NEW YORK – Well before this week's elections, Israel had already become a source of division for American Jews, who bitterly debated the ever-expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories and the acceptable boundaries of dissent from Israeli policies.
The outcome of the Israeli election will only deepen that polarization, experts say. Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-Arab campaign rhetoric and his rejection of a Palestinian state, they say, will further splinter American Jews into hard left and right camps, and intensify conflicts over what it means to be loyal to the Jewish state.
"The trend toward fragmentation and weakening the center — those trends are already in place and they're just going to gallop forward now," said Theodore Sasson, a Jewish-studies professor at Middlebury College and author of "The New American Zionism." "It's going to make Israel an even more divisive issue in the American Jewish community."
American Jews generally still retain a strong personal link to Israel. In a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of American Jews said they felt very or somewhat attached to Israel, regardless of any misgivings about the country's policies. Most scholars don't expect that emotional connection to weaken for now because of Netanyahu's victory.
However, his last-minute attempt to turn out voters by warning Arab citizens were voting "in droves" rankled many American Jews, who are overwhelming liberal and deeply involved in advocating for civil rights. The World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents the liberal Reform Movement, the largest branch of Judaism in the U.S., said in a statement, "No public figure should lament fellow citizens exercising their right to vote freely, expressing themselves openly, and peacefully in accordance with the values of a democracy."
Netanyahu's disavowal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been met with alarm in the United States. Support for a two-state solution has been a central goal for most Jewish pro-Israel groups.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy arm for Jewish community agencies around the country, released a statement congratulating Netanyahu, then added, "we believe that progress can be made in creating two states for two peoples, and that the next government can make sure that all Israelis, Arab and Jew alike, feel a sense of security and belonging in the nation we care so deeply about."
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, an association of 862 American synagogues, said in a phone interview that rejecting a Palestinian state "flies in the face of every demographic study of American Jewry and what aligns with their values." But the hawkish Zionist Organization of America called the election outcome "a victory for realism and security, and a defeat for policies based on fantasy and appeasement."
On Thursday, Netanyahu said in a TV interview he is still committed to Palestinian statehood if circumstances improve.
For decades, American Jews were willing to set aside partisan differences on Israeli policies to present a unified front to the U.S. government. But in recent years, pro-Israel groups on the right and the left have emerged that reject that consensus approach.
The dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street which formed in 2009 expects 3,000 people at its national convention next week. The conservative group Stand With Us, which works with the Israeli government, has during a dozen years built branches in the U.S., Israel and Europe and become a leading voice against the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement against Israel. The organization believes only Israelis, not American Jews, should decide Israel policy.
These tensions run not only through Jewish organizational life, but also within synagogue communities and families. American rabbis carefully weigh how they discuss Israel from the pulpit for fear of losing their jobs. Some avoid the issue altogether. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has responded by starting a civility project, "Resetting the Table," that trains Jews in their 20s and 30s to promote respectful discussion on Israel and other issues.
"New organizations on the left and on the right are making the debate about Israel more diverse and also cantankerous," said Sarah Benor, a Jewish studies professor at Hebrew Union College, a Reform movement school in Los Angeles. "When people hear news like this Israeli election, it just makes them more entrenched in their positions."
Many American Jewish leaders are hoping Netanyahu will be a more moderate leader than candidate, even as he's poised to form a nationalist right-wing governing coalition.
But Rabbi Alissa Wise, a leader of the left group Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement, said that after this week, "there's no more illusion that there's a peace process."