Family  /  First Person

My Grandfather the Zionist

He helped build Jewish American support for Israel. What’s his legacy now?

In my grandfather’s day, Israel was the great unifier of the American Jewish community. Now it is the great divider, both inside our own community and in cleavages with other ones. Bring up Israel with any American Jew and you can feel the atmosphere tighten. There is no topic that incenses us more, whether the emotions are pride or shame, defensiveness or hatred, fear that not enough of our coreligionists support the Jewish state or rage that they support it too much. There are those among us who have opted out of the conversation altogether, but one can run only so far these days.

It is impossible to ignore the denunciations of Israel that have featured in both traditional and social media since fighting between Israelis and Palestinians escalated this May. Jews and Gentiles who had previously betrayed no interest in the topic have taken up the cause of the Palestinians who are governed and besieged and, in many cases, killed by an occupying state. Although Twitter, as they say, is not real life, it’s often a leading indicator of where real life is headed, and the conversation about Israel increasingly heralds disaster and disunity for the Jews of the United States. My grandfather, had he not died in 2004, would almost certainly be infuriated by the left’s response to Israel’s recent actions and penned passionate defenses and delivered fiery addresses. Which is to say, he’d probably be infuriated by me.

I used to be one of those Jews who had no particular interest in Israel. For whatever reason, Grandpa never really talked to me about it — perhaps he thought I wasn’t old enough to understand — and neither did my parents. But in recent years, I’ve developed a level of fixation on the place, both personal and journalistic, that rivals even that of my grandfather. The conclusions we have come to, however, are worlds apart.

I have not come here to denounce my grandfather, or to defend him. I have come to tell his story. Although his life had its unique contours, his journey illuminates much about the birth, ascent, and decline of the American Jewish community’s pro-Israel consensus. And while I’m reluctant to discuss any of this, family is the lens through which one must look to figure out how and why it all went wrong, for there are two questions every Jew has to answer when it comes to the dizzying topic of Israel: Who counts as your family? And what would you do to protect them?