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How unconditional support for Israel became a cornerstone of Jewish American identity

A new book shows how those who dissented were effectively sidelined.

"The Threshold of Dissent” and author Marjorie N. Feld. (Courtesy images)

(RNS) — Mainstream American Jewish institutions have vociferously condemned the pro-Palestinian protests roiling student campuses, throwing their support behind Israel and labeling all critics, even Jewish ones, as antisemitic.

On Thursday (April 25), the head of the Anti-Defamation League went so far as to suggest some of the activists on campus were Iranian proxies.

“Iran has their military proxies like Hezbollah, and Iran has their campus proxies like these groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace,” ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt said on MSNBC.

But unconditional support for Israel and for Zionism, the national movement that established a homeland for Jews in Israel, has not always been a given. From the 1880s through to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, American Jewish leaders were ambivalent, if not downright opposed, to the idea of a Jewish nationalism. It wasn’t until 1967 that they began to coalesce behind allegiance to Israel.

A new book by Babson College historian Marjorie Feld looks at the long history of American Jewish dissent on Israel, which, she argues, has increasingly been silenced by the mainstream U.S. Jewish establishment.

Feld’s book, “The Threshold of Dissent,” shows how, over the course of the past century, unconditional support for Israel became the de facto position of American Jewish institutions.

That may be beginning to change as younger groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow mount their largest-ever demonstrations. For now these groups are still considered on the radical left.

College students — including many Jewish ones — believe they are witnessing Israeli forces committing a genocide in Gaza, one that is aided and abetted by an American president and Congress. To date, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and vast swaths of the Gaza Strip are in ruins in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage in Israel.

Religion News Service spoke with Feld to ask her what she thought of the campus protests and where she sees the American Jewish community going. Feld has served on the Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council and is also active in her Boston-area synagogue.

The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

What do you see happening on college campuses?

Let me back up. After the Israeli election of 2022, many established mainstream American Jews were saying, we don’t think this represents the best of Israel or Israeli democracy. Many had shut their institutional Jewish doors to (hard-liners) like Bezalel Smotrich, who was serving in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and to his hateful rhetoric and ideologies.

After Oct. 7, nearly all those individuals had fallen completely behind Israel and said now is not the time to criticize Israel. This was very reminiscent of much of what I’m writing about in the last 150 years. And I think we’re living through a period where the threshold of dissent is at an all-time low. There are a lot of people with a lot of power who do not want an airing of this kind of dissent. So this crackdown on students is just breathtaking in its severity.

What drove American Jews to coalesce behind support for Zionism?

It’s a very good question.  I think that Zionism was a mobilizing force. It was a force that made American Jews feel good and distinct and comfortable in a largely Christian America. But you really have to start with the Holocaust and the very real fears, not just of destruction and attempted genocide, but of accusations of dual loyalties. Critics of American Zionism worried that American Jews would fall victim to accusations of dual loyalty that had a long antisemitic, xenophobic history; this is why they rejected Zionism. American Zionists felt strongly, though, that dissent on Israel weakened the unity of American Jews, and unity was absolutely paramount in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust.

You chronicle some of the chief enforcers of this allegiance to Zionism, such as the Anti-Defamation League.

Marjorie Feld. (Courtesy photo)

The ADL has been a very conservative force grounded in McCarthyist fears of Jewish accusations of communism. That’s where it sort of found its initial bearings. The ADL since then has really acted as a force of surveillance. From the 1970s on forward, almost every organization that ever mentioned Arab rights, any invocation of the word “Palestinian,” was listed and often surveilled.

They joined forces with the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organizations that felt deeply invested in appearing united and fully supportive of Israel.

As far as the Reform and Conservative movements, I don’t think I could say that each denomination has always fallen behind this consensus. I think at different points, there have been leaders who stood out as being willing to speak out against it. But the Jewish Federations and Hebrew schools, those were entirely invested in a deep loyalty to Israeli policies and Zionism and gave no access to anything about the history of the Nakba (the 1948 dispossession of Palestinians) or of Palestine. All of these organizations prioritized Jewish safety and that’s important.

How has dissent been silenced?

In my book I give the example of people like William Zukerman, who wrote and edited The Jewish Newsletter from 1948 to 1961. He was a voice for dissent who fell victim to some Israeli diplomats and U.S. Jewish leaders and lost funding for Yiddish- and English-speaking newspapers. He was marginalized and likened to a Jew who helps Nazis. It often ends up being a concerted effort out of a fear for Jewish safety to quell those whose voices they feel present a danger to American Jewish life.

Obviously, right now we’re living in a moment where university administrations are working with police to arrest these college students who are voicing dissent.

Do you see what’s happening on campuses as antisemitism?

It would be arrogant and misguided to tell someone their feeling of lack of safety (on campus) is not real. But I don’t feel it and I don’t see it. I do hear criticism of Israel. When unqualified support for Israel is categorized as Jewish, I think that’s wrong because it erases this history of dissent that I chronicle in my book, and the very visible and vocal dissent we are hearing right now in this moment. It flattens Jewish life and diminishes inclusion.

American Jews are usually seen as liberal and have championed many liberal causes while also championing Zionism. That has created some tensions. How have they balanced that?

There was some phrase that someone introduced me to a couple of months ago, “Progressive except Palestine.” Starting in the 1950s, and through the 1960s and 1970s, some of the best teachers on what Israel has done to Palestinians have been in the Civil Rights Movement, the Palestinian American movements. American Jews, by and large, weren’t very open to those lessons. And so, there’s  a lot of confusion among Americans about how it is that American Jews are so liberal on so many issues but are unwilling to listen to or learn the lessons of Israel’s settler-colonial history.

Photograph by Arya Hodjat for the Washingtonian.

I think we really need to ask where this unquestioning brand of American Zionism has positioned us. Who are our allies? If we’re not paying attention to Palestinian displacement and Palestinian suffering and Israelis’ military actions, who do we ally with? And how comfortable are we holding on to feminism and reproductive rights and affirmative action and prison reform and all these other more liberal causes when we can’t ally with Black activists and Palestinian American activists or even just people in the anti-war movement. There are Jews who get really good lessons in those movements and then find themselves without a place to go in American Jewish life. And then there are those who had to make very painful, very difficult choices to keep their fealty to Israel and exit those movements.

One of the most exciting things that’s happening right now is that these young Jews and others are creating bridges between American Jewish life and these progressive coalitions. They’re happening in predictable spaces but also in spaces you might not expect. After I attended an iftar gathering, I had two of the Muslim Student Association leaders from my own campus at my Seder. And that was their first Seder. I too am trying to build bridges of understanding.

Do you feel like that’s going to change as a result of this war?

I was listening to a Zoom session when Rabbi Rebecca Hornstein quoted a verse from the Psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.” And her proposal was that these activists, doing small things and large things, are building the next chapter in American Jewish life.

So I do think the threshold is at an unprecedented low. But I can’t help but notice the generational divides. Future Jewish leadership will likely come from these brave young people.

I can only hope the next chapter will be more open and more tolerant and more inclusive.

By Yonat Shimron, Religion News Service