‘A moment of disillusionment’: American Jews torn as Israel turns 75

Emily Tamkin

+972 Magazine  /  June 2, 2023

Grappling with a far-right government and growing awareness of the Nakba, American Jews revealed mixed feelings marking Israel’s independence.

American-Jewish groups, institutions, outlets, and individuals have, with varying degrees of fanfare, marked 75 years since the establishment of the State of Israel over the last month. There have been numerous concerts and movie screenings. There have been podcast episodes and op-eds. And there have been public meetings, convenings, and panel discussions.

This year, though, the events have commenced at a tumultuous time in Israel, when citizens have been protesting en masse against their government’s proposed plans to gut judicial independence and push through a series of religious and nationalist policies. As hundreds of thousands of Israelis mobilized into a self-described “democracy” movement, American-Jewish groups tried to thread the needle between commemoration, festivity, and sober observation of Israel’s reality today.

“There’s definitely been a shift in tone … because of the judicial overhaul protests,” Eva Borgwardt, political director of IfNotNow, a group whose mission is “to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all.” 

Dov Waxman, the director of the Center for Israeli Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, concurred that the proposed changes to the judiciary and protests had changed things. To mark Israel’s anniversary, the center hosted a lecture by Israeli-American author Yossi Klein Halevi, largely on the proposed judicial reform. The institute is an intellectual space, Waxman explained, and not “pro-Israel,” but they felt it was important to host something “befitting us as an academic center to host a speaker on a serious topic.” The lecture, he said, was “pretty somber.” “My general take [of the] temperature of the room: they weren’t in the mood for celebration.” And though people wanted to come together, they were not there to rejoice.

Waxman noted that some American-Jewish groups navigated the dilemma by drawing a distinction between Israeli society and the government — a differentiation that was reflected in their programming. Members of the Greater Washington Jewish community, for example, were given the options of attending a talk on the future of liberal democracy in Israel and the world, a concert, a “Humans of Israel” photo exhibit, or an Israeli martial arts program. The Jewish Community Center on New York City’s Upper West Side, meanwhile, held a talk on the current political situation in Israel, and separately, a Hebrew-language comedy night and event on Israeli art.

This, per Waxman, “allows people to support Israel without supporting or endorsing its current government.” But it also gave many the opportunity to celebrate Israel without interrogating the country’s deeper, more troubling sides.

Evading the Nakba 

Some, especially younger and more progressive American Jews and Palestinian Americans, point to these Israel anniversary events not only for what they discuss, but what they leave out: namely, the inextricable link between Israel’s founding and Palestinians’ loss of their homes, possessions, and lives in 1948 (described as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”). Largely absent, too, has been serious engagement with the 75 years of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and 56 years of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

Indeed, this year has not only featured fundamental threats to the independence of Israel’s judiciary; it also follows what was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2006, according to the United Nations — and 2023 is on track to be even worse. Just over a week after its Independence Day, Israel struck Gaza in a new military operation targeting Islamic Jihad leaders, yet which killed many civilians; rockets were in turn fired into Israel.

“There’s much more space for a liberal critique of Israeli right-wing extremism today than there was five years ago,” said Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond. “But that’s about it. I don’t think they have reckoned with the foundations of the State of Israel.”

At UCLA, for example, Halevi may have spoken about the seriousness of judicial reforms, and may have even encouraged American Jews to speak out against them. Yet he has also recently encouraged American Jews to redirect donations away from Palestinian causes, which some American Jewish activists and intellectuals criticized as a denial that fighting the occupation and fighting for democracy are intertwined.

“What I’ve sensed is a sort of: ‘We’re grappling with a lot of the tensions Israel has struggled with since its founding,’” said IfNotNow’s Borgwardt. But many of those conversations still don’t begin with the Palestinian experience of 1948, or take it as a subject for discussion about those tensions. To evade the Nakba, she said, “is to miss the point.”

 “It never crossed our mind” to have an event to mark 75 years since the Nakba, said one Jewish community professional, who asked to remain anonymous so as to speak freely. “It was never something that was going to happen.” This dynamic is not ideal, they continued: “Data tells us that people’s identities are changing … I don’t know how much longer we can avoid or ignore [talking about the Nakba].”

Some prominent figures have actively pushed back on the connection between Israel and the Nakba. This opposition played out recently when Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib scheduled an event on the Hill to commemorate the Nakba, only for it to be canceled by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The event ended up going ahead after Senator Bernie Sanders intervened, and Tlaib was able to hold it in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing room — leading to Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt calling on the Senate to condemn the event.

“It was such a perfect example of the battle in our community,” said Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group, which was a co-organizer of the congressional event. On one side, Fox said, stood American Jews who were “answering the call to understand and end” the Nakba and injustice against Palestinians; and on the other, there was the head of the ADL trying to undermine such discussions.

J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami denounced the ADL’s position on Tlaib’s event, arguing in a statement that “pushing the notion that Palestinian rights advocacy, opposition to occupation, or discussion of Nakba is ‘antisemitic’ effectively excludes the vast majority of Palestinians from any meaningful engagement around the conflict and its resolution.” (Ben-Ami’s statement also stressed that “this goes both ways: I believe those who mark the Nakba should also acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish connection to the land of Israel and that the Jewish people too have a right to self-determination.”)

“Clearly, our community needs to be talking and thinking about the Palestinian historical experience,” said Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications at J Street. “The existence of that history does not negate our own narrative and our own history. But it complicates it … For the good of everybody, [we] have to be mature, intelligent, and empathetic enough to listen.”

One Reform rabbi, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said the Nakba event on the Hill and the surrounding controversy would likely create a ripple effect — one that would end with liberal Zionist organizations, including synagogues, hosting more events and talks on the Nakba. The rabbi also expected more frequent “centering of Palestinian voices in liberal Jewish communities, but only select ones, especially at Yom HaZikaron [Israel’s Memorial Day]” — the thought perhaps being that, at least in liberal spaces, the idea of remembrance and who is entitled to speak on it will be expanded.

The nature of Israel’s founding, El Kurd emphasized, is directly connected to what the current Israeli government is doing now — threatening the status of Israeli democracy for Jews as well as for its Palestinian citizens, and the Palestinians living under occupation. “It’s a thread from beginning to the end,” she said.

“I see Zionists continuing to deny the Nakba, saying it’s a lie,” said Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian organizer and the executive director of Adalah Justice Project. And yet at the same time, she pointed out, Israeli leaders themselves are openly threatening Palestinians with “more Nakba … I don’t see a reckoning with the past.”

As to the extent that mainstream American Jewish circles are attempting to include Palestinian voices and history, Tamari said, much of it remains “symbolic.” “I don’t see a real grappling with the right of return [of Palestinian refugees] in any of these conversations,” she said. “I don’t think these symbolic gestures mean much.”

‘Jewish communal unity is a myth’ 

One element that has complicated this year’s Israel commemorations is that many American Jews grew up believing, and may still believe, that it is not their place to criticize Israel in public, and certainly not while marking its 75th anniversary. That said, Waxman said, “I don’t think it’s true American Jews have been silent on this,” referring to the judicial reforms and the far-right government, and noting there have indeed been protests and open letters from the community.

Still, he conceded, for some individuals, and particularly older American Jews, it’s “a difficult shift for them to make” to go from sending money and defending Israel, to speaking out about Israel not just privately, but publicly. Some, at least, would have American Jews speak up only about the judicial reform — which is to say, not about the occupation, and certainly not about the country’s founding. 

Nonetheless, Waxman was struck by the number of Israelis who came to his center’s event, “not because they wanted to celebrate Israel’s birthday, but because of the judicial overhaul.” He also noted that protests — specifically in Los Angeles — have brought together Israelis and American Jews “in a way that doesn’t often happen.”

“We will look back on this as a moment to mark, literally, disillusionment,” said Waxman. The “degree of anguish” being felt over the current Israeli government, he added “does open up potential for a broader rethinking of some aspects of Israel’s history.”

He is not the only one who thinks so. “I am feeling hopeful about Jews in the diaspora being able to look at Israel critically,” said Arielle Stein, a rabbinic student, “no matter if that’s from a Zionist or non-Zionist perspective.”

But the dissonance Waxman described between Israel in the minds of American Jews and Israel as it exists has grown wider and more salient. “I feel like when liberal Zionists are confronted with these hard issues, they just disengage,” said El Kurd. “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m being ungenerous. It just seems like what’s happening is that establishment organizations are becoming more right-wing to adapt to the fact that liberals are disengaging from Israel.”

The Reform rabbi partly echoed El Kurd’s thoughts. Within the next decade, they said, liberal Zionism will exist in America “akin to governments in exile,” and in liberal Jewish communities, people may try to “steer away from talking about it at all,” focusing instead on social justice.

Others agreed that establishment Jewish groups would become more right-wing. “While the Israeli government has become more openly racist and oppressive, rather than adjust to that reality … [American-Jewish institutions] have decided to hang onto [their] positions regardless of the worsening reality on ground. That has inevitably moved them rightward,” said Sophie Ellman-Golan, director of strategic communications at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in New York. “They’ve not gotten off that bus. They’re staying on it for the ride.”

J Street’s Bayroff, for his part, argued: “The idea of Jewish communal unity is both a myth — it’s never existed — and it’s an unhelpful and unrealistic goal to strive for.” Establishment groups purporting to speak for American Jews have never done so, he insisted, and “people are realizing it in this moment.”

But the question of how American Jews will mark Israel’s future anniversaries is, of course, not only or even mostly about American-Jewish communal politics or their sense of self. It is inextricably linked to the question of how Israel will develop — and what American Jews will do to try to change it.

All the while, Israel itself is becoming ever more dangerous for Palestinians. Tamari described every month of May, around which Israel’s independence is marked, as one of “collective trauma” for Palestinians, who know that it’s a time for further escalations and anti-Palestinian violence. The Nakba is a “historical moment,” she said, but at the same time, “we’re living it.”

“Thinking about the next five years grotesquely highlights the problem,” said Borgwardt, because in that time, under these political conditions and with this government, there could well be another Nakba. “Is there going to be a party [to mark Israel’s 80th]?” she asked. “What does that tell us about what we should be doing now?”

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist; she is the author of The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society and Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities