Except for some fringe elements among the ultra-Orthodox, there is a strong Zionist consensus among Jews. The challenge of the Holocaust caused former non- and anti-Zionists among the Jewish people to change their earlier opinion in favor of Zionism, and that remains the position of the overwhelming majority of Jews, across denominational lines.
In the early years of the independence of Israel, 1948-1967, two factors served to unify world Jewish opinion of the need to stand solidly behind Israel, politically and ecnomically: support for Israel in the face of the existential threat to Israel’s physical survival posed by Arab hostility, and appreciation for the enormous financial burdens undertaken by the Jewish state to gather in the millions of Jewish refugees from the Arab world and from post-Holocaust Europe.
Some disagreements within world Jewry about Israeli policies began to come to the surface in the post-1967 period. After Arab counties, meeting in Khartoum, September, 1967, rebuffed Israel’s attempt to give back the territories captured in The Six Day War in exchange for recognition and peace, Israeli settlement in the administered territories began to accelerate. The pace of that settlement picked up after the accession of Prime Minister Begin's government in 1977. Mirroring the increasingly acrimonious divide between liberals and conservatives in the United States, some American Jews criticized Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and Gaza, while others defended Israel’s policies as a repair of the geographical weakness inherent in the pre-1967 borders. Within that ongoing debate, Conservative/ Masorti Jews, in those years, expressed worry that the settlements would make an eventual “land for peace” exchange more costly and difficult. Nonetheless, those worries were secondary to the strongly cherished Zionism that had become a powerful part of post-Holocaust, post-1948 Jewish identity.
In the past quarter century, the continuing lack of a regional peace has polarized American Jewish opinion still further. Many American Jews have hardened in their attitudes, growing more skeptical of land trades for peace. This is especially the case in the past decade, after the PLO- organized “intifada” in response to Prime Minister Barak’s offers for territorial withdrawal at the 2000 Camp David peace summit, and again, with the Hamas employment of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 to use that land as a launching pad for missiles against southern Israel. On the other hand, some Jews fear that the demographic increases among the Palestinians, coupled with the nuclear ambitions of Iran, make a “two-state” solution, involving an Israeli withdrawal from much of its post-1967 settlements, ever more imperative. While it is easy to oversimplify, one can say that, in broad terms, the more politically and religiously liberal diasporic Jews are more critical of Israel’s caution in offering further concessions, while the more politically and religiously conservative among American Jews emphasize the dangers of unmatched concessions. Conservative/ Masorti Jews, self-identified as moderates, tend to split internally on this issue.
Apart from political differences of opinion, there are also intra-Jewish religious tensions that affect, if only secondarily, the relationship of Diaspora Jews to Israel. Repeatedly since 1970, Conservative/ Masorti Jews have experienced frustration with the Israeli governmental establishment of Orthodoxy as the state religion. In 1970, 1977, 1988 and 1997, as well as in the past decade, the government has entertained proposals to amend the fundamental Israeli Law of Return to discredit conversions to Judaism conducted by Conservative and other non-Orthodox rabbis. Currently, yet another round of this periodic irritant in Israel-Diaspora Jewish relations is unfolding.
Finally, the American Jewish concern with its own continuity sometimes leads diaspora Jews to urge that the support for Israel not be misconstrued as a panacea to reinforce a sense of Jewish identity in an age of assimilation. Calls for this reevaluation were especially prominent in the period right after the Oslo Peace Accord of 1993, when hopes for Mid-East peace ran high. With today’s greater pessimism about Israel’s likelihood of finding a respite from the hostility of its Arab neighbors, such calls to lower the role of Israel in American Jewish thinking have diminished.
Above all, it bears emphasis that the support for Israel on the part of American Jews has remained strong, despite stressors.
Rabbi Michael Panitz
Conservative/ MasortiSept. 3, 2010