By Batya Koenigsberg, Columbia University 2024

The United States was one of the first countries to recognize Israel in 1948. Jews in the United States celebrated the new state, and helped provide major political support to Israel. But just as the America and Israel of today look radically different than the America and Israel of 1948, so do their Jewish communities. Increasingly, American Jewish support for Israel begins to break down as it travels the religious spectrum.

The growing rift between American and Israeli Jews, causing infighting and a lack of support from the American community, has made the search for the source of their differences increasingly relevant. While a variety of arguments exist, the main source of the divide between American and Israeli Jews is that due to American acculturation, American Jews have excluded their national identity from their Jewish identity, leading to intermarriage and a lack of sympathy for Jewish national causes, as well as an increasing inability to identify with Israel’s population itself[1].

New Beginnings?

The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, of the American Reform Movement, formalized the beginning of a trend that has led to an ideological division between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. Up until the conference, the American Jewish community lived under the tension between two aspects of Judaism vis a vis its role in the American Jew’s life: Judaism as a religious identity, and Judaism as a national identity. Historically (certainly according to the Bible), Jewish identity is both. Jews have an internal, emotional commitment to upholding Jewish values with respect to modes of thinking and behavior toward the rest of the world. In equal measure, Jews have an external commitment to identification with physical Jewish practices and Jewish destiny (e.g. eventually settling in the land of Israel). Such a “Jewish outlook” was held by Jewish communities based in Europe, who lived in purely Jewish communities, strongly concerned with affairs concerning the community, as well as being bound by an internal commitment to the Torah. However, beginning with the Pittsburgh Platform, American Reform Rabbis, representing many European Jewish emigres to the United States, declared that “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community” and expect “neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” (The Pittsburgh Platform, 1885)[2] In his book, Divided we Stand, Daniel Gordis views the separation of the two aspects of Jewish identity, and the American Reform Rabbis’ choice to exclusively embrace Judaism’s identity as a religion, as tapping into the core issue underlying the growing rift between American and Israeli Jews. Gordis contends that newly American Jews had a unique offer of assimilation.

The background to the Pittsburgh Platform was the status of Jews in America. Unlike so many instances in Europe, where Jews were offered little to partial assimilation, Jews in America were given the opportunity to blend in culturally with the rest of the American community. Haviv Rettig Gur explains that, bolstered by President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century[3], American Jews felt they had to be “American” to the extent that “…they could not be visibly distinguishable from other Americans.” Thus, the American Reform movement’s choice to view their Jewish identity purely through a lens of religious identity, according to Gordis, “…gave Judaism a kind of protected status: it was not something America would demand that Jews jettison in order to be seen as thoroughly American.” Thus, Gordis offers that a purely religious Jewish identity, without the national component, would allow American Jews to maintain (although perhaps not in rigor equivalent to that of Jewish communities of old in Europe) both an effective American and Jewish identity and way of life. In turn, American Jews received the full protection of America, while European Jews who fled to Israel were tasked with the difficulties inherent in the creation of the state of Israel. Jews from Europe made difficult choices and mistakes that were part of the building of the State of Israel (as Jews of religious and national affiliation), and therefore the world knew that such choices were made as Jews. American Jews, however, were protected “…from ever having to dirty their hands with the sorts of compromises and missteps inherent in what Gordis calls the ‘messiness of history’.” Gordis asserts that because of the difference between the way European-turned Israeli and American Jews built up their identities as members of a new nation, and the way they understand their Jewishness, “There’s ignorance that each side has even about its own history, even more ignorance about the challenges and successes of the other side….” Gordis contends that both the Israeli and American Jewish communities are unaware of the other’s outlook on Judaism and how it could possibly inform each other’s decisions regarding solidarity with Jewish communities abroad, particularly, the Israeli community. Thus, in his book, Daniel Gordis begins a broader conversation of a fundamental difference in the understanding of how a Jew relates to his or her Jewish identity, and how such a choice influences an American Jew’s Zionist leanings.

A New Kind of Judaism

Many American Jews, in order to effectively assimilate, internalized American individualism, and adjusted their religious focus to turn purely inward.  In his book The Star and the Stripes, Michael Barnett labels American Jews’ new internal focus as “cosmopolitanism” and “prophetic Judaism”, as opposed to a more traditional “tribal” approach. The “cosmopolitan” approach, embraced by the Reform movement, interpreted Jewish individuality and destiny to not be tied to any particular group, but that “Jews were ‘chosen’ not to dwell alone and apart but rather to be ‘working for the better of humanity’.” A Jewish destiny, according to most American Jews, became not one that ended in Israel, steeped in Jewish culture (if not observance), but in America, in safety and affluence. The classic “American Dream” became the American Jewish dream. In contrast, the “tribal” approach is the more traditional Jewish perspective, placing “…the emphasis on protecting endangered Jews and securing and enhancing Jewish welfare” and which drove the need for establishing the state of Israel: A focus on protecting the Jewish people, and ensuring Jewish survival as a nation. However, in American Jews’ understanding, the best way to ensure Jewish survival was “…not by tribalism but by creating a more just society.” Thus, according to Barnett, the “cosmopolitan” point of view exempted American Jews from being concerned with the difficulties of establishing Israel as a Jewish nation, as a place to protect Jewish identity. In fact, supporting Israel, for an American Jew living his or her Judaism through a lens of “cosmopolitanism”, is “…necessarily in tension…with the need and the desire to protect Jews who are in danger.” Instead, the correct approach would be to improve the world through a focus on social justice for the broader community, including non-Jewish concerns.

Thus, Barnett’s understanding of a cosmopolitan Jew, who views the Jewish people’s destiny as confluent with that of the rest of humanity, leaving religion to express itself in personal morality, is a manifestation of Gur’s thesis. American Reform Jews, assimilating to American society, required more than an outward change, it required an internal change in mindset. It required shaping oneself to be an individual, ruled by no outer power, and unrestrained by external commitments. One’s sense of obligation, especially religious obligation, was purely ruled by one’s chosen moral system. Thus a cosmopolitan Jew was created by the Rabbis of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. And thus a fundamental source of the rift between American and Israeli Jews was created (long before the establishment of the State of Israel itself). As stated above, due to the cosmopolitan outlook, broader humanitarian issues became of greater importance than that of a particular Jewish state. In fact, as Eliot Abrams explains, “During the 1960s, … the AJC’s American Jewish Year Book ‘often gave more prominence to the civil-rights movement than to Israel.” In that way, every subsequent generation of non-Orthodox American Jews became increasingly apathetic toward the issues facing Israel (and the Jewish communities within). Within the broader spectrum of humanitarian concerns, the difficulties facing Israel pale in comparison, especially considering the geopolitical controversies that are a subject of contention and protest in America. American Jews have over the years, distanced themselves from feeling solidarity with their fellow Jews in Israel, and from feeling passionate about supporting Israel, much less feeling an obligation to do so out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Jewish nation.

The Cost of Intermarriage

Furthermore, the (relatively) new mindset of American Jews manifests itself in a particular way, which has become increasingly emergent over the years. As Abrams argues, because American Jews have eliminated Judaism as a nationality with a unique destiny from their concept of Judaism, the fate of Jews as a people is of less importance. American Jews now live with no concept of a “Jewish purpose”, since “…purpose can be supplied only by ‘regularized ritual affirmations of the transcendent religious purpose justifying and demanding’ religious commitments”, which is “precisely the sort of religious observance that the vast majority of American Jews avoid”. In light of this, Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College writes that “… the [mere] ethnicity of people without profound purpose is doomed.” Due to the lack of such a profound purpose, intermarriage has become increasingly more present among American Jews, as a lack of ethnic solidarity among American Jews continues to grow. Because, according to Hoffman, Jews of coming generations will be “…people with no childhood Jewish memories and no obvious reason to maintain Jewish friends, associates, and causes at the expense of non-Jewish ones” due to intermarriage, they will also be significantly less attached to Israel and Israeli national causes.

It’s the politics ‘stupid’

In contrast to Gordis, Gur, Barnett, and Hoffman, Dov Waxman of Northeastern University, in his book Trouble in the Tribe, attributes the cause of the widening rift between Israeli and American Jews to a more external cause. He agrees that “…American Jews… [do] not consider themselves to be ‘in exile’ from their homeland.” He contends that instead of a growing indifference and lack of identification as a Jewish nation among American Jewish communities, American Jews are increasingly enlightened about Israel and its affairs. This enlightenment, rather than bringing about more solidarity, is causing more disillusionment about Israel, by tearing down misconceptions and half-truths that younger people may have been told by an older generation, or a “traditional establishment”. The discontent with the actions of the Israeli government, and its widespread criticism by a large non-Orthodox contingent, is therefore mainly caused by an increasingly right-wing Israeli government, whose actions cause unrest among such groups[4]. However, Waxman posits that fundamentally, there is an innate sense of solidarity with Israel that all Jews share, no matter where they live, and that many “…American Jews actually care very deeply about Israel, and wish only to save it from itself.” Waxman does not eliminate the possibility that there are many American Jews who wish to divorce themselves completely from Israel and Israeli Jews, but, in his analysis, he depends on the assumption that deep down, American Jews wish to have a connection with Israel, and partake in “critical engagement”, in order to make Israel to reach their idea of  “its full potential”. Thus, when Israeli leaders are confronted with “growing pressure from the American Jewish community to change Israel’s policies, especially toward Palestinians in the occupied territories.”, they should construe it as an act of deep caring from the American, and consider committing to a compromise, at the very least. In fact, according to Waxman, eventually, “…it may be possible to persuade or compel these recalcitrant leaders…’ to recommit Israel to the goal of establishing a Palestinian state as quickly as possible.” In summation, Waxman firmly believes that the tension between American and Israeli Jews is merely “skin deep”, and that with a few changes, the old “era of solidarity” can be restored.

However, Elliot Abrams disputes Waxman’s thesis, saying that Waxman’s assumption that there was a previous “era of solidarity” is founded on very weak bases. Indeed, Gordis observes that the political divide is “only the most proximate symptom of a much deeper and longstanding divide in how each community thinks about history, religion, and identity.” Waxman’s assessment of a tense and widening rift between American and Israeli Jews fails to tap into the deeper issues dividing the two communities, which may not be able to be resolved by a few Israeli political concessions. In accordance with Gordis’ understanding, no amount of political maneuvering, or even a change in Israel’s government could satisfy the discontent in America. No matter how left wing the government becomes, American Jews will never stop protesting, because there is a deep lack of “…appreciat[ion] on either side for the complexity of the world that the other faces”. This is due to the (relatively) new outlook that many American Jews have ascribed to their Judaism: Judaism is strictly a religion. When it comes to matters of personal morality and decisions, they view religious teachings and values, such as Tikkun Olam, as the most important influences, even in a spiritual sense. However, any religious practices that ostensibly demonstrate a commitment to external forms of identity (such as a national identity with a sense of a national purpose) are incompatible, in their view, with a Jew’s successful integration with American society. As stated above, due to a new outlook, the quintessential “American dream”, over time, became the American Jew’s dream.

A New Definition of “Israeli”

Even if Waxman’s premise of a lost “old era of solidarity” is based on a weak historical basis, the argument is not wholly without merit. Put in simpler terms, it may be increasingly difficult for American Jews to feel connected to Israeli Jews, due to changing demographics. Martin Kramer observes that at Israel’s birth, “…American and Israeli Jews were landslayt.” Most new Israelis were European immigrants, fleeing persecution and a new and threatening rise of nationalism. Since most American Jews at the time were new European immigrants or descendants of European immigrants, new Israelis were likely to be related to someone in America. In turn, Americans had an actual familial connection to Israeli Jews. Indeed, as Matti Friedman describes in Mizrachi Nation, “the image of the Israeli was of a blond pioneer tilling the fields…or of an audience listening to Haydn in one of the new concert halls.” Essentially, Israel, at its beginning, was portrayed to be an extension of Europe. However, Israel ended up becoming home to the world’s oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East, escaping violence in their countries of origin.

As Friedman explains, although the process of immigration and acculturation of Eastern Jews “…was made more difficult by the contempt some European Jews felt from Jews from the East, and by the immense cultural gaps that divided the populations”, and although today “social and economic gaps” between Israelis of European and Mizrachi descent are “narrowing slowly but have by no means closed”, Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews make up over half of Jewish Israelis. In this context, Kramer argues that American Jews, who are over 90% Ashkenazi, on the whole, struggle to identify and feel a connection with a population that “…just [doesn’t] look as much like family….”. Furthermore, due to the history of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, and the oppression they fled in coming to Israel, separate from the Holocaust, Israeli politics has been influenced to a stronger stance on security against neighboring Arab countries. American Jews, being on the whole Ashkenazi, and safely living in America, do not understand the collective memory of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, and therefore have less understanding of the Israeli government’s firm stance on national security. It is true that claims of excessive force by the government may have merit, but American Jews lack the historical background to understand why many Jews of Mizrachi and Sephardi descent continue to support governments that have a strong stance on security.

Conclusion

It seems evident it really all comes down to ideology. It is true that Israel is different than it was seventy years ago, but those changes are, at best, superficial. Israel was founded on core principles of a national Jewish identity, even to the exclusion of a religious identity (the exclusion of which has at least to some extent, proven false over time). To Israel’s forefathers, Jewish solidarity in an era of need was crucial, and was worth a great investment of time, money, and even human life. Even among most secular Jews in Israel, some semblance of a Jewish identity, even if only composed of national traditional rituals, is an important part of their lives, and is crucial in keeping Israel true to its identity, a Jewish national state. However, with the decision of many American Jews to exclude Jewish considerations of the community and the Jewish nation, in keeping with American rugged individualism, solidarity with a Jewish nation has eroded. Such solidarity has become so deemphasized, that so has a Jewish future. Due to increasingly widespread intermarriage, the offspring of such marriages at the very least, do not affiliate themselves, and therefore do not identify with causes that appeal to the preservation of a Jewish nation.

American Jews’ rejection of and Israeli Jews’ emphasis on a national Jewish identity is the decisive point of difference. While the dilution of the Ashkenazi population and political power in Israel may cause American Jews, who are almost exclusively Ashkenazi, to feel alienated from Israel, this alienation would become less important if American Jews would place a greater value on embracing their national Jewish identity. Thus, more American Jews could identify with Jews abroad, simply because they recognize that they are part of a Jewish community that transcends geography. Israelis might even respect American Jews more if, as discussed above, they shared more common values.

However, asking American Jews to suddenly change their long-held perceptions of Judaism, or asking Israelis to do the same, is an impossible task. Change happens incrementally and is the result of sustained cooperation. Both sides may need to make concessions to the other. It is crucial that fundamental differences be recognized, and for grievances to be aired. But, as Daniel Gordis emphasizes, it is important for each side to contend with the history and guiding perspectives of the other side, even if it “grates against the other’s sensibilities” Such an attitude “lets one listen with a new empathy to a progressive American Jew’s fretting about Israel and Zionism, or to an Israeli shrugging off such qualms….” For American Jews and Israelis, although their relationship may be mired in tension and diverging views, “argument and disagreement…”, says Tal Becker of the Shalom Hartman Institute, “…is inherent in, and almost essential to, the Jewish people’s character.” Furthermore, because Jews naturally come from many different views, Becker says “we need to have a big enough story of Israel that a lot of people have an entry point in their relationship.”

The extension of the hand of one to the other is a pivotal moment, because without it, it would be impossible to join hands in a commitment to achieve a common understanding, and perhaps begin to create a broader, updated story of Israel.

Works Cited

Abrams, Elliot. “If American Jews and Israel Are Drifting Apart, What’s the Reason?” Mosaic, 4 Apr. 2016, mosaicmagazine.com/essay/israel-zionism/2016/04/if-american-jews-and-israel-are-drifting-apart-whats-the-reason/.

The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews

Friedman, Matti. “Mizrahi Nation.” Mosaic, 1 June 2014, mosaicmagazine.com/essay/uncategorized/2014/06/mizrahi-nation/.

Gordis, Daniel. We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel. ECCO, 2020.

Gur, Haviv Rettig. “A New Book Explores the Ties That No Longer Bind the Jews. It’s A Good Start.” The Times of Israel, The Times of Israel, 11 Nov. 2019, www.timesofisrael.com/a-new-book-explores-the-ties-that-no-longer-bind-the-jews-its-a-good-start/.

Kohn, Peter. “Analyst Looks at Diaspora Dynamics.” The Australian Jewish News, 1 Dec. 2019, https://ajn.timesofisrael.com/analyst-looks-at-diaspora-dynamics

Kramer, Martin. “Unspoken Reasons for the American Jewish Distancing from Israel.” Mosaic, 14 Apr. 2016, mosaicmagazine.com/response/israel-zionism/2016/04/unspoken-reasons-for-the-american-jewish-distancing-from-israel/

“Pittsburgh Platform.” Encyclopedia Judaica, Edited by Cecil Roth, vol. 13, Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972, pp. 570–571.

Waxman, Dov. Trouble in the Tribe: the American Jewish Conflict over Israel. Princeton University Press, 2018.


[1]        It should be noted that all upcoming references to “American Jews” in this essay refers to the 90% of the American Jewish population who are not Orthodox Jews, who generally strongly identify with and support Israel.

[2]        Although this sentiment was initially shared by the Reform Rabbis’ Modern Orthodox colleagues, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, a leading force in Modern Orthodox Judaism eventually became more accepting of Zionism in the mid-1950s (Gur).

[3] Indeed, President Wilson’s approach is the expression of an American liberal approach originating with the establishment of American Protestantism, which rejected the Catholic emphasis on “externalized salvation”, and embraced the Protestant idea that“…through ‘faith alone’ is one saved, and not by an interlocutor.”

[4] Such actions include policies that take a decisive stand on sensitive issues, such as the status of Palestinians and the territories over the Green Line, the definition of a Jew, and the pervasiveness of Orthodoxy in religious and civil affairs