Daniel Zemel first visited Israel fresh off his bar mitzvah, in 1966. A bookish Jewish kid from Chicago, Zemel had a love for Israel inherited from his grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Goldman, a friend of Albert Einstein’s who was president from 1938 to 1940 of the then left-leaning Zionist Organization of America. With the other members of his Jewish education group, the 13-year-old Zemel spent two weeks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. He lunched in cafeterias with the kibbutzniks he idolized, ate frozen treats on the beach and climbed a lookout tower, peering into Jerusalem’s still forbidden Old City. A year later, Zemel was ecstatic when Israeli forces captured everything he had surveyed and beyond, including the Temple Mount, the West Bank and Gaza, in the Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Over the decades, as Israel matured and began to wrestle with the occupation, Zemel did, too. He visited Israel again and again, as a college student, a rabbinical student and an assistant rabbi in Minnesota.
In 1983, Zemel became the head rabbi of Temple Micah, in the Northwest section of Washington. In the constellation of liberal American synagogues, there are a handful that stand out for their political engagement and the influence of their members — Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and KAM Isaiah Israel on Barack Obama’s old block in Chicago. But none have more connections to Capitol Hill.
In the fall, Zemel, a contemplative 62-year-old with horn-rimmed glasses, a bushy mustache and a bald dome from which his skullcap incessantly slips, stood before his congregation in a state of unrest. It was the start of the Jewish New Year, and he had decided to express his anguish over Israel in the form of a sermon about the direction his beloved country had taken. All summer, during the war in Gaza, Zemel and many of the members of his progressive congregation had been racked with worry. In his book-lined office, decorated with an Israeli flag and a poster of Yoda holding a Hebrew bible, emails from congregants had been regularly popping up on Zemel’s computer screen, railing about Israelis “killing children.” Zemel sat with congregants as they wept on his couch.
The entire year 5774, in fact, was a trying one for Zemel and other liberal Zionists, who increasingly find themselves torn between their liberalism and Zionism and stranded in the disappearing middle between the extremes of a polarized American Jewish community. Micah’s liberal Zionists remained wedded to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and estranged from the policies of a right-wing Israeli government, along with the reflexive Israel-can-do-no-wrong sentiment on Capitol Hill. But they also felt alienated by Jewish groups to their left, some of which chanted, “Stop the murder, stop the hate, Israel is a racist state.”
Zemel, fighting a nagging cold, looked out at the robust crowd on Rosh Hashana. He knew that the people gathered before him — and the people they knew — could help determine United States policy toward Israel. Some of them even had a direct line to Hillary Clinton, the early favorite to be the Democrats’ nominee for president in 2016. Sara Ehrman, who is 95 and a veteran of Jewish-American politics, was a mentor to Clinton; she sat next to Maria Echaveste, a former official in Bill Clinton’s administration and a convert to Judaism whom President Obama nominated to become ambassador to Mexico. Al From, an architect of the Democratic resurgence of the 1990s and adviser to Bill Clinton, sat across the aisle. Arrayed around them sat newspaper, magazine and television journalists in a congregation that included David Gregory, a former host of “Meet the Press”; Jake Tapper, a CNN anchor; and Dana Bash, a Washington correspondent for CNN and the former wife of Jeremy Bash, who was a national-security official in the Obama administration. Another member of the congregation is Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, which a year before published a landmark portrait of Jewish Americans that showed, among other things, that less than a third of young Jews said “caring about Israel” was essential to their Jewish identity.
Zemel adjusted his skullcap. “Tonight we celebrate the creation of the world,” he said. “But in this season we also take a look at ourselves: We acknowledge our past, our errors, who we are. What better time to look in the same way at the only Jewish country in the world? The events of this summer actually only strengthened my decision to speak about Israel and American Jewry’s ongoing and evolving relationship with that mystifying, infuriating yet enchanting place.”
As the sermon progressed, Zemel became more impassioned. He recounted the story of the reprisal murder in July of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem by Israeli extremists. “I am so ashamed,” he shouted. He bemoaned the growing ultranationalism in Israel by saying it had “dragged through the mud” what he called “the greatest ethical tradition in history.” Heads nodded in the pews. “In many segments of American Jewry,” Zemel said, “one is free to disagree with the president of the United States, but the prime minister of Israel is sacrosanct. How patently absurd!” Zemel’s criticism of the current Israeli government pivoted to a discussion of how the Holocaust and that summer’s flare-ups of anti-Semitism in Europe reminded them all that Israel was existentially necessary. “We must love Israel even harder,” he concluded, quoting from the Israeli national anthem. “Od lo avda tikvateinu. We have not yet lost our hope.”
For Zemel and his faithfully Democratic congregation, that hope and anxiety has come to rest most squarely on Hillary Clinton. This has happened at the same time that Clinton has staked out a firmly hawkish, pro-Israel position on Gaza and Israeli security. In August, many liberals were discouraged after reading a Clinton interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. In it, she struck a tone on Israel that was markedly more hard-line than that of the Obama administration, generally avoiding empathy with Palestinian losses and asserting, “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security” on the West Bank.
Asked about her tough talk, liberal Zionists tend to blame the requirements of American presidential-campaign politics. A vast majority of Jews care far more about social issues and the economy than they do about the issue of Israel and will always vote for the Democratic candidate. “Democrats who are Jewish will turn out in droves in support of her,” Haim Saban, a media mogul and major Clinton-campaign financier told me. And the Jewish donors? “Without a doubt.”
But Clinton knows that there is a wealthy and influential sliver of more-moderate Democratic Jews for whom Israel is a priority. They are less conservative than the G.O.P.’s top Jewish donors, like Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner, but feel protective enough of Israel that they could plausibly support a Republican if they sensed anything less than complete support from a Democrat. The political arithmetic for Clinton is easy — knowing you can take the larger liberal Jewish vote for granted, you support Israel’s right-wing government to keep moderates from bolting.
The political quandary for liberal Zionists is that, as part of the Jewish majority that will vote for Clinton regardless, they aren’t in a great position to make demands and are reduced to hoping that Clinton secretly agonizes over the issue as much as they do. Saban, the major Clinton-campaign financier, told me that Clinton was pained by the consequences of Israel’s actions, just not publicly. “I can tell you that privately she has expressed empathy for the Palestinians,” he told me. “She has.” Victor Kovner, a Democratic bundler who has a Chuck Close painting of Hillary Clinton hanging in his New York office, assures fellow liberal Jews that Clinton is on their side. “She is running for president, this isn’t true-self time,” he said. He suggested that Bill Clinton had demonstrated a much more nuanced view.
But other Clinton supporters have no patience for hand-wringing liberal Zionists, especially because there is little daylight between them and Clinton on actual policy. “What do they want her to do?” said Ann Lewis, a senior adviser on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign who is involved with Jewish issues.
The standard line for Hillary Clinton, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is that she has been a consistent voice for Israel and for peace over the last quarter-century. But other Clinton intimates, including those in Temple Micah, say they have watched her position shift by degrees over the decades. Ehrman, for one, recalled an early iteration of Hillary Clinton as a promising liberal voice on Israel. Ehrman first met Clinton during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign in Texas. Back in Washington, Ehrman hosted Clinton, who had landed a job on the Watergate committee, in her apartment for a year, and the two became close. Ehrman later drove Clinton to Fayetteville, Ark., telling her all the way that she was making a mistake by giving up a promising career to marry the “country lawyer” Bill Clinton.
In the early 1980s, Ehrman became political-education director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — or Aipac — the country’s most potent pro-Israel lobbying group. When the Clintons came to Washington as president and first lady, Ehrman became deputy political director of the Democratic National Committee. “I did all the Jewish stuff around the White House,” Ehrman said. That work culminated in organizing the Oslo Accords ceremony, at which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat on the south lawn of the White House, sealing an agreement between Jews and Palestinians to end their conflict. On the morning of the signing ceremony, Hillary Clinton called Ehrman with a special reward. “ ’I want you to stand at the front door of the diplomatic entrance, the main entrance, and I want you to see them coming in,’ ” Ehrman recalled her saying.
The event was a high point of liberal Zionism’s harmony with Washington politics. “It was totally, totally amazing,” said Zemel, who also attended the event. Clinton’s interest in the issue did not end there. In May 1998, speaking via satellite to young Arabs and Israelis gathered in Switzerland for a conference, she became one of the first people associated with the Clinton administration to call for a two-state solution. “I think that it will be in the long-term interest of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state,” she said, adding that “the territory that the Palestinians currently inhabit, and whatever additional territory they will obtain through the peace negotiations,” should be considered “a functioning modern state.”
The White House, seemingly uncomfortable with her statement, clarified that she was expressing a personal view. Her willingness to embrace the Palestinians soon caused another problem. In 1999, Ehrman accompanied Hillary Clinton on a trip to Ramallah, during which Clinton listened to Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat, deliver a speech in Arabic accusing the Israeli government of gassing Palestinian women and children. At the conclusion of the remarks, Clinton embraced Suha Arafat and offered a customary peck on the cheek. The moment news of the kiss hit the wires, a high-ranking Clinton administration official placed an angry call to the cellphone of Rob Malley, a Middle East adviser to the president, who was traveling with the first lady, demanding that he fix the problem. But the damage to Hillary Clinton was done.
The next day, some New York Jewish leaders seized on the incident to discredit Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the United States Senate, which was unofficially well underway. The New York Post ran a front-page headline reading “Shame on Hillary.” It was around this time that she enrolled in political Hebrew School. Under the tutelage of the senior New York senator, Chuck Schumer, she became extremely adept at winning the trust of audiences who held an absolute pro-Israel position. Schumer did, however, need to assure attendees at one campaign fund-raiser that “she will look to me to see how to vote” on Jewish issues.
Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000 and struck a tone that was in sync with the Bush administration, which had aligned itself with the Israeli right. In 2007, she went further than the administration when she released a position paper calling for “an undivided Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel. In 2008, as a presidential candidate, she warned Tehran that America would “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel.
By this time, Clinton was an Aipac favorite, and Aipac had changed from the time that Ehrman had worked there. Founded in 1954 to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship regardless of political ideology, the lobby has become increasingly conservative in its politics and Orthodox in its membership, while developing an unparalleled network of donors around the country. Its financial power, demonstrated at annual megaconferences that bring together presidential candidates and congressional power brokers, has translated into legislative might. Aipac-backed bills — on, for example, support for the Israeli military or sanctions against Iran — usually pass unanimously in Congress.
Many liberal Jews, alienated by Aipac over the years, were encouraged when Barack Obama ran against Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary. They appreciated that he took a more nuanced position when it came to supporting Israel, one that better reflected the political debate within Israel and among American Jews. They saw him as the rare presidential candidate who spoke their language and who seemed willing to push Israel toward peace. They expressed relief when he said that you could be committed to Israel while criticizing the policies of the right-wing government. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re opposed to Israel, that you’re anti-Israel,” he said. “And that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”
Once elected, Obama seemed to understand that he needed someone to lend him credibility with the Israeli government and its American defenders, a tough friend of Israel who could muscle the country away from settlements and toward a peace agreement. An aide to Obama called Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, and asked him to call Hillary Clinton to see if she would be “agreeable” to being named secretary of state.
Early in her tenure as secretary, she was harshly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s increasingly conservative culture, surprising and appalling Aipac and many of her supporters in New York. She excoriated Israel’s settlement growth and the “antidemocratic” tendencies of its right wing and also the practice, in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, of gender discrimination “reminiscent of Rosa Parks.”
As Clinton pressured Israel to make peace from the State Department, the Obama administration looked to J Street, a new and progressive Jewish lobby, to give members of Congress financial backing and credibility on Israel so that they could support the president without fear of being cash-starved by Aipac or called anti-Israel. J Street boasts of helping Obama defeat an Aipac-backed bill that would have scuttled the administration’s Iran nuclear talks. For the most part, though, unquestioning support for Israel has remained dominant in Washington. Even before she left the administration, Clinton essentially shed any pretense that she was still playing the role of impartial arbiter. As Israel flouted her own government’s demand that it not build more settlements in East Jerusalem, Clinton spoke so effusively about Netanyahu at a December 2012 conference that political observers considered the speech tantamount to a presidential announcement. Since then, Clinton has further distanced herself from her job as secretary of state, making light of her role as Netanyahu’s disciplinarian for Obama and calling herself the president’s “designated yeller.”
This explanation of Clinton’s earlier rebukes of Israel is already gospel among her pro-Israel supporters. Lewis, a backer of the independent super PAC Ready for Hillary, told me that Clinton “was not in the lead on making policy.”
Clinton’s return to campaign form has left liberal Zionists with little choice other than rationalization. “I sense that the people who advise Hillary Clinton on Jewish politics came of age in an era when the rules of the game were different,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, told me, suggesting that the time of reflexive support for Israel, regardless of their government’s policies, had ended. When I asked if he could persuade Clinton that such a position was no longer tenable, he answered, not so convincingly, “We definitely need to try.”
Other liberal Zionists are hoping that Bill Clinton could be a more sympathetic voice within a Clinton White House. After Zemel’s Rosh Hashana sermon, in which he talked about the need for “Jewish genius” to solve the problem in Israel, Al From told me, “Bill Clinton has this little bit of genius.”
Zemel concurred. “I want Hillary,” he said. “So I can get a second round with Bill.”
Over the summer and fall, many of Micah’s congregants and other influential liberal Zionists around Washington aired their discomfort with Clinton on Facebook and in op-ed pages and journals. But they were made even more uneasy by the specter of an increasingly loud Jewish left wing that is openly hostile to Israel and advocates punishing it economically.
At a Shabbat service in August, Zemel’s 22-year-old daughter, Ronit, a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, sat in the front row of Micah’s sanctuary. She listened to her father say, “What is needed to make peace between the peoples of these two lands is probably more than humans can summon,” which is from “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” a history of the country’s ethical struggle since its independence, by Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz.
In a few days Zemel’s daughter would head back to school, where she had served as co-chairwoman of the student wing of J Street, known as J Street U. The idea of going back to campus, she told me, gave her “the worst feeling ever.” She felt besieged by pro-Palestinian groups advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions, or B.D.S., modeled after the boycott movement that helped end South African apartheid policies. “I’m more ashamed of Israel now,” she said. “But I am viewing it from a place of love and caring, and I know that they are not. So I’m very scared.” Shavit expressed a similar concern. In November, he visited Temple Micah, and speaking as a “liberal to liberals” he worried about young American Jews losing their Jewish identity and drifting away from Israel.
Chief among the fears of liberal Zionists were groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which in June helped provide a Jewish seal of approval for the Presbyterian Church to divest from companies seen as profiting from Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that as a result of the war, 60,000 new supporters signed the group’s online petitions or open letters in liberal Jewish publications.
Vilkomerson (whose sister, an entertainment writer, is a friend of mine) said she felt no sympathy for the concerns of the liberal Zionist agonistes, whom she considered toothless and intellectually dishonest in their attempts to reconcile their liberal values with Israel’s right-wing government. She reserved special indignation for what she referred to as “PEPs,” or politicians who were “progressive except for Palestine.”
Vilkomerson pointed to a Pew poll taken during the summer, which showed that the core constituencies of the Democratic electorate, people under 30, African-Americans and Hispanics, blamed Israel more than Hamas for the war. She was also encouraged by the angry response of some delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention who booed an amendment to the party platform that would recognize Jerusalem as the present and future capital of Israel. If the left wing makes the case to Clinton and her Democratic successors that the political calculus on Israel is changing, then, Vilkomerson predicted, they will be forced to recalibrate their position. Hillary Clinton, she said, “is totally politically calculating.”
In November, Zemel took 30 of his congregants on the synagogue’s annual trip to Israel. It’s exactly the sort of pilgrimage that Zionists consider the most effective means of strengthening a connection to Judaism and, as a result, of increasing American Jewish support for Israel. But Zemel and his delegation saw signs in the region that troubled them. A third Intifada seemed possible in East Jerusalem, where Muslims and Jews clashed over holy places. Palestinian extremists ran over Israeli commuters and stabbed worshiping rabbis. Right-wing Israeli government ministers promoted the spread of settlements and proclaimed the death of the two-state solution. In November, they also proposed a bill that seemed to dilute Israel’s commitment to democracy by explicitly declaring the country a Jewish state. Netanyahu forced the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, a favorite of American liberal Zionists, out of his government.
“One is torn,” Zemel told me from Tel Aviv. “I can’t imagine not wanting to come to Israel every chance I get. But what would happen if an Israeli government were to decide, ‘O.K., we’re going to declare the entire West Bank to be part of Greater Israel and we’re not going to grant the Palestinians full citizenship.’ How could I then come to visit this country? But how could I not come? I just can’t imagine it.”
Zemel always felt Israel should be able to chart its own course, without the United States or any other nation forcing its hand. But as the tour progressed and the group encountered stun grenades and concrete blocks in Jerusalem, Zemel said he began to believe that Israel needed an emergency intervention from the United States.
“If a person is killing themselves,” he told me. “You save them from themselves.”
But there is a sinking feeling among many liberal Zionists that Washington’s opportunity for intervention has passed. The Obama administration’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace have collapsed and its attention has turned to terrorist groups like ISIS and the curbing of Iran’s nuclear program. European nations, frustrated with what they consider America’s unwillingness to force Israel to get out of the West Bank and embrace the two-state solution, have begun to recognize Palestine. Clinton has shown little inclination to risk political damage by reprising her old role as a friend and a critic of Israel.
At a Brookings Institution forum in Washington on Dec. 5, Clinton addressed an audience of American Jews and Israeli officials, including Livni. She offered platitudes about the two-state solution and studiously avoided any of her past criticism of Israel. On her way out, as she shook hands and gave hugs, I asked Livni, who is trying to oust Netanyahu in elections in March, if America’s liberal Jews should have any expectation that a new, more progressive Israeli government could form. “It’s not only their hope,” she said. “It’s our hope.”
Zemel was discouraged by Clinton’s remarks. “She didn’t say anything,” he complained. But he, too, clung to the idea that she had a private view that coincided with his own. “I hope,” he said. It’s a theme that Zemel often returns to when talking about Israel. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, he told a Micah congregant who was depressed about Israel’s rightward lurch that Jews were “a people of endless patience” who “view things in the long term.” At the breaking of the fast at his home that evening, he showed off a 19th century text that belonged to his grandfather, when he led the (at the time) liberal Zionist Organization of America — which is now a right-wing group financed in part by Adelson. Despite everything, Zemel remained optimistic, telling me that the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was a Zionist anthem. “There’s no place like home? What could be more Jewish?”