My recently published book, “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel,” is not a polemic. It is not a critique of Israel. In fact, it is not really about Israel at all. It’s about how American Jews relate to Israel and increasingly fight over Israel — an argument that says much more about American Jews than it does about Israel itself.
I had hoped that my analysis of why Israel is becoming such a politically contentious and bitterly divisive issue in the American Jewish community would spark some serious public discussion, and even soul-searching, among American Jews across the political spectrum.
No such luck. Not even close.
Ironically, I’ve received scathing criticisms that only serve to demonstrate the divisiveness I described. The extremely hostile reaction that my book has provoked among some right-wing American Jews supports my thesis that the American Jewish conversation about Israel has degenerated into accusation and acrimony. Or, in other words: They prove my point.
In my book, I argue that a historic transformation is occurring in the American Jewish relationship with Israel: The age of unquestioning support for Israel is over, the pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews has eroded, and Israel has become a source of growing division and conflict for American Jewry. In making this argument, I drew upon hundreds of articles, books and public opinion surveys, and I interviewed dozens of American Jewish leaders and activists.
In light of all this research, what’s really caught me by surprise is the intellectual dishonesty, one-sidedness and Manichean worldview of critics for whom any perspective or analysis that conflicts with their own is denigrated and dismissed out of hand. I want to point this out now, not in order to complain about some bad reviews, but to show how they represent clear evidence of my book’s main argument.
First, it was the neo-conservative former Bush administration official, Elliott Abrams, writing a highly critical review essay in Mosaic Magazine in which he claimed, wrongly, that I argue that American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel because of Israeli policies. The fact that I repeatedly reject the claim that distancing is even occurring and emphasize that what is happening in Israel is only one of many factors behind the changing American Jewish relationship with Israel was apparently completely lost on Abrams, or more likely, not convenient for him.
A similar, but even more tendentious, review of my book written by Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, appeared in Commentary Magazine. According to Pollak, “Trouble in the Tribe” is “a book about what a bad country Israel is, and why American Jews are right to dislike it.” He accused “the Waxmans of the world,” as he put it, of seeking a stealth political victory for “the anti-Israel movement” against the “pro-Israel establishment” — the very same establishment that I argue in my book has actually become more accommodating of dissent about Israel, contrary to the popular left-wing view.
A review by David Isaac in the Washington Free Beacon, another right-wing publication, went even further in its mischaracterization of my book, describing it as “an apologia for radical anti-Israel Jewish organizations and a distorted image of organized American Jewry as intolerant, elitist and intent on silencing those who dare criticize Israel.”
Critics have every right to challenge an author’s analysis and arguments. I was actually looking forward to engaging in thoughtful and productive debate. What I’m learning, however, is that the polarization I describe in “Trouble in the Tribe” makes this nearly impossible. Instead of addressing the claims and evidence I actually present, these critics have misrepresented my arguments, or even deliberately distorted them. They have also resorted to ad hominem attacks. I have been accused of being a self-hating Jew, a traitor, or simply an idiot, as someone nicely put it in a recent email to me after reading one of these reviews, rather than my book. (People now prefer to rely on partisan media outlets that reinforce their pre-existing opinions.)
Sadly, the American Jewish conversation about Israel has not only become argumentative and angry, as I described in my book. It has become a dialogue of the deaf. Nowadays, it seems impossible to have an honest, reasoned, non-politicized discussion of Israel, or even of the American Jewish relationship with Israel. Rather than address the real challenges facing American Jews and Israel today, it’s easier to simply shoot the messenger.
The cheapening and coarsening of American Jewish public discourse about Israel and anything to do with it is probably bad for Israel itself. It’s definitely bad for the American Jewish community.
Dov Waxman is a professor of Political Science, International Affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center. His latest book “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel” has just been published by Princeton University Press.