In the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election victory last week—and the sordid campaigning that made it possible—liberal American Jews may be feeling, more than they ever have before, pained by, conflicted about, and even estranged from Israel. There are certainly consequences for policy, as U.S. policy toward Israel could become a much more partisan issue than it is now. But more than that, there's a crisis of the spirit emerging.
It's fed by three trends, all of which serve to alienate liberal American Jews from Israel, all of which were highlighted by this election, and all of which look inexorable. The first, of course, is the hopelessness of the Palestinian situation. When, just before the election, Netanyahu abandoned his stated support for an ultimate two-state solution, it didn't surprise anyone, since no one ever believed his previous statements of support were remotely sincere. But it was still painful for liberal Jews, whose belief in Israel demands an accompanying belief that the Palestinians will one day be granted their autonomy. What makes watching another Gaza war or understanding the brutal reality of occupation tolerable is the hope that this will, one day, be settled. But not only did Netanyahu make clear that he wants to deny basic rights to Palestinians forever, for his purposes, it worked. His last-minute statement on that issue, plus his ugly nationalist campaign (warning his supporters that Arabs were voting "in droves," the posters reading "It's us or them") did the trick, bringing him an unexpected victory.
And that's the second trend that liberal Jews have trouble reconciling: the rightward shift in Israeli society. There are still plenty of Israeli liberals, but they're being swamped by conservatives of various (and sometimes overlapping) stripes: the Russian immigrants, the ultra-nationalist settlers, the ultra-orthodox whose prodigious childbearing could win them the Israeli future even as they hold to 19th-century ways.
This was not the Israel liberal Zionists fell in love with. When I was young, the kibbutznik was, in the minds of liberal American Jews, the prototypical Israeli (even if kibbutzniks never made up more than a tiny portion of the Israeli population). He was a pioneer, educated and idealistic, turning the desert green and forging a new kind of society. And yes, he was a socialist—a hard-core one at first, and later what you might call a more modern socialist, but still a socialist. Most liberal American Jews might not want to actually move to a kibbutz for more than a summer (though some did), but they found it a romantic and compelling embodiment of what Israel was and could be.
There are still 270 or so kibbutzim in existence, but today their socialism and their idealistic spirit have withered away. When Jewish Americans think of Israelis now, that vision of a kibbutznik with a hoe in one hand and a copy of Rosa Luxemburg's The Accumulation of Capital in the other is no longer what comes to mind.
Then there's the third trend, one occurring back here at home: the increasing centrality of Israel to Republican foreign policy beliefs, and the ever-intensifying Zionism among American conservatives. To put it simply, being a liberal Zionist becomes uncomfortable when your greatest allies in that cause are the likes of Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz. If you're a liberal Jew, the political figures you find the most repugnant are the ones who devotion to Israel is most fervent. We live in a time when a conservative Republican like U.S. Representative Steve King accuses American Jews of having insufficient dual loyalties.
In a bizarre way, that's almost reassuring, in that it highlights just how rare anti-Semitism has become in America. An American Jew is more likely to be exposed to weird conservative philo-Semitism than to actual anti-Semitism. That isn't to say it no longer exists, but you'd have a hard time finding American Jews today who could honestly say that anti-Semitism endangers them or restricts their lives in some way.
Which undercuts one of the core rationales that was always offered for supporting Israel: In that place, and only in that place, will Jews ever be truly safe. Anywhere else in the world, it's only a matter of time before they come for you.
But American Jews just don't feel that way anymore. Anti-Semitic incidents may be on the rise in Europe (which prompted Netanyahu to tell European Jews they should pick up and move to Israel), but America is not Europe particularly on this issue. (Of course, my late grandmother would say, "That's what the German Jews thought right before Hitler.")
Where does all that leave the liberal American Zionists? With questions they can't answer, ideals they can't reconcile, and emotions that cause no end of agita.
In a recent article for the New York Times Magazine, Jason Horowitz described a conversation with Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer, a close confidant of Netanyahu, American-born, and a former GOP operative. Dermer, he said, "wasn't worried about liberal Jews. He argued that 'a lot of the fissures' in the American Jewish community would seal up the moment Israel came under attack." I've heard people say something similar about the Israeli diaspora: If there were another real war (i.e., not a war on Gaza), all the thousands of expat Israelis now living in Los Angeles would be on the next plane! And maybe they would. But they've still chosen to live here.
Liberal American Jews may find themselves in a similar place with regard to Israel. Yes, we care for the Jewish state, and yes, we'd be there for it (in some way or other) if it were truly threatened. But in our hearts, we can't live there anymore. Not for now, anyway.