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The Liberal American Jewish Psyche in Crisis

Can Zionism and U.S. liberalism coexist under Netanyahu?

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
April 02, 2015
(Tablet Magazine)
(Tablet Magazine)

As a child from the staunchly liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan, I went for several years to New York City’s annual Israel Day Parade. I would take the bus across Central Park with an animated young modern Orthodox woman—my Hebrew teacher—and we would stand together in the spring warmth behind police barricades and watch the marchers slowly process up Fifth Avenue. Students from Orthodox day schools followed Reform rabbis and Boy Scouts. Military veterans walked with Jewish Americans for peace. Floats for banks, Jewish-owned businesses and political parties competed for our attention with black velvet kippot and hats, shofarot and a sea of American and Israeli flags. As they flowed north, broad smiles on display, those strange bedfellows felt to me like they belonged together: It seemed, somehow, not only reasonable but inevitable that they were there as one.

The sensation of that half-forgotten scene returned to mind as I tried to make sense for myself of the Israeli election. The process had left me with a tearing sensation in the gut. I was especially troubled by the short video that Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud’s standard-bearer, posted on his Facebook page during the last hours of the vote. Leaning in to the camera intimately, with his body nearly filling the frame, he declared that his right-wing government was in “danger” because Israeli Arabs were voting in unprecedented numbers. He called on his supporters to rush to the polls to ensure that there would still be a “Jewish government” to “watch over the State of Israel.” I was far from the only person to be startled by his comments: Major bodies of Reform and Conservative Jewry issued statements denouncing the comments as “racist,” as did President Barack Obama. By invoking the specter of Arab domination at the ballot box in order to draw Jewish voters to the polls, Netanyahu trod close to racial and religious incitement.

Yet to recognize Netanyahu’s comments as illiberal does not come close to explaining the force of the public backlash they elicited, nor the free-falling sensation I felt when I read them. I wish it were the case that Netanyahu’s remarks were shocking because they were unprecedented and revealing. But alas: His coalition partners have been making far more incendiary remarks about Israeli Arabs for years. Nor was it that they marked a new departure in the use of race in elections. Here in the land of Jim Crow and Lee Atwater, Netanyahu’s comments hardly broke new ground in the history of race and voting. Netanyahu’s comments shocked us because they tap-tap-tapped at the seemingly stout beams of belief that had framed mainstream American Jewry’s emotional home for decades—and the timbers suddenly, frighteningly, rang hollow.


Like spectators at one long Israel Day Parade, mainstream American Jews have been able for half a century to allow incongruous loyalties to coincide in our minds. (By incongruous I do not mean necessarily incompatible: only, in a geometric sense, that they do not coincide precisely when superimposed.) The community simultaneously embraces loyalty to the United States; a love of Israel; and a commitment to liberal politics. Each of these commitments has tangled historical origins, and more than a few scholars have wrestled with questions like “How did the Jews become liberal?” and “How did American Jews become Zionists?” not to mention how and when Jews became “Americans.” My purpose is not to stake a claim in those arguments but to make a simpler observation. Each one of these commitments, independently, has come to be so deeply set in the psyches of mainstream American Jews that it has become an essential element of our sense of ourselves. These emotional commitments are the roof, walls, and floor of Jewish American identity, separate parts that have come to look like a seamless whole.

To grow up in the mainstream of American Judaism, in which I count the majority that affiliates with the Reform and Conservative movements, is to have inculcated into you a visceral connection to Israel. Even for those skeptical of patriotism in general—and I count myself among them—there is no unmaking those bonds of connection without a great deal of pain. To say this is not to insist that we are each a prisoner to our upbringing or that one’s feelings can never be overcome by reason. It is only to admit, with honesty, the power of those childhood parades, the ubiquitous Israeli flags and the pioneer songs. For me, that early forged connection means that in spite of my better judgment, in spite of everything I know about 1967 and the Occupied Territories, I still feel a stirring when I hear Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim shel zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold). I feel guilty, but I feel it.

American Jewry’s commitment to liberalism is equally visceral and essential. One must admit that this liberalism, seen as a political creed, is a thin gruel: It amounts to little more than support for the Democratic Party and a vague commitment to social justice. Yet it still matters profoundly as an emotional ground. We are immensely proud of our community’s involvement in the African-American freedom struggle: Is there any mainstream American Jew who cannot summon up the image of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr.? Our collective pride in this role runs so deep that it can seem laughable. I recently heard an apocryphal story about an elevator at Temple Israel of Hollywood that had been broken for decades: It had never been fixed, I was told, because the board wanted it to stay exactly as it was when King rode in it during a visit to that synagogue decades ago.

Mainstream American Jews have been fortunate over the past 50 years—extravagantly fortunate—in being able to feel that these two deep attachments were compatible and that both were consonant with being wholly American. American Jews in the second half of the 20th century have not had to choose between being passionate Zionists and being committed liberals. I don’t think the explanation for this good fortune, as some have claimed, is that these beliefs are inherently consonant. True, there was a powerful leftist element in the State of Israel during its early days that connected easily with American Jews’ orientation in domestic politics. We are often told today that Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East and thus we are obligated as liberals to support it. But there are too many other ways in which the two sets of principles seem to be at odds for that to be a persuasive explanation.

What allowed Zionism and liberalism to coexist so easily in the minds of American Jews for so long, I think, is a combination of good luck and inertia. For decades after 1948, there were few voices arguing that there was a contradiction between American Jews’ deepest liberal commitments, racial equality foremost among them, and their attachment to Israel. There were some on the far left during the 1960s and ’70s who insisted that the struggle against racial apartheid in the United States and the Arab-Israeli conflict were wings of the same anti-colonial struggle. But they had little purchase on most American Jews at the time. Inertia played a part as well: The Jewish community did not leap of its own accord into an examination of its dual commitments. Label that intellectual laziness if you will. But even if you agree that the unexamined life is not worth living, there may still be limits to how much you want to examine, and there may be corners of life you would rather leave untouched.

The easy coexistence that American Jews have enjoyed of their dual loyalty to the United States and to Israel is perhaps even more remarkable. The United States, as a nation whose growth was driven in large part by immigration, has always struggled with the question of divided loyalties. During the American Revolutionary War, American-born citizens questioned the allegiance of British-born immigrants. Every ethnic group that migrated to the United States in the 19th century, including not only Chinese and Japanese but also Germans, Irish and Italians, faced questions about where their true allegiance lay. Irish Catholics, even highly successful ones, encountered doubts about their loyalty as late as the 1960s, when then-candidate John F. Kennedy had to disavow any temporal loyalty to the pope in the course of his campaign.

Jewish Americans during the Cold War, through no particular virtue on our part, enjoyed a free pass on that otherwise universal conflict. Once U.S. policy had solidified into a pro-Israel stance by the 1960s, the interests of the State of Israel were rarely seen or believed to be in direct conflict with those of the United States. When the interests of the two nations did come into conflict, such arguments were treated as family quarrels rather than as an opportunity for public pronouncements and diplomatic drama. The effect for ordinary Jewish Americans—I set aside the powerful few who actively sought to maintain the America-Israel relationship—was that they did not have to choose between their loyalty to their home and their affection for Israel.


American Jewry’s parade of good fortune has been winding down for some time, but over the past decade or so—and with increasing speed over the last few years, and even months—our incongruous loyalties have become increasingly incompatible. It has become hard, sometimes impossible work to sustain passionate emotional commitments to all of them at once in the face of a conjuncture of major policy changes by the United States and shifts in the contours of the American left, combined with new realities in Israel.

Of course, the larger changes of the past decade and a half are not without some precedents. Jewish Americans have had to confront each of these contradictions before, individually. The United States had moments of serious discord with Israel before the past decade, perhaps most famously during the presidency of George H.W. Bush on Secretary of State James Baker’s watch, each of which led to wrenching debates about American Jews’ loyalties. The community’s dual commitments to Israel and to the left have also seen plenty of rough patches. How could it be otherwise? States inevitably do things that do not comport with one’s ideals, so if you feel attached to a state and have principles, you are bound to feel some discomfort some of the time. At times, for instance during the boycott of apartheid South Africa, Israel’s actions even came uncomfortably close to trespassing on American Jewry’s core commitment to racial equality.

American Jews in the second half of the 20th century have not had to choose between being passionate Zionists and being committed liberals.

Since about the year 2000, though, the whole psychic edifice of American Jewry seems to be coming apart at once. In the aftermath of the Cold War the United States has gradually drifted away from its tight alignment with Israel. One notable moment in that shift was the United States’ decision to support the 2011 Arab Spring over the objections of the Israeli government. Another is the more recent argument over a proposed nuclear deal with Iran, and the shift that some observers see toward a closer alignment with Iranian interests in the Middle East. Whatever one may think of these shifts as matters of policy, there can be no denying their deep emotional ramifications for America’s Jews. We can no longer feel certain, as we did for most of the past five decades, that our political leaders will assure us that what is good for Israel is good for America. We find ourselves facing a need to prioritize our loyalties, as all other ethnic Americans have.

The liberal identity that American Jews treasure has in the same years become more fragile and its emotional meaning less secure. The past two decades concluded a long racial realignment in American politics that remade the Democratic Party around a coalition of non-white voters. This triumph, and the new political power that non-white Americans have gained from it, have been welcomed by mainstream Jews. Indeed, we are one of the last groups of white voters who still overwhelmingly favor this refashioned party. Yet the realignment has also subtly undermined a pillar of our political self-image. For decades we told ourselves that we were champions of the oppressed and leading proponents of racial equality, but in the new configuration we have become sidekicks in the struggle for racial equality. When an African-American is president, after all, what kind of helping hand can we lend? The politics of the mainstream Jewish community have not changed very much, but their usefulness and importance seem much diminished in this new political landscape.

That wounded liberal identity has in turn become harder to square with unconditional support for Israel. A steady drip-drip of news and images, flowing from Israeli and Palestinian sources alike, has opened a window into how the conflict is imagined in ethnic and racial terms as much as religious ones. American Jews, having already lost our special place in America’s racial politics, now find ourselves asked to side with a Jewish majority against an Arab minority. It is not hard to see how many of us could see this as abandoning our self-appointed role as heroes of race relations and becoming the villains in our own story. Netanyahu’s election-day video invoking political danger from minority voters did not create this dilemma. But like a fingernail scraped over skin already rubbed raw, it produced a sharp drawing-in of breath out of proportion to the power of the stimulus itself. The video forced us to feel a conflict that is likely to grow worse, pitting our love of Israel against one of the deepest, most treasured elements of our collective self-image as Americans.


None of this thinking, to be sure, relieves the pain of this moment, but may help in pointing a way forward from it. For at least two generations, mainstream American Jews enjoyed an exceptional, almost unprecedented run of psychic good fortune. We were able to believe deeply in incongruous things without fear of contradiction. We can celebrate that state, even long for it. But we should recognize that what we are experiencing now is that most prosaic of phenomena, a reversion to the mean: the unavoidable process by which exceptional trends must always tend, over time, to converge back toward normalcy. Yes, we may in the coming years have to make hard choices between our loyalty to Israel and our loyalty to the United States. Yes, we may have to choose between our liberal principles and our support of Israel. But in that respect we would be just like everyone else.

Though the current situation is not a catastrophe, however, it is certainly a crisis. Beliefs that we as a community have held dearly for generations, which we took as articles of faith from parent to child, are now coming sharply into conflict. The obvious solution—and there are those who are calling for it now on the right and the left—is to choose among them. Give up one or the other, love of Israel or the allegiance to the left. For most American Jews, in the short term, no such choice is tenable. The investment of self that we have in Israel and in liberalism, and our sense that they can exist alongside each other, is too profound to make uprooting one seem authentic. I cannot see into the future, but past experience suggests that the process of giving up one of these commitments is likely to take decades if it occurs at all. Anyone urging Jews to make a rapid shift, or claiming that it will happen fast, is blind to the deeply incised contours of the American Jewish psyche.

So, how can we come to grips with this crisis, this immense sense of loss? Maybe the best thing to do, for now, is simply to sit shiva. Remember the time when it seemed easy to hold such passionate commitments together at once? Tell stories about it. Laugh a little at how we once made ideas coincide so neatly which now seem so obviously opposite. Mourn it, accept it. Then it can be time to build something new.


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Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is assistant professor of early American history at the University of Southern California.

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is assistant professor of early American history at the University of Southern California.