fbpx

Why American Jews Struggle with Israel

Most American Jews view Israel through the lens of what it does, whereas the rest of the world views Israel through the lens of what it is.
[additional-authors]
December 22, 2021
Nick Brundle Photography/Getty Images

Alongside the missile fire from Hamas and the rise of antisemitic attacks, a certain question has been pressing among the American Jewish community: What is our relationship to Israel? It seems like a simple question. Yet, as a community, we have been unable to give a consistent answer. This question stirs in us heaps of insecurities, pursed lips, and deep sighs: interesting question, we say, it’s nuanced and complex. It’s a long conversation. Ask me another day, when I’m bright-eyed and my coffee is full. And here is our predicament: we feel our opinion on Israel is valid and sound only if we know every fact—which, of course, is impossible. So we twist uncomfortably, putting our hands up in defeat, and say we don’t feel adequate to respond to the question. 

I was there. I’m an American Jew: I grew up to believe we love Israel because it is democratic, innovative, and performs countless humanitarian acts; in short, because it does good. Oh, and of course because it happens to be our homeland (given by God to the Jewish people in the Torah).

I loved Israel, and I was proud singing Israeli songs and knowing Israel did good by helping other countries and people in need. So why then, in high school, when confronted with claims of illegal occupation and settlements, stealing water and ethnic cleansing, did I freeze? Why did I not know how to respond, and worse yet, why was a part of me worried the claims might be true? I scrambled to prove them wrong, worried that I hadn’t been taught the truth. 

After conversing with many proud Russian, French and other non-American-born Jews, I recognized the origin of this cultural uneasiness in relation to Israel. This phenomenon of needing to know every facet of Israel-related conversations to confirm its good standing was not a view I alone had: it was common among American Jews. 

At the root of trepidation about Israel is not a lack of knowledge; it is our uniquely American mindset—a phenomenon I dub the “is” vs. “does” problem. Most American Jews view Israel through the lens of what it does, whereas the rest of the world views Israel through the lens of what it is. This may sound like a minor difference, but the “does” mindset has a major flaw: if our view of Israel is based on what Israel does, because governments and their actions change often we will perpetually be uncomfortable defining our relationship to Israel. We will still squirm at the question.

The mainstream American Jewish perspective on Israel is so rooted in what Israel does…that it distracts from why we care about Israel in the first place—for what Israel is.

The mainstream American Jewish perspective on Israel is so rooted in what Israel does (as we view Israel as an emblem of democracy and western values or, as Daniel Gordis puts it, a “little America” in the Middle East) that it distracts from why we care about Israel in the first place—for what Israel is. We wouldn’t have this ceaseless discourse if Israel weren’t something of innate importance to us. We logically know this. Israel is our homeland. The sky is blue. But the mental gap lies not in the logical understanding of our innate connection to our origin, but the visceral one.

The world does not hate Israel for what it does—the world hates (or loves) Israel because of what it is— because it symbolizes Jews.

While we struggle to understand our relationship to our homeland, the rest of the world understands it intrinsically. To the rest of the world, Jews are Judean—“Jew” equals Israel. They know we are from there. They shouted “Go back to Palestine” at the old Jewish man on a bus in Minsk (Palestine was the common name for Israel before 1948)—because they knew he was a foreigner in Russian lands. American Jews have fortunately not experienced the pervasive antisemitism experienced by Russian Jews, so we don’t connect the dots. The world does not hate Israel for what it does—the world hates (or loves) Israel because of what it is— because it symbolizes Jews. 

If we see the world through the lens of “Israel is X because it does Y,” we will see Israel as merely a political entity and will be blind-sighted from the hate that comes not from a desire for political change, but from a deep-rooted hate for what Israel is—no matter the policy. The American Jewish lens fails to perceive that slander about Israel is slander about us, that the enraged fists proclaiming today that Israel murders children are echoing the same bloodthirsty fists that proclaimed Jews murdered children to use their blood for Passover matzah beginning in the twelfth century and the same fists in the Soviet Union who arrested and accused Jewish doctors of murdering their patients centuries later. 

When we see the world through the “is” lens, we will understand that the world views Israel and Jews as one and the same. When we see cartoons of dead children near an Israeli soldier identified by a Jewish star drenched in blood, or a cartoon depicting Israel as a Jewish-star-labeled spider stretching its hands to control the whole Middle East—we understand this cannot be mended by changing Israeli policy. It is hate against what Israel is. 

Once we understand that much of the hate against our homeland is not rooted in political reasons but in intrinsic ones, we can stop frantically worrying about whether the latest claim we hear is true; we can stop searching for facts on every alleged misdeed and stop fearing we have been taught a lie. Our connection to Israel lies not in its series of humanitarian acts, its democratic government, or its acclaimed diversity, though lofty accomplishments they may be, but in its intrinsic existence in us. We are Israel—the history, people and the land—and the rest of the world knows it quite well. To them, Israel is, and has always been, synonymous with us. 

And whatever love or hate they express toward Israel is merely a way of expressing their love or hate for a part of us. And no amount of policy, whatever Israel does, can ever change that.

I may disagree with what the government does in countless ways, but I have unconditional love for what Israel is—a part of me, even if my body resides halfway across the globe.

Regardless of our political affiliations or our views on current Israeli policies, we American Jews ought to come together to break the trend of pursed lips, shifting chairs or short sighs to understand and declare: I am Israel, even if not physically there. I defend its existence the way I defend my family, for it is a part of me. I may disagree with what the government does in countless ways, but I have unconditional love for what Israel is—a part of me, even if my body resides halfway across the globe.


Jennifer Karlan is a gap year student, Harvard class of 2026 and a Club Z alum.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Ha Lachma Anya

This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt

Israel Strikes Deep Inside Iran

Iranian media denied any Israeli missile strike, writing that the Islamic Republic was shooting objects down in its airspace.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.