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2018 Annual Assessment

The first glimmerings of misgiving in the American-Jewish connection to Israel, appeared in the 1980s. By the 2000s, these gradually crystallized into actual criticism. While the 1967 Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 bolstered American-Jewish support for Israel and were perceived as justifying strengthening of the Jewish national home,4 the 1982 Lebanon War was not perceived as a war of existential necessity. This war, and the bloodshed of Sabra and Shatila in particular, generated public criticism of, and reservations about, Israel. The 1986 Pollard affair and the Intifada that erupted a year later were also milestones in a nascent distancing process between the two communities. Religious tensions can also be traced to the 1980s, in particular the relations between Israel and the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism prevalent in the United States. These new tensions seeped into American-Jewish cultural production and gave rise to new narratives and images of Israel and Israelis.

The 2005 film Munich (2005) is emblematic of this new critical trend. Two prominent American Jews were behind this production: screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg. Munich, which returns to the scene of the 1972 Olympics massacre three decades later, reexamines the image of the Mossad agent and reevaluates the moral justification for Israeli security operations against the country’s enemies. The film tells the story of how a special Mossad unit assassinated the terrorists who took hostage and murdered 11 Israeli Olympic team members at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The movie’s reception in Israel was mixed; some decried the equivalence it seemed to draw between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli reprisals. The ineptitude the film ascribed to the Mossad was also criticized; this portrayal was also thought to further erode the prevailing American image of the Mossad as professionally and morally infallible. At the heart of the film lies a moral assessment of the decisions with which Israel, and the American Jewish community, are faced. Munich reflects deep divergence and alienation between the two communities with regard to morals and the meaning of Jewish identity. According to the new narrative, U.S. Jewry is not reconciled with Israeliness, which has abandoned the Jewish ethos and chosen in its stead survival at all costs.

This critical perspective, also stands opposed Spielberg’s earlier (Jewish) work, Schindler’s List (1993). This movie ends with a frame of Zionist Jewish unity: The survivors gather on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, where they appear unified and protected. This symbolic picture expresses the essence of the State of Israel as a secure homeland – an answer to two thousand years of Exile, persecution and constant threats to survival. In Munich, however, it seems that Spielberg is not satisfied with justifying Israel as a secure refuge for Jews, and wishes to interrogate the legitimacy and limits of the use of force by the state of Israel, even if it was founded as a refuge. According to Munich, the American Jew prefers what he recognizes as “Jewish ethics,” even if that means living in exile rather than in Israel. Accordingly, the film highlights (and condemns) the vengeful and violent impulses that lay behind the Mossad operation, while altogether disregarding the security and deterrence considerations that informed it. For this reason, the film ends with a parting of ways between the American protagonist and the Israeli Mossad agent. [9.]

The question of alienation and separation between the communities, as raised in Munich, is being addressed by other American Jews in the arts, as well as by public figures, scholars, and leaders. In an article in the prestigious New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart argued that the reasons behind the currently deteriorating relations between young American Jews and Israel have to do with politics and norms. Beinart also attacked the leaders of American Jewish organizations such as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for choosing to defend Israel at all costs, even when it merits opprobrium. He pointed to a conflict between the strong liberal tendencies shared by young American Jews and Israel’s political behavior, especially its treatment of the Palestinians, which young American Jews perceive as ongoing oppression. [10.] In his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism Beinart makes a case similar to the one made in Munich: that U.S. Jews are, by virtue of their Jewishness, committed to Jewish imperatives of compassion and justice. When Israel violates these rules of conduct, it distances itself not only from American Jewry, but also, and most importantly, from the essence of Judaism and from authentic Zionism. Accordingly, Beinart predicts a parting of ways between the two communities, similar to that presaged by the final scene of Munich.

It is particularly interesting to see how the aforementioned critical narrative is embodied in literary form. The year 2007 saw the publication of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by American-Jewish author Michael Chabon; the novel is a variation on Beinart’s alienation thesis. A piece in Commentary called the novel an anti-Zionist work, ascribing to it the view that Jewish nationalism, realized in Eretz Israel, necessarily translates into bloodshed and fanaticism. [11.] Other reviewers also saw The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as anti-Zionist or antagonistic to Jewish nationalism; some even accused Chabon of being a self-hating Jew. [12.]

However, a close reading of the book reveals a much more nuanced view of Zionism. Chabon wrote a counterfactual novel that is concerned with Jewish history and, in particular, with the questions of what Jewish nationalism should look like and what role Zionism should play in this regard. One needs to recognize that the novel does not reject or deny Zionism’s main principle – Jewish ties to the Land of Israel, i.e., the historical existence of an ancient Jewish people with roots in the historical homeland, Eretz Israel. The main criticism leveled at Israel in Chabon’s work refers to certain religious-messianic elements within Zionism. The novel cautions against a convergence of factors and circumstances that could, potentially, generate dangerous religious-political fanaticism, some degree of which has indeed surfaced on the margins of in recent Israeli history. This is a specific criticism of messianic-religious Zionism, not an anti-Zionist stand as such. Nevertheless, the novel clearly gives expression to doubts, misgivings, and rising tension between the American-Jewish community (or at least large swathes of it) and Israel, with regard to the character of the state and the practical realization of Zionism.

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