The traditional argument for a two-state solution has little to do with American Jews and everything to do with Israel. Two states is the key to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, which is why American Jews and American Jewish organizations push it relentlessly. Unless you discount all of the demographic data pointing to the eventual tipping point of there being more Arabs than Jews in the land between the river and sea, or you believe despite all historical evidence and logic that a binational state would not immediately descend into violence and civil war, the only viable way to maintain Israel as both Jewish and democratic is two states. From Israel’s perspective, this should be the greatest policy priority that exists.
But American Jews should view the two-state solution as a local issue as well, particularly in this era of crisis and division between American Jews and Israel. There has been lots said and written about the connection between American Jewry and Israel and whether it is waning, particularly for the younger generation of American Jews. There has also been lots said and written on the crisis of American Jewry itself, and whether or not there will be a viable non-Orthodox American Jewish community at all twenty or thirty years from now. What has not been widely commented on, however, is the connection between Israel and American Judaism as a movement, as opposed to the connection between Israel and American Jews, and how Israel can be a vehicle for the survival and renewal of American Judaism.
I have noted before the way in which American Jewish views of Israel have evolved since the days of the early American Zionist movement. As traditional religious Judaism waned, support for Israel was transformed into the equivalent of a religious obligation and became a stand-in for religious practice This manifested itself in a number of ways, from synagogues embracing their Zionism to significant changes and additions to the Jewish liturgy to it becoming nearly universal practice for the High Holiday services to feature Israel Bond appeals. Israel and Judaism become so enmeshed within each other as to be virtually inseparable, and Israel became the gateway to Judaism itself rather than being a supporting element. For decades, Israel was the glue that bound American Jews together, as it was both a marker of ethnic identity but also a common religious imperative.
It should not then be surprising that the way in which American Jews perceive Israel affects not only their relationship with the Jewish state, but their relationship with their Judaism. The exhaustive 2013 Pew study of American Jewry recorded greater attachment to Israel among Jews who identified themselves as having a religion than among those who did not, and the more traditionally observant the denomination, the greater the attachment to Israel. However, while 69% of American Jews described themselves as attached to Israel, 87% said that caring about Israel is an essential or important component of being Jewish. The American Jewish Committee’s 2015 survey of American Jewish opinion found 72% of respondents agreeing that caring about Israel is a “very important” part of being Jewish.
The fact that caring about Israel – and by implication, caring about the direction that Israel takes – is so important for how American Jews relate to their Judaism is a validation of the conscious effort by American rabbinical and lay leadership to turn Israel and Zionism into a religious obligation. But this binding together of the modern state of Israel and Judaism is a double-edged sword. It inspires devotion to Israel that may be more fervent than it would be ceteris paribus while simultaneously yoking Jewish identity to a fallible country and government that will always disappoint some Jews in some ways.
There are many ways to interpret the survey data on American Jews and Israel, but one big thing that the public opinion numbers reinforce for me is that the two-state solution is imperative to the survival of American Judaism. Support for Israel in the U.S. writ large is predicated on Americans viewing Israel as a democracy that shares American values. Among younger American Jews, this phenomenon is even stronger. Even setting aside the data, anecdotally one can look at the growth and popularity among younger American Jews of organizations like IfNotNow or observe what is happening on college campuses to see that the stalemate with the Palestinians is causing grave harm. The Pew data does not quite back up the deep crisis of support for and identification with Israel that Peter Beinart and others have argued is upon us, but neither does it confirm that support for Israel among American Jews is unwavering.
If American Jews are in greater numbers than before becoming uncomfortable with Israeli policies in the West Bank and in Israel itself, and believe that Israel is not sincere in its efforts to separate from the Palestinians – irrespective of the measure of fault that lies with the Palestinians themselves – then the enormous percentage of American Jews who tie Israel to their Judaism becomes daunting. It means that a drop in support for Israel and a loosening of the emotional bonds that connect American Jews to Israel will significantly damage American Judaism and corrode American Jewish identity. After all, if a core part of what it means to be an American Jew gets called into question, then the entire institution of American Judaism is at risk.
The two-state solution is not something that Israel can implement on its own, and the blame for the continuing absence of a Palestinian state cannot be laid solely at the feet of any Israeli government. Getting to two states, however, is imperative not only for Israel’s long term health, but for the long term health of American Judaism as well. American Jews have viewed themselves since Israel’s founding as being required to support the Jewish state and their support has been critical to Israel’s survival. But it turns out that Israeli actions may be just as critical to the survival of American Judaism, and ensuring that a vibrant Diaspora community does not lose its bearings and its identity.
Israel is ultimately responsible for its own direction, and American Jews can and should only do so much to try and overtly influence it. But we in the U.S. should not delude ourselves into thinking that Israeli policy decisions do not have serious reverberations back here. It is not only American Jewish attitudes toward Israel that are at stake, but American Jewish attitudes toward American Judaism as well.