Israel's policies first stirred signs of unease among American Jews when Israeli bombers destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and, in a separate event, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, was the target of Israeli bombers. It was, however, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacre of at least six hundred Palestinian civilians by Christian Phalangist (Lebanese) troops allied with Israel that began a new era for American Jews. Prior to the invasion of Lebanon, Israel's wars had been struggles for survival. The invasion tested the resolve of many Jews who had followed the unwritten prohibition against Jews publicly criticizing Israel.
In their dash north, the sixty to ninety thousand Israeli troops, supplemented by naval and air support, left mass destruction of property and substantial numbers of civilian casualties. World public opinion, including most Americans, opposed the invasion. American Jews rallied to Israel's cause at the time, but an erosion of support had begun. One poll found that 93 percent of American Jews still supported Israel, and 83 percent reported that if Israel were destroyed, it would "be one of the great personal tragedies in my life."
Yet as time passed, individual mainstream Jewish leaders and major organizations spoke out in anger and dismay at the actions taken in Lebanon by Prime Minister Menachem Begin's right-wing government. The massacres were particularly troubling because the Israeli army had taken responsibility for the civilians' safety and had been nearby during the two days in which the killings occurred. How could a nation of Jews, with a 5,000-year heritage of respecting human life and a history of suffering nearly as long, be in any way involved in massacres of civilians? As the debate heated up, criticism of Israel reached a new level within Jewish circles in America and elsewhere.
Three years later, Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American Jew employed by the navy as a civilian analyst, was arrested and charged with being the most prolific spy in American history. Over a two-year period he had stolen and turned over to Israel 360 cubic feet of top-secret files. The U.S. government argued that Pollard had compromised the entire American intelligence-gathering apparatus. Many American Jews found it incomprehensible that Israel would engage in such spying. Israel's use of an American Jew seemed to play into the hands of anti-Semites who would surely charge American Jews with dual loyalty. Why, it was written, would Israel steal secrets from the one ally whose goodwill was essential and upon which the country was almost absolutely dependent?
One more event undercut the breadth of support that Israel had had from American Jews. Beginning in l987, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself, engaged in a mass revolt against Israeli authority. Led mainly by the young, the Intifada has transformed relations between Palestinians and Israelis, and among many American Jews has led to greater calls for a peace process that will end the fighting and provide Palestinians with some degree of self-governance.
Israel still has the support of American Jews, and the "special relationship" that underpins U.S.–Israeli relations continues. Israel receives more foreign aid from America than any country in the world, and is likely to continue to do so. However, Jewish-American unity has fragmented, with significant criticism of Israel being expressed openly as never before. AIPAC remains a model of how a successful lobbying group can represent the policy goals of an ethnic pressure group, but even its supporters acknowledge that it may have lost its edge because there no longer is community consensus on some issues. These changes have created an opportunity for an opposition group to emerge and challenge pro-Israeli policies of the American government. Still relatively in the shadows, an Arab-American group has taken on the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East.