Trouble in the Tribe

The American Jewish Conflict over Israel

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Dov Waxman
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , April
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe is an exploration of the perennial questions of what unifies American Jews and defines American Jewish identity. For a brief time, Waxman notes, support for Israel did both. Now, however, the Jewish state is proving more divisive than unifying for American Jews, with communal debates over Israel growing more public and more rancorous each year.

Trouble in the Tribe examines how this growing acrimony has both resulted from and contributed to deeper divisions within the American Jewish community. In part, Waxman seeks to challenge the popular assumption that American Jewish divisions over Israel are primarily the result of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. For certain, those policies have played a role, but Waxman is far more concerned with how communal, institutional, behavioral, and demographic changes among American Jews have contributed to today’s vitriolic status quo—as well as how debate over Israel has informed and inflamed these changes.

While many assume that unified, unqualified, unquestioning support for Israel and its government’s policies has been the norm for American Jewry, Waxman is clear to point out that division over Zionism or Israel is not new. Indeed, it has been the historical norm. American Jews were slow to embrace Zionism in the early twentieth century and really only ever adopted a uniquely American form of it that deemphasized ideology and immigration in favor of philanthropic and political support. It was only amidst the Holocaust that American Jews came to support the cause of Jewish statehood in significant numbers.

The high point of American Jewish consensus over Israel came in the decade following the 1967 Six Day War—Israel’s stunning military victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. A number of factors contributed to this brief age of “Israelolatry,” in which support for the Jewish state reached near-sacred status—renewed consciousness of the Holocaust paired with real concern for Israel’s survival, while an invigorated sense of ethnic identity paired with newfound pride in Israel’s military success. During this time, American Jews and Jewish organizations were largely unified in unequivocally supporting Israel while deferring to its government on policy matters.

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, that unity has fragmented. Communal norms against public criticism of Israel weakened as American Jews on both the political left and the right found cause for it—on the left, the invasion of Lebanon and First Intifada; and on the right, the Oslo Process. In part, this resulted from American Jews’ increasing familiarity with Israel itself, rather than its mythic image. In part, too, it resulted from greater acceptance of the idea that healthy criticism could be a form of support. With greater acceptance of public criticism of Israeli policies, however, has come increasing discord, not only over those policies themselves, but over the boundaries of acceptable criticism. What it means to be “pro-Israel” has become increasingly complicated and increasingly contentious.

Just as defining “pro-Israel” discourse has become more difficult, defining the “pro-Israel” lobby has as well. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC] and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations dominated lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel. Both organizations understood themselves as centrist and tended to defer to the Israeli government on policy matters. While the two remain the most important Jewish Israel advocacy organizations today, they have been joined by new groups pushing particular political stances, among them the Emergency Committee for Israel (founded 2010) on the right and J Street (founded 2008) on the left.

Such institutional splintering only reflects broader trends in the American Jewish community. Waxman argues that the Jewish establishment organizations that have long-dominated American Jewish communal life, for example, the American Jewish Committee or Jewish Federations, are increasingly unable to speak for America’s Jews on Israel’s behalf. The establishment cannot claim to represent a consensus view on Israel, since no such consensus exists, and it cannot claim to speak for American Jewry, since fewer American Jews are involving themselves in establishment organizations.

Underlying all of these changes, Waxman argues, is a widening divide in the American Jewish community between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. While Orthodox Jews make up a relatively small percentage of the American Jewish population, they are growing and active where it counts—they are invested in Jewish communal identity and deeply attached to Israel. They also tend to be politically conservative. The non-Orthodox majority, on the other hand, tend to be more politically liberal and more openly critical of Israel. Perhaps most consequentially, non-Orthodox Jews are increasingly embracing an individualistic approach to Judaism and Jewish identity that can mitigate against communal involvement and attachment. As Waxman notes, “American Jewry is simultaneously becoming more secular and more religious,” portending a growing polarization in American Jewish identity, communality, and politics—especially with regard to support for Israel (206).

Trouble in the Tribe offers an efficient, clear exploration of these developments. Its strength lies less in penetrating analysis than in Waxman’s ability to untangle and categorize changing patterns of communal politics in a way that should be accessible to readers within or without “the tribe.” It should also be informative whatever the reader’s feelings towards the communal divisions Waxman seeks to explain—the majority of the book is diagnostic, rather than prescriptive.

Still, Waxman does offer in the conclusion his own opinions on the implications of his study that will likely raise some controversy—indeed, early reviews of the book suggest they already have. Though much of the work pushes back against the notion that today’s communal rancor is primarily the result of Israeli policy, Waxman nonetheless argues that the Israeli government can help prevent both the alienation of non-Orthodox Jews and the partisanization of political support for Israel by taking earnest steps towards peace with the Palestinians. Waxman also argues that American Jewish communal leaders and organizations should embrace the diversity of Jewish attitudes towards Israel since that diversity already exists. To do otherwise, Waxman warns, is to risk alienating a large segment of the community at a time when it is increasingly unclear whether there is anything on which American Jews can speak with one voice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Walker Robins is the 2017-2018 Israel Institute post-doctoral fellow in Israel Studies at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dov Waxman is professor of political science, international affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University. He is the author of The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity and the coauthor of Israel's Palestinians: The Conflict Within. He lives in Boston.


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