Why are American Jews so shocked by Israel’s far-right turn?

Shaul Magid

+972 Magazine   /  April 25, 2023

Israel’s electorate is forcing U.S. Jews to grapple with the dissonance not only between liberal values and Zionism, but their understandings of Judaism itself.

The Israeli election of November 2023, which brought about the most far-right government in the country’s history, sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world, both in Israel and the diaspora. While previous elections illustrated a decidedly rightward turn of the Israeli electorate, the latest one delivered a decisive win for Benjamin Netanyahu to establish a stable, even strong, coalition of religious and far-right parties. But while many Israeli Jews were disappointed and — as we now see with the anti-government protests — frightened for Israel’s democracy, many American Jews, including major Jewish organizations, seemed stunned into silence. Why were they so shocked by the outcome?

Almost half the world’s Jewry lives in the United States, spanning ultra-Orthodox to secular and everything in between. Some are anti-Zionist, and some are in favor of this right-wing government, but the majority are generally supporters of Israel, and many of them identify as Zionist in some fashion.

Yet for most American Jews who are Zionists, this election result was never supposed to happen. While Israel always had a substantial right-wing current, most American Zionists believed it to be essentially a liberal country that could keep its right-wing factions at bay, and that American values and Israeli values are, if not identical, then certainly compatible. Liberal Zionism in America is built on that very premise: that liberal values in the United States and the settlement of Jews in Palestine are symmetrical; or, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice and early American-Zionist leader Louis Brandeis said in the early 20th century, to be a Zionist is to be a good American and to be a good American is to be a Zionist.

American Jews who were paying close attention, however, should have known that this right-wing takeover was not a sudden revolution, but a gradual transformational shift that had been in the works for decades. Israeli Jews on the left — and Palestinians — saw this coming: they live with the occupation and see its impact firsthand, and they witness the rising popularity of the settler view that has now become the ruling ideology of the country.

Another factor driving unwavering support for Israel, and which is perhaps clouding understanding of the state, is the rising incidents of antisemitism in the United States that evoke a sense of instability, resulting in American Jews questioning their future in the land of their birth or adopted country. Having Israel as a safe haven, they believe, is an important way to assuage that fear, and thus Israel can often still be supported even when it seems to act against the liberal values most American Jews hold.

Defensive posture

Even given those premises, however, one wonders why American Jews today were so unaware of the changes in the country they love that led to this electoral shift, even as it seemed to be years in the making. One obvious reason may be that American Jews are so committed to defending Israel against its progressive detractors that many cannot quite fathom that some of those progressive critiques of injustice, erosion of democracy, and inequity are actually legitimate.

For the American-Zionist establishment, the notion of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state, a locution added to Israel’s Basic Laws, is rarely contested, and its commitment to religious freedom and equality in its Declaration of Independence in 1948 remain an unassailable tenet of Israel as a state. Even after the Knesset passed the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law, which articulated very clearly that Israel was the nation-state of the Jewish people alone and, by implication, not of all its citizens (i.e. Palestinian Israelis), most American Jews remained steadfast in their position of Israel being the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

That law, and its clear ethnocentrism, should have been a wake-up call that something was changing. But the defensive posture of much of American Zionism simply could not cede that ground. It made it difficult for many American Jews to recognize the extent to which Israeli society was undergoing a transformation into an openly illiberal country — not only in practice, but by its own self-definition.

There are many reasons for this change in Israel. Part of it has to do with the increased influence of national-religious sentiment as the occupation grew into a broad-based subculture of Israeli society. The settler movement is more than simply those living in settlement houses: it includes an intellectual and educational framework, a vision of Zionism as Greater Israel, or of what Chaim Gans calls “proprietary Zionism, ” which sees the land from the river to the sea belonging solely to the Jews.

Some of this influence certainly had to do with the aftermath of the Second Intifada in 2000, when Israelis felt deeply threatened by increased bus bombings and terrorist attacks. Part of it was a feeling of malaise among many Israelis about any resolution to the conflict, which one could call “occupation fatigue.” This created a kind of ideological vacuum that was filled by nationalism, both religious and secular, and an accelerated belief in more draconian measures to secure Israel’s safety from internal threats of terrorism as well as external ones such as a nuclear Iran.

Another factor for this change, which often gets less attention, is the impact of globalization on Israeli society. Through the 1970s, Israel had a strong, humanistic left, driven in part by the kibbutz movement and socialist ideology. With the free-market capitalization of Israeli society in the mid-1980s, and the later advent of globalization in the early 2000s, Israel quickly moved to the forefront of a new, neoliberal world economy and took on the moniker of the “Start-Up Nation.”

This had at least two adverse effects in regard to its political situation. First, those who would have been the base of the Israeli left saw their wealth increase exponentially, becoming part of multinational networks and corporations, often having second homes in Paris, London, New York, and Palo Alto, in some cases dividing their time between Israel and the diaspora. Many of the “new rich” in Israel were secular Jews from the coast whose ideological commitments would be considered left wing. As a result of the economic ties resulting from globalization, many within this class became less invested in Israel’s leftist political movements and more invested in the acquisition of wealth and financial success.

Second, the demise of Israel’s socialist ethos resulted in a kind of vacuum of collective identity. This was replaced, in part, by the rise of religious-nationalist ideology which gave many Israelis a newfound sense of collective selfhood. This identity was not limited to religious Jews but also affected secular Jews, who were now living in a capitalist society that did not contain the identitarian glue that their more socialist parents and grandparents lived in. Ironically, Israel was becoming more integrated into the world on one hand, and on the other, more ideologically isolated from it.

American-Jewish supporters of Israel, many of whom adhere to a form of American neoliberalism, spoke of Israel as a “Start-Up Nation” with pride, making them feel closer to Israel than to the old socialist country of the past. But what many in America did not see was how a newly globalized society was searching for a new raison d’etre, a new ideological foundation upon which to found its newly individualized market economy.

When the election results came in, they seemed incoherent to most American Jews. How could Israel, who ousted the racist rabbi Meir Kahane in 1988 (a product of America who was later assassinated in New York City in 1990) elect parliamentarians who supported his racist agenda in 2022? Something had gone terribly wrong. Many attempted to blame it on Palestinian intransigence, the “no partner for peace” moniker. But many others recognized that more was at play. Israel as a country was changing in ways that made being an American Zionist become more difficult and, for some, impossible.

‘Apocalyptic imagination’

Aside from the proximate factors above, I think there may be a deeper historical perspective that can speak to American Jews’ shock at the present Israeli elections — one that goes to the heart of how Judaism is understood differently by its followers today.

Zionism emerged as a Jewish movement of self-determination from the growing nationalisms in central and western Europe in the mid-19th century. Although Zionism utilizes religious sentiments in the formation of its national project, it emerges mostly as a secular ideology of national selfhood in light of the failure of the Emancipation to secure Jews a safe place in European society. Its modernity manifests in a variety of ways, including in the way it interprets Judaism. This is especially true in American Zionism, whose basic understanding of Judaism emerges from the liberal and rational aspects of the Jewish enlightenment known as the Haskalah.

One of the most vocal critics of the Haskalah’s rationalizing Judaism was the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem. Scholem’s entire career focused on raising mysticism to the surface of Jewish life and letters. While Scholem was not from the religious camp, his work countered the attempt of modern Jewish historians to marginalize and even erase the mystical and apocalyptic elements in Judaism from the normative tradition.

In the first chapter of his magisterial study of the mystical false messiah Sabbatei Zvi in the 17th century, Scholem makes the following startling and suggestive remark.

It has been one of the strangest errors of the modern Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism) to deny the continuity of Jewish apocalypticism. The endeavors of leading scholars to dissociate the apocalyptic from rabbinic Judaism and to associate it exclusively with Christianity have contributed much to the modern falsification of Jewish history and the concealment of some of its most dynamic forces, both constructive and destructive.

Scholem continues, “Redemption meant a revolution in history. Apocalyptic imagination supplied the details in which comfort and horror had an equal share and in which persecuted and downtrodden people settled many a bitter account with its torturers.”

In the context of these observations, the architects of modern Judaism — whose basic structure many American Jews adopted — downplayed this apocalyptic impulse, claiming it either never played a central role in Judaism or that it has been muted or defanged in the modern iterations of Jewish life, even in Zionism.

The underlying frame of Scholem’s work was to show that this was not the case: apocalypticism in various forms existed in Judaism historically, and continues to feed the Jewish imagination in modernity. Zionism is especially susceptible to this impulse, given its call of return to the land of Israel in the wake of the collapse of Europe, and the ingathering of exiles from the diaspora, all components of the messianic in classical Jewish sources.

Despite the American-Jewish imagination viewing Zionism as in sync with liberal values, the messianic impulse never really dominated the American-Zionist psyche, or American Judaism more generally, in part because American Judaism was built on the foundations of the very Wissenschaft des Judentums that Scholem claims is a “modern falsification Jewish history.”

Confirming progressive critiques

The implications of Scholem’s observations are far-reaching, and can even be viewed as having an impact on why American-Jewish Zionists find today’s far-right government so confusing. The nature of the present reactionary turn in Israel has many factors, but I would suggest it is also a form of modern apocalypticism and domination among its more radical factions.

In the early 1970s after the settler movement called Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) was founded, Scholem famously referred to them as neo-Sabbateans. That is, Scholem saw that this new iteration of Zionism had the makings of a messianic politics that he warned could threaten Israeli society. He wasn’t the only one: the hyper-rationalist Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz also noticed that soon after the Six-Day War in 1967.

While many American liberal Zionists were also disturbed by the messianic pretense of the settler movement, most did not see it as a threat to the fabric of Israeli society. That may have been, in part, because they were committed to defending Israel from the far left in the United States, and in part because the true dangers of apocalypticism were not really taken seriously because they were not really known. American Judaism just didn’t have a place for that kind of radicalism: figures such as the militant Kahane were viewed as anomalies, exceptions, and outliers because normative Judaism was not infected with such violent ideas.

This blind spot in American Judaism can be illustrated by the way American Zionist figures such as Reform rabbis Rick Jacobs and Eric Yoffie, who often write about Israeli politics, consistently claim that the radical right national-religious movement does not represent Judaism which, on their reading, is liberal, humanistic, and focuses on justice and equality. One can see this in the writings of some Modern Orthodox leaders as well.

While there are certain elements in Judaism that reflect those values, it is by no means the full picture. There are also elements in the Jewish tradition, and not marginal ones, that reflect the attitudes of these radical reactionary elements. But those elements are not part of the American Judaism of which Jacobs, Yoffie and others speak.

And therein lies the problem: when one universalizes an understanding of Judaism to mean a specific set of values that conform to one’s own point of view (in this case, a kind of rational liberalism), making anything outside that inauthentic or deviant, it becomes difficult to understand how another point of view begins to dominate and speak on behalf of Judaism — in this case, the radical settlers now in power in Israel.

If I am right, this new iteration of right-wing politics in Israel, however long it will last, should not only not surprise American Jews but also be an occasion for self-reflection on the way Judaism in America has mostly been a selective construction of authenticity that was proffered by the very people Scholem was attacking. Israelis, even liberal ones, may have been dismayed by the election results, but they were not shocked in the way many American Jews were.

The potential political danger of these more radical elements taking power was always a possibility in ways that many American Jews simply ignored — and they ignored it in part because those radical elements confirmed many of the progressive critiques of Israel that they were trying to counter.

Grappling with this dissonant chord, American Jews now find themselves caught in a web of having to make excuses for the state’s illiberal behavior and policies, excuses they would never make for a like-minded American administration. This present Israeli coalition, democratically elected, and events like the settler pogrom in the West Bank town of Huwara in February, are creating conditions whereby American Jews have to uncomfortably cede some ground to Israel’s progressive detractors, which undermines part of the raison d’etre of American Zionism.

With some irony, what may have deflected this conundrum for American Jewish supporters of Israel for the time being is the new protest movement in Israel, initiated by a large swath of the population against certain government policies, such as judicial reform, that would erode the country’s democratic fabric, at least for Jews (that fabric is already quite thin in regard to Palestinian citizens of Israel and non-existent for Palestinians under occupation). Supporting the protestors in Israel, which most American Jews are doing, enables them to remain staunchly pro-Israel and yet openly critical of the government. In fact, in a somewhat ironic turn, one’s pro-Israelism can now be instantiated by protesting against the Israeli government.

Whatever will become of the protests or the present government in Israel, American Jews will continually be challenged as the state moves further from the liberal values most of the community staunchly maintains. Struggling to retain those liberal values, while standing by a country that does not, may be the greatest challenge of American Jews on the questions of Zionism, Israel, and Judaism in the coming decades.

Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University; his latest book is Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Princeton University Press, 2021