When the terror attacks unfolded this weekend in Israel, the first instinct of many Jewish Americans was to reach out to family and friends. Israel is a small country — you can drive from the top to the bottom in under six hours — but it is home to one of the world’s largest communities of Jews, who make up just 0.2 percent of the global population. The other largest Jewish population lives in the United States, and connections between the two groups run deep. Many Jewish Americans have relatives and loved ones who live in Israel, where, due to the small population and scale of the deaths — 1,200 Israelis were killed, thousands more were wounded — nearly everyone knows someone affected, directly or indirectly, by the violence.
This week will almost certainly be remembered by Jewish Americans as one of the most difficult in our collective modern memory. There is the primary grief, over the loss of innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives, and the terrible knowledge that, with Israel waging a counterattack on Gaza, these deaths will continue: As of early Friday morning, more than 1,500 Palestinians have been killed, including 500 children, and around 6,600 people are injured. Israel has ordered an evacuation of more than 1 million people living in the northern half of the strip, a move the United Nation said would have “devastating humanitarian consequences.”
American Jews are not a monolith — “two Jews, three opinions” goes the old adage. We are a tight-knit but diverse community, made up of people from different races, denominations, and political beliefs. We are used to finding comfort and support in each other. Even so, we are also discovering how deeply isolating this moment can feel, as we struggle to make sense of a rapidly unfolding tragedy, our own sense of loss, and how that heartbreak is being received by the outside world. None of this is happening in a vacuum. It’s coming amid seismic shifts in politics and public opinion, during a right-wing turn in Israel’s government and an ever-longer violent occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as broader generational changes, with a younger generation of Jewish Americans who are more progressive and more willing to be critical of Israel.
It’s happening at a time of rising antisemitic violence in the United States and around the world. On Friday, after a former Hamas leader urged global protests, which some interpreted as a “day of jihad,” many Jewish schools and temples either closed or stepped up security in recognition of the increase in antisemitic hate crimes over the last several years.
It would be impossible to capture these dynamics perfectly while so much is in flux. Still, it’s worth understanding some of the major changes taking place culturally and politically, and the complicated questions they raise for American Jews in an already cataclysmic moment.
Liberals’ views on Israel are shifting at the same time Israel has taken a far-right turn
American Jews, who make up 2.4 percent of the overall electorate, are a solidly liberal group and have long been one of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies. According to a survey released by Pew Research Center in 2020, 71 percent of Jews identified as or leaned Democratic.
A 2019 survey of Gallup polling data noted that Jews are the most liberal-leaning religious group in the United States. American Jews overwhelmingly disapproved of Donald Trump’s presidency, even as he courted and won over more politically conservative, religiously observant Orthodox Jews with his uncritical embrace of Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Recent surveys showed American Jews in strong support of President Joe Biden; in an April 2022 survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute, the president had a 63 percent approval rating among Jewish voters, 21 points higher than his approval rating among the general public.
Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the leadership of both major political parties has, like the majority of American Jews, maintained strong support for the state of Israel. In the past few years, though, Democrats have been evolving in their views on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
A Gallup poll released in April 2023 clocked this important change: For the first time in the pollster’s history of asking the question, Democrats expressed more sympathy for Palestinians than they did for Israelis, with 49 percent saying they sympathized more with Palestinians, compared to 38 percent who sympathized with Israelis. (Republicans continued to say they overwhelmingly sympathized with Israel.)
Gallup noted “an 11-percentage-point increase over the past year in Democrats’ sympathy with the Palestinians,” with the most movement on the issue coming in the last five years. It’s also worth noting that while a majority of Republicans and Democrats said they had a favorable view of Israel as a country, the number was much lower among Democrats (56 percent) than among Republicans (82 percent).
This shift coincides with the Israeli government, primarily under Netanyahu, moving so far to the right in recent years that it has become difficult, if not impossible, for Jewish liberals to defend its actions.
An Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2008, following rocket attacks by Hamas, killed 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, and drew condemnation from organizations like Amnesty International. In 2014, an Israeli invasion of Gaza following the murder of three Israeli teens killed more than 2,300 Palestinians, the most in any single year since 1967. In each instance, Israel’s greater military power created a death toll that was far higher for Palestinians than for Israelis.
In the Trump era, Israeli leaders found an ally that was supportive of an increasingly right-wing government, enabling settlers in the West Bank and creating a powder keg where fighting frequently broke out between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2021, clashes between the two led to more deaths on both sides, again disproportionately Palestinian. This year, tensions continued to mount, with Israeli settlers terrorizing Palestinian civilians and setting fire to their homes.
Official US policy toward Israel has remained steadfast and relatively unchanged through it all. The international community, however, and many on the American left, have taken notice. “There is no other way to define the regime that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians — which is apartheid by default — other than an open-air prison,” a United Nations expert told reporters last year, using a phrase that has come to define international understanding of the conditions in Gaza that preceded the current conflict.
How the changing Jewish population fits within a new American progressive movement
Young American Jews are moving in different directions than their elders. While a growing share of young Jews identify as Orthodox, an even larger share say they have no religious affiliation, part of a growing trend of young people who are less religious than older generations.
The data shows a strong correlation between religiosity and support for the state of Israel. As Frank Newport, a Gallup senior scientist, puts it: “Highly religious Americans continue to be much more sympathetic toward Israel than those who are less religious.”
Overall, Jewish Americans tend to have more favorable views of Israel than the general public, setting Jewish American Democrats apart from the rest of their party. This cohort of younger Jews is less likely to feel an emotional attachment to Israel than their elders, though. They are also more likely to be critical of it.
When pollsters working for the Jewish Electorate Institute asked specific questions about Israel and Palestine to 800 Jewish American voters in 2021, what they found shocked some Jewish leaders. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they supported restricting US military aid to Israel so that it could not spend the money on expanding settlements in the West Bank. Roughly a quarter of those surveyed said they agreed with the statement “Israel is an apartheid state.” And 31 percent said that Israel was “committing genocide” against the Palestinians. Younger Jews were much more likely to agree with both statements.
“I’m just speechless and horrified,” a Dartmouth professor of Jewish studies told the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, when the survey results were released. “It breaks my heart and it comes like a tornado hitting me in the face.” The results showed that the divergence in opinion exists not just between American Jews and Democrats, but within the American Jewish community itself.
Those divisions are growing in the context of a resurgent progressive movement. Awareness of the plight of the Palestinians in the United States has grown with the rise of an ascendent social justice movement, one centered primarily on Black Lives Matter. Leaders of BLM groups have connected their movement to the cause of Palestinian liberation, invoking historical analogies about settler colonialism as a means of comparison.
As they did in the civil rights era, Jewish Americans are playing an important role in today’s social justice movement. There are Jewish organizations supporting racial and economic justice, defending the rights of immigrants and refugees, and fighting for reproductive rights. Today, too, Jewish organizations are among the leading voices arguing for an end to Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and urging US political leadership to limit American aid to Israel in order to achieve those goals.
These Jewish organizations are united by a strong sense of Jewish identity that derives less from religious traditions than from cultural ones. They connect their activism to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world. That sense of duty is strengthened by the notion that, as the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, our existence is a privilege and Jewish Americans are duty-bound to protect the vulnerable. That framework is now guiding the vocal protests from American Jews who are calling for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza.
“Our tradition teaches us that pikuach nefesh — saving a life — takes precedence over all other commandments,” Never Again Action, a Jewish and immigrant-led group opposing the detention and deportation of immigrants, posted in a statement this week. “Nothing is more precious than human life.”
All of these changes are happening against the background of rising antisemitism in the United States
In 2017, when white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” it was a reminder that the threat of right-wing antisemitism remains very real in the United States. A year later, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a gunman entered a synagogue and murdered 11 people, including Holocaust survivors, in what was the deadliest antisemitic attack ever committed on American soil. There have been too many other incidents — some small, and some not — to count, at a time when prominent cultural figures are embracing anti-Jewish sentiment and growing violence at home and abroad.
Each of those moments were deeply painful for the Jewish American community. So were the immediate reactions to the attacks on Israeli civilians from some on the American left who were dismissive or even celebratory in the face of news that war crimes were committed against Israeli civilians. It raised new, painful questions for American Jews about who their allies are, where they fit within the broader political landscape, and where they stand now as the conflict unfolds. Many Jewish Americans have recommitted to their support for Israel in the wake of Hamas’s terrorist attacks and hostage-takings. Others are expressing their opposition to the war and urging political leaders not to let the murders escalate into more violence.
“Over the weekend,” writes Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, many Jews against the occupation “found they could not join [Palestinian] solidarity protests because they needed something the protests could not provide: a space to grieve the Israeli dead, to struggle with their own place in the coming political process.”
“It is a situation none of us have ever before confronted in earnest,” she continues, “amid a long history of vastly disproportionate death tolls. And now, when we need it most, we find ourselves struggling with a lack of emotional and political vocabulary.”
Angel is right. No one — not even the most astute observers — can say where this ends. The only guarantee, at this point, appears to be more devastation.