Over 120 people gathered at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody on May 8 to hear Prof. Dov Waxman deliver a talk on “The Changing American Jewish Relationship With Israel.” Waxman is co-director of Northeastern University’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development.

Waxman explained that, in 1948, there was a strong consensus among American Jews to offer support to the newly-created state of Israel. One of the reasons for American Jews’ strong identification with Israel, he pointed out, was the deep insecurity they felt following the Holocaust. An additional factor was that many American Jews were moving away from formal religious affiliation: Israel provided an alterative means of identification as a Jew. Israel was also clearly vulnerable to its hostile neighbors. Israel’s continued conflicts with Arab countries, including the wars in 1967 and 1973, demonstrated that Israel’s existence was threatened and that it needed American support. Israel’s victories in these wars, and other actions such as the rescue at Entebbe (1976), made identification with Israel very appealing for American Jews. Finally, American Jews took pride in Israel’s many accomplishments, including in its being the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. For all these reasons, outspoken political support and generous financial support for the Jewish state served as a common bond between American Jews for the 30 years after Israeli independence.

In recent decades, however, this common bond has frayed. Rather than responding to Israel with a single voice, the American Jewish community has a multiplicity of perspectives. Waxman looked carefully at the reasons for the change. Events in the 1980s, such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Phalangist massacre at two Palestinian refugee camps, resulted in condemnation of Israel by some American Jews. Israel military strategy was no longer seen as motivated solely by self-defense, and the idealism that Israel represented was clearly tarnished. Socially, changes in Israel made that country seem more similar to the United States. Israel has become more powerful militarily, and appeared to be seeking expansion of its borders into the West Bank. Socially, it is no longer seen as a haven for kibbutz-style socialism; it employs economic policies that are more similar to those of the United States, and as it has become more developed, its society has become more consumerist. Its politics are trending more right-wing and more religious. Its political arena is rancorous. All of these features worked together to create a more complex relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.

Waxman cited studies as part of his analysis about how American Jews feel about Israel. The studies show that the numbers of American Jews who declare an emotional connection to Israel have remained stable over time. One-third say they feel deeply attached; another third say they feel moderately attached. This emotional connection, Waxman said, although “enduring” in terms of the proportion of American Jews who claim various sentiments, comes alongside overall “weakening political support.”

Younger American Jews in particular tend to see multiculturalism as a positive and desirable influence, “and consequently the perception of threat has declined,” he said, which is one reason that the younger generation may be less likely to support the policies of Israel’s government.

Both left-wing and right-wing American Jews, Waxman argued, tend to feel freer to criticize Israel’s policies, compared to the center – characterized by the major establishment organizations – which typically declares unconditional support for Israel’s policies.

In summary, Waxman presented the many factors that underlie the changes in the attitudes of the American Jewish community towards Israel. Rather than Israel serving as a point of unity for the American Jewish community, there is a multiplicity of perspectives on Israel within the American Jewish community.

Professor Waxman currently teaches political science at Baruch College and the City University of New York. He will begin teaching fulltime at Northeastern University this fall.

J Street Boston, the local chapter of J Street, organized the event, which reflects one of J Street’s stated goals: to foster broad debate and civil discussion about Israel. Cosponsors included Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody, and Temple Sinai in Marblehead.

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