Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel
By Dov Waxman, (2016, Princeton University Press, 316 Pages)
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
If you’re looking for a well sourced, even handed account of the split among American Jews over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel” may be for you. But if you stumbled across it in the “New Books” section of your local library and decided to read it because of a general interest in the Middle East, you may be bored.
This is due to Waxman’s effort to present each side in a neutral, objective style. He has compiled an enormous amount of material and stuffed it into a small amount of space but did so in a bifurcated manner that makes getting the full story more difficult. This is unfortunate because with a crisper, punchier writing style, this could have been a much more compelling story – and a goldmine of information for historians.
First, a few stats. “Trouble in the Tribe” is 316 pages in total, of which 215 pages is the body of the book. There are 72 pages of end notes and 16 pages in the bibliography. There were 563 end notes; chapter 2 alone had 164 end notes. The documentation of the author’s sources was so thorough that their page length was equivalent to 40% of the corpus of the book itself.
This is not a bad thing. Serious historians should cite appropriately to sources. But the author appears to have dumped a great deal of specific information into endnotes, which should have been better served in the main text, or attached as footnotes on the pages where they are cited.
A good example was the author stating that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to mobilize American Jews against the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal “although initial polling showed that most Jews actually supported it.”
If you go to the end note cited as the source, it reads: “The most reliable survey of American Jewish public opinion regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, conducted on behalf of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal shortly after the agreement was announced, found that American Jews supported the deal 49 percent to 31 percent (more than Americans in general) and that 54 percent of American Jews wanted Congress to approve the deal, compared with 35 percent who opposed Congressional approval.”
To get to this information, you had to turn ahead more than 200 pages and read the end note itself! Doing this every time a vague comment is end noted is too time consuming for the average reader.
Waxman did bring up some interesting points about American Jews’ less than enthusiastic support for establishing the state of Israel. After Israel declared its independence in 1947, American Jews’ interest in the nascent state waned.
In 1967 Israel’s existence was threatened by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who talked of wiping Israel off the map. This was traumatic for American Jews, who had spent much of the prior two decades learning details about the Holocaust.
There was a prolonged period of agony as Israel sought to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Unable to do so, Israel struck preemptively and achieved what Leon Uris called the greatest Jewish military victory in 6,000 years. In six days, they captured the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. It was an astounding military achievement.
From 1967 to 1977 was the golden era between American Jews and Israel. At the time, Israel was run by a socialist government, was an extremely progressive society, and was applauded and supported almost unanimously by American Jews.
This changed in 1977 when Menachem Begin and his Likud party were elected. Begin, was a militant, messianic figure who was called a terrorist in the pre-state days after his followers bombed the King David hotel, killing 94 British soldiers. Begin began the mass building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This led eventually to 650,000 Jews (the same population as the entire state of Israel when it became independent in 1947), living on land formerly owned by Palestinians or the Kingdom of Jordan.
It also led to an emotional conflict between the Israeli government and many American Jews, which Waxman describes at length.
It is doubtful an Israeli government will emerge with the political gravitas or skills to relocate these 650,000 Jews into the pre-1967 Israeli borders. The last Israeli Prime Minister who was in such a position, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing extremist.
Palestinian birth rates are far higher than Israeli birth rates. Soon Palestinians will be the majority in Israel and the occupied territories. Unless a Palestinian state is created, Israelis will be confronted with the choice of suppressing the democratic rights of a majority of its citizens – or adhering to their democratic principles and allowing a Palestinian majority to vote themselves into control of the state of Israel.