Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel by Dov Waxman (review)
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Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, by Dov Waxman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. 328 pages. $29.95.

Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe is a broad and articulate analysis of American Jewish discourse and discord around Israel. To be clear: This is not a book about Israeli politics, an analysis of broader conflicts in the Middle East, or an assessment of American policies toward Israel. Similarly, it is not an analysis of American Jewish attitudes toward or about Israel and its policies. This is a book about American Jews. The book’s major contribution lies in its careful accounting of event after event, issue after issue and illustrating over and over again the ways in which Israel has come not to define American Jewish life, but to divide it.

Waxman’s analysis is neither deeply penetrating nor audaciously creative. It is, however, gently insightful, richly documented, clearly presented, and illuminatingly broad in its engagement of examples both historical and contemporary. Most of the data he presents to develop his argument are drawn not from original empirical research but from scholarly publications and news reports. As a result, his analysis is not theoretically sophisticated, but it does not have to be. The American Jewish community will still benefit from its distillation of issues into a single strong analysis. The phenomenon he is describing and analyzing in the book is so pervasive that to take issue with it would be to argue that the ocean is anything other than wet.

Anyone active in American Jewish life at almost any level need not look very far for evidence of the trouble Waxman documents. Synagogue members disagree powerfully with one another, leaving rabbis at a loss about what to say, if anything. The student network Hillel’s houses on university campuses are sites of ferocious debate, discord, and acrimony about what the parameters of discussion about Israel even are. In their study of how Israel is handled in American Jewish day schools, Jack Wertheimer, Alex Pomson, and Hagit Hacohen-Wolf found broad agreement that people should “love Israel.” But they also discovered that most schools find the issue too contentious, so they avoid addressing it in any serious way, for fear that it will undermine the fragile and implicit consensus around Israel.1

If schools (and synagogues, I would add) have begun to pursue a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in order to keep the communal peace, participants in the American Jewish “public square” have taken exactly the opposite approach. As Waxman demonstrates, public discussions of Israel have grown increasingly tense, tendentious, and accusatory, as people on all sides believe those on other sides hold positions that will ultimately lead to negative consequences. (For whom and under what conditions those negative consequences manifest remain a source of disagreement, as does the definition of “negative”). Waxman demonstrates, however, that the tone of debate around Israel has already led to, or at least exacerbated, a fragmentation of the American Jewish community. Put slightly differently, Waxman argues American Jewish discord around Israel has become an element in an increasingly discordant American Jewish community.

The picture Waxman paints, as a result, is not pretty. It is also perhaps the most levelheaded analysis of what may well be the largest challenge facing American Jews during [End Page 682] the early years of the 21st century: how American Jews might speak to one another about any number of issues that seem, at present, too difficult to talk about. This book is not, at the end of the day, about Palestinians or Israelis. It is not even about the array of political opinions of American Jews. It is about how American Jewish communal discourse has utterly devolved, to the point where many American Jews hear the word “Israel,” and decide that they want no part of what comes next, be it from the Right or the Left.

Yet, Waxman’s sharp focus on internal American Jewish discourse and its effects insulates his analysis from broader changes in American politics, society, and culture, more generally. The fragmentation and polarization of American Jewish discourse on Israel is...