When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I was already furious as an American. But as an Israeli-born Jew, I was devastated. I worried that Trump’s future actions in Israel would only worsen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Dec. 6, 2017, my fears were confirmed when President Trump announced his plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In a tweet this week to mark Israel’s 70th independence day, Trump said he was looking forward to the move, which is set for May.
This is more than just a move from one city to another. Both Israel and Palestine claim the ancient holy city of Jerusalem as their capitals. To some, the placement of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is a signal that the Trump administration has conclusively sided with Israel in the conflict.
On the surface, it might seem like good news for American Jews. But Jews — like many American groups — are divided in their political positions and opinions of the Trump administration’s policies on Israel and the country we love.
Israeli-born University of Washington student Ofek Inbar was skeptical of Trump’s Jerusalem decision.
“For it to come from an American politician, especially when the topic is such a controversial one… I think it definitely made me uncomfortable to hear,” Inbar said.
However, Talya Gillman, education coordinator at the Jewish Family Service, said strong support for Israel was important to many in her community when she was growing up.
“[The] mainstream Jewish community is just naturally… staunchly pro-Israel,” Gillman said. “I think that it’s hard to be taken seriously as pro-Israel in this community if your love and affection for Israel involved really wrestling openly with its problems.”
Such a stance has a political history in the United States. According to Noam Pianko, director of the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, support for the state of Israel historically gained traction among U.S. Jews, who had the belief that support for Israel was the best way to bring progressive American ideals to the Middle East.
“You hear that when people talk about Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, [and] Israel and America having unique friendships,” Pianko said.
But for many, President Trump’s politics complicates ideals of American democracy.
“For progressive American Jews grappling today with the impact of an increasingly ethnic American nationalism on immigrants and minority communities, there is a heightened awareness of the tensions in the state of Israel between Jewish and democratic ideals,” Pianko said.
A 2018 study from the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of Republicans tend to be more supportive of the actions of the Israeli government, compared to only 27 percent of Democrats.
A large percentage of American Jews (at least 68 percent) remain Democratic, though they appear to be divided by age on the topic of Israeli politics. Based on a study in 2013, Pew concluded that a large majority of older Jewish generations in America sympathize with Israel.
Younger Jews are more divided. Among respondents under 30, 32 percent said they sympathize more with Israel, compared to the 23 percent that sympathized more with Palestinians.
Much of this has to do with American politics. The argument that the United States should be a diverse and accepting society, makes it harder to fully accept the Israeli government, which often privileges one group of citizens over the other based on their religion.
When American Jews — particularly more liberal ones — experience this dynamic firsthand, their previous ideas of Israel conflict against the realities they witness on the ground.
At that time, Basior was creating profiles of families living in East Jerusalem — made up of predominantly Arab neighborhoods — whose houses were deemed illegal by the Jerusalem municipality.
The experience deeply affected him.
“I had my world blown up a bit… it was the first time I ever crossed the Green Line intentionally,” Basior said. “I saw that Arabs are not given permits to build and Jews are. The best [reason for the demolitions] I could come up with at that point in my life was [that] this is racism.”
Meeting with individuals who are affected negatively by the conflict helped Basior increase his empathy towards Palestinians.
Jordan Goldwarg, Director of Development for Kids4Peace Seattle, a group that coordinates activities between Seattle Muslim and Jewish youth also said he empathized with his Palestinian colleagues’ response to Trump’s Jerusalem decision.
“It was an extremely disappointing thing to have happened. It really made them feel that they have lost the U.S. as a trusted partner in the peace process,” he said. “They felt that the U.S. government was no longer an honest broker… That was really sad for me to hear.”
Goldwarg also struggled with the reaction from other mainstream Jewish American organizations he belonged to. They celebrated a decision that may have reflected their own reality, but was also causing pain to others. To him, these responses devoid of empathy stem from the lack of education about modern day Israel.
“By not engaging at a younger age with the complexity of Israel,” he said. “And recognizing both the amazing stuff that happens there, and also the problematic stuff that happens there, [it’s] really creating a disservice for American Jewish youth.”
When youth participate in healthy critical discourse, they don’t necessarily have to lose their care for Israel. The 2013 Pew Research Center study shows that while younger Jewish Americans are more critical of the state of Israel than older generations, they still consider care for Israel as central to their Jewish identity.
The dual rhetoric of pro-Israel vs. pro-Palestine views does not capture the reality shown in data, nor does it reflect the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no one-size-fits-all way to feel about Israel.
As much as Trump may have obscured what it means to love or support Israel, American Jews still have the opportunity to redefine Zionism, or what it means to love Israel.
Some decide to look inwards at their own religious and moral beliefs to come to terms with their understanding of Israel today.
Basior said Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, called this type of introspection a “re-valuation” of the concept of “Zion” — the concept of the Jewish biblical homeland that inspired the Zionist movement.
“[Kaplan] used the term of ‘re-valuation,’ to take old ideas and revalue them,” Basior said. “Because those are the ideas that make for… Jewishness, this is Jewish as a language.”