Israel's Divide With U.S. Jews Exacerbated by Iran Nuclear Deal

Protest in New York against nuclear deal with Iran

Pro-Israel protesters shout at anti-zionist Orthodox Jews during a rally against the nuclear deal with Iran in Times Square, New York on July 22.

Photographer: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  • Young Jewish adults in U.S. more critical of Israeli policies
  • Concerns over Palestinians and attitude to non-Orthodox Jews

At a time when many Israelis say they need all the friends they can get, officials in Jerusalem worry that a split is growing with their core supporters, U.S. Jews, over the Iran nuclear deal as well as treatment of Palestinians and the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewish liturgy.

“What Iran did was throw into high relief and accelerate the splits that already existed,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, born and brought up in the U.S., who just published a book on strained ties between Israel and the U.S. under President Barack Obama. Of the Iran deal, he added, “On a certain level, it appeared to force Jews to choose between their devotion to Israel and their loyalty to the president.”

From the time it was a state-in-the-making in the 1940s, Israel has relied on U.S. Jewry -- the largest Jewish population outside Israel -- to represent its interests in Washington. Today, pro-Israel lobbying remains strong although a third of Jews in a recent survey said they are unaffiliated and feel little attachment to Israel.

While the numbers haven’t significantly changed over the past decade, officials say American Jews’ increasing assimilation and differences with Israel on major issues are becoming more manifest.

Polls show American Jews generally favor the Iran deal, which lifts sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for closely-monitored Iranian promises not to pursue a nuclear weapon for the next decade. Israel says the deal is dangerously flawed and that it will help Iran obtain such a bomb with which it will threaten the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forcefully opposed the accord, putting American Jews, who predominantly vote Democratic and support Obama, in a difficult position.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who focuses on the Mideast peace process and the Israeli-U.S. strategic relationship, says Netanyahu is turning Israel into a Republican cause, problematic for U.S. Jews. “Some would say this prime minister hasn’t spent five seconds thinking about what this crisis means for American Jews,” he said. “Until now, Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree if the sun was shining but they could agree on Israel. You don’t want to lose that.”

While the organized U.S. Jewish community has so far largely lined up behind official Israeli positions, many among the young, educated and liberal were already growing frustrated with Israel’s lack of religious pluralism and what many see as its intransigence on the Palestinian issue. A Pew Research Center survey found that 53 percent of American Jews over the age of 65 equate caring about Israel with their Jewish identity. But only a third of those under 30 feel that way.

Combative Posture

“People are getting more comfortable with asking questions about Israel and what it is doing politically, culturally and religiously,” said Missy Goldstein, a 24-year-old Jewish educator from Florida studying at the Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem affiliated with Reform Judaism.

John Linder, a Reform rabbi in Arizona who was one of the 340 rabbis to sign a letter backing the Iran agreement, said Netanyahu didn’t help matters with “this combative posture with our president.”

The younger generation has not grown up with a sense of Jewish vulnerability and “won’t buy the old narrative of David and Goliath, hook, line and sinker,” Linder added.

The control of Jewish civil life in Israel by the ultra-Orthodox is not helping. Israel’s religious affairs minister said non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the vast majority of the Jewish population in the U.S., had “gone astray.” Netanyahu’s cabinet reversed an initiative to ease the Jewish conversion process to make it more palatable to the non-Orthodox and resolve issues around the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel.

Abraham Foxman, who recently retired as director of the Anti-Defamation League, a leading U.S. Jewish group, called the minister’s remarks “unconscionable,” noting they came as the government pulled back on the conversion law and amid “growing tensions with the non-Orthodox Jewish diaspora.”

The organized U.S. Jewish community has so far largely lined up behind Netanyahu and official Israeli positions. This was evident when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee took up Netanyahu’s fight against the Iran deal in Washington. Aipac leaders, who are themselves mostly Conservative Jews, may become alienated if Israel continues to ignore religious pluralism, warned Yizhar Hess, chief executive officer of the Masorti Movement for Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Oren, the former ambassador who is now a member of parliament, says the growing disagreements could be costly. “Putting Iran aside, how much can we rely on U.S. Jewry on other issues?” he asked. “Israel, for its part, has to demonstrate to American Jews that it is what it claims to be, a nation state of the Jewish people and not a state for Jewish people who observe their Judaism in any specific way.”

Moving forward with the Palestinians is also important, he said. “The passivity of the status quo isn’t acceptable to American Jews and paints a problem for their identity,” Oren added.

Boycott

The government is aware that it’s losing support among its core U.S. backers just when it may need them to fend off calls to boycott Israel, a trend that Netanyahu has called a major threat. This month, a government-sponsored committee met to discuss a $150 million program aimed at improving ties with the diaspora.

Natan Sharansky, who heads the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem responsible for ties with Jews abroad and facilitating immigration to Israel, said the rift must be mended. Israel and the diaspora actually need one another to reinforce their identities, especially amid growing assimilation and anti-Jewish sentiment growing in various corners of the world, he noted.

“This feeling that we can only survive together is so deep that it is much stronger than the tensions that today seem critical,” said Sharansky. “The most important thing is to keep talking.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE