Dr. Chaim C. Cohen
Dr. Chaim C. CohenCourtesy

This article centers around the letter I would like to write to my two brothers, their families, and six college friends ( since 1965) in America . They very closely represent the three million, secular, liberal American Jews , over 35- 40 in age, who, except for a small but vocal group, have been strongly supporting Israel in its war with the Hamas, for over five months now.

I am writing because I am worried. From my very recent conversations I feel that as the war continues it is becoming harder for secular, liberal American Jews to continue to strongly identify with Israel’s military effort, for reasons that that I will now explain.

Also, all my family and friends strongly support Biden in the next election, and the Biden administration is now actively pushing diplomatic measures that appeal to Jewish liberals, but are hard for most, more nationalistic Israelis to accept.

The article attempts to provide a framework for encouraging secular, liberal American Jews to continue their ongoing support despite very real differences in perspectives and proposed answers to the fateful dilemmas posed by our long term war with the Hamas.

For example, comparing my and my wife’s extended families' support of Israel over the last five months:

Probably the most dramatic way to illustrate the challenge of continuing the ongoing support of secular, liberal American Jews is to compare the activities of my and my wife’s extended families since Oct 7th.

My wife’s family is three generations of very ardent religious Zionists. She and her brother, sister and retired parents made aliyah over forty years ago. Needless to say her parent’s extended family has a lot of sons now fighting in Gaza. Overseas, close relatives have generously contributed large sums of money, have come to Israel to volunteer, and support the IDF from afar with prayers and Torah learning. Almost all will vote for Trump.

My family could not be more different. All of my extended family has remained in America. I am the only member who is religiously observant. Yet we have succeeded in remaining emotionally very close over the last fifty years. We all closely follow the developments of each other’s children. We talk twice a week, and my wife and I travel once a year to visit them. And the secret to our closeness is that I never talk about religion or politics with them. We simply and lovingly respect our very different ways of life. When we visit, we sit at one end of the table with our kosher food, and they sit at the same table with their menu. This exchange of mutual respect has been a formula that has worked now for fifty years. In becoming observant I gained a new way of life, but did not lose a blessed family.

This same pattern of mutual acceptance characterizes my fifty eight year old relationships with my secular, liberal Cornell friends, with one exception-we never argue about religion, but we do disagree about politics. They are all voting Biden.

My secular liberal friends are now having a hard time identifying with Israel policies in Gaza

Up till Oct 7th my secular family and friends felt ‘good’ about Israel, basically because they are happy and proud to be (ethnically) Jewish. They have very little religious observance, but take an interest, and are fairly well informed on Jewish history, some have visited Israel, and their Jewish self identity is a positive, significant ( even if sometimes not too conscious) part of their self identity.

Right after Oct. 7th they readily identified and supported Israel. They were horrified by the massacre, certainly urged the release of the hostages, and readily supported Biden’s support of Israel’s initial military offensive. And the ever growing number of anti-Semitic attacks that has accompanied the war, also caused a reactive response of strengthening their innate positive sense of ethnic-Jewish self identity.

But in the past month, I sense that their identification with Israel in the Gaza war is noticeably weakening, and is likely to further deteriorate. For example, Senator Schumer’s recent speech that condemned the current Israeli government probably had an effect on them, while it angered Israelis.

Their support of Israel’s military campaign is weakening for several reasons.

One, because as good American liberals they support Biden, and as Biden’s support of Israel’s military campaign is weakening, so is theirs.

Two, for a liberal social conscience, the physical destruction and number of civilian casualties is increasingly hard to accept because liberal social morality emphasizes the individual, the universal and not the national self interest dimensions of social justice. For example, they see and are instinctively moved by the suffering of individual Palestinian Arabs, but their liberal , universalistic moral conscience is unwilling ( finds it very hard) to take into account the national interest of the Jewish people for battling for long term survival

Three, liberals more easily believe and accept the possibility of resolving international conflicts through a-historical rationality and mutual compromise. Thus liberal American Jews believe Biden’s idea of a Palestinian state ‘makes sense’, and find it hard to understand the negative rejection of such an idea. Israel’s rejection is based on Israel’s horrible, 30 year experience of death-filled realpolitik of surrendering territory in exchange for Arab promises of good behavior. Liberal social justice tends to trust reason more than historical experience.

Four, It is highly likely that my family and friends will soon become ‘bored and tired of the war’. Our Gaza war is most likely to evolve into an ongoing war of attrition . There will be no “six Day War victory picture”. Israel will have the upper hand, but not all of our security needs and demands will be met for a long time. Any ‘resolution’ will leave both sides disappointed.

Israeli Jews who know that our war effort is one of absolute necessity, and intimately know the bravery that our soldiers have been demonstrating everyday, will know how to accept and ‘live with’ this gray complexity. But my secular-liberal friends , living very very far from the front lines, and having a lukewarm Jewish self identity, are more likely to simply lose patience with the existential complexity of a war of attrition , and ‘throw up their hands’ , grow tired, and radically reduce their emotional involvement in our Gaza war for survival.

Israeli Jews do not have such an option.

Now the letter: Whose message is, let's amiably disagree on policies, but remain united on commitment,

Dear family and friends,

We Jews in Israel are very grateful and thankful that you have steadfastly stood beside us in these past very, very difficult months of war. As you know, in my ‘little settlement of 350 families’ already four of our ‘sons’ have died in fighting. Your caring and support has been very comforting.

But I have a fear and worry that in the coming months you may find it harder to continue supporting us in the same way. You will probably find it hard to ‘understand’ or ‘accept’ Israeli’s policies of war. And I really understand your difficulties. I honor the policy differences between us.

As I we have spoken in the past, the policy differences of liberal American Jews, and more and more conservative Israeli Jews, grow out the fact that the last 75 years of history has provided very different social experiences for American and Israeli Jews. We have lived very, very different social histories, and our policies reflect these different histories.

And now at this difficult historical junction for world Jewry, I understand if you decide to be faithful to the social values that are a product of the unique social experiences of American Jewry.

And yet on the other hand, I ‘beg’ you to put our differing social policies in the context of two thousand years of Jewish history, and struggle honestly to maintain and sustain a deep commitment to our shared, national Jewish peoplehood .

I truly believe that we Jews are both a people with a religion, and a relgion with a people. We may/will disagree on questions of religion (and other social policies) but please continue to see your self as a member of a unique people, with a unique three thousand year history. And I hope you can feel proud to be part of our long, unique Jewish history. We existed many years before the present Gaza war, and will exist for many years after the Gaza war.

If you can bring yourself to adopt this identification with three thousand years of Jewish history, maybe you can more properly put our current policy differences in perspective. Again, we disagree not because ‘I am right and you are wrong”, but because the life of Jews in Israel, and the life of Jews in America has been, and will be, so different.

But then remind yourself that our common peoplehood existed for many years before most Jews came to America, and also before the State of Israel was founded. And if our history proves anything, our common peoplehood will last for hundreds of years more.

So please put the policy/political controversies of the year 2024 in the context of loyalty and commitment to our historically unique Jewish peoplehood. Please feel committed to our common destiny.

And if you permit me a ‘bit of chutzpah’, maybe you can also try giving us Israeli brothers the ‘benefit of the doubt’, and even entertain the possibility that because we are on the front lines with our lives at stake we might just have a better idea about what is good for the State Israel.

I would like succinctly to close this letter by referring back to the example of my very close relationship with my secular family. We have different eating life styles, so I eat my kosher at one end of the table, and they eat their culinary menu at the other end of the table, but we still bond as a one family and are extremely committed to our common familyhood - and to our family's survival.

I propose a similar relationship between Israeli Jews and our secular, liberal brothers in America: we will probably continue to have different policies for living and surviving in our native communities, but we should share a common commitment to our historically ancient and unique peoplehood.

In loving commitment, your brother Chaim

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.