The violence that erupted in Israel and Gaza in May 2021 had a ripple effect. Synagogues were attacked in Lod and New York, and Jews were subjected to antisemitic attacks across Europe and the United States. Following massive anti-Israel demonstrations in the world’s capitals, hundreds of Jewish counter-demonstrators stood up for Israel in American cities, even at the risk of their own safety from antisemitic violence.
But the numbers were telling. Jews took to the streets in the hundreds, not the thousands. And not for the first time, many Jews participated in anti-Israel demonstrations organized by pro-Palestinian activists or organized their own protests dissociating themselves publicly from Israel’s actions.
Comparative data aren’t available, but I’d hazard a guess that Jewish pro-Israel demonstrators in American cities were not only fewer, but also older, on average, than Jewish pro-Palestinian demonstrators. At least that’s how attitudes to Israel and Palestine skew in recent surveys: Younger American Jews identify less with Israel and are more likely to hold attitudes critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Far from the Book of Esther’s description of “one people, scattered and dispersed among the nations,” the Jews of Israel and the United States hardly seem like one people at all.
Numbers of street demonstrators are just the tip of the iceberg. On social media, anti-Israel rhetoric is fiercer, faster to spread, and boosted by celebrity endorsements with a reach many times greater than mainstream news sources. The hashtag, #freepalestine has become like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter—a signal of enlightened social conscience to which only the most benighted could fail to ally themselves. Young American Jews, many of whom have been raised to associate Judaism itself with social justice, are under immense pressure to show their activist credentials, with hashtags such as #notinmyname and #jewsforpalestine.
At least for many American Jews, Israel is still an issue. For Israelis, American Jews are at best distant relatives. In the TV series, The New Jew, broadcast this year on Kan 11, an Israeli state television channel, presenter Guri Alfi travels around the U.S. observing the strange habits of American Jews in much the way that Sir David Attenborough explored the lives of other species. Alfi’s interviews with Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl of New York’s Central Synagogue and mohel (circumciser), Emily Blake, MD, for example, are framed and edited to maximize the exoticism—for Israelis used to seeing these roles filled by men—of an Asian American woman leading synagogue services and a yarmulke-wearing woman brandishing a mohel’s scalpel.
The series couldn’t have been an easy pitch. The United States looms very large in Israeli consciousness. Israelis watch American TV on Netflix, listen to American music on Spotify, and buy American fashions and fast food at the local mall. But American Jews rarely cross Israeli minds.
It’s not just that Israelis didn’t take to the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to demonstrate their support for victims of antisemitism in Boston or Paris. They rarely have. It’s that reports of these antisemitic attacks barely even made the headlines in Israel. Even when Israelis took on antisemites on social media, most did so exclusively within the frame of Israel-Palestine rather than in solidarity with victims of antisemitism in other countries.
In sum, the last two months have provided us with further evidence—if any more were needed—that the world’s two largest Jewish populations are becoming increasingly estranged.
The standard explanation for this is that the Jews of Israel and the U.S. are growing increasingly different from each other. I’d like to put forward an alternative theory. The Jews in Israel and the U.S are indeed drifting apart. But not because they’re becoming more different. On the contrary: Because they’re becoming more similar.
The standard explanation focuses on differences between the political and religious cultures of the U.S. and Israel. Both countries are social experiments designed in part to solve religious persecution: The United States by the separation of church and state, and Israel by reimagining the Jewish people as a nation-state. In Israel, the mingling of religious and political authority led to Orthodox hegemony over various areas of public life, which conflicts head-on with American Jews’ commitment to religious pluralism.
In politics, too, Jews in Israel and the U.S. diverged. American Jews tend to skew liberal on social issues and dovish on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Successive hawkish Israeli governments, and hardline military responses to Palestinian attacks alienated many American Jews, leading them either to distance themselves from Israel or to join the ranks of its critics.
In disputing the standard explanation, I do not deny that these differences exist. They do. But their influence on the relations between Jews in Israel and the U.S. is waning as emerging similarities overtake them.
Consider, for example, religious pluralism. When American Jews can’t practice their brands of Judaism freely in Israel, this is an obvious source of tension. Worshippers in egalitarian prayers services at the Wailing Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, are routinely subjected to violent Orthodox attacks. Earlier this year Reform and Conservative conversions were finally recognized by Israel’s High Court of Justice—a decision much-criticized by Israel’s chief rabbis and many politicians, including incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
But when fewer and fewer American Jews practice any brand of Judaism, and six-in-ten U.S. Jews who married in the last decade did so to a non-Jewish spouse, such differences lose their sting.
American and Israeli Jews used to differ considerably in their religious beliefs and practices. American Jews were less observant than Israelis but tended more than Israelis to conceive of their Jewishness in religious rather than ethnic terms. This is changing. American Jews are increasingly secular, and tend increasingly to view their Jewishness through the lens of ethnicity rather than religion, becoming thereby more similar to their Israeli counterparts.
These trends do not apply to the United States’ Orthodox minority. But in both countries, the Orthodox are becoming increasingly estranged from the rest of the Jewish population. In Israel, resentment of Orthodox Jews reached new heights this year over their visible flouting of covid and other safety regulations. In America too, non-Orthodox Jews report having little in common with Orthodox Jews.
Another way in which Israeli and American Jews are becoming more similar is in their exposure to antisemitism. Jews have thrived in both societies and are better protected in each of them than were Jews in most other times and places. But neither society has solved antisemitism. In both countries, Jews feel more exposed to primal Jew-hatred today than they did a few years ago.
You might have expected this to result in greater empathy and solidarity between the world’s two largest Jewish communities. However, many American Jews seem to see Israel as both the target and the cause of antisemitic attacks—more like a loose cannon than a safe haven. Many Israelis, on the other hand, seem to see themselves as putting their lives on the line to protect Jews everywhere, while American Jews criticize them from the comfort of their homes for using disproportionate force in doing so.
In both Israel and the U.S., politics has become more tribal and polarized. Both societies are increasingly divided into sectors that barely interact with each other and which hold incommensurable hopes and dreams for their respective futures. In 2015, shortly after Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, began his tenure, he spelled this out in his “four tribes” speech. American Journalist George Packer recently analyzed the American polity in remarkably similar terms: four distinct political tribes, separated demographically and ideologically.
It is a sign of their successful integration into American society that Jews can be found in more than one of Packer’s tribes. But it is also a sign that American Jews are not immune to the tribalism affecting the rest of U.S. society. Traditionally, American Jews skewed Democratic. In recent years, a gap has opened up between Orthodox and other Jews, with the former now skewing Republican. This shift mirrors political trends in Israel, in which secular Jews skew left, while more traditional and religious Jews skew right.
You might have expected this polarization to serve as a kind of bridge, with religious, right-wing Jews in both countries joining forces against their secular, left-wing Jewish compatriots; and vice versa. This does happen to some extent, in the form of lobbying and political contributions. But, for the most part, Jews in each country are wrapped up in their own domestic divisions and political battles.
Perhaps even more significant than party politics for relations between Jews in Israel and the United States is the changing tone of political discourse in both countries. The rise of identity politics and new conceptions of social justice have placed Jews in both countries into new kinds of ideological discomfort.
Having suffered centuries of persecution, Jews are used to seeing themselves as victims rather than oppressors. For a time, Israel embodied an alternative self-image: a tough, new breed of Jews who refused to be victims; David confronting Goliath. American Jews felt ennobled by their association with these new, courageous Jews.
Today, however, Jews in both countries are more often cast in the role of oppressor. In the U.S., Jews are considered white and privileged, and the Palestinians have become David to Israel’s Goliath. This reverses the images American Jews had of themselves and of Israeli Jews. Instead of providing them with an attractive alter-ego, Israel now reinforces their reluctant self-image as white, colonial oppressors. Antisemitism on U.S. campuses plays on this trope, attacking Jewish students for their presumed support of Israel. One way out of this uncomfortable situation is to dissociate from Israel and side with her perceived victims, a tactic increasingly adopted by many young American Jews—including, recently, rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.
Evolving relations between Israeli and American Jews are a fascinating case study in the challenges of maintaining solidarity in the face of contemporary social forces that undermine it. If there is a lesson here for those who seek to cultivate solidarity, it is that emphasizing similarities is no more likely to succeed than is downplaying differences. Solidarity among Jews results from balancing similarities and differences in the service of some higher, common cause. Perhaps what is most lacking, and most needed, today, is a clear articulation of that cause.
Eli Gottlieb is a cultural psychologist and advisor to government and nonprofit organizations on leadership and strategy. His research examines connections between cognition, identity, and culture.