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The Great Rupture in American Jewish Life

For the last decade or so, an ideological tremor has been unsettling American Jewish life. Since Oct. 7, it has become an earthquake. It concerns the relationship between liberalism and Zionism....

Illustration: Daniel Benneworth-Gray / New York Times,

For the last decade or so, an ideological tremor has been unsettling American Jewish life. Since Oct. 7, it has become an earthquake. It concerns the relationship between liberalism and Zionism, two creeds that for more than half a century have defined American Jewish identity. In the years to come, American Jews will face growing pressure to choose between them.

They will face that pressure because Israel’s war in Gaza has supercharged a transformation on the American left. Solidarity with Palestinians is becoming as essential to leftist politics as support for abortion rights or opposition to fossil fuels. And as happened during the Vietnam War and the struggle against South African apartheid, leftist fervor is reshaping the liberal mainstream. In December, the United Automobile Workers demanded a cease-fire and formed a divestment working group to consider the union’s “economic ties to the conflict.” In January, the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force called for a cease-fire as well. In February, the leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the nation’s oldest Black Protestant denomination, called on the United States to halt aid to the Jewish state. Across blue America, many liberals who once supported Israel or avoided the subject are making the Palestinian cause their own.

This transformation remains in its early stages. In many prominent liberal institutions — most significantly, the Democratic Party — supporters of Israel remain not only welcome but also dominant. But the leaders of those institutions no longer represent much of their base. The Democratic majority leader, Senator Chuck Schumer, acknowledged this divide in a speech on Israel on the Senate floor last week. He reiterated his longstanding commitment to the Jewish state, though not its prime minister. But he also conceded, in the speech’s most remarkable line, that he “can understand the idealism that inspires so many young people in particular to support a one-state solution” — a solution that does not involve a Jewish state. Those are the words of a politician who understands that his party is undergoing profound change.

The American Jews most committed to Zionism, the ones who run establishment institutions, understand that liberal America is becoming less ideologically hospitable. And they are responding by forging common cause with the American right. It’s no surprise that the Anti-Defamation League, which only a few years ago harshly criticized Donald Trump’s immigration policies, recently honored his son-in-law and former senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Mr. Trump himself recognizes the emerging political split. “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion,” he said in an interview published on Monday. “They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves because Israel will be destroyed.” It’s typical Trumpian indecency and hyperbole, but it’s rooted in a political reality. For American Jews who want to preserve their country’s unconditional support for Israel for another generation, there is only one reliable political partner: a Republican Party that views standing for Palestinian rights as part of the “woke” agenda.

The American Jews who are making a different choice — jettisoning Zionism because they can’t reconcile it with the liberal principle of equality under the law — garner less attention because they remain further from power. But their numbers are larger than many recognize, especially among millennials and Gen Z. And they face their own dilemmas. They are joining a Palestine solidarity movement that is growing larger, but also more radical, in response to Israel’s destruction of Gaza. That growing radicalism has produced a paradox: A movement that welcomes more and more American Jews finds it harder to explain where Israeli Jews fit into its vision of Palestinian liberation.

The emerging rupture between American liberalism and American Zionism constitutes the greatest transformation in American Jewish politics in half a century. It will redefine American Jewish life for decades to come.


“American Jews,” writes Marc Dollinger in his book “Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America,” have long depicted themselves as “guardians of liberal America.” Since they came to the United States in large numbers around the turn of the 20th century, Jews have been wildly overrepresented in movements for civil, women’s, labor and gay rights. Since the 1930s, despite their rising prosperity, they have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. For generations of American Jews, the icons of American liberalism — Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem — have been secular saints..

The American Jewish love affair with Zionism dates from the early 20th century as well. But it came to dominate communal life only after Israel’s dramatic victory in the 1967 war exhilarated American Jews eager for an antidote to Jewish powerlessness during the Holocaust. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was nearly bankrupt on the eve of the 1967 war, had become American Jewry’s most powerful institution by the 1980s. American Jews, wrote Albert Vorspan, a leader of Reform Judaism, in 1988, “have made of Israel an icon — a surrogate faith, surrogate synagogue, surrogate God.”

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Given the depth of these twin commitments, it’s no surprise that American Jews have long sought to fuse them by describing Zionism as a liberal cause. It has always been a strange pairing. American liberals generally consider themselves advocates of equal citizenship irrespective of ethnicity, religion and race. Zionism — or at the least the version that has guided Israel since its founding — requires Jewish dominance. From 1948 to 1966, Israel held most of its Palestinian citizens under military law; since 1967 it has ruled millions of Palestinians who hold no citizenship at all. Even so, American Jews could until recently assert their Zionism without having their liberal credentials challenged.

The primary reason was the absence from American public discourse of Palestinians, the people whose testimony would cast those credentials into greatest doubt. In 1984, the Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said argued that in the West, Palestinians lack “permission to narrate” their own experience. For decades after he wrote those words, they remained true. A study by the University of Arizona’s Maha Nassar found that of the opinion articles about Palestinians published in The New York Times and The Washington Post between 2000 and 2009, Palestinians themselves wrote roughly 1 percent.

But in recent years, Palestinian voices, while still embattled and even censored, have begun to carry. Palestinians have turned to social media to combat their exclusion from the press. In an era of youth-led activism, they have joined intersectional movements forged by parallel experiences of discrimination and injustice. Meanwhile, Israel — under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu for most of the past two decades — has lurched to the right, producing politicians so openly racist that their behavior cannot be defended in liberal terms.

Many Palestine solidarity activists identify as leftists, not liberals. But like the activists of the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, they have helped change liberal opinion with their radical critiques. In 2002, according to Gallup, Democrats sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of 34 points. By early 2023, they favored the Palestinians by 11 points. And because opinion about Israel cleaves along generational lines, that pro-Palestinian skew is much greater among the young. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in November, Democrats under the age of 35 sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israelis by 58 points.

Given this generational gulf, universities offer a preview of the way many liberals — or “progressives,” a term that straddles liberalism and leftism and enjoys more currency among young Americans — may view Zionism in the years to come. Supporting Palestine has become a core feature of progressive politics on many campuses. At Columbia, for example, 94 campus organizations — including the Vietnamese Students Association, the Reproductive Justice Collective and Poetry Slam, Columbia’s “only recreational spoken word club” — announced in November that they “see Palestine as the vanguard for our collective liberation.” As a result, Zionist Jewish students find themselves at odds with most of their politically active peers.

Accompanying this shift, on campus and beyond, has been a rise in Israel-related antisemitism. It follows a pattern in American history. From the hostility toward German Americans during World War I to violence against American Muslims after Sept. 11 and assaults on Asian Americans during the Covid pandemic, Americans have a long and ugly tradition of expressing their hostility toward foreign governments or movements by targeting compatriots who share a religion, ethnicity or nationality with those overseas adversaries. Today, tragically, some Americans who loathe Israel are taking it out on American Jews. (Palestinian Americans, who have endured multiple violent hate crimes since Oct. 7, are experiencing their own version of this phenomenon.) The spike in antisemitism since Oct. 7 follows a pattern. Five years ago, the political scientist Ayal Feinberg, using data from 2001 and 2014, found that reported antisemitic incidents in the United States spike when the Israeli military conducts a substantial military operation.

Attributing the growing discomfort of pro-Israel Jewish students entirely to antisemitism, however, misses something fundamental. Unlike establishment Jewish organizations, Jewish students often distinguish between bigotry and ideological antagonism.In a 2022 study, the political scientist Eitan Hersh found that more than 50 percent of Jewish college students felt “they pay a social cost for supporting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.” And yet, in general, Dr. Hersh reported, “the students do not fear antisemitism.”

Surveys since Oct. 7 find something similar. Asked in November in a Hillel International poll to describe the climate on campus since the start of the war, 20 percent of Jewish students answered “unsafe” and 23 percent answered “scary.” By contrast, 45 percent answered “uncomfortable” and 53 percent answered “tense.” A survey that same month by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that only 37 percent of American Jewish voters ages 18 to 35 consider campus antisemitism a “very serious problem,” compared with nearly 80 percent of American Jewish voters over the age of 35.

While some young pro-Israel American Jews experience antisemitism, they more frequently report ideological exclusion. As Zionism becomes associated with the political right, their experiences on progressive campuses are coming to resemble the experiences of young Republicans. The difference is that unlike young Republicans, most young American Zionists were raised to believe that theirs was a liberal creed. When their parents attended college, that assertion was rarely challenged. On the same campuses where their parents felt at home, Jewish students who view Zionism as central to their identity now often feel like outsiders.

In 1979, Mr. Said observed that in the West, “to be a Palestinian is in political terms to be an outlaw.” In much of America — including Washington — that remains true. But within progressive institutions one can glimpse the beginning of a historic inversion. Often, it’s now the Zionists who feel like outlaws.

Given the organized American Jewish community’s professed devotion to liberal principles, which include free speech, one might imagine that Jewish institutions would greet this ideological shift by urging pro-Israel students to tolerate and even learn from their pro-Palestinian peers. Such a stance would flow naturally from the statements establishment Jewish groups have made in the past. A few years ago, the Anti-Defamation League declared that “our country’s universities serve as laboratories for the exchange of differing viewpoints and beliefs. Offensive, hateful speech is protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment.”

But as pro-Palestinian sentiment has grown in progressive America, pro-Israel Jewish leaders have apparently made an exception for anti-Zionism. While still claiming to support free speech on campus, the ADL last October asked college presidents to investigate local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine to determine whether they violated university regulations or state or federal laws, a demand that the American Civil Liberties Union warned could “chill speech” and “betray the spirit of free inquiry.” After the University of Pennsylvania hosted a Palestinian literature festival last fall, Marc Rowan, chair of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York and chair of the board of advisers of Penn’s Wharton business school, condemned the university’s president for giving the festival Penn’s “imprimatur.” In December, he encouraged trustees to alter university policies in ways that Penn’s branch of the American Association of University Professors warned could “silence and punish speech with which trustees disagree.”

In this effort to limit pro-Palestinian speech, establishment Jewish leaders are finding their strongest allies on the authoritarian right. Pro-Trump Republicans have their own censorship agenda: They want to stop schools and universities from emphasizing America’s history of racial and other oppression. Calling that pedagogy antisemitic makes it easier to ban or defund. At a much discussed congressional hearing in December featuring the presidents of Harvard, Penn and M.I.T., the Republican representative Virginia Foxx noted that Harvard teaches courses like “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power” and hosts seminars such as “Scientific Racism and Anti-Racism: History and Recent Perspectives” before declaring that “Harvard also, not coincidentally but causally, was ground zero for antisemitism following Oct. 7.”

Ms. Foxx’s view is typical. While some Democrats also equate anti-Zionism and antisemitism, the politicians and business leaders most eager to suppress pro-Palestinian speech are conservatives who link such speech to the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda they despise. Elise Stefanik, a Trump acolyte who has accused Harvard of “caving to the woke left,” became the star of that congressional hearing by demanding that Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, punish students who chant slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” (Ms. Gay was subsequently forced to resign following charges of plagiarism.) Elon Musk, who in November said that the phrase “from the river to the sea” was banned from his social media platform X (formerly Twitter), the following month declared, “D.E.I. must die.” The first governor to ban Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at his state’s public universities was Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who has also signed legislation that limits what those universities can teach about race and gender.

Image credit: Leah Millis/Reuters  //  New York Times

For the many American Jews who still consider themselves both progressives and Zionists, this growing alliance between leading Zionist institutions and a Trumpist Republican Party is uncomfortable. But in the short term, they have an answer: politicians like President Biden, whose views about both Israel and American democracy roughly reflect their own. In his speech last week, Mr. Schumer called these liberal Zionists American Jewry’s “silent majority.”

For the moment he may be right. In the years to come, however, as generational currents pull the Democratic Party in a more pro-Palestinian direction and push America’s pro-Israel establishment to the right, liberal Zionists will likely find it harder to reconcile their two faiths. Young American Jews offer a glimpse into that future, in which a sizable wing of American Jewry decides that to hold fast to its progressive principles it must jettison Zionism and embrace equal citizenship in Israel and Palestine, as well as in the United States.

For an American Jewish establishment that equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, these anti-Zionist Jews are inconvenient. Sometimes, pro-Israel Jewish organizations pretend they don’t exist. In November, after Columbia suspended two anti-Zionist campus groups, the ADL thanked university leaders for acting “to protect Jewish students” — even though one of the suspended groups was Jewish Voice for Peace. At other times, pro-Israel leaders describe anti-Zionist Jews as a negligible fringe. If American Jews are divided over the war in Gaza, Andrés Spokoiny, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Funders Network, an organization for Jewish philanthropists, declared in December, “the split is 98 percent/2 percent.”

Among older American Jews, this assertion of a Zionist consensus contains some truth. But among younger American Jews, it’s false. In 2021, even before Israel’s current far-right government took power, the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 38 percent of American Jewish voters under the age of 40 viewed Israel as an apartheid state, compared with 47 percent who said it’s not. In November, it revealed that 49 percent of American Jewish voters ages 18 to 35 opposed Mr. Biden’s request for additional military aid to Israel. On many campuses, Jewish students are at the forefront of protests for a cease-fire and divestment from Israel. They don’t speak for all — and maybe not even most — of their Jewish peers. But they represent far more than 2 percent.

These progressive Jews are, as the U.S. editor of The London Review of Books, Adam Shatz, noted to me, a double minority. Their anti-Zionism makes them a minority among American Jews, while their Jewishness makes them a minority in the Palestine solidarity movement. Fifteen years ago, when the liberal Zionist group J Street was intent on being the “blocking back” for President Barack Obama’s push for a two-state solution, some liberal Jews imagined themselves leading the push to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Today, the prospect of partition has diminished, and Palestinians increasingly set the terms of activist criticism of Israel. That discourse, which is peppered with terms like “apartheid” and “decolonization," is generally hostile to a Jewish state within any borders.

There’s nothing antisemitic about envisioning a future in which Palestinians and Jews coexist on the basis of legal equality rather than Jewish supremacy. But in pro-Palestine activist circles in the United States, coexistence has receded as a theme. In 1999, Mr. Said argued for “a binational Israeli-Palestinian state” that offered “self-determination for both peoples.” In his 2007 book, “One Country,” Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, an influential source of pro-Palestine news and opinion, imagined one state whose name reflected the identities of both major communities that inhabit it. The terms “‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are dear to those who use them and they should not be abandoned,” he argued. “The country could be called Yisrael-Falastin in Hebrew and Filastin-Isra’il in Arabic.”

In recent years, however, as Israel has moved to the right, pro-Palestinian discourse in the United States has hardened. The phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which dates from the 1960s but has gained new prominence since Oct. 7, does not acknowledge Palestine and Israel’s binational character. To many American Jews, in fact, the phrase suggests a Palestine free of Jews. It sounds expulsionist, if not genocidal. It’s an ironic charge, given that it is Israel that today controls the land between the river and the sea, whose leaders openly advocate the mass exodus of Palestinians and that the International Court of Justice says could plausibly be committing genocide in Gaza.

Palestinian scholars like Maha Nassar and Ahmad Khalidi argue that “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” does not imply the subjugation of Jews. It instead reflects the longstanding Palestinian belief that Palestine should have become an independent country when released from European colonial control, a vision that does not preclude Jews from living freely alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors. The Jewish groups closest to the Palestine solidarity movement agree: Jewish Voice for Peace’s Los Angeles chapter has argued that the slogan is no more anti-Jewish than the phrase “Black lives matter” is anti-white. And if the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States calls for the genocide of Jews, it’s hard to explain why so many Jews have joined its ranks. Rabbi Alissa Wise, an organizer of Rabbis for Cease-Fire, estimates that other than Palestinians, no other group has been as prominent in the protests against the war as Jews.

Still, imagining a “free Palestine” from the river to the sea requires imagining that Israeli Jews will become Palestinians, which erases their collective identity. That’s a departure from the more inclusive vision that Mr. Said and Mr. Abunimah outlined years ago. It’s harder for Palestinian activists to offer that more inclusive vision when they are watching Israel bomb and starve Gaza. But the rise of Hamas makes it even more essential.

Jews who identify with the Palestinian struggle may find it difficult to offer this critique. Many have defected from the Zionist milieu in which they were raised. Having made that painful transition, which can rupture relations with friends and family, they may be disinclined to question their new ideological home. It’s frightening to risk alienating one community when you’ve already alienated another. Questioning the Palestine solidarity movement also violates the notion, prevalent in some quarters of the American left, that members of an oppressor group should not second-guess representatives of the oppressed.

But these identity hierarchies suppress critical thought. Palestinians aren’t a monolith, and progressive Jews aren’t merely allies. They are members of a small and long-persecuted people who have not only the right but also the obligation to care about Jews in Israel, and to push the Palestine solidarity movement to more explicitly include them in its vision of liberation, in the spirit of the Freedom Charter adopted during apartheid by the African National Congress and its allies, which declared in its second sentence that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and white.”

For many American Jews, it is painful to watch their children’s or grandchildren’s generation question Zionism. It is infuriating to watch students at liberal institutions with which they once felt aligned treat Zionism as a racist creed. It is tempting to attribute all this to antisemitism, even if that requires defining many young American Jews as antisemites themselves.

But the American Jews who insist that Zionism and liberalism remain compatible should ask themselves why Israel now attracts the fervent support of Representative Stefanik but repels the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Automobile Workers. Why it enjoys the admiration of Elon Musk and Viktor Orban but is labeled a perpetrator of apartheid by Human Rights Watch and likened to the Jim Crow South by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Why it is more likely to retain unconditional American support if Mr. Trump succeeds in turning the United States into a white Christian supremacist state than if he fails.

For many decades, American Jews have built our political identity on a contradiction: Pursue equal citizenship here; defend group supremacy there. Now here and there are converging. In the years to come, we will have to choose.

[Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) is a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also the editor at large of Jewish Currents and writes The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter.]