Why Are American Jews Falling Out of Love With Israel?

dome of the rock

Dome of the rock on Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem

Source: New York Times

By Daniel Gordis

The Rift Between American Jews and Israel

In August, the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow devoted 13 minutes, a TV eternity, to attacking Steven Menashi, a federal appeals court nominee. She could have gone after him a dozen ways. Menashi works in the Trump White House, including with the one-man immigration-policy wrecking ball Stephen Miller. Menashi has published a book’s worth of articles espousing illiberal opinions on race, women and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. But Maddow chose to read aloud, at length, from an obscure article by Menashi published in 2010 in The Journal of International Law. And she homed in on an obscure word in its title, “Ethnonationalism and Liberal Democracy.”

You can guess which word she kept repeating: ethnonationalism. Maddow interpreted it as code for white supremacism. Ethnonationalism certainly raises red flags in Trump’s America. But in 2010, Menashi clearly meant to refer to a concept that goes by a much less provocative name in academic circles: “ethnic democracy.” That phrase is supercharged with complication, and it’s the object of serious debate by scholars who don’t fit neatly into categories of right and left. The question is this: Can a nation-state favor one ethnic group over others and remain a democracy? Certain countries come up a lot in this discussion — former Soviet states and satellites such as Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia, for instance. And, yes, Israel. O.K., mostly Israel, perhaps because it has been the most public about its status as a political oxymoron, a Jewish democracy.

The American-born Daniel Gordis is a prolific defender of Israel, as well as a vice president of Shalem College, a stoutly Zionist liberal-arts college in Jerusalem. He wrote “We Stand Divided” to address a question that has preoccupied the American Jewish press lately: Why are American Jews falling out of love with the Jewish state? The broad outlines of the story have become almost mythical. Once upon a time, American Jews supported Israel almost unanimously. Now they’re disaffected, the non-Orthodox ones anyway, mostly because of its bellicose leaders (or leader, since there has been only one for the past decade) and West Bank settlements. The millennial generation is recoiling from the Israel-right-or-wrong line usually taken by mainstream Jewish organizations. Even rabbis (the non-Orthodox ones) ask tougher questions than the rabbis of my childhood. Is the Jewish state a liberal democracy or an occupying force? Why does the Israeli rabbinate treat liberal American forms of Judaism (Reform, Conservative) with such scorn?

Gordis’s answer to the American-Jewish critique of Israel is that the Americans don’t understand the nature of the state. The problem isn’t what Israel does but what it is.

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