On the first Sunday in June, as is tradition, tens of thousands of American Jews lined the streets of midtown Manhattan to march.
The Celebrate Israel Parade has been held annually since 1964, beckoning hundreds of congregations, youth groups, charity organizations, and activist networks to gather and march up 5th Avenue in celebration of the State of Israel. Event organizers have imposed firm restrictions on any political messaging during the parade itself, shunning groups like J Street and the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), as well as candidates for elected office.
But last week, several other organizations who have participated in the parade for years were notably absent from the day’s festivities. New Israel Fund, an American non-profit that advocates for a liberal democracy and social equality in Israel, opted not to partake in 2019. Neither did T’ruah, a rabbinical group that pushes for human rights across North America, Israel, and occupied Palestinian Territories.
Those two organizations were part of the so-called progressive cluster, an amalgam of like-minded organizations who traditionally marched together in the parade.
Their departure from the annual event — even if it proves to be temporary — is a microcosm of a larger rift that is only widening within the American Jewish community: Supporting Israel is increasingly growing incompatible with supporting progressivism in the United States.
For many Jewish Americans — a demographic which overwhelmingly and disproportionately identifies as Democrats — marching as a participant in the parade has often gone hand-in-hand with looking the other way on matters of policy in Israel. For decades, the event provided the American Jewish community an opportunity to show their support for the country many consider a second homeland, in spite of the government tasked with running it.
But more recently, as Israel’s rightward lurch has continued unabated, ignoring the illiberal and inhumane transgressions committed by the Benjamin Netanyahu government has become untenable for many progressive Jews living in the United States.
“American Jews are still 70, 80 percent Democratic,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel organization that lobbies for a peaceful two-state solution. “A lot of it has to do with Netanyahu throwing his lot in with the Republican Party, Evangelical Christians, that side of the global political universe. But most American Jews are opposed to that, and support liberal democracy, and tolerance, and inclusion. And so there is more and more discomfort with a majority of American Jews.”
Generally conservative views toward Israel, even among otherwise liberal Jews, are hardly new. But that political disconnect has become harder and harder to reconcile for many American Jews thanks to the current occupant of the White House.
“The dramatic shift in the political reality in this country has played a really big role,” said Libby Lenkinski, the vice president for public engagement at the New Israel Fund. “I think that the very visible and performative bromance between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump has really played a role in this for American Jews who are largely progressive and liberal.”
As president, Donald Trump has gone out of his way to embrace and appease Netanyahu on the geopolitical stage. His arbitrary decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move condemned by virtually the entire international community, as well as several figures within his own administration — was but one example.
Watching the Trump White House — which has taken numerous actions that likely put American Jews at tremendous unease, including dabbling in Holocaust denial — get cozy with the political leader of Israel, was, in Lenkinsi’s estimation, “a shattering moment for many American Jews, and a clarifying moment as well.”
As more and more American Jews, fed up with the Israeli government, distance themselves from the kinds of pro-Israel groups they once supported (reluctantly or otherwise), there remains a question of what comes next.
“There’s a huge opportunity,” said J Street’s Ben-Ami. “We’re here on Israel to speak out, these traditional voices do not speak for us. The institutional hub of organized Jewry is out of touch with Jewish Americans.”
Part of the disconnect is generational, added Ben-Ami. “The folks who hold more old-guard points of view tend to do their giving through a Jewish lens,” he said. “Therefore, they will continue to support institutions focused only on the Jewish community and that kind of audience.”
“All of that made sense through the first half of the last century, through World War II, the fight for independence, constantly facing existential threats from its neighbors. But a lot of that has changed in the last three or four decades. Jews have become much more integrated, and no longer focused on the particular needs of the Jewish community.”
Lenkinski has witnessed this transformation firsthand.
“People my generation grew up in relative stasis and security,” she said. “Urban, suburban, middle class Jews in the United States, we could sort of put that identity aside if we wanted to. Many of my friends move in the world as liberal Americans.”
And they direct their charitable giving as liberal Americans as well, focusing on groups doing progressive work more broadly, like the ACLU or Planned Parenthood.
But just as recent generations shifted their attention away from some Jewish organizations, younger Jews today are coming of age in a very different environment than the one Generation X did.
“It’s still unclear of what the impact is going to be of the spike in anti-Semitism and white nationalism that’s happened under Trump,” said Lenkinski. “I don’t know what Charlottesville and Pittsburgh and San Diego means for that.”
There are some early signs, though, that those spikes are translating into a renewed sense of Jewish identity among younger progressives in the United States.
“In just the New York bubble alone, you see groups like If Not Now coming up. Those are deeply progressive, deeply anti-occupation, but also deeply Jewish and Jewish identified,” she said. “The first If Not Now actions were all Jewish rituals, public Jewish rituals.”
For now, the warring political parties in the United States continue to use Israel as a bludgeon, with Republicans like Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) eager to make a public show of their support for Netanyahu’s Israel even as they fundraise alongside holocaust deniers. And while Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) continue to offer their unflinching support for the state of Israel, the field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates will likely have to account for the tidal shift in public attitudes to forge a more nuanced path.