01/22/2014 11:12 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

American Jews, Change and Israel

As the Kerry-brokered peace talks continue between the Israelis and Palestinians, it might be useful to reflect on the experience of change in America, particularly among its Jews. By doing so I hope to shed a little light on why there is a gap between American Jews and their Israeli cousins on issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The recent Pew study of American Jews has brought this to light, and the excellent thinker and writer Peter Beinhart has raised and explored this relationship in many articles. With the New Year he has a new home at Haaretz, the Israeli English-language newspaper. He started with a perceptive article about American Jewish organizations and their congressional influence.

What is behind the growing rift between Israel and American Jews? In answering, I will confine myself to the secular American Jewish community; the Haredi and orthodox communities are not part of this discussion. According to the Pew study, the majority of American Jews want to see the two-state solution come to fruition. They want the occupation to end and a Palestinian state established. They do not support the occupation or the settlements; 44 percent said the settlements hurt Israeli security. This belief was profound especially among the younger, less religious interviewees. 61 percent of American Jews support a two state solution vs. 50 percent of the general American population.

Let's forget about Israel for a minute and look at recent American history, made more immediate by this week's remembrance of Martin Luther King. To have lived in America for the past 60 years is to have witnessed profound change. As a baby boomer, I have lived through a fair amount: the Birmingham church bombing, the murder of civil rights workers, the Roe vs. Wade abortion rights ruling, same-sex marriages performed in a score of states, and the endless war on pot-smoking declared over in Colorado. Only on Fox News do the ideas and attitudes of the era I was born in still exist. In my lifetime the country went from murdering American Jews who worked for change (e.g., Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, who were trying to help Southern blacks register to vote) to lauding those like David Axelrod, who helped elect America's first black President.

The sense and pace of change here is profound. We think nothing of interracial marriage, ethnic women as Supreme Court justices, and now a woman running the Federal Reserve. The public face of America is unrecognizable from 50 years ago. America adjusts, it changes, it moves forward; it is flexible and adaptable. It has institutions that reform and morph.

It was 29 years ago that I accompanied a photojournalist friend based in Israel to Jenin on Palestinian "Land Day." There I witnessed Israeli troops in full paratrooper attire, chasing a few twelve-year-old stone throwers down the narrow streets. At the time I remember thinking that it looked pretty stupid. Battle-clad paratroopers chasing stone throwing kids? There must be a better solution. Yet almost forty-seven years after conquering the West Bank, it is nowhere in sight.

Two intifadas, tens of thousands of personal acts of violence, legal and illegal settlements, checkpoints, separation barriers, arrests and the imprisonment of countless Palestinians and still no progress. The world correctly perceives that the Israeli government does not want to free itself of the burdens of being an occupier. This is inexplicable to American Jews. In America we have overcome hatred between the races in the South that seemed unbridgeable. Why can't the Israelis and Palestinians at least start to try?

American Jews know that Israelis are world leaders in scientific and technological innovation. Secular Israel punches far above its weight class in all knowledge industries. Tel Aviv is a lifestyle sister city to Miami, cool and hip. So if progress is achievable, why is much of the Israeli government snarling at Kerry's efforts?

The belief that the settler movement has captured the fractured Israeli government does not help. Most American Jews would turn the tables on Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon for his comments on Kerry's "messianic" mission, using just the same terminology to characterize the settler and Gush Ermin movement that Ya'alon supports. Anyone who has been in Hebron for even a day knows that "messianic" is the only accurate description of Jewish behavior there. Yet the Israeli state and military supports it.

Peter Beinhart is right. The sheer passage of time is eroding American Jewish support for the occupation. When the Sheldon Adelsons of Jewish America pass from the scene, it is unlikely that the Jeff Zuckerbergs or Sergey Brins will replace him. They have other things to think about. The sons and daughters of the AIPAC leaders are unlikely to share their parents' belief in total support for Israel ... especially if it is not in Israel's own interest.

American Jews have been on their own front lines: they have often taken the lead in eliminating discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. They are also frequently at the fore of promoting economic and political equality. American Jews have lived through a revolutionary time of cultural and behavioral change; they are used to finding new solutions to old problems. They want to see a strong and powerful Israel that has earned and sacrificed for its power, and that uses its power wisely. They want the Zionist enterprise to be a "light unto nations," not boycotted by them.

The current leaders in Israel would be wise to reflect upon this. Going back to the same well of donors, opinion-makers, lobbyists and politicians to support the occupation is a short-term strategy.

When they call America their home, Jews have been at the forefront of positive change. Why shouldn't the same be true when their home is Israel?