So much for divisions among American Jews over Israel.
Clashes over the nature of the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prudence of his efforts to overhaul the country’s judiciary, the state of democracy in the country – they all are yesterday’s concerns, suddenly, decisively and emotionally put aside in the wake of the weekend attacks on Israel by air and land, gliders and drones, and through tunnels and across porous barriers.
“Jews in the United States and around the world are rallying around the Israeli government despite the recent controversies,” said David Schanzer, director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “The one issue that unifies the Jewish diaspora is the security of the Israeli people and the Jewish state.”
As recently as last week, with the annual fall holiday season moving to its conclusion, the Jewish community in the United States was riven over Mr. Netanyahu, his alliance with Orthodox political figures and organizations, and the conditions of life for Palestinians within Israel’s borders. The American Jewish community had seldom been so split, the tensions among Jews so raw, the passions so great.
All that disappeared with what Thomas Juneau, a Middle East specialist at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs who for nearly a dozen years was a strategic analyst in Canada’s Department of National Defence, called “a massive intelligence failure [that] clearly involved elaborate planning.”
The recriminations will come later, and they will be furious. For now the attention of Jews in the United States is on the counteroffensive being mounted by Israel; the freshly announced “complete siege” of Gaza; and the efforts of the Biden administration to provide assistance, perhaps as much as an additional US$2-billion, to supplement the US$3-billion in military aid that customarily goes to Israel each year. The United States, which is moving six warships and combat aircraft closer to the region, also maintains large stocks of propositioned military materiel, intended to buttress Israeli defence efforts in the early days of an eventuality like the weekend’s incursion.
As the Biden administration rushed to organize its fresh shipment of aid to Israel, Jews across the United States gathered to show their support for the country and to grieve over its losses.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit called for an expression of solidarity and scheduled a mass meeting at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich. Massachusetts groups summoned Jews to gather at Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common for the same purpose. Similar events were planned in Richmond, Va., San Diego, Indianapolis, Ind., and New Orleans.
“People may have significant disagreements about policies of the government, but when crises like this take place the Jewish community in the United States comes together in solidarity,” Steven Grossman, former president of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, said in an interview. “Almost overnight those divisions are set aside. Eventually people will come back to their policy views, but during the height of crisis, unity is part of the strength of our community.”
Indeed, the coalescence of condolence and commitment occurring in the United States is a mirror of the solidarity that parties across the Israeli domestic political scene have created in the wake of the attacks by Hamas.
“This is a horrific, barbaric, unprovoked terrorist attack on civilians and merciless examples of hostage-taking,” said Alan Solomont, emeritus chair of J Street, an American Jewish group that has been critical of Mr. Netanyahu and that advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “There’s no place for this in a civilized world. There was a changing dynamic in the Middle East and an increasing willingness on the part of many Arab nations to accept Israel, but Hamas and its backers have succeeded in blowing that up along with the lives of many civilians.”
Speaking shortly after a Zoom meeting of J Street members, Mr. Solomont said the group “has always supported human rights, has been opposed to the occupation, and finds this current government unacceptable – but all feel solidarity with the people of Israel today and join in anguish over the trauma they are experiencing.”
The relationship Jews have with the Jewish state is as complicated as it is strong.
“Jews in the United States have felt a special responsibility to protect and aid Israel,” Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in a landmark 2008 chapter in the American Jewish Yearbook. “Yet simultaneously, American Jews have also maintained undiminished allegiance and profound gratitude to their land of residence, whose ethos from its inception has been shaped by the belief that America is the Promised Land.”
A Pew Research Center survey released in 2021 found that nearly three in five American Jews avowed that they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel – a sentiment held by majorities in all of the largest U.S. Jewish denominations, though Orthodox Jews (at a rate of 82 per cent) and Conservative Jews (at 78 per cent) were far more likely to share that view than Reform Jews (at 58 per cent).
Since the Six Day War of 1967, Jews – sometimes without formal invitation, often through organized efforts – have gathered in community centres and synagogue sanctuaries to share their anxieties, to steel themselves for the travails ahead, and to pray for Israel. But in the five years since the mass killing of 11 Jews at prayer at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, concerns about the security of Jews in the Middle East have been married with concerns about the security of Jews in the United States.
“We are monitoring conditions very closely and are providing advice and guidance to institutions about their security posture,” said Michael Masters, national director of Secure Community Network, a kind of security agency created by the Jewish Federations of North America. “We’re co-ordinating with law enforcement to assure the safety of our communities at this difficult time.”