A decades-long divorce.

Author:Michaelson, Jay

TROUBLE IN THE TRIBE: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel

Dov Waxman

Princeton University Press

2016, pp. 328, $29.95


If you ever want to convince someone not to be Jewish, invite them to an argument over Israel. The rancor, the ignorance, the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism--there's a reason the topic is often banned from polite conversation: The conversation is rarely polite.

How did we get to this point, where what was once a uniting force is now so divisive?

Longtime Middle East politics expert and Northeastern University professor Dov Waxman attempts to tell us in his new volume Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (too jocular a title for such an important, depressing book). He has succeeded, but has also managed to surprise this bruised, cynical veteran of the "conflict" (I play a bit part in the book) several times--and to make me even more pessimistic about it.

As a primer on the American Jewish machloket (argument) over Israel, Trouble in the Tribe is extremely useful. Its data is copious but skimmable; its charts are handy; its perspective mostly balanced. (Waxman tilts a bit leftward at times, but center-left.) It is an excellent guide for the perplexed.

I suspect that most Moment readers are familiar with the basic contours of the debate, so I'm going to skip to the surprising parts.

Here's one: Most American Jews aren't Zionists. Of course, an overwhelming majority supports the State of Israel, but American Jews don't see themselves as living in exile, don't see Israel as their primary home and don't have any real understanding of Zionist ideology per se. They are powerfully attached to the Jewish state, but for tribal, sentimental and religious reasons, not ideological ones.

Moreover, Waxman shows that the love affair between American Jews and Israel is, itself, mostly myth. Waxman shows how little Israel mattered--prior to 1967--to a postwar American Jewish populace struggling to make it here at home. And today, fewer than one-third of non-Orthodox American Jews believe that "caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish."

In fact, Waxman argues (supported by an impressive aggregation of data), the American-Israeli honeymoon was only ten years long. The Six-Day War was when we fell in love. It transformed U.S. policy toward Israel, shifting from Eisenhower's ambivalence to Nixon-Kissinger's full-on support, thus removing the stigma of dual loyalty. Moreover, a...

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