Does an American Jewish historian’s rejection of Zionism signal a broader trend?

Hasia Diner’s recent op-ed calling Zionism a ’naive delusion’ has raised hackles among American Jews

Hasia Diner (Screenshot from YouTube)
Hasia Diner (Screenshot from YouTube)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Hasia Diner is one of the most acclaimed American Jewish historians in the country. A product of the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement, she is a former Fulbright Professor at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Now, she’s calling Zionism a “naive delusion” and says she feels uncomfortable entering a synagogue that celebrates its support for Israel.

Diner’s op-ed discussing her disillusion, which appeared Monday on the website of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, immediately stirred passionate and angry responses among readers, including her fellow academics. It also raised the question whether her distancing from Israel makes her an outlier, or reflects a growing trend among American Jews, in general, and the Jewish academic elite in particular.

Diner, who directs New York University’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, writes in her op-ed that she stopped being a Zionist in 2010, and now feels uncomfortable visiting many American Jewish institutions because of their support for Israel. She blames Zionism for the disappearance of “vast numbers of Jewish communities.” She condemns Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, as well as the growth of its haredi and right-wing sectors.

Israel “is a place that I abhor visiting, and to which I will contribute no money, whose products I will not buy, nor will I expend my limited but still to me, meaningful, political clout to support it,” Diner writes.

“The Law of Return can no longer look to me as anything other than racism,” she writes, referring to the Israeli law that bestows automatic citizenship on immigrants with at least one Jewish grandparent.

In a later portion of the op-ed, co-written with Babson College history professor Marjorie Feld, Diner writes that their renouncing of Zionism signals a broader trend in the American Jewish community. More and more Jews, they imply, do not support Israel.

“Though we certainly do not claim to speak for all American Jews, as scholars we know we are a part of something much larger, something that, we assert, should be shaking the foundation of American Jewish leaders,” they write. “There is a growing gap between these leaders and the people for whom they claim to speak.”

The op-ed has certainly shaken the foundation of one American Jewish scholar: historian Jonathan Sarna, who penned a response to the op-ed Tuesday in Haaretz. Both acclaimed in their field, Sarna and Diner each published histories of American Jewry in 2004. Sarna accused Diner and Feld of believing “demonic” myths about Israel and wrote that they “sacrifice truth to advance their newfound ideology.”

“Diner and Feld’s current view is at least as much a ‘naïve delusion’ as the earlier one that they rejected,” he wrote. “Sadly, instead of drawing serious, nuanced, scholarly lessons from history, they have provided us with just what they claim Israel’s supporters once gave them: propaganda.”

(Sarna is a member of the board of JTA’s parent organization, 70 Faces Media.)

Diner told JTA Zionism was once “one of the most important parts of my existence” and that her shift away from it has been “painful.” As late as 2014, she signed on as a founding member of the academic advisory council of The Third Narrative, a pro-peace initiative of Ameinu, the progressive Zionist alliance.

But she feels that speaking out is necessary, and that she speaks for a wide swath of American Jews.

“It’s the kind of thing people whisper about in metaphorical terms,” she said. “The younger one is, the more one is negative about this conflict of [being] Jewish and Israel, and the kind of politics that come out of Israel and the like. I think there is an enormous world out there of American Jews who are not at all far from this position.”

Diner and Feld aren’t the first American Jewish academics this year to publicly advocate criticism of Israel. In October, Harvard University government professor Steven Levitsky and Yale University economics and law professor Glen Weyl wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post supporting a boycott of Israel on the grounds that it would be the only way to meaningfully advance the peace process.

“I feel like I’m part of a silent large minority,” Weyl, 31, told JTA. “There’s a lot of Jews of my generation who are very, very unhappy with Israel, but who, on the other hand, have no trust [in] anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist extremist groups representing Palestinians or political Islam or things like that. I don’t think my position is actually so small.”

Polls show young Jews growing more critical of Israeli policy. While three-quarters of Jews over 50 feel attached to Israel, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jewry, only 60 percent of Jews aged 18 to 29 feel attached. Among that demographic, only 26 percent said Israel is making a sincere effort toward peace.

“There’s no question that liberal American Jews are increasingly uncomfortable with Israel,” said Steven Cohen, a Jewish social policy professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who attributed part of the distancing from Israel to a broader disaffiliation with Jewish life. “Unfortunately, people tend not to distinguish the government from the country from the ideology, and legitimate criticism of government policy often flows over to alienation from the country and disavowal of Zionism.”

Sarna said discontent with Israel among American Jews could be situational, having to do with the distrust between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also dismissed the notion that criticism of Israel is unwelcome in Jewish intellectual circles.

“American Jews are always happier when the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel are on very good terms,” he told JTA. “When Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin were on the best of terms, they were very happy. That could happen again.”

But Diner, who has written extensively about Diaspora Jewry and the American Jewish experience in particular, would prefer a more fundamental shift among American Jewry: One where Zionism is one of several “icons of Jewish identity,” not the predominant one.

“There was a time when there was a much broader and bigger conversation,” she said. “That’s become less and less possible.”

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