Jesse Singal

A changing American Jewish landscape

By Jesse Singal
March 15, 2011

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JEREMY BEN-AMI, head of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace’’ group J Street, did something uncharacteristic recently: He called out powerful rival Jewish groups. “It makes no sense that for three years, the leadership of such institutions as AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League have almost uniformly refused to take the stage with me or with representatives of J Street,’’ he said at J Street’s annual conference.

This was a major departure from J Street’s prior strategy of mostly avoiding direct criticism of these American Jewish groups. J Street still doesn’t have nearly the sway of its larger rivals, but its quick growth in its first three years of existence points to the massive void left by the ADL and AIPAC. Ben-Ami’s boldness shows how the American Jewish landscape is changing.

J Street’s success is due in part to the failures of other big Jewish groups. A big-tent, centrist approach that staunchly defends both Israelis’ and Palestinians’ rights to thrive was absent from the scene before J Street arrived, and it is a natural fit for the relatively liberal American Jewish community.

There’s an increasing, fundamental divide between the established Jewish groups in this country and many American Jews. The two sides simply do not occupy the same political ground, because American Jews are less and less conducive to the panicked, everything-is-about-to-turn-to-dust approach to Israel policy that has previously been so compelling (and justifiably so, until recently).

This approach may hold sway among many of the most powerful, influential pro-Israel figures in Washington, but it’s a policy that in effect tells millions of Americans that because they dislike far-right Israeli politicians or believe Palestinians deserve the same rights as Jews, they are self-haters or anti-Israel. Any state of affairs in which Mike Huckabee is lauded as a pro-Israel stalwart, but the hypothetical “median American Jew’’ is viewed as inexcusably wobbly on Israel, is profoundly problematic.

This is a problem for the established groups. And it will only grow, because the repellent effect of the current approach has been strongest among the younger generation. As Peter Beinart explained in a New York Review of Books article last year that is still reverberating today, when pollster Frank Luntz interviewed young American Jews to find out why they didn’t feel more connected to Israel, he found that the “only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs.’’

This, combined with an Israeli government that has taken a hard turn to the right in recent years — and distance from 9/11, whose aftershocks helped resuscitate some of the community’s existential panic — has left the median American Jew with less reason than ever to feel connected to the big Jewish groups. As Beinart sharply put it, young American Jews found that the kind of modern, inclusive Zionism they might be attracted to “was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.’’

J Street’s strategy of staking out the middle of the debate over Israel has attracted attention from many Jews who had felt increasingly left out of the discussion.

AIPAC and its ilk are still in many ways the center of the American Jewish political universe, and will continue to be influential for years to come. But how many? As the “facts on the ground’’ and the demographic makeup of the American Jewish community both change, these groups’ stances will come to reflect the opinions of smaller and smaller percentages of that community. J Street has recognized this. What remains to be seen is whether the established organizations will.

Jesse Singal writes for The Boston Globe’s opinion pages. He can be reached at