Changing Attitudes towards Zionism among American Jews—An Interview with Zachary Lockman
Zachary Lockman is Professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University and a long-time MERIP contributor and supporter. He has authored a number of books and articles, including Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954, with Joel Beinin (1987),Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 (1996) and Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (2004; second edition, 2010). Lori Allen is a reader in anthropology at SOAS University and author of A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (2020). Allen interviewed Lockman on the changing attitudes towards Zionism among American Jews. This is the first of a two-part series.
Lori Allen: Why do you think the changing attitudes towards Zionism among American Jews is a topic worth talking about?
Zachary Lockman: It’s mainly younger American Jews who are shifting. I think there has been a sea change. Slow, much delayed, not as advanced as we might like it to be, but I think one can see it, and it shows up in opinion polls.
Lori: Maybe it would be useful to lay out what you see as the predominant attitudes among Jewish Americans towards Israel historically. Who slept better knowing there was a Jewish state in the world, as Peter Beinart sums up a certain kind of commitment?
Zachary: Many ancestors of today’s American Jewish community came during the period from 1880 until immigration was shut down in 1924. Several million Jewish migrants came along with all the Poles, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians and everybody else in that mass outpouring from Europe. Most of these people were largely working class or lower middle class for the first generation or two. The Zionist project, which emerges in roughly the same period—1880s, 1890s—was not of great interest to them. The percentage of Jews leaving Europe who chose to go to Palestine was minute—one or two percent of that vast outpouring. The vast majority went to the United States, Latin America or Western Europe. For the first couple of generations, there were Zionists within the American Jewish community, but it was very much a minority camp. There may have been a vague sense of sympathy among some—especially as conditions in Europe got dramatically worse in the 1930s—but Zionism didn’t seem particularly relevant to the lives of most American Jews.
Segments of the American Jewish community were actively hostile to Zionism. Into the 1930s and 1940s, Reform Judaism was formally opposed to Zionism because it saw it as undermining the place of American Jews in the United States, which was still tenuous due to, among other issues, anti-Semitism and economic problems.
With the second, third, even fourth generations of descendants of these migrants, Zionism became more prominent. And of course, the Holocaust had an impact.
There was also an effort by the Zionist movement to appeal to American Jews. The Zionist movement understood—by the late 1930s and early 1940s—that their relationship with Britain was breaking down, that the United States would emerge as a superpower and that they needed to build support there. After the Second World War, the US had the world’s largest Jewish community by far, which was increasingly well established economically and politically.
There was a growing sympathy for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn’t very tangible. American Jews were donating money to Israel, buying Israel bonds and having a general sympathy, but it still seemed very distant to most American Jews who were coming into their own in America as a community. One measure of that is the fact that not many American Jews visited Israel, and the numbers emigrating there were very small. While there’s a sense of connection, a sense that Israel is an answer to the Holocaust, there was no sense of obligation that American Jews should go live there or do more than express support.
It’s only in the later 1960s that the United States becomes Israel’s main ally. Many (not all) American Jews understood the crisis leading up to the June 1967 War as another threat of annihilation, resulting in an outburst of support and donations. The Israeli victory, which was understood as a miracle, produced a surge of sympathy and connection deeper than what came before.
Many (not all) American Jews understood the crisis leading up to the June 1967 War as another threat of annihilation, resulting in an outburst of support and donations. The Israeli victory, which was understood as a miracle, produced a surge of sympathy and connection deeper than what came before.
That was also fueled by a newfound ethnic assertiveness—American Jews now feel very much part of the American scene. There’s still anti-Semitism, but as with many other ethnic groups in the same period, there’s self-assertion, which for American Jews often comes in the form of identification with Israel, considered to be home to these tough Jews who defeated their enemies.
Identification with Israel became, for many American Jews, part of their identity. And at the same time, the United States, from the late 1960s, begins selling weapons and providing aid to Israel. Support for Israel and American Jewish identity comes to feel seamless, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when Israel is seen as a valuable ally and “like us” in many ways—as opposed to the Arabs who were something different and threatening and so on.
The whole question of terrorism becomes central starting in the 1970s. People like the young Benjamin Netanyahu—future prime minister of Israel—were central to that enterprise of portraying terrorism as a threat by Muslims to both Israel and the United States. This provided an emotional and moral piece to the geostrategic alliance between the two countries.
Lori: This is quite a remarkable chronology. But when you’re talking about the 1940s and 1950s, I was struck by your assessment that American Jews may have been supportive, but the support wasn’t very deep. I was thinking about the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and how much work the American Zionist Emergency Committee did. They were really organized, able to get huge numbers of petitions sent to Truman and his government calling for opening up Palestine to Jewish immigration. So, do you think that’s just a specific moment? Or that was not very representative?
Zachary: That moment occurred in the immediate wake of revelations about what had happened to the Jews of Europe. These are people’s relatives they left behind when they immigrated some decades earlier. It did have a powerful impact. But it was understood as what can happen to European Jews, other Jews. The belief was, it’s not going to happen to us, but it will happen to fellow Jews unless they have a state and can defend themselves. Zionism was still a minority movement among American Jews. But as a result of the Second World War and its aftermath, Zionism could mobilize people to raise money, to send petitions, to put pressure on members of Congress. Truman wanted the Jewish vote in 1948 and he was sympathetic to Zionism as well.
I’m talking about the existence of an increasingly significant Zionist camp, allied to a range of organizations, which later we come to think of as the Israel lobby. AIPAC goes back to the early 1950s. It grew out of that American Zionist Emergency Committee. But it’s not all that influential early on. They couldn’t do anything about Eisenhower telling the Israelis to get out of Sinai in 1956, or about the Eisenhower administration saying: No, we’re not selling weapons to Israel, and we’re keeping Israel at arm’s length because we want good relations with our Arab friends. They protested, they argued, they had allies in Congress, but it’s nothing like the strength they would acquire in the 1970s when, for other kinds of reasons, Johnson and Nixon become very pro-Israel out of their own geostrategic understanding of things.
I think most American Jews in this period were supportive of the creation of Israel, but it didn’t affect their lives very directly. Some people donated money to mainstream philanthropic organizations. Jews in the United States were becoming increasingly affluent. They would become among the most affluent ethnic groups in the United States. They tended to be political liberals. Certainly, from the 1930s, they were all voting for the Democratic Party and loving Franklin Roosevelt. Those Democratic leanings remain in place down to the present. This is in part because there’s a historic memory of persecution, and the threat of extermination, and the status of being an outsider. People know that there are still anti-Semitic forces in American society who see the United States as a white Christian nation. And, that is not unjustified, as we know. They see alliances with other oppressed groups, with those who are discriminated against, as also being in the interest of Jews.
Lori: With exceptions such as people like Meir Kahane [founder of the right-wing Jewish Defense League and proponent of expulsion of Palestinians from Israel], right?
Zachary: Yes, but. Kahane was a product of the 60s. Partly, he was imitating the Black Power movement in a moment of growing tensions, which come out of the race situation in the United States between Blacks and Jews. And he was an opportunist. He established a base of like-minded Jews. His message was: like the Black Panthers, we need to have a Jewish Defense League to protect Jews who are being attacked in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn by Black people and to fight for the rights of Soviet Jews who are an oppressed minority. And that had some appeal for some American Jews. But he was condemned by all the mainstream groups, and eventually took his show to Israel.
Lori: According to Shaul Magid’s biography of Kahane, he was very appealing to some who were poor and marginalized.
Zachary: Of course, the Democrats are just one part of the American Jewish community. There’s also the religious sector, those we call the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, who have a different relation to the political system and have their own organizations. Their attitude towards Israel varies. In general, in earlier decades they don’t care that much.
Lori: Your chronology is fundamental for understanding where we are today. The 1970s and 80s were a period complicated by the civil war in Lebanon, which I think caused some people to think twice about Israel.
Zachary: But even before that, in the United States, among a generally liberal secular community at least, Israel is seen as a liberal secular place. Most Jews were not going to move to Israel, because “we’re Americans, we’re happy here.” At the same time, already in the 70s, some voices attuned to liberal Zionists in Israel were questioning Israeli state policies. These trends were inspired by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the emergence of a religious-nationalist settler movement and the 1977 electoral victory of the Likud.
Already in the 70s, there were some little groups in the United States generating interest in and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Some American Jews started paying attention to the Middle East and understood it in anti-imperialist terms, especially those radicalized by the movement against the war in Vietnam. One of these groups was Breira, which means, “choice” or “alternative.” They began putting out a left Zionist critique of Israel and of the widely pro-Israel stance of the major Jewish American organizations.
They talked, at least a little bit, about Palestinian rights, the problem with the settlements and the need to end the occupation. No one can imagine that now—here we are 70 years later—but at that moment it seemed that this can be stopped and something different can happen. It parallels developments in Israel. The emergence of this critique was influenced tremendously by the rise of the new Palestinian national movement in the late 60s and 70s. There was the emergence of segments, mainly on the left, of younger generations saying, “the Palestinians are part of this story. And we have to take this seriously.” In Israel, these groups are marginal and small. But they’re there. Similar things were happening in the United States.
The American Jewish organizations came down very hard on critics of Israel, even the liberal Zionists, and they did their best to suppress these critiques. This is the heyday of AIPAC, with the US government now providing billions of dollars for Israel and encouraging it to do whatever it wants.
The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 freaked out some number of liberal, maybe especially younger, American Jews, who saw what the conquest of much of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut looked like and then the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. But that uneasiness existed only in certain limited circles.
Looking back, I think you can see some very big changes, albeit slow ones. People started talking about Palestine, and the question of Palestine increasingly was seen as central to this whole set of issues. But they understood a distinction between ‘48 and ‘67. What’s happened since 1967 is still understood as an unfortunate aberration from the Golden Age of 1948 to 1967. That vision is the core of the two states solution whose death occurs over a long process.
Support for Palestinian rights gathers momentum and becomes much more the norm in left liberal circles, especially on campuses. Momentum is with critics of Israel, or for supporters of Palestinian rights, and that’s why Israel, in the last decade, has launched a hasbara counteroffensive to punish critics and try to claw back support on campuses.
This counteroffensive is supported by student organization like the Maccabees and Stand With Us, and projects like Canary Mission. Some of them are funded by the Israeli government directly or indirectly, others by right-wing Israelis or right wing…we don’t often know.
Lori: As a professor, how have you seen this shift on campuses over time?
Zachary: The emergence of JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace], for example, as a sort of Palestine solidarity group has done really well in building a base. It would have been unimaginable 20 years ago for a Jewish group to explicitly define itself as anti-Zionist.
It would have been unimaginable 20 years ago for a Jewish group to explicitly define itself as anti-Zionist.
Another example is the revolts against Hillel and the creation of Open Hillel. More broadly, polls show that a good chunk of the younger generation, especially the college educated, which is pretty much the norm for young American Jews, don’t feel much connection to Israel, or are critical of it, have no great desire to go visit. Birthright is a response to this. For donors, with the support of the Israeli government, to let anybody who can more or less claim to be Jewish and take them on a propaganda tour costs a lot. But it’s an investment that aims to make them feel the connection. Whether it’s successful or not is an interesting question. It’s not so clear. What is clear is that counter-Birthright projects have also emerged.
The assaults on Gaza horrify a lot of people. The asymmetry of power and violence and death is hard to miss. The American Jewish community is bifurcated. There are segments who are in the hardline right more than ever.
Lori: Peter Beinart is, himself, maybe an interesting case: a prominent liberal Zionist who has become increasingly critical of Israel. I don’t know if he’d describe himself as anti-Zionist now, but from earlier positions in which he believed that Israel could be the liberal democracy he thought Herzl promised, he now recognizes the Palestinian right of return. How important do you think voices like Beinart’s are? Or another one-time liberal Zionist, Sylvain Cepel, who wrote The State of Israel vs. The Jews?
Zachary: Beinart is a great example. As you note, he was a liberal Zionist who always had some criticisms but basically believed that Israel should be a Jewish state and could be a Jewish and democratic state. And then he had a shift some years back. He said it’s contrary to what he understands by Jewish values and Judaism and the meaning of Jewish history. He’s very articulate and smart. And he demonstrates that it’s possible to say these things, and not be taken out and executed.
Lori: But there is a dynamic among American Jews and Israeli Jews where, if you voice something that’s too critical, and certainly, anti-Zionist, you can be excommunicated by a family, by a community. Look what happened to Richard Goldstone, who was smeared and threatened because of the UN commission’s report on Gaza in 2009, a commission which he chaired. Do you see that kind of ploy—calling Jews anti-Semites and self-hating—as being stronger these days than in the past? Or has that always been a trope?
Zachary: I think this goes way back, but it’s actually less effective now than it once was. Again, the Jewish community—I’m talking about the organized, very Israeli-connected Zionist mainstream organizations—were very effective at shutting down criticism of Jews as Jews. And pushing them to the margins, delegitimizing them. I think that worked pretty effectively in the 70s and 80s. I think they don’t have as much power as they did because the community has changed. Younger American Jews don’t care about those big organizations. They may or may not belong to a local synagogue, but the synagogues themselves have changed. There are lots of liberal lefty rabbis who are, to varying degrees, critical of Israel. I think the antisemitism claim is still used, but it’s much less effective. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic.
Lori: I want to believe you, but…
Zachary: It’s still used, of course. But my sense is people take it a lot less seriously. They may or may not agree with a critique, but there is now room for critique. And it’s coupled with a much greater understanding of the question of Palestine broadly, and who the Palestinians are. The whole flow of revisionist history, some of it produced by Israeli scholars since the 1980s, has given people access to information previously unknown.
The whole flow of revisionist history, some of it produced by Israeli scholars since the 1980s, has given people access to information previously unknown.
In the 70s and 80s, you had to struggle to find alternative histories, materials on refugees. Today, it’s widely taken for granted, even in Israel.
Lori: Does any of this suggest that maybe the shifting US public discourse doesn’t matter? Because Peter Beinart would say that those young American Jews are not engaging, critically or otherwise, with Israel at all. They’re leaving the playing field open to the very engaged orthodox and right-wing folks.
Zachary: I’m not that pessimistic, or not pessimistic in quite that way. Certainly, a lot of younger Americans, including Jews, are quite critical of Israel. The Palestinian question is slowly seeping into wider circles. Think about the election of the first Palestinian to Congress, Rashida Tlaib. A couple of members of Congress have raised the question of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children, and what happens to the kids in Gaza or elsewhere. They’re a minority, but it’s on the agenda in a different kind of way. And every year, at the California Democratic Party’s state convention, there are resolutions critical of US support for Israel and demanding an end to aid. Twenty years ago, if somebody had raised such an idea, they would have been gone in 20 seconds. Now in some quarters, these things have majority support. Still, you can ask, “How significant is this?” It’s a slow process of building up, which I like to hope is significant. It may take another twenty or thirty years to make a difference, which is a horrifying thought. But the configurations within the American Jewish community, as in the world, have shifted. Today Israel is allied with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and they have their own bloc.
I’d like to take some heart from the fact that there is a pole of attraction in the community, in the United States more broadly, where people are aware of this issue and don’t see Palestine as different from anyplace else.
Think of the Tony Judt’s 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books, and the impact it had. The fact that a respected public intellectual could ask if we need this ethno-national state that does these nasty things was a bombshell. He got very trashed. But it’s become a legitimate question in many circles. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer got very trashed for their 2006 article criticizing the Israel lobby. Of course, the Republican Party has embraced the position of the Israeli right unequivocally, and that alliance is growing stronger, which tells you something about a common platform of right-wing racism, white or Jewish.
Lori: I want to hold on to and nurture your optimism. Your analysis that public discourse on Israel has shifted still assumes a liberal context. The arguments that folks in JVP and elsewhere are making are liberal arguments that don’t seem to matter to much of the Israeli right or any right-wing American.
Zachary: We’re in a very unhappy political situation at the moment, where the right has the momentum. How that battle will play out, we don’t know. But that makes politics matter all the more because we’re now engaged in a struggle to defend liberal democracy in some very basic way. At least an increasing number of the people who are engaged in the democratic side of things—small “d” democratic—are also full of contradictions. The people who will be critical of Israel, and especially an Israel which seems to embody the very things we’re fighting against here at home—an ethno-national conception of the polity—the American Jewish community, like all communities, will be divided on this.
I think the bifurcation will probably deepen and continue in various ways, so that the younger generation—I mean, the liberal left, secular segment of the American Jewish community—will chart its own course and see itself as an embattled minority in the United States that has to join the camp of democracy, for its own future, in alliance with other people. Others will go in a different direction.
For more on Zionism and the history of Zionism, see this documentary featuring Professor Lockman. For more on the politics of Israel and Palestine, see MERIP’s Israel-Palestine Primer.
 Peter Beinart, The Crisis of Zionism (Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2012), p. 3