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Is Split Over Israel a Luxury Restricted to Countries With No Anti-Semitism?

The most surprising thing about Dov Waxman’s new book, is that nobody has published a book like it before. True, my 2014 book, “Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community,” covered the same basic issue, but it focused more on the United Kingdom’s Jewish community than it did on the situation in the United States.

The lack of books on divisions over Israel in the United States and elsewhere is surprising, because coping with these divisions is one of the most pressing issues in Jewish communal life today. As Waxman argues, fragmentation over Israel has been building up since the late 1970s, and in recent years it has erupted into open conflict. The creation of new organizations such as J Street is both a product of and a stimulus to the emergence of a plurality of Jewish voices. This has caused considerable disquiet in some quarters, as Jewish leaders and institutions are less and less able to claim that they represent Jewish opinion on Israel. The emotional intensity of these divisions isn’t limited to the elite few; anecdotal evidence suggests that synagogues and other institutions avoid talking about Israel for fear of causing arguments.

As someone who has worked intensely as both a scholar and an activist to try to understand and ameliorate the conflict over Israel in my own community, I was eager to read Waxman’s book in order to compare the U.K. and U.S. experiences. Much of “Trouble in the Tribe” confirmed my own suspicion that the increasing fragmentation over Israel is common to both communities. There are differences, of course — the right wing has a much more prominent presence in the United States with groups such as the Zionist Organization of America, and the U.K. community is much more centralized than the United States — but the basic issues are the same.

The question that intrigues me now is to what extent division over Israel has become a universal Diaspora phenomenon. I know that in Canada and Australia, at least, the situation is broadly comparable with that of the United States and the United Kingdom, albeit with some local differences. But when we consider the non-English-speaking Diaspora, things get more complicated — and that, I think, tells us something important.

Take France, for example. A couple of years ago I sat on a panel with the respected French-based writer Diano Pinto at London’s Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. In my talk I argued that there were now considerable Jewish divisions over what anti-Semitism is and that these divisions were connected to divisions over Israel. In her response, Pinto said that the situation used to be similar in France, but not anymore. Faced with rising levels of violent anti-Semitism, French Jews are increasingly insecure and, therefore, much more inclined to maintain communal unity and to look to Israel for security. This isn’t to say that all French Jews have become diehard supporters of whatever Israel does, but at the very least it has muted the kinds of infighting over Israel that we know so well elsewhere.

Certainly, France and other Jewish communities in Europe, the former Soviet Union and South America do not seem to harbor the degree of intercommunal conflict over Israel seen in the English-speaking world (although that doesn’t mean that Jews in these places do not contain a wide spectrum of views, and latent divisions).

So, is open conflict over the Jewish state more likely to emerge in countries with a high degree of security? Put another way: Is division over Israel a luxury restricted to countries that are mostly free of anti-Semitism?

Waxman, for his part, names security as one of the reasons for the increasing divisions in the American Jewish community:

American Jews are also more secure about their place in society, and less fearful than they were in the past, due to the decline of anti-Semitism in the United States and their successful integration into American society. The diminished sense of threat means that they feel less of a need for solidarity with each other or with Israel. Hence, they are quicker to “break ranks” and voice dissent. This is particularly true for younger American Jews who do not feel at all vulnerable in the United States, and see no reason not to freely voice their own opinions about Israel.

There’s something paradoxical in the notion that security provides the basis for Jewish conflict. One of the common complaints of Jews who are supportive of Israel’s current political direction is that Jews who are more critical of the state are “undermining” both Israel itself and the security of Diaspora Jewry. There is a common assumption that unity is strength.

This view is correct in one respect: Treating divisions as a source of weakness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we refuse to accept the inevitability of Jews holding diverse opinions in a free society, we spend a huge amount of energy on futile attempts to censor and marginalize. Where the fact of pluralism is treated as a threat, communities can turn inward and lose sight of the real challenges of maintaining communal life in societies in which Jews have multiple other options.

What “Trouble in the Tribe” captures is a Diaspora Jewish community that could go either way. Divisions over Israel have emerged, in part as a consequence of the secure integration within the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries. Those divisions may, over time, become accepted — albeit rarely liked — as a sign of the freedom of Jews to find their own path. Or they may result in balkanization and mutual suspicion.

I look forward to reading another book in a couple of decades, one that will show which path U.S. Jewry chooses.

Keith Kahn-Harris, a London-based sociologist and the author of four books, teaches at Leo Baeck College and is a fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @KeithKahnHarris

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