ov Waxman, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, begins his new book Trouble in the Tribe with an anecdote that he believes is imbued with meaning about the state of the American-Jewish relationship with Israel. The scene is a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America. Part way through, a protester leaps up and repeatedly shouts a slogan condemning a bill being considered in the Knesset. She is escorted out by security. Netanyahu resumes speaking, yet another protester starts in, this time shouting “the occupation delegitimizes Israel,” and is also escorted out. Then a third stands and shouts a different slogan, with the same result.

Trouble in the Tribe

By Dov Waxman

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This moment was “not a one-off, isolated incident,” Waxman writes. “It is just the most dramatic manifestation of a wider conflict over Israel that is now raging within the American Jewish community.”

The anecdote actually tells us much more about the author than about the state of American-Jewish opinion on Israel. Waxman gets the date wrong, claiming the incident took place in January 2011 (it happened in November 2010). He claims a protester was “dragged” out of the auditorium, when easily available online video shows her being walked out by security. He denigrates the attendees of the speech as Netanyahu’s “adoring audience” and describes them as a violent and frenzied mob. The protesters themselves are portrayed as young and idealistic, merely wishing to register their opposition to certain Israeli policies. In fact, they were members of Jewish Voice for Peace, a small, radical-leftist group that openly calls for Israel’s destruction and endorses Palestinian terrorism. Waxman doesn’t tell the reader any of this. He takes their disingenuous condemnation of Israeli policies at face value and describes JVP as simply “a left-wing group.”

Waxman attempts scholarly rigor in laying out his thesis that the source of young American-Jewish “distancing” from Israel is largely a reaction to Israel’s terrible treatment of Palestinians. But this is polemic, not scholarship. He says in its preface that he was inspired to write Trouble in the Tribe out of the hope that the growing animosity for Israel among American Jews “might help to finally break the Israeli-Palestinian dead-lock” by allowing “Obama [to] pressure the Netanyahu government to make peace.”

The American-Jewish relationship with Israel, he claims, has changed from consensus and admiration to bitter division almost entirely due to Israel’s rightward shift, which started with the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977. Since then, “Israel has changed in ways that have disappointed, disturbed, and even angered many secular, liberal American Jews,” he writes. The new Israel is “more right wing, more religious, more intolerant, more unequal, and more aggressive and expansionist than the Israel that American Jews had fallen in love with” in the three decades after its founding.

As Israel steadily became a more ugly country, in Waxman’s view, American Jews of conscience steadily raised their voices against the Jewish state, provoking acrimony and controversy among those whose support for Israel he variously denigrates as “unwavering,” “unquestioning,” and “uncritical.”

Trouble in the Tribe isn’t actually a book about the phenomenon of “distancing” from Israel. It is a book about what a bad country Israel is, and why American Jews are right to dislike it.

Waxman sanitizes the opinions of Israel’s most vicious antagonists. The Berkeley professor Judith Butler, for example, is described as “outspoken in her criticism of Israel and Zionism,” and as the target of a “backlash” that pursues the “demonization of prominent outspoken Jewish critics of Israel.” He writes that Butler is “accused of supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.” Accused? Butler has said that “understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.” A “critic”? She proudly supports the destruction of Israel. Yet for Dov Waxman she is a victim, persecuted by an intolerant and illiberal American-Jewish establishment. Other prominent advocates of Israel’s elimination, such as Rashid Khalidi and Norman Finkelstein, are given similar treatment.

It is, however, true that American-Jewish opinion on Israel is changing. Affection for Israel tracks closely with the respondent’s level of religious observance and his political affiliation: The more secular and liberal a person is, the less likely he is to support Israel, and vice versa. Waxman’s analysis of the Pew polling data on the subject is long on restatement but short—curiously, tellingly short—on providing empirical explanation for why the younger cohort tends to be less pro-Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinians than older generations. There is a reason why: The data undermine his theory.

In just a few sentences, Waxman acknowledges the real reason for distancing:

Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples . . . . Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel. As such, it is hardly surprising that this rapidly growing subgroup within the American Jewish population has very different views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than other American Jews.

Intermarriage largely provides the answer to the key question of why—yet it receives no more than a few sentences of attention in the entire book. How can this be? It is because Trouble in the Tribe isn’t actually a book about the phenomenon of “distancing” from Israel. It is a book about what a bad country Israel is, and why American Jews are right to dislike it.

If “distancing” can be explained not so much by settlements and Gaza wars but by the rapid diminishment of Jewish religious observance, communal solidarity, and knowledge of Israel through intermarriage, what explains the seeming attraction of so many young, liberal Jews to anti-Israel claims and narratives?

The real change has not been in Israel but within American liberalism. It has trended in a leftward direction, has adopted post-colonialist ideas about the Middle East and American foreign policy, has grown increasingly hostile to religion and national identity, and consequently has elevated anti-Israel political activism as an important new component of the liberal agenda.

Waxman is mistaken that increased American-Jewish alienation from Israel will enable the United States to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But he is not wrong to think that distancing, if sufficiently prevalent, could transform U.S. foreign policy. It may take decades, but it is possible that if a majority of American Jews become ambivalent or hostile to Israel, they may convince other Americans to also withdraw their support. American foreign policy toward Israel could start to resemble Europe’s, with serious consequences for Israel’s ability to defend itself militarily, diplomatically, and economically.

Portraying “distancing” as a moral choice rather than a sign of a community in demographic crisis serves another enormously valuable purpose: It is a trump card to be used against the pro-Israel establishment. The prospect that the next generation of American Jews will be actively hostile to Israel is understandably terrifying to those who have devoted their career, their energy, and their charitable giving to encouraging affection for the Jewish state. Anti-Israel activists perfectly understand the establishment’s anxiety on this score, and they exploit it relentlessly by demanding concessions to win the support of the distanced—calling on organizations such as Hillel and the Jewish Federations to open themselves to the participation of BDS and other types of anti-Israel activism.

This is precisely the long game being played by the anti-Israel movement. Young American Jews who are ignorant of Israel’s history, lack the previous generations’ sense of communal solidarity, and gravitate toward liberalism are perfect targets for political conversion. Their knowledge vacuum can be filled by a trendy and self-congratulatory political activism.

The establishment is endlessly lectured that the rejection of these young and idealistic Jews, who merely want to participate in communal life according to their own values, alienates them from Israel. The goal of the Waxmans of the world is a political victory not through open and honest conflict but rather through acquiescence and co-option. Those who care about Israel are to submit to the will of those who do not.

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