The Gaza Effect

American Jews and Israel

The Gaza war has had a massive impact on American Jewry.

Jewish Voice for Peace rally. Washington, 16 October 2023.

Recently, several scholars and organisational leaders, from anti-Zionists to Likud supporters, offered their opinions about how they see the changing landscape of the American Jewish community and what they expect in the future.

Prior to 7 October, divides widened among American Jews over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus push for judicial reform.

But the Hamas attack ushered in a new sense of coming together among both the liberal and conservative mainstream.

Parallel to this, however, a newly energised Jewish anti-Zionism became very visible, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. And it may be symbolic of coming political changes in the Jewish community.

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, noted that liberal and conservative Jews have “pushed back and forth against each other’s political positions for generations”.

Dollinger noted that in 2014, right-wing members blocked liberal lobbying group J Street’s application to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

But the most important thing that cranked divides open further in the lead-up to 7 October was arguments over Netanhayus judicial reform.

Organisations that typically did not comment on Israeli politics, including the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federations, weighed in.

The Hamas-led massacre changed all that.

Dov Waxman, director of UCLA’s Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, noted that American Jews felt a new sense of vulnerability”—not just for Israelis and the Jewish state itself, but also for themselves.

Fear in the face of skyrocketing Antisemitism was mixed with shock at leftist approval of—and even glee at— 7 October.

The immediate result was that the Jewish mainstream experienced an outpouring of participation in religious, social, and cultural activities.

A survey of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis said 86 per cent saw an increase in attendance at synagogue and programs”.

This had a political effect on Jews.

Not only was there what Waxman called a broad expression of sympathy for Israel that we havent seen in many years” but a rallying around the flag effect” among duelling factions.

Jeremy Russell, director of marketing and communications at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Bay Area, agreed with Waxman on both counts.

Russell said there was “no question” about an explosion of interest in his organisation and similar ones. For example, he cited an 800% increase in website contacts for the JCRC Bay Area since 7 October.

Amanda Berman, executive director of the progressive Zionist group Zioness, said her organisation also experienced an exponential rise” in interest.

Zioness Facebook groups increased from 36 to 45 after 7 October, along with increased demand for trainings.

Although fewer than their liberal cousins, conservative Jews also felt the new unity.

Oakland resident and former America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) National Council member Michael Sosebee was heartened by a willingness to put our differences aside”.

Even American Friends of Likud board member Steven Goldberg agreed, saying,I do think this has brought the American Jewish community together.”

The massacre appears to have affected right-wing Jews less. Goldberg said it merely confirmed the general thoughts” of his group, although they did experience some increased interest.

While Goldberg has not sensed a rise in support for Netanyahu in his circles, people who are especially committed to defend Israel feel stronger about it”.

Jewish anti-Zionists have also emerged as a very public third rail.

While often dismissed as marginal and unimportant, radical politics can crystallise attitudes held by a larger group of people and sometimes act as a canary in a coal mine about upcoming changes.

Unsurprisingly, anti-Zionists have had a different experience than the Jewish mainstream.

Clyde Leland, a member of the Chapter Council of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Bay Area, said his group did not take part in the feeling of togetherness. What JVP did experience, however, was an explosion of interest.

The national organisation claims thousands have joined since 7 October and now has 22,000 members.

Among Bay Area anti-Zionists, no love was lost for the JCRC.

Leland said what irritates him is that, in his impression, the organisation portrays itself as speaking for the Jewish community” but excludes anti-Zionists.

He also claimed that post-7 October, his JVP chapter experienced more interest and activity than the JCRC.

Pointing to the over 50 synagogues and organisations that are on the JCRC Council, Russell said,As a proudly Zionist organisation, we cannot and would not claim to speak for the tiny minority proclaiming themselves anti-Zionist.”

Leland also said young people are flooding into the organisation.

Shane Burley, co-author of the forthcoming Safety through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism, said,Jewish anti-Zionism is growing at an incredibly rapid rate, especially among Millennials and Gen-Z.”

Indeed, Jewish anti-Zionists are far more visible. Sosebee agreed. “We were shocked at how many there are,” he said.

Amanda Berman noted that anti-Zionists are actually driving people” to Zioness, especially those who feel Jewish anti-Zionists are being used as tokens.

Unsurprisingly, many in the Jewish mainstream have hardened towards them.

Steven Goldberg said previously he thought Jewish anti-Zionists were cranks and crackpots”, but now he sees them as supporting people who revel in the murder of Jews”.

Regarding the future, Sosebee is optimistic” that the new unity will continue after the crisis and help the Jewish community work for a better community.”

Marc Dollinger was not surprised about the new wave of Jewish leftwing radicalism, saying something like this happens every generation” as youth seek to reinvent Jewish life”.

As in the past, he thinks the moment will ebb and flow until the next generation takes aim at this one.

Others are less sure. Shane Burley points to what he sees as a growing alternative movement of new organisational forms outside the mainstream, which are not Zionist, although not necessarily anti-Zionist.

Burley named a mix of synagogues, community centres, independent minyans, and political groups. Although only a minority of those involved are anti-Zionists, they appear to be finding a home among these new alternatives.

Dov Waxman says divisions over the war only accelerated” an ongoing process.

While the numbers are debated by all sides, and in the absence of a large-respondent national poll asking specific questions, Waxman thinks 10 to 15 per cent of American Jews are anti-Zionist, while another 10 per cent could support either one or two states.

Regardless, the postwar golden age of liberal hegemony among American Jews looks like it is coming to a close as both the right and left wings of the community push in opposite directions.

Dov Waxman’s estimate of the number of anti-Zionist Jews seems likely to grow.

While 8 out of 10 Jews identified as Democrats in the last election, nearly half of 18–35-year-olds disagree with President Biden’s Israel policy.

That tension is evident inside the Jewish community.

With over 33,000 Palestinian casualties (including estimates ranging from 6 to 12,000 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters), Waxman says dovish groups are now in a difficult middle ground position” between anti-Zionists and uncritical supporters of the war.

Siphoning from this, the Jewish anti-Zionists have solidified what looks like a permanent, albeit modest, base on the left wing of the Jewish community.

But simultaneously, the most significant population growth of American Jews is among the Orthodox. They are more right-wing leaning than their Reform counterparts, whose percentage is set to decline.

This has led Steven Goldberg to think that if anti-Israel attitudes continue to grow inside the Democratic Party, “more Jews will switch to the Republican Party” and that, within a decade, they might be split between the parties.

It’s hard to imagine that any move to the right would be that large, as American Jews remain solidly liberal on practically all other political positions. And the country’s two-party system locks them in with nowhere to go.

Nonetheless, sans the infinitesimally distant creation of a separate Palestinian state, practically any position the Democratic Party takes will accelerate already increasing shifts to the left and right among American Jews.

Despite the unity felt in the Jewish mainstream at present, its future seems to be inevitably one of increased divergence.

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Photograph courtesy of Stephen Melkisethian. Published under a Creative Commons license.