In 1988, in the midst of the intifada, American Jews mustered their forces in opposition to an Israeli government policy and forced the government to back down. At issue was the Israeli government’s decision to change the Law of Return to recognize only Orthodox converts to Judaism. The same American Jewish leaders who vigorously denounced and tried to silence any Jew who dared to speak out against the Israeli occupation and its violation of Palestinian human rights lost not a moment in their rush to criticize Israel publicly on what came to be known as the “Who-Is-A-Jew” question. The pressure worked, and the Israeli government retreated.

This incident demonstrates the potential clout of American Jews vis-à-vis the Israeli government. It also suggests the centrality that Israel plays in the identity of many American Jews. Nowhere was this more evident than in American Jewish responses to the Gulf war.

The American Jewish community is diverse. It ranges from black-robed Hassidim to secularists for whom being Jewish means no more than happening to have had some Jewish grandparents. The Council of Jewish Federations’ (CJF) 1990 survey of American Jewry documents what many have suspected for some time — the American Jewish community is increasingly being absorbed into society at large. [1] Of a total of 6.8 million born Jews and converts to Judaism, 1.3 million are essentially practicing another religion and another 1.1 million claim to be “ethnic” Jews only. More than one half of all Jews who marry today are marrying non-Jews and 72 percent of their progeny are being raised either without a religion or with a religion other than Judaism. There are 5.5 million in what the CJF considers the “core” Jewish population today, about 2.3 percent of the US population. While the total US population has increased 9.78 percent since 1980, the core Jewish population increased a mere 1.9 percent.

This diversity extends to American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. In the CJF study, 83 percent of those who described themselves as Jews by religion said they felt attached to Israel; less than half of those who identified themselves as Jews in other ways said they felt any attachment to Israel.

These statistics make it clear that in any discussion about Jews in the US one is always talking about “some” Jews, not “all” Jews. This caveat is so obvious that it should be unnecessary. But even some progressive activists, including those who identify themselves as Jewish, talk more easily about “the Jews” than they do of any other racial or ethnic minority. This language is reinforced by the so-called mainstream, organized Jewish community itself — whose clout in Washington and Tel Aviv depends on their capacity to persuade others that they speak for American Jewry in its totality.

Divisions and Limits

This claim, never true, is less so today than ever. The majority of American Jews do not belong to Jewish communal organizations or synagogues. [2] Nor do the leaders of these institutions necessarily reflect the views of their members. They are not democratically selected and “on those issues on which the organized Jewish community feels threatened there is simply no debate.” [3] Moreover, the American Jewish community remains disproportionately liberal. It is not mere coincidence that many American Jews have abandoned their ties to the organized community at the same time that the leadership of America’s major Jewish organizations and institutions have moved to the right.

Over the past two decades these leaders, along with many formerly left-leaning Jewish intellectuals, have aligned themselves first with the anti-McGovern forces in the 1972 elections and then with the Reagan and Bush administrations. Differences over US foreign policy are a major reason; concern for Israel and the fate of Soviet Jews were clearly an element in this equation, but their relative significance is a matter of debate. For many, this rightward shift appears to have solidified in the course of the Gulf war. [4]

Among mainstream Jewish organizations, the move to the right paralleled the ascendancy of more right-wing governments in Israel. These organizations increasingly conflated a commitment to Israel with support for those governments. They narrowed their own political agendas to three concerns — Soviet Jewry, anti-Semitism and support for the government in power in Israel — and sharply defined the limits of allowable dissent. [5] A recent example of how these limits work can be seen by the response to a New York Times article reporting on a poll of CJF officers: 88 percent supported “territorial compromise in the West Bank and Gaza in return for credible guarantees of peace”; 85 percent rejected Yitzhak Shamir’s vow never to give up an inch of land; 79 percent would agree to a Palestinian state after several years of peace between Israel and autonomous Palestinians; 78 percent said Israel should freeze Jewish settlements in return for a $10 billion US loan guarantee; 61 percent said Israel should negotiate with the PLO, if the PLO ends the intifada, recognizes Israel and ends terror; and 64 percent said the mainstream PLO recognizes the reality of Israel’s existence. In a prompt effort at damage control, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and American Friends of Peace Now sent letters to the Times which were published under the heading, “American Jews Grow More Hawkish on Israel.” More people probably saw the letters than saw the original story, which was buried in the back of the business section. [6]

Still, there remain within the left and among left intellectuals many who identify themselves as Jewish (whether they understand it in religious, cultural or other terms) and also adhere to a progressive political agenda. Many of these American Jews actively opposed the Gulf war, both individually and organizationally. The International Jewish Peace Union (IJPU), New Jewish Agenda, the Jewish Peace Fellowship and the Jewish Women’s Committee to End The Occupation took strong anti-war positions. These groups, along with the American-Israeli Civil Liberties Coalition and others, launched an emergency food and medical relief campaign to assist Palestinian communities under wartime and post-war Israeli curfews. In several cities, including New York, Atlanta and Berkeley, grassroots movements of Jews Against the Gulf War spontaneously sprang up. American Jews joined in the January 26 anti-war march in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the general population. [7]

Within the anti-war movement, Jewish peace groups actively participated in the internal debates over whether, and how emphatically, to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, whether to support sanctions and whether to call for UN supervised forces to replace US troops. New Jewish Agenda withdrew its endorsement of the January 26 march because they were uncomfortable with calling for unilateral US withdrawal, but they asked individual members to participate and organized buses that brought hundreds of protesters to Washington. Along with allies that included the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Jewish anti-war groups ensured that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not forgotten in the anti-war efforts.

Like other Americans, Jews were divided on the merits of military intervention against Iraq, and most ended up supporting the war once the US offensive began. What distinguishes American Jewish positions on the war is the part Israel and the Israeli peace movement played in their decision-making calculus, with the result that many progressive Jews either remained silent or actively joined the pro-intervention ranks.

Holocaust Manipulation

The Bush administration’s ability to fashion the war’s ideological imagery as a replay of World War II, and the perceived threat of Iraqi weapons, especially after the missile attacks on Israel, played powerfully in the American Jewish community. Writers like Paul Berman, Irving Howe and Michael Walzer explicitly invoked the World War II rationale in the Village Voice, the New York Times and Dissent (prompting Jewish peace activist Irena Klepfisz to write that she was “tired of this cynical manipulation of Jewish memories and fears”). [8] Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun (the self-styled voice of progressive Jews), declared in a rambling essay that “being Jewish has forced me to look at the consequences of Saddam Hussein more seriously than most progressives and left-wingers in Europe and the US have had to do,” concluding that a war to protect Israel, eliminate Iraq’s offensive military capacity, and stop the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons would be legitimate. [9]

The analogy with World War II and Iraq’s targeting of Israel are only part of the explanation for why some progressive Jews refused to take anti-war positions. The other part of the story has to do with the relationship between the Jewish peace camps in the US and Israel, and the reaction of the Israeli peace movement to events in the Gulf.

Within the US, most Jews working on Israel-Palestine issues believe that they need to be anchored in the mainstream peace movement in Israel (organizationally Peace Now and the political parties Mapam, Ratz and Shinui) if they are to have any legitimacy and credibility within the organized Jewish community. American Friends of Peace Now, with 12,000 members, is the largest such group. More radical groups (such as those supporting Yesh Gvul, the reservists who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, Women in Black and the Women’s Organization for Women Political Prisoners) also tended to take their direction from their Israeli counterparts. Even organizations that lacked a direct Israeli partner, such as New Jewish Agenda (with 5,000 members), cite the Israeli movement to legitimate their criticisms of Shamir’s government and the occupation.

As in most societies, loyalty to the state forms a large part of the national consensus in Israel. For many Israeli Jews, the survival of the state has seemed, from its beginning, to be precarious. Since 1967, a major accomplishment of the right wing in Israel has been to conflate the survival of the state with the survival of the Jewish people, and loyalty to the state with loyalty the regime’s chauvinist policies. Shamir recently accused his center and left rivals of being “anti-national” and “prepared to give up the last remnant of national interest.” “The Israeli left,” said Ariel Sharon, “is beginning to tear itself away from our people and to resemble our enemies, the leaders and murderers of Arab terrorism.” [10]

This fusing of state-people-government was accomplished, in large part, by exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust and by projecting it onto the Middle East and the Palestinians (a project that the Labor Party has often taken up as well). The most overplayed image of the Gulf war — Israelis wearing gas masks — was grist for the Holocaust demagogues’ mills. Theologian Marc Ellis blames the development of what he calls Holocaust theology — a Judaism that fuses religious and cultural heritage with loyalty to the state of Israel. Whether understood nationalistically, in terms of identity formation or theologically, a result of this manipulation of the Holocaust legacy has been a self-absorption that attenuates any capacity for empathy with the Palestinians, even among many members of the mainstream peace movement. For most Israelis, Ellis writes, Palestinians, when they are seen at all, are merely supporting characters in the Zionist drama. [11]

War Bonding

Zionism provides the ideological foundation for Israel’s national consensus. The mainstream peace movement is, of course, entirely Zionist. [12] But so are some more radical Israeli Jews such as Yeshayahu Leibovitz and the late Simcha Flapan. What distinguishes the more radical activists from the mainstream is their ability to achieve a critical distance from Zionism’s central tenets — the moral right of Jews to settle in Palestine and the identity and survival of Israel as a Jewish state — even if some of them continue to embrace those tenets in some form. The failure of the mainstream peace movement — both in Israel and in the US — to question these tenets, combined with their reluctance to distance themselves from a disturbing Israel-centeredness, sets them on a trajectory that is at best expedient (as they shape their message to pander to public opinion) and at worst unprincipled. American Friends of Peace Now, for instance, consistently explains its positions in terms of what is good for Israel, and never in terms of what is good and just for the Palestinians.

When the mainstream peace movement came around to supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state and negotiations with the PLO, it pushed uneasily against the boundaries of the consensus. Even the refusal of Israeli reservists to serve in the territories, for years a position clearly beyond the pale, began to find some support within the ranks of Peace Now and Ratz. But limits remained. In the Israeli peace camp dialogue with Palestinians such as Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, for instance, there were some issues the Palestinians were simply not welcome to raise: Zionism, Soviet immigration, the future of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestine.

The Gulf war revealed the thinness of the Israeli peace movement’s alliance with Palestinians. Prominent members claimed they felt personally betrayed when it was reported that Palestinians on the ground supported Saddam Hussein, and the local Palestinian leadership failed to condemn the Iraqi leader loudly enough.

Throughout the buildup to the war, the Israeli peace movement debated whether or not to support US military action against Iraq, even as they continued to oppose the Shamir government. On January 12, 1991, 15,000 Israelis — Jews and Arabs — formed a human chain along a 15-mile stretch of northern highway and carried placards calling for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and denouncing racism and the threat of “transfer.” Neither the placards nor the leaflets mentioned the Gulf; the organizers were unable to reach agreement. Once Iraqi missiles started falling on Tel Aviv, most of the mainstream peace movement (along with many individuals to their left) leapt for cover, joining the broad Israeli consensus supporting the US offensive.

By joining the consensus on the war, the mainstream peace movement briefly reentered the national embrace they had reluctantly and fitfully broken with over Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, and the intifada, and immediately began to enforce the boundaries of the consensus. At a late January 1991 press conference, Amos Oz and other activists associated with Peace Now charged the anti-war movement in the West with playing into the hands of Saddam Hussein. Peace Now did not endorse the press conference organizationally, but its letter to supporters in the US set forth its refusal to condemn a war “in which our own security and very existence are threatened.” Ratz officially condemned Western peace demonstrations.

This broad support for the war within the Israeli peace camp carried many American Jewish supporters along with it. American Friends of Peace Now, the Jewish Peace Lobby and the Shalom Center, all sharply divided internally, kept silent. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a progressive Zionist within American Friends of Peace Now, was a forceful voice against the war and created space for others in that organization to voice their opposition. On the other hand, when New York City’s Jews Against the Gulf War called a press conference, mainstream Jewish peace activists urged its organizers not to oppose the war publicly.

These divisions also took place within the more liberal end of the established American Jewish organizational spectrum. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) and even the American Jewish Congress debated the war internally. But by the time Congress voted on the question all the mainstream organizations had announced their support; the UAHC statement proclaimed that a war against Iraq was “an acceptable moral option.”

As in the US, there were Jewish Israelis who stood outside the national bonding. Activists such as Yeshayahu Leibovitz and Matti Peled ran advertisements, circulated petitions and held press conferences and demonstrations. Groups such as the Association of Israeli and Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights and the Women’s Organization for Women Political Prisoners continued their work in support of Palestinian human rights. Before long, Yesh Gvul and Women in Black, deeply divided between supporters and opponents of the war, resumed their demonstrations against the occupation, albeit in diminished numbers.

Did the War Make a Difference?

A year after the war, the mainstream Jewish peace camps in both Israel and the US are still feeling repercussions. To the surprise of some activists, the anger that divided the pro- and anti-war factions has not lingered. This absence of acrimony primarily reflects the urgency the peace camp feels about ending settlement activity. It also reflects the ambivalence felt today by many of the war’s supporters in the US.

Some in the American Jewish peace movement, chiefly Michael Lerner, have raised the issue of anti-Semitism on the left. [13] Many anti-war activists question Lerner’s motives in leading this particular charge, given his ambiguous stand on the war, his lack of leadership in formulating a progressive response and his long-standing ambivalence toward the left. Yet it is important to understand that many who participated in the anti-war movement as Jews were profoundly uncomfortable finding themselves outside the community’s consensus. When some then encountered what they perceived to be anti-Semitism among their movement comrades, particularly on college campuses, they felt doubly isolated. Whether what they encountered constituted anti-Semitism is another matter. There is not only a difference between being opposed to the policies and actions of the Israeli government and being anti-Semitic (a distinction most Jews in the peace movement are well aware of). There is also a difference between being wrong and being anti-Semitic. The Israeli government supported war from the outset, but the Gulf war was not “a war for Israel.” It was a war to achieve US objectives in the region. Labeling the war as a war for Israel is wrong. Claiming that the war was for, or the doing of, “the Jews,” as some anti-war activists did, is anti-Semitic. [14]

More recently, the American Jewish peace movement has gotten caught up in the issues of US loan guarantees and Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, and has virtually stopped talking about the importance of an independent Palestinian state. Not surprisingly, this mirrors a similar development within most of the peace movement in Israel. While still almost equally split about what to do about the territories, Israeli Jews are not, for the most part, divided about the Palestinians — they want complete separation. The combination of the war experience and recent violence by Israeli Jews and Palestinians within Israel and the Occupied Territories have convinced the majority of Israelis, in a way that the peace movement’s pre-war rhetoric had failed to do, that the current situation is no longer tolerable. The desire for separation explains the widespread support for the current peace process. But, based as it is on the Israelis’ deep distrust of Palestinians, and for many their anti-Arab racism, the desire for separation also explains the absence of any serious criticism by the mainstream peace movement of the removal of Palestinian statehood from the agenda, and their failure to oppose vigorously the Israeli government’s preconditions for negotiations and its obstructive tactics.

It is clear to many activists both in the US and Israel that the only way to stop (and roll back) the settlements is to withhold US aid to Israel. Prior to the invasion of Kuwait, when a movement to condition if not withhold aid was building within Congress, increasing numbers of Israeli activists were privately telling this to their US counterparts, and American Jewish peace organizations were debating the question of aid internally. [15]

The brouhaha over the loan guarantees in September, then, was seen as the wedge that would raise the entire question of conditioned aid to the arena of public debate. Fearful, as usual, of stepping too far outside of the consensus — the establishment organizations insist there be no linkage between “humanitarian” loans and settlements policy — American Friends of Peace Now at first refused to support any conditioning of the guarantees but has since joined the Jewish Peace Lobby and New Jewish Agenda in calling for making the loan guarantees contingent on a freeze on settlements. Most IJPU chapters (in the US) were divided over whether to support loan guarantees at all. While peace groups may have differed over the loan guarantees, they were as one in not calling for a broader reassessment of aid and consideration of sanctions, and in their silence on settlements in East Jerusalem.

Shamir’s plan is clear for all to see: de facto annexation of those portions of the Occupied Territories that include most of the area’s water resources and most of its expanded settlements. This fall, the Jerusalem Post pointed out that if Israel were to annex “just” 13 percent of the West Bank it could bring into Israel at least 70 percent of the Israeli settlers, along with control over the main aquifers. [16] New York Times columnist William Safire favorably described Israel’s approach as “a quartet of self-ruling Palestinian cantons in a barrier-free West Bank.” [17] In January 1992, Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a plan to annex the areas of Israeli settlement on the West Bank and confine “autonomy” to several discontinuous Palestinian enclaves. [18]

Pressures seem to be building within the US to push Israel toward some kind of rapprochement with its neighbors. There is some evidence that, on the settlements issue at least, even the mainstream consensus is crumbling. [19] The problem for the Palestinians is that many of those interested in an Arab-Israeli settlement, including the mainstream American Jewish and Israeli peace movements, will be satisfied with far too little. If agreements do emerge from the present peace talks they are not likely to include an “autonomy” plan that will lead to independent Palestinian state, or to resolve the future of the Palestinian diaspora. The loan guarantees are, in many respects, beside the point.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Donna Nevel, Alisa Solomon and Joe Stork for their help in developing this essay.


[1] Highlights of the CJF 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (New York: Council of Jewish Federations, 1991). The diversity is illustrated in both the typologies adopted by the survey and in respondents’ replies.
[2] According the CJF survey only 41 percent of households that are entirely Jewish (56 percent of all Jewish-identified households) belong to synagogues, by far the most widespread form of institutional Jewish connection.
[3] See Arthur Hertzberg in Present Tense (September/October 1987).
[4] John Judis, “Jews and the Gulf: Fallout from the Six-Week War,” Tikkun (May-June 1991); Christopher Hitchens, “Settled: Why Bush Will Yield to Israel and ‘the Lobby,’” Harper’s (January 1992); David Twersky, “Election of Bonior Whips Up Dems,” and Lisa Schiffern, “NJC and NJDC Making a Mark in the Capital,” Forward, July 19, 1991.
[5] Among the issues precluded from debate were Israel’s foreign policy, its treatment of Palestinians and the future of Jerusalem. For a time the question of whether Soviet Jews should be helped to go to destinations others than Israel was hotly debated. It is no longer.
[6] New York Times, November 21, 1991. The story was buried on page D23. In the letters (December 9, 1991), David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, was the only respondent of the three to argue that “American Jews have hardened their views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, to become more, rather than less hawkish.” Toby Dershowitz of AIPAC denied that AIPAC has “taken a position for or against the Israeli government’s opposition to a territorial compromise or its settlement policy because the American Jewish community does not have a consensus on these issues.” The letter from AFPN’s co-chair, Peter Edelman, did not address the survey, but contested what he thought was the article’s implication that AFPN supported a delay in the $10 billion loan guarantee. “We supported Israel’s request for guarantees from the outset, simultaneously advocating measures to ensure accountability on the use of funds so that they would not be used, directly or indirectly, for settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” he wrote.
[7] According to a Washington Post survey, 14 percent of the demonstrators on January 26 identified themselves as Jewish.
[8] Irena Klepfisz, “Peace Still,” Village Voice, February 19, 1991.
[9] Michael Lerner, “My Inner Conflict About Iraq,” Tikkun (November-December 1990), p. 48.
[10] Jerusalem Post, January 4, 1992.
[11] Marc Ellis, Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990).
[12] In the US, AFPN is avowedly Zionist. New Jewish Agenda is not — although many of its members are, which may account in part for its differences with the more radical but smaller IJPU.
[13] Tikkun invited readers to respond to the headline question: “Have You Experienced Anti-Semitism On The Left?” (May-June 1991, p. 4).
[14] On November 8-10, 1991, New Jewish Agenda held a National Conference Organizing Against Anti-Semitism and Racism for Jewish Activists and College Students, in Philadelphia. Some 300 participants attended. Unlike Lerner, the NJA conference emphasized the urgency of the threat from the right and the need to link the struggles against racism and anti-Semitism. The right wing lost no time in expressing concern about anti-Semitism on the left. William F. Buckley accused The Nation and its editor, Victor Navasky (himself Jewish), of being anti-Semitic. National Review, December 30, 1991. John Judis earlier lodged a similar accusation against Navasky in Tikkun. At the same time, of course, there has been a resurgence in the US and elsewhere of right-wing anti-Semitism, racism and ultra-nationalism.
[15] Alisa Solomon, “Canceling Israel’s Credit Card: Human Rights Groups Press Congress To Cut The Largest Foreign Aid Entitlement,” Village Voice, August 14, 1990.
[16] Jerusalem Post, November 2, 1991.
[17] William Safire, “Middleman’s Mistake,” New York Times, December 9, 1991.
[18] New York Times, January 20, 1992.
[19] In October 1991, Project Nishma, a group that includes many former heads of major Jewish organizations, called on Israel to freeze its expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Ted Mann, the group’s co-chair and a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that the statement was issued out of concern that the controversy was not only jeopardizing the peace process, the loan guarantees and foreign investment in Israel, but was also endangering the continuation of Israel’s annual US economic and military aid. More recently, leaders of the American Jewish Congress and reportedly even AIPAC have warned Shamir against continued settlements. Jewish World, October 18, 1991; New York Times, January 29, 1992.

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Neimark "American Jews and Palestine," Middle East Report 175 (March/April 1992).

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