Far too much of the analysis of the nuclear deal with Iran has focused on what the American Jewish community and Israeli leaders think, as if those opinions were more important than those of the other Americans, Iranians, and international community at large who are also affected by the deal.
Nevertheless, one of the few bright sides of the media spotlight on American Jewish opinion on the deal has been that the loud and highly publicized infighting has proven quite incontrovertibly that there is no such thing as a Jewish consensus, on anything. As the saying goes: two Jews, three opinions. Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel the institutional American Jewish community has long claimed to represent Jewish Opinion, enclosing the boundaries of debate within a very narrow frame.
As I wrote in a letter to The New York Times this week:
The much publicized debate in the Jewish community isn’t just a schism over the idea of diplomacy with Iran. It’s a product of an existing generational divide over Israel that is only deepening as older generations cling to tribalism, militarism and nationalism, while younger Jews, motivated by concepts of universal human rights and justice, are increasingly disillusioned as they become aware of the ways in which Israeli policies don’t align with their values.
The schism in the Jewish community over the Iran deal has been making headlines all summer, but what has been missing from most of these stories is the fact that the debate isn’t solely about Iran or about faith in President Obama. Divergent worldviews—not differing understandings of Iran’s nuclear program and the nature of the deal—shape this divide.
On one side are those who believe that for Jews danger is always just around the corner and the only way to address it is to be heavily armed and build higher walls. On the other side are those who believe that negotiations, diplomacy, and relationships of mutual accountability are the only way to secure relative peace.
These divergent worldviews have a generational dimension. And they aren’t just limited to how Jews think about Iran but, even more importantly, how we think about Israel. Increasingly, American Jews are becoming more vocally critical of Israeli policy and more willing to take action to demand change.
The Pew Poll of American Jewry released in October 2013 caused much anxiety in the organized Jewish community. The poll revealed that younger generations are far less attached to Israel and far less likely to view attachment to the state of Israel as essential to their Jewish identity. Roughly 80% of American Jews 65 and older say that they are attached to Israel, while only 60% of those ages 18-29 say that they are attached. More than half of Jews 65 and older say that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewish identity (53%), while only 32% of Jewish adults under age 30 say that caring about Israel is central to what being Jewish means to them.
The generational shift in the Jewish community isn’t the only piece of the political landscape that’s changing. Gallup and Pew polls during last summer’s Gaza war found a generational and racial divide in American support for Israel’s assault overall (with young people and people of color far less likely to support Israel’s actions). As several recent polls have indicated (including one by GOP pollster Frank Luntz), Israel is increasingly becoming a partisan issue, another factor contributing to the diminishing of the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The passage of the Iran deal proves that there is the political will to go against AIPAC, and that when it is in the interest of the US and of the international community, Congress and the administration can take new approaches to foreign policy. More change is desperately needed. Twenty years after the Oslo Accords, it is long past time for the US to shift from expressions of disapproval when Israel constructs new settlements to enforcing a political or economic cost to such activity. And it is long past time for the US to stop turning a blind eye to the ways that Israel uses US aid to commit human rights abuses against Palestinians.
The forces of diplomacy have clearly won this battle for now, but at a too high a cost. To assuage those who opposed the deal, Israel will come out of the agreement with promises of increased military aid, including both specific equipment like Massive Ordinance Penetration munitions (MOPs) and a commitment to a new memorandum of understanding for the next decade that significantly increases the already $3.1 billion dollars in yearly aid. Israel’s use of said aid against Palestinian civilians has finally raised questions from at least one US lawmaker about possible violations of the Leahy Law, a claim that should be investigated.
There has always been dissent within the Jewish community about unconditional support for Israel, but the divergences within the anti-occupation camp are widening. The debate is moving beyond the dove/hawk debate about how best to get to peace and security for Israel and towards a conversation about whether the desire to preserve the Jewish character of the state should take precedence over demands for equality and justice.
Particularly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm, Israeli society has swung even further to the right, becoming increasingly blatant about the racism underlying its policies. My generation, the post-Oslo generation, is losing patience with a peace process that has dragged on for most of our lives and actually made life for many Palestinians even more difficult. We see that Israel is not willing to make the necessary changes on its own and believe that Israel needs to feel the consequences of its continued settlement expansion, decades of occupation, and heavy-handed uses of military force against civilians.
We are entering a new era. In the post-Iran deal era, it will be increasingly difficult for loud and well-financed conservative voices in the American Jewish community to convince people that they represent a Jewish consensus opinion. I can only hope that the public spotlight on this wedge will help put more pressure on Israel to change.