We’ve lived through skirmishes between Israelis and Palestinians before, but May 2021 felt different. It’s not only that the number of rockets lobbed at Israel, 4,360, marks an all-time high. It’s not just that suddenly it seemed as if every one of your favorite actors, singers, writers, and lawmakers took to social media to accuse Israel of everything from apartheid to deliberately killing Black and brown people, shouting down anyone who advocated for balance and complexity—even Rihanna. It’s not even that speakers on protest stages are saying things like “every time they bomb Gaza, this is what creates antisemitism.” Or that a majority of House Democrats voted against providing Israel with emergency funding to boost its Iron Dome defense system. Or that mini-pogroms are popping up everywhere from West Hollywood to the Upper East Side, with mobs attacking Jews indiscriminately.
No, this round felt different because, once and for all, it opened up a chasm that many of us have spent our lifetimes trying to avoid. Simply put, there are only two sides now: the Zionists and the anti-Zionists. Given the events of this past week, it is incumbent upon every person who wants to have any effect on the future, Jew and non-Jew alike, to understand how and why this is—and to pick a side, and soon.
Once upon a time not too long ago, the Jewish tent was open wide. It contained, from the very birth of the Zionist movement, hardened soldiers and starry-eyed poets, Marxists who fantasized about tilling the fields and rabbis who yearned to redeem the resting places of the Patriarchs. For over a half-century, you could be a Jew who believed anything: You could feel happy that Israel existed but not particularly want to think about it much. You could be a Zionist who supported a two-state solution. You could see yourself as a Zionist who believed Jewish self-determination was a right best exercised in a binational democracy shared with Arab neighbors. You could be an anti-Zionist who still felt kinship with the Jews living in Israel and wished them well.
All of those distinctions are now moot.
There are only two camps that will have any political significance in the coming decade. In the first are the people willing to call themselves Zionists—without clarification or caveat or distinction. You can believe that Bibi is the problem or that peace will come with a retreat to the 1967 borders or that the settlements are an obstacle to coexistence, but the space in the realm of politics for “I believe in Israel but …” just closed.
The Zionist camp includes everyone who, when pushed to imagine a future they’d want, can’t imagine one in which a Jewish state doesn’t exist. These are people watching their social media feeds fill up with one-sided hashtags, wondering when and how Hamas got laundered from a terrorist organization into an Instagram-ready social justice movement, or how the word “genocide” could be so casually applied to a war in which the total deaths on both sides amount to less than a third of the number of people killed in Chicago last year. They are people who are shocked by how Israel is somehow portrayed as a singularly evil human rights violator when the Syrian civil war has claimed 400,000 lives in 10 years—about 300,000 more than the total number of people who have ever died in the Arab-Israeli conflict, starting in 1860. These people are starting to suspect, as Einat Wilf put it, that “it’s not that attacks on Jews in the West are the unfortunate and unintended consequence of the persistent demonization of Israel, but rather the demonization of the Jewish state is undertaken so as to re-legitimize attacks on Jews in the West.” In the United States, the Jewish Zionist camp includes traditional political right-wingers and the Orthodox, joined by majorities in the ethnic and recent immigrant communities of former Soviet Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and Persian Jews, as well as a cohort of stunned college kids. As of last week, it also seems to be attracting normie American Jews newly aware about their impending loss of status—or, as one of them texted recently to a Tablet staffer: “When did we become outsiders again?”
The second group, the anti-Zionists, is home to people who move, and want to remain, in a different set of social circles—those in which Israel has become a totem for everything sinister about the West, from colonialism to white supremacy to police brutality. These people find themselves moved by the arguments of those who see Israel as uniquely criminal, and who feel impelled to distinguish themselves from their parents or communities. This group now includes celebrities, pop star politicians who specialize in Twitter activism, and anyone who wants to be considered one of the cool kids in the arts and academia, as well as a generation of younger Americans Jews, who are—by positioning their views on Israel-Palestine inside vogue intersectionality—helping to change the coverage at former legacy brands in American journalism. Many of these people imagine or publicly present themselves as still believing in or supporting a Jewish state, just one that is somehow more righteous or fair. To the extent that it’s still true today, it won’t be for much longer:
The trajectory of this group is most clearly illustrated by tweets like this one*, from the leftist Jewish group IfNotNow. Founded in 2014 with a stated mission to work toward ending the Israeli occupation, their public pronouncements now talk about doing away with Israel itself:
The reason for this shift is that the Democratic Party, where American Jews long made their home, has embraced intersectional politics—a tactic that, judging by recent election results, is working well for them, if not necessarily for their Jewish members. In this new cosmology, political victories are achieved by draining the landscape of nuance, which allows for the kind of clap-back social media messaging at which their standard bearers excel. To make this work, there must be only two answers to any question: one that is right and commands the allegiance of the entire coalition, and one that is wrong, and which deserves only universal condemnation and scorn. There is only racism or “anti-racism”; “white supremacy” or “restorative racial justice”; nationalism or socialism; and, for Jews, Zionism or anti-Zionism.
Faced with this polarizing reality, it’s no secret which camp I’m in. The reasons are many, but the one worth considering here is that Zionism is and always has been defined by Jews, while anti-Zionism is determined by non-Jews.
The difference is absolute. One side is rooted in the idea that Jews can and should decide their own fate—indeed, that submitting to rule by others can and often has been critically dangerous for Jews. On the other side, control over the biggest decisions in the lives of Jews is willingly given to others who often—as revelations of rampant antisemitism in the Women’s March movement suggested—do not have our best interests at heart. Jewish leftist activist Sophie Ellman-Golan had to pleadingly tweet this week that “Jewish safety & Palestinian freedom are not opposing causes,” because, in her movement, they have become precisely opposed—regardless of whatever role she and her fellow Jews imagine they’re playing. Increasingly, the energies of this group will be devoted to conjuring new loyalty tests for Jewish members—yesterday’s was OK, so you have denounced Zionism, but you won’t be considered virtuous until you stop condemning antisemitism, which is as insane as it sounds, and also perfectly predictable.
So my own decision is clear. Still, I’ll admit that the starkness of this choice was at first difficult to accept. This Great Divide is no cause for joy. It is the end of the mosaic of differing and diverse opinions that, when allowed to sparkle, made America a great and good nation—one whose loss I mourn. But I also refuse to indulge in fantasy when clear and present dangers come knocking and demand a swift adjustment of attitude for the sake of survival. This cleaving isn’t a passing fad. It isn’t a pendulum about to swing, or an inflammation about to subside, or any other metaphor you may choose to conjure a soothing image of something temporary and manageable. It’s the beginning of a new and grim age, one in which only these two very distinct sides will matter.
Rabbis and communal leaders will be the first to face this. An acquaintance of mine who goes to a progressive shul and expected this week to hear a few simple words of solidarity, as friends and relatives in Israel were cowering for safety, instead heard the rabbi mutter some mealy-mouthed nonsense about how a lot of people have a lot of different feelings about the conflict so let us just praise tikkun olam. This infuriated both my friend as well as the lefties in his community who demanded that the rabbi devote a sermon to “Israeli war crimes.” A Reform rabbi was criticized on Twitter last week after she dared to suggest, in a conversion class, that she sees supporting the Jewish right to self-determination as a principal element of our faith tradition. In other spaces, people who feel ambivalent-to-anti about Zionism but who are observant are facing the opposite problem.
Whether you’re the president of a shul or a teacher or a kid on campus or a mom raising her family just trying to get by, this is what you’re facing. The choice is not one you will only make once by swearing allegiance to one side or the other. In fact, the really crucial decisions may seem apolitical—like choosing the right school, bar mitzvah program, or summer camp for your kids. So here’s your road map: Any institution currently couching its Zionism in guilt-ridden public apologies and denunciations of the Israeli government is merely marking a waypoint on its inevitable march toward anti-Zionism. On the flip side, any institution that forcefully and unapologetically demands that Zionism remain central to their work will end up, whether or not they know it now, being pitted against progressive politics.
You can resist this reality, you can tell yourself that you are bravely holding space for nuance, that you are keeping up the good fight for the middle ground. And I will understand you perfectly. But I will also tell you that all of the energy you will put into this—for the sake of whatever you think you are fighting for—will be for naught, flooded by waves far bigger and stronger than the small righteous island where you’ve taken refuge.
Better to face the waves with clarity. Accept that none of the following terms means what it used to: Democrat, Republican, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, right wing, left wing, liberal, conservative. The Republicans were once the party of Lincoln, the Democrats were once the party of pro-life Catholics, and Louis Finkelstein was once on the cover of Time magazine as the future of American Judaism. Things change. It’s time to realize that we are in one of those moments of historical flux, where familiar terms and institutions no longer stand for the things they once did.
Many of us intuit this already. We’ve seen the strangest of bedfellows canoodling together these past few years. Glenn Greenwald is on Tucker Carlson; Latinos are voting in droves for Trump; socialist Liz Bruenig is being called a trad fascist for, best I can tell, being Catholic and not hating her children; Jill Kargman finds herself on the side of the very people she’s famous for skewering.
What all of this points to is not so much a new left or right but an entirely new set of poles. For now, let’s call these competing camps team A and team B.
People on team A sometimes identify as woke. Many of them believe, or accept when others say, that America is a problematic country that sprung from the soil of slavery and therefore can never make any claims to goodness, let alone greatness. The same goes for the West at large. Members of team A are inherently suspicious of institutions, whether broad ones like synagogues and churches or narrow ones like the nuclear family, which they see as nothing more than tools for the powerful to subdue the powerless. They curb religion by casting all faith as a cynical ploy to keep down women, gays, transgendered folks, and people of color. They target the family by having fewer children than any other generation in American history, and arguing, as the Black Lives Matter movement bluntly does in its manifesto, that true justice can’t come until people learn to reject the nuclear family and instead embrace egalitarian groups of peers. They couch some of this argument in economic terms, because people on team A also tend to be deeply uncomfortable with the accumulation of capital, and support a whole host of policies that come down to redistributing wealth in one form or another.
Like any, most, or all of this? Team A is for you.
Members of team B are driven by a different set of beliefs: That private property is personally rewarding and socially generative; that capitalism and invention fuel growth and happiness; that there’s absolutely no substitute to raising and being part of a family; that nation-states, flawed as they may be, are the best expression of some unique, mysterious, and indelible collective character (which means that Israel—which combines population with religion, ethnicity, and culture in the form of a state—is not some “unprincipled exception” but actually a superior example of what all countries should aspire to); that the West, however flawed, remains committed to expanding freedoms, however slowly it may proceed; that universal kinship can only come if and when people are first tethered to one specific tradition that teaches them the basics of living with others; that there’s some sort of divine force guiding the storm, whatever you choose to call it and whatever you think it demands of your life. If the above feels more or less right to you, you’re on team B.
Though they may not know it, people are already sorting themselves into one group or another. As more do so, often prompted by news events like this month’s fighting in Israel, the contours of each side will become clearer. But the rough outlines are already taking shape.
So what happens to American Jewish life?
I think it will map largely along the lines above. In liberal and non-Orthodox circles, individuals and institutions that devote most of their emotional and spiritual energies to checking off the rapidly shifting boxes erected by the left are going to find themselves with a version of Judaism mostly disconnected from religious observance, and which will therefore attract only the people in the market for progressive activism, with a little bit of cholent thrown in for nostalgia’s sake. Pop culture’s outsize influence aside, this is a tiny minority. So while this strategy may be the key to success for some institutions, it will be short-lived: No one wants to schlep to shul to be lectured to endlessly about white supremacy or gender spectrums. Why? Simple: because you can get better versions of it elsewhere. People who sought out those spaces for meaning and community and spiritual inspiration will just start to stay away, as studies suggest they already are.
The challenge for the other side is in whether it will shift to accommodate the refugees from the “right” of Reform and Conservative Judaism, people seeking both Jewishness and modernity who want spiritual and religious depth without bigotry or exclusion. If they’re dim, the leaders of team B will treat these newcomers with suspicion, subjecting them to all manner of impossible and undignified purity tests. If they’re smart, they’ll welcome them with open arms, realizing the immense potential for Jewish revival at hand. If you’re wondering what that might look like, just listen to Rabbi Ari Lamm’s podcast, Good Faith Effort: To hear the grandson of the late, great Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of American Orthodoxy’s leading lights and the legendary longtime president of Yeshiva University, enthusiastically chat with Nellie Bowles, a gay Jew-by-choice, is to understand just how generative and alluring team B’s side could be if it expands the walls of its tent.
I’ve made my choice—reluctantly and mournfully at first, but I’m starting to feel some measure of hope and excitement, even in a grim month like this one. If you join my side, know that you may find coworkers, friends, and maybe even family members going the other way. The fear and pain you feel—about having to choose at all, about the loss of nuance, about the corrosion of so many institutions you once loved and trusted, about the betrayal of so many who once felt like your friends, about the violence all around you, about how depressing it all feels right now—is real. There’s no easy way, perhaps no way at all to avoid any of this, which is a terrifying realization.
It’s also a very Jewish one: We survived—thrived—as a people precisely because we were a tiny minority that took advantage of being excluded, left out, looked down upon by the fancy folks. Money-lending was considered too filthy for polite society, which is why it was one of the only professions open to Jews; we ran with it and basically imagined modern banking—the engine of so much growth. Mass entertainment was seen as too down-market for anyone truly respectable, so a bunch of garmento Jews jumped in and ... created Hollywood. This is kind of our thing. We’re at our finest when we’re just a few outsiders scorned and told that we don’t belong with the smarties and the swells. So I’m OK with the idea that, as the world divides into Zionists and anti-Zionists, there will be more people on the opposite side of mine. Moses and Rabbi Akiva and Joey Ramone and every Jew I ever admired were always in the very small group that was loathed until it triumphed, and it triumphed by keeping true to its beliefs, and by sticking to other people, even just one or two or three, who felt precisely the same way.
Some people dream of politics as the immanent perfection of all of mankind. Others, when they dare to dream, imagine something that at first may seem smaller but is in fact ultimately much, much bigger: the survival of their own family, their own people. Think about your grandchildren’s grandchildren. If you can imagine that the choices you are making will determine the shape of their lives—if you want to imagine that—then you are a Zionist. Come sit with the rest of us when you’re ready.
Am Yisrael Chai.
Whatever team you’re on, we’re here: [email protected].
tweet*The tweet was deleted from IfNotNow’s account after publication of this article.