the emergence of a much more tribalistic, nationalistic, and Israel-worshipping American Jewry.  American Jews no longer defined their Jewishness through religion or ethnicity but increasingly through Israel (and the Holocaust).  And Israel and the Holocaust were not separate events, but rather tied historically, politically, and emotionally in the American Jewish imagination. Leading Jewish organizations now dedicated themselves to Israel.  Most apparent, AIPAC, which was nearly unknown before 1967, became a workhorse for Israel, keeping pro-Israel forces moving in lock-step and becoming one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington.  Although its power has been hyped by others and itself, it helped to ensure that American financial, military, and diplomatic support flowed freely and continuously.  And American Jews also were becoming big donors in their own right, helping to build hospital wings and Israeli universities, providing private support for the Israeli Defense Forces, and, largely hidden from view, supporting the orthodox community in Israel and settlement expansion.

Second, American Jews also increasingly saw themselves as playing a critical role in Israel’s security.  They might not be flying jets or riding tanks, but they were walking the halls of Congress, opening the aid pipeline, and ensuring that the White House fully supported Israel and its policies.  As they made their case, they towed the line on security as defined by the Israeli government.   Relatedly, the American Jewish elites and major Jewish organizations actively worked against any and all forms of criticism of Israel, including accusing critics of being anti-Israel or, even anti-Semitic.  Dissent by American Jews became tantamount to treason.  Leading American Jewish organizations and institutions, lay and religious alike, mobilized nearly unconditional support for Israel and actively quelled criticisms.  What was good for Israel soon became what was good for the United States, a major turnaround from the pre-1967 period when American foreign policy kept its distance in order to preserve strong ties with Arab state that were viewed as more critical to American global strategy and containment policy.

Third, Israel and American Jewry developed something of a ketubah, a marriage contract, which included a set of rights and responsibilities.  The original terms of the “contract” were set out in an exchange of letters in 1950 between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein: Israel would provide a sense of pride, belonging, and even a putative homeland for American Jews; American Jews, in turn, would provide political support and open doors for Israel into the inner sanctums of American power.  The contract, as importantly, included principles of non-interference.  Israelis were prohibited from interfering in the life of American Jewry, and American Jews were prohibited from interfering in Israeli politics (and especially security related matters).  Yet American Jews were expected to become loyal auxiliaries of Israel.  Such an arrangement could expose American Jews to charges of dual loyalty, but after 1967 Jews were feeling more confident in their American skin and Israel’s developing alliance and “special relationship” with the U.S. meant that Israel might do wrong but rarely had to worry about consequences.

This unconditional support meant that Israel enjoyed something of a free hand and could push increasingly right-wing policies without having to worry about paying a price.  At times Israel went too far, which would lead American policymakers to convey their concerns privately to Jerusalem.  Rarely did American Jewish organizations call Israel out, either because they agreed with Israeli policies or an unwillingness to air dirty laundry in public.  One brief period when Israel and American Jewish organizations butted heads was when the Labor Party returned to power in 1992 and showed greater openness to dialogue and negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, a position that challenged those parts of the American Jewish community with more hardline views.

Fourth, in addition to enabling ethnonationalism, religious and ultranationalist American Jews were actively supporting settlement activity and Jewish radicalism and terrorism.  There are now over 60,000 American Jews living in settlements.  Most are not violent extremists, though enough of them are to pose a real threat to Palestinian residents and even to the Israeli state.[2]

The extent of this support is unknown because the flows are unrecorded, fudged, or work their way through various banks and companies to hide their origins and recipients.  However, the investigative journalist Uri Blau, among others, suggest that American Jews have sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the settlements.

Did American Jews hope that Israel would turn into an ethnoreligious state that ruled over a majority of non-Jews?  Probably not.  Could they have stopped it from happening?  Arguably not.  Did they try?  No.  Did they adopt policies that facilitated this development?  Absolutely.  Silence can be interpreted in many ways, including approval.

The creation of an ethnoreligious state with a non-Jewish majority is currently producing a bimodal, and somewhat bipolar, American Jewry.  Looking ahead, American Jewry appears to be increasingly ambivalent regarding Israel’s present and possible future, and is responding in several ways.

First, there is growing sentiment among American Jews that the marriage contract must be renegotiated.  This is not a consensus view.  Many leading American Jewish organizations are likely to remain in the hands of the more politically conservative elements of American Jewry, and to continue to lend nearly unqualified support for Israel.  Moreover, Orthodox Jews, who do not value liberalism and democracy in the same way as most American Jews, are likely to become more central to mainstream Jewish organizations and establish their own channels to generate support for Israel.

But many other long existing and newly created Jewish organizations are beginning to strike a different, critical, and even confrontational posture, leading to the implicit renegotiation of the contract.  In other words, as Israel has changed, and changed in ways that a growing number of American Jews believe are at odds with their values, they will demand marital equality.  I doubt that the two largest Jewish communities in the world will ever divorce, but this is an increasingly unhappy marriage, and it is American Jewry that seems to be pushing for a renegotiation of the ketubah.  The root causes of this change are a matter of dispute.  A changing American Jewry, with more intermarriage and more multicultural, is weakening the Israelotry that has defined American Jewry for the last four decades.

Second, and related, there is growing concern among American Jews that Israel no longer represents the interests and values of American Jews.  For most of Israel’s history the calculation ran as follows: Israel is the state of the Jewish people, its understanding of the national interests includes both Israeli citizens and world Jewry, and, consequently, when Israel defends the national interest it also is defending American Jewry.  But there is growing unease that the interests of American Jews and Israeli Jews are growing apart.  Israel is increasingly acting in ways that it may view as being in its interests, but not necessarily in the interests of diaspora Jews.  Exhibit A is Israel’s growing willingness to forge alliances with rightwing movements and politicians, many of whom deny the Holocaust and traffic in anti-Semitism, around the world on the grounds that it helps defend the Israeli state.  Israel’s readiness to provide implicit and sometimes explicit support for extremist organizations hit very close to home as it embraced a Trump administration that routinely sounded anti-Semitic dog whistles. Netanyahu and Trump forged a very close relationship, which has unsettled and disturbed most American Jews; after all, American Jews are overwhelmingly anti-Trump, often claiming that he is the antithesis of Jewish values and a threat to American Jewry’s security.  And because the Trump administration was unwilling to condemn these organizations and movements that pledged their support to Trump, Netanyahu almost always had little to say when American Jews are violently attack.

Third, and related, there is a subtle but growing fear that American Jewry’s close identification with Israel could lead to an increase in anti-Semitism at home.  There are two related developments in this regard.  One is the growth of the anti-Semitism on the left and the right.  There are debates regarding whether the Left or the Right’s anti-Semitism is more worrisome or deadly, but arguably the anti-Semitism of the Left is more closely tied to its opposition to Israel.  And while certainly not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, there are clear moments when the line between the two is fuzzy and anti-Semites use Israel as a vehicle to express their views.  None of this is helped by the move by many American Jewish organization to redefine anti-Semitism so that it becomes nearly indistinguishable from anti-Israel.  This move is justified as a way to better protect Israel, but perhaps at the expense of the security of American Jews.[3]

Fourth, Israeli and American Jewry might proclaim that they are a single people, but Israeli Jews have often treated American Jews as if they are second-class, watered down, Jews.  The origins of such arrogance can be traced to Zionist ideology, which contained a nearly anti-Semitic caricature of diaspora Jews.  But Zionism is not only to blame.  So too is an Israeli state that has allowed the orthodox community to capture the religious institutions and define Judaism in a way that nearly strips reform and conservative Jews of their membership in the Jewish community.  For these reasons, Israel ranks relatively low on measures of religious freedom.[4]  From the perspective of Israeli law and practice, some Jews are more equal than others.[5]

These four developments sum into a growing view that American Jews and Israeli Jews increasingly see the world in different ways and that American Jews need to do more to protect themselves from an Israeli state whose character and policies might harm their security.  Such thoughts, in some circles, are blasphemous.  And these thoughts are increasingly leading the conversation among a growing number of American Jews to consider once unthinkable policies.   One is a growing view that U.S. assistance to Israel must be conditional on Israel no longer using the aid to tighten its grip on the territories and violating the basic rights of the Palestinians.  At the most recent J-Street annual conference, there was little talk of a two-state solution or what it would take to revive the peace process; these were increasingly seen as part of history.  Instead, the conversation shifted to a growing willingness to consider the use of American aid as a way of trying to preserve Palestinian autonomy and rights.  This proposal has generated a large backlash from the AIPAC-associated wing of American Jewry, and even among some who associate with J-Street.  For instance, recently former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro made the case that Israeli aid was sacrosanct because American and Israeli security are inextricably intertwined.[6]  Perhaps, but this rewrites the history of U.S. aid to Israel.  Many increases in U.S. aid owed not to a desire to bolster Israel’s security but rather to provide side payments and payoffs to Israel to either make concessions for peace or to buy its silence.  And the argument that Israel continues to require vast amounts of U.S. security assistance is increasingly dubious.  What is the case for U.S. aid when Israel retains such a significant strategic advantage over its neighbors (Iran being the important exception) and side-payments are no longer required to keep Israel involved in a peace process that no longer exists?  In any event, often the argument is not to suspend all aid to Israel but rather to deduct that part of the aid package that is diverted to the West Bank.

Progressive American Jews are also drawing attention to the difficulties faced by a struggling Israeli and Palestinian civil society.  By moving in this direction, they are acting more like classic human rights organizations that are trying to protect civil society organizations from an illiberal state.  Indeed, whereas once American Jewish organizations tended to avoid the language of human rights because of its close association with Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state, they are less wary.  If Israel is to be a state that honors the rule of law, then it must support those civil society organizations that fight for it, and especially in an environment in which they are under attack and demonized by the Israeli government.

Another set of actions might include advocating for a binational state.  Although quite unlikely to happen, it is a possibility.  And, it does represent a return to the past.  A century ago American Jews worried that they could not defend their rights at home if they tried to justify one set of rights for Jews and another for Palestinians in a future Jewish homeland.  Consequently, many argued in favor of some form or a binational state.  With the creation of the State of Israel with a Jewish majority meant that there was no contradiction between a democratic and Jewish state.  But after 1967 that potential contradiction returned, and it became a reality with the absorption of the territories.  Accordingly, many left-leaning and progressive American Jews are increasingly insisting that Palestinians must be granted rights, and not just economic and social rights but also civil and political rights – and, ultimately citizenship and voting rights.  The return to binationalism is a logical consequence of their commitment to liberalism and pluralism – and a willingness to choose a democratic Israel over a Jewish Israel (Israeli Jews prefer an illiberal Israel if it allows for preserving a Jewish Israel).   And, this position might gain even greater support if and when a younger generation of Palestinian leaders abandon any hope of a separate state and demand Israeli citizenship.

Several thoughts by way of conclusion.  Relations between American Jews and Israel have gone through different phases, from support bordering on indifference, to blind acceptance, to growing ambivalence.  Throughout American Jews have supported and identified with Israel, though this support was not as unqualified as some observers have suggested.  Still, after 1967 they provided nearly unconditional support and thus share some responsibility for Israel’s evolving ethnoreligious character.  I am not arguing that more dissent and resistance from American Jewry might have altered Israel’s path, but American Jewry helped to ensure that Israel was protected from sticks and stones and continued to enjoy American aid.  However, in recent years there is a growing ambivalence of American Jews and willingness to challenge Israel.  This is not historically unprecedented, but never before has the marriage contract been under such strain.  None of this means that American Jews will seek a gett, but it is to suggest that it will be increasingly difficult for a pluralistic and liberal-leaning American Jewry to keep their views to themselves.  Relatedly, American Jews are increasingly bitterly divided on these issues – and this trend will intensify.  Many of the most prominent American Jewish organizations that have provided nearly unconditional support and political cover for Israel continue to do so, but will no be able to do so with reference to Israel’s liberal, pluralist, and democratic character.  Another camp is beginning to challenge a state organized around one set of rights for Jews and another set of rights for non-Jews: how Israel treats its minorities can have implications for American Jews, and American Jews feel responsibility for the character of a state that claims to operate in their name.

Lastly, one of the big developments that occurred between when I first drafted this essay and when I made the final edits is that the United States has given Israel a green light to annex a substantial part of the West Bank.  Netanyahu claimed that he would speed through the light the moment he could, but then the Trump administration said that he should approach the intersection with caution and perhaps with the U.S. allowed to control the brake pedal.  After managing to survive the third contested election in a year, in early 2020 Netanyahu declared that July 1 would be the date of annexation.  But I am writing this on July 2 and, legally speaking, annexation did not occur.  But that doesn’t mean that it won’t in the near future, especially as Trump’s re-election hopes dwindle and Netanyahu worries that the green light might soon turn red.  But the possibility of annexation revealed an additional set of fault lines between Israel and the American Jewish community, for even for many of Israel’s ardent supporters this was a bridge too far.  And this period of build-up also produced a stream of statements that said that annexation would bury any idea of Israel as a liberal, democratic state.  The new frame has been set.  Will annexation spell a new chapter in relations between American Jewry and Israel? Will it be possible for American Jewry to sustain the narrative that American and Israeli Jews share the same values?  On what narrative will the new period in the marriage be based?


[1] See, for instance, Tom Shelev, A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2019).

[2] Sara Hirschorn, City on a Hilltop (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).


[4] file:///C:/Users/barne/Downloads/Restrictions_X_WEB_7-15_FULL-VERSION-1.pdf

[5] I situate these various trends in historical context in my The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).