/ Israel at War

How Oct. 7 Is Reshaping the Zionist — and Anti-Zionist — Left in the US

The Zionist left is reengaging to broaden the establishment’s big tent — and the anti-Zionist left is staying far outside
Matthew Litman/the Forward
Matthew Litman/the Forward
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

“Tragedy and trauma can have unintended consequences. In this eighth week of war, it is becoming clear that the seismic events of Oct. 7 have created aftershocks in the American Jewish political map that could reshape its contours for years to come.

I see two clear political realignments that are operating in tandem. The first is that the messy mainstream of American Jews is energized anew toward identification with Israel and the Jewish people, expressing that identification with levels of belonging that represent a reversal of decades of assimilation and decline, and coalescing back into a big tent. The second is a real rupture between the Jewish left and the rest of the Jewish community to which it was once attached, and its coalescence into a separate tent of its own.

When I talk about the messy mainstream, what I mean is the politically and religiously liberal majority of American Jews, who have a wide variety of observance and affiliation rates. It is messy because this group exhibits deep disagreements about the value and meaning of boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, and tends to behave and practice Judaism in ways that challenge the very existence of such boundaries.

This is the sector of Jewish life that many of us have watched and worried about for the past few decades as its connection to Israel eroded, whether because of concern over Israel’s increasingly right-wing governance, or simply out of distance and apathy. At the Shalom Hartman Institute we’ve termed this group the ‘troubled-committed,’ and we’ve worried that this population was at risk of exiting from the Jewish community.

Now I see signs of reengagement, reflected in higher turnout at synagogue, Hillel and Chabad events, and expressed on social media as a response to a sense of alienation from a gentile world that does not take Jewish pain and trauma seriously. This is happening at all ages.

For some liberal Jews, this act of recognition and return may reflect a real existential transformation away from those exact liberal values and commitments they held dear for a long time. It is something of a replay of the prior generation’s anti-Communist turn in the 1960s and 1970s, a journey inward from the universal to the particular.

One colleague, a university professor horrified by colleagues’ inabilities to mouth even platitudes condemning Oct. 7, told me she is leading herself through an active process of ‘de-lefting.’

For others it may be less radical, and more subtle. Many are simply realizing that they have always been more ontologically Jewish than they acknowledged, and are feeling more emotionally available to be claimed by the needs of the Jewish people.

American Jews who feel frustrated that their liberal allies didn’t show up reciprocally as they themselves stood for racial justice are not now going to abandon their commitments to racial justice or other movements. They are just more likely now than before to be more cautious in their expectations from the whole business of allyship. Liberal Jews have long been castigated by some on the far left as ‘progressives except for Palestine’; now that epithet may become true, and a source of pride.”

Read the full op-ed in the Forward.

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