(March 24, 2020 / JNS) Amid the rising panic over the spreading coronavirus, I have retreated to the comfortable security of my study at home. Surrounded by books about Israel and Judaism, fascinating antiquities and alluring 19th-century lithographs of the Holy Land (all acquired during two years of residence in Jerusalem and decades of visits), I do my best to remain calm.
Several days before our local public library suddenly shut down for the duration, I borrowed We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel (2019) by Daniel Gordis, vice president and distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. American-born and now an Israeli citizen, Gordis explores the enduring tension between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, between American universalism and Israeli particularism.
The core values between American Jews and Israel, Gordis astutely concludes, are “diametrically opposed.” This first became evident more than a century ago, after Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State appeared. Prominent Reform rabbis insisted, and endlessly reiterated, that Jews comprise a religious community, not a nation. America was their Zion. Anything less could provoke dreaded allegations of dual loyalty against Jews who desperately wanted acceptance as genuine Americans.
After World War I, the emerging Zionist movement and the determination of its pioneers to return to their biblical homeland heightened the concern of prominent American Jewish leaders. With support from the League of Nations for Palestine (on both sides of the Jordan River) as the Jewish national homeland, the already fraught relationship between Reform Jews and Zionist pioneers intensified. America, they insisted, “is our Zion.”
Nor, as Gordis documents, did their discomfort diminish over time. For the prominent (and wealthy) among them who found their organizational home in the American Jewish Committee, Zionism was intensely discomforting lest, in the eyes of non-Jews, it be seen as compromising their loyalty to the United States. Former Committee president Joseph M. Proskauer, a respected New York lawyer, was furious that Israel intended to place Adolph Eichmann on trial. Nazis, he insisted to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, had committed “unspeakable crimes against humanity, not only against Jews.”
Over time—following the Six-Day War that returned Jews to their biblical homeland and, if briefly, sparked euphoria among American Jews—the two Jewish communities have drifted apart. Gordis understands that American universalism, in conflict with Israeli particularism, became “the new Judaism” for liberal American Jews. Their admiration for Israel faded once Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu became its elected leaders.
Perhaps the schism was inevitable, given what Gordis identifies as “the radically different purposes at the heart of each of the two countries.” The United States welcomed immigrants worldwide (most of the time) while Israel was born “to foster the recovery and renewed flourishing of the Jewish people.” For Israeli Jews, this defined Zionism and expressed the purpose of Jewish statehood. But for many American Jews, Gordis astutely observes, “there is something deeply disturbing about the legal and cultural implications of a country being a specifically Jewish country.”
That may help to explain why American Jews of my parents’ generation—born to refugees from Russia, Poland and Rumania—kept their distance from Zionism and Israel, which were never discussed at our family gatherings. But my father tracked family members from Romania who relocated to Israel, generously providing them with desperately needed financial support. I was more interested in who these strangers were, not where they lived, although Israeli postage stamps on their responsive letters of appreciation did intrigue me.
Gordis suggests that Israel “desperately need[s] ongoing substantial interaction with—and learning from—American Jewish life.” And American Jews are more comforted than they acknowledge with Israel as their source of Jewish inspiration and, if ever needed, their place of refuge. Both Jewish communities, he understands, are vulnerable, if in different ways. American Jews confront the “challenges of assimilation.” Israelis confront, as they always have, the challenges of survival in an unstable, often hostile, neighborhood.
My own Jewish trajectory, not unlike my generation of assimilated American Jews, carried me from boyhood and young adult indifference to the Jewish state that was born on my 12th birthday to a momentary spark of curiosity in June 1967, when television broadcasts revealed triumphant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall.
But it took a chance encounter five years later with a former colleague who had just returned from an Israel trip for “disaffected Jewish academics” to perk my interest. I applied, my qualifications were recognized, and my life was transformed by the experience. Frequent visits followed, including two sabbatical years in Jerusalem that included teaching a seminar on American Jewish history to Tel Aviv University students who were astonished by the rejection of Jewish norms and indifference to Jewish history that was so common among American Jews.
My first trip to Israel had also included a brief visit to Hebron, whose place in Jewish history was then unknown to me. But a glimpse of the Machpelah burial site of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs at the edge of the virtually deserted Jewish Quarter sparked my curiosity. Return visits eventually included fascinating conversations with founding leaders and devoted residents of the restored Jewish community that had been decimated by rampaging Arabs during the 1929 riots. My Hebron experiences, and the research they inspired, culminated in the first English-language history of the Hebron Jewish community.
Gordis traces, explores and explains “the more central causes of the complex, fraught, love-filled, hate-filled relationship” between American Jews and Zionists” before and since the birth of Israel. The “rift” between us that is the focus of his illuminating book was, for me, healed decades ago by my own explorations and encounters in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
The “stumbling” relationship that Gordis perceptively scrutinizes (and yearns to heal) may yet result in “the fracture of the Jewish people into two largely disconnected communities.” But even though I will remain in the United States, my Jewish heart and soul will always reside in Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.
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