Israeli Questioning of US Jews at Border Reveals Deep Rift

When Simone Zimmerman arrived at the check-in window at the Israeli border with Egypt, it didn’t take long for the young activist to run into trouble.

Zimmerman, a Jewish American living in Israel, quickly became a person of interest after telling the border agent that she worked for an Israeli advocacy group that assists Palestinians. She says that led to a series of “super-charged” questions about her professional activities and political views.

The agent wanted to know why she worked with Palestinians, not Jews, and asked for the names of Palestinian contacts in the West Bank. Agents unlocked her phone, asked her opinion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and threatened to deport her if she lied. After four hours, Zimmerman, who had taken a brief vacation in Egypt, was allowed to return to Israel.

A series of similar incidents at Israeli border crossings has highlighted a growing gulf between the country’s hard-line government and liberal Jewish Americans who say they support Israel but oppose its policies on issues including religion, President Donald Trump and especially the continued occupation of the West Bank.

This shift already appears to be having important implications for what historically has been a close relationship built on almost unquestioning bipartisan support. Some Jewish leaders have begun to criticize Israeli policies publicly, and some predict that the Democratic Party — home to an estimated 70 percent of American Jews — could soon turn away from its support for Israel.

A poll published by the American Jewish Committee in June showed deep differences between U.S. and Israeli Jews on issues like Israeli settlements, religious pluralism and Trump’s policies. Only 34 percent of American Jews, for instance, supported Trump’s handling of relations with Israel, compared with 77 percent of Israeli Jews.

A separate poll conducted by the Pew Research Center early this year found deep partisan differences in attitudes toward Israel, with Republicans more sympathetic to Israel than Democrats by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

The differences between the world’s two largest Jewish communities have been in the making for years.

Non-Orthodox American Jews have long identified with liberal causes, such as civil rights and social justice, and have become well-integrated into mainstream American society. They have a high rate of intermarriage with non-Jews, are less engaged in Jewish communal life than their parents, and tend to hold relatively dovish attitudes in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, according to Steven Cohen, a prominent sociologist who studies the American Jewish community.

In contrast, many Israelis have more conservative world views. They generally oppose mixed marriage, have a more collective identity and take a harder line toward the Palestinians, Cohen said.

“Essentially, you have a liberal American Jewry confronting an increasingly conservative Israeli electorate, specifically an Israeli Jewish electorate,” Cohen said.

Despite these differences, the Jewish American establishment — led by the influential pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC — has firmly backed the Israeli government and its policies over the years. But a series of decisions by Netanyahu’s government has begun to soften that support.

Netanyahu upset many American Jews by appearing to side with Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. He openly welcomed Trump’s election in 2016 and has angered many American Jews by forging a close relationship with a U.S. president they see as anathema to their values.

The relationship hit a major turning point last year when Netanyahu, under pressure from religious political partners, called off an agreement to create an egalitarian space where men and women could worship together at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy prayer site. The Reform and Conservative movements, which represent most affiliated American Jews, slammed his decision.

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Source: Religion News Service