Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content


The Suppressed Lineage of American Jewish Dissent on Zionism
The Suppressed Lineage of American Jewish Dissent on Zionism

In his recent book Our Palestine Question, historian Geoffrey Levin uncovers the long history of American Jewish concern for Palestinian rights.

Emma Saltzberg

In the months since October 7th, the United States has seen its largest-ever mobilization of Jewish pro-Palestine activism: Membership in IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace has surged, and both groups have staged frequent acts of civil disobedience in cities across the country to protest Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. In response, the mainstream American Jewish community, which has largely consolidated around support for Israel’s war, has sought to cast these non- and anti-Zionist activists as operating outside the American Jewish communal tent. Yet historian Geoffrey Levin’s new book, Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978, shows that American Jewish concern for Palestinian rights and critique of Zionism have a long history that has been thoroughly suppressed.

The book follows a cast of characters often excluded from accounts of American Jewish history—including a staffer at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a firebrand Jewish journalist, a Palestinian Syrian diplomat, and a crusading anti-Zionist rabbi—who tried to push American Jews to acknowledge Zionism’s impact on Palestinians. Levin, assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Jewish studies at Emory University, documents how the official American Jewish position on Zionism remained contested in the decades immediately following Israel’s founding, and how challenges to unqualified support for Israel emerged from both the community’s outer edges and the center of the establishment. Ultimately, mainstream Jewish organizations, responding in part to lobbying by the Israeli government, marginalized these critical voices.

I spoke with Levin about some of those embattled figures, the geopolitical dimensions of the contest for American Jewish public opinion in the 1950s, and why American Jewish elites were once uncomfortable with Jewish nationalism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Saltzberg: Your book chronicles a longstanding struggle over public opinion in the American Jewish world. What are the top-level conclusions you draw from this history?

Geoffrey Levin: The first big takeaway is that this history of American Jewish concern for Palestinian rights isn’t something that started yesterday, or even in the ’60s or ’70s. It goes back to 1948. As long as there has been a Palestinian refugee issue, there has been American Jewish concern for Palestinians, especially coming from Jews who spent a lot of time in the region and were deeply exposed to Israel and to the Palestinians. The second is that this American Jewish engagement with Palestinian rights was frequently influenced by state actors. Sometimes it was the Arab League [an organization of Arab states formed in 1945 to advance their shared interests], sometimes it was the CIA—but most often it was the Israeli government. I uncover this long record of Israeli diplomats trying to manage American Jewish discourse. And the last key point is that American Jewish groups were having nuanced and complicated debates in this period, as early as the ’30s, about the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. A lot of the groups that are arguing today that there’s a strong overlap between those two things, like the AJC and the Reform movement, didn’t hold that position 70 years ago.

Enjoyed reading this interview? Join Geoffrey Levin, along with The Threshold of Dissent author Marjorie Feld and Jewish Currents associate editor Mari Cohen, tomorrow for a live virtual conversation on the history of dissent in American Jewish communities over unqualified support for Israel, and on the lessons this history holds for politics today.

NOTE: This event is for Jewish Currents members only. In addition to our print and digital subscriptions, we now have a membership program. This new initiative is for those hungry for community, learning, and conversation. By becoming a member, you will receive our print magazine, invitations to exclusive events—like this one!—and more. Whether you’re a long-time subscriber or a new reader, we hope you’ll join us as a Jewish Currents member today!