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American Jews and Israel at 50: A Time for Reassessment

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 1998

While many American Jews gathered to celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary, the event was marked less by revelry than by a reassessment of a complex relationship which, most observers believe, is undergoing fundamental change and may be at an all-time low point of connection.  

The newspaper headlines reflected this reality. USA Today carried this headline in its May 1, 1998 issue: "U.S. Jews Look Beyond Israel." The Washington Post of April 28 declared: "Strong Ties Of ’48 Have Yielded To Today’s Ambiguity."  

"For decades," wrote Daniela Deane in USA Today, "America’s Jews equated Judaism with political and financial support for Israel. Today’s Jews separate religion from Zionist commitment."  

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, declared: "There’s been an enormous change in the American Jewish community. The Zionist era in American Jewish history is ended."  

While Zionists continue to proclaim that Israel is "central" to Judaism and Jewish identity, the American reality seems to be that it is receding in importance and relevance.  

Donations Down To Israel  

Donations to Israel by American Jews total about $800 million a year. But the proportion of their total charitable giving that is donated to Israel has fallen from 50% in the early 1980s to about 40% today. At the same time, donations to Jewish causes in the U.S. have gone up.  

San Francisco’s Jewish community, for example, quietly slashed its support for traditional Israeli charities by $1 million. A past chairman of the American Zionist Movement, Seymour Reich, says that decreasing allocations to the Jewish Agency signal a weakening link between American Jews and Israel. The president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Barry Shrage, says that with factors like the strength of Israel’s economy, the increased focus on local needs and the "continuing crisis of Jews in the former Soviet Union" it is "hard to imagine a scenario where funding of the Jewish Agency will stay even or increase over the next few years."  

One question which has led to the alienation from Israel of large numbers of American Jews is the question of Israel’s theocratic Orthodox establishment which has denied equal rights to Reform and Conservative Jews and which has defined the question of "who is a Jew" in a way which excludes many American Jews.  

Ninety per cent of American Jews are either Reform or Conservative, branches of Judaism not recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. They are considered heretical or worse and have no right to perform weddings and funerals. Their conversions are not recognized. Rabbi Uri Regev, a native-born Israeli and the official representative of the Reform movement to the Ne’eman Committee, created by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deal with the conversion controversy, declares: "Of all the free countries in the world today, only Israel denies Jews religious freedom."  

The intensity of feeling on this issue is reflected in a letter distributed by Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco’s B’nai Emunah congregation. The letter tells Jews to curtail their donations to Israel. "If we are not recognized by the people in Israel, they have no right to recognize our money," said Alexander.  

He urged those who want to donate to Israel to send the money to non-Orthodox institutions "so it does not end up in the hands of those who don’t recognize us as Jews."  

Professor Sarna notes that, "I’ve heard many people say, ‘You don’t even consider us Jewish, so why should I support you?’"  

Jewish Comfort Level  

Writing in New York magazine, Craig Horowitz points to the fact that, ". . . the comfort level of American Jews is such that they look less and less toward Israel — especially now when the Orthodox Establishment that controls religious life in Israel seems intent on demeaning the religious practices of most American Jews. The refusal by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to recognize the validity of Conservative and Reform Judaism — 90 per cent of affiliated American Jews — has opened a wound that may never be healed."  

Dr. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee points out that, "You can certainly see the specter of disengagement. American Jews feel our primary issue is Jewish continuity and Israel is to some extent damaging that. Because by delegitimizing the Reform and Conservative movements, it’s delegitimizing the primary avenues by which we can get Jews to remain Jewish and to raise their children as Jews. The question that must be asked is: to what extent can American Jews sustain an interest in Israel when the real things that bother Jews today are not external but internal. The meaning of Israel has been that in a pinch, Jews can rely only on themselves. We have not sufficiently explored what we share in common as Jews. Are we heirs to a common tradition of Judaism? Do we share a set of beliefs and a value system? Or are we so radically different now that we share nothing more than the fact that a common fate may await us?"  

In reality, writes Leonard Fein, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, "Any serious culture derives its images from its surroundings. So when Israelis think about rivers they don’t think about the Mississippi, they think about the Jordan. Everybody in Israel has experienced war. There’s only a very tiny percentage of Americans who have. Whenever there’s a terrorist incident or a military one, everyone knows someone who was involved. Israel is really a neighborhood pretending to be a country. It’s a very different experience from the American one. So culturally we’re drawing apart."  

Level Playing Field  

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s academic center in New York, states: "If Israel wishes to remain the center of the Jewish world, it must have a level playing field in which no religious community has the ability to restrict, impose, or harass everyone else. It is not the business of a modern government to determine who can marry whom and who can be buried where."  

Israel’s 50th anniversary has produced much soul-searching on the part of American Jews.  

For many American Jews, the State of Israel has replaced God as the object of worship, writes Rabbi Michael Lerner in Tikkun (March/April 1998).  

In a special section commemorating fifty years of Israeli independence entitled "A Compassionately Critical Analysis," Lerner, who edits Tikkun, notes that, "If you judge ‘who is a people’s God’ by what they hold sacred, where and for whom they are prepared to make sacrifices . . . then you have to conclude that for much of the past 50 years the real object of worship of much of the Jewish people has been Israel and Zionism. Unfortunately, like all false gods, this one has failed to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the Jewish people. If many Jews turn away from Judaism today, Israel has played no small part in that process. Judaism may be one of Israel’s most important casualties."  

The "valorization of what is real as opposed to what could and should be," Lerner writes, "is the essence of what Judaism calls idolatry. Judaism’s central claim is that the Spiritual and the political must go hand in hand, and that a central spiritual goal is to heal and transform the world. From this Jewish standpoint, power is always illusory, a momentary self—deception that allows ruling elites to convince people that the way things are is the only way things can be. For Judaism, the goal is to critique power in the name of the ultimate Power . . . The Prophets made clear that, to the extent that Jews might create a society that was equally oppressive and unjust as those of the rest of the world, they would have no claim to the Land of Israel, or even to survival as a people . . . The revolutionary message of Judaism . . . became invisible to the religious Zionists who were so impressed by all the military success of Israel ‘s army that they began to read its victories as the current manifestation of God’s will . . ."  

Treatment of Palestinians  

Lerner laments the treatment of the Palestinians: "We Jews jumped from the burning building of Europe . . . We landed on the backs of the Palestinians. We did not intend to do that and we did not intend to cause them harm. The fire we were escaping required us to jump, and Palestinians were the unintended victims . . . But once we landed on their backs and unintentionally hurt them, we were unable to acknowledge what had happened. Israel closed its ears and pretended for decades that the Palestinian people did not exist. Denial of the ‘Other’ led to domination over the ‘Other,’ the denial of civil liberties and the systematic torture of Palestinians."  

Judaism, he concludes, has been one of the casualties of the politicization of religion: "To the extent that Judaism has lost its ability to critique the distortions of the Jewish people, to the extent that it has become a cheerleader for a particular state, its army, its fundraisers, and its ideological support structure, Judaism has lost its connection to God and Torah . . ."  

In a special section on Israel’s 50th anniversary, the Nation (May 4, 1998) noted that, "It has become a cliche to observe that unquestioning support for Israel, combined with a strong measure of Holocaust lamentation, has replaced the Five Books of Moses as the religious basis of modem American Jewry. Like most cliches, it is a gross over-simplification of a complex process, but it is not without an uncomfortable edge of truth. In the 50 years since the creation of the State of Israel, American Jewry has married itself to the Zionist enterprise, with outcomes both good and bad for both sides."  

Some Zionists openly proclaim that support for Israel is more important than belief in God. Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, for example, declared: "I would sooner pray among Jews who did not love God than I would among Jews who did not love Israel."  

Not A Religion of Space  

Referring to such an idolization of the Israeli state, Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, writes: "If Jewish prayer is better when confirming right-wing politics rather than love of God, how will we hear the prophetic voice we need to call the Jewish people back to its soul? Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism."  

Leonard Fein argues that Israel’s 50 years have taught us "that power does indeed tend to corrupt, a lesson our earlier impotence had blocked us from knowing up close . . . For America’s Jews, it is easier to live with the earlier myths. We prefer not to know the whole truth. Even in our internal conversations, we are less than candid. The most grievous consequences is the discrepancy between the Israel we celebrate and the Israel our own children observe. Where now? We grow apart. Here in the United States, religion — Judaism — rises, while the rich sense of Jewish peoplehood, which was Zionism’s sturdy foundation, declines. And our Judaism bears little resemblance to Israel’s. During the brief time when peace seemed imminent, we wondered how we might adjust to life without crisis. Now that the prospect of peace fades, we wonder how to adjust to an Israel whose crisis is in significant measure of its own manufacture . . ."  

For American Jews, says Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Bronfman Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University, support, for Israel became the equivalent of the "social gospel" which dominated the thinking of many liberal Protestant churches. Now, he declares, "American Jews know that their labors on behalf of Israel are not enough to preserve their own Jewishness in America . . . If this community is to continue, it now knows that it will have to link its life to Jewish religion and Jewish culture, and this must be done in a United States in which all traditional ties are loosening."  

Different Ideas of Israel  

Asking the question of what American Jews are actually celebrating on Israel’s jubilee, Milton Viorst, a Middle East specialist whose most recent book is In The Shadow Of The Prophet: The Struggle For The Soul of Islam, points to the fact that there are really two different ideas of Israel: "the division between the Israel of refuge and the other Israel, the Israel of nationalism, the muscular Israel, the imperial Israel. Most American Jews currently blur the distinction and celebrate them both."  

In Viorst‘s view, "The Israel of refuge is what the early Zionists, observing Europe’s rising anti-Semitism, envisaged a century ago . . . Balfour did not promise the Jews a state, as jingoists have often argued, but a refuge for the unwanted. Balfour was a European admission of guilt. For centuries, while Europe oppressed and murdered Jews, Jews in the Arab world lived in relative peace. After the Holocaust, the West offered the Jews a state of their own, which by logic belonged in, say, Bavaria or Prussia. The Jews, however, insisted on Palestine, in keeping with the Bible’s promise; but alas, Palestine’s inhabitants were Arabs, who had no tie with the Bible. In giving away Arab land, the gift, meant to assuage Europe’s guilt, was disingenuous. The Arabs are still aggrieved at this expression of Western generosity."  

Zionism, however, "never acknowledged the irony," writes Viorst. "As early as the thirties, Revisionism, a wing of the movement, recognized that if the Jews wanted Palestine they would have to go beyond Europe’s charity and fight for it. And in fighting, they said, the goal of a homeland was not enough. The goal had to be a powerful nation-state that would occupy every inch of Palestine (and perhaps more), while keeping the disgruntled Arabs at bay with its guns. Gradually, the Revisionist ideal triumphed . . . Today, only a minority in Israel seems prepared to share Palestine with the Arabs in the interest of a regional peace. American Jews are now recognizing that the muscular Israel has subsumed the Israel of refuge . . . We Americans, at this jubilee, might ponder the danger to the mitzvot of the Israel of refuge. Continued war is the reward of imperial Israel’s triumph."  

"Existential Crisis"  

Judaism is now undergoing an "existential crisis," states Rabbi Marc Gopin, who teaches in the Department of Religion at George Mason University. He states that, "Almost every form of Jewish spirituality . . . is intoxicated with the physical existence of the Jewish people, with the Jewish body, carnal Israel, and particularly with the body in its relationship to the earth. After two thousand years, Jews are discovering what it is to exult in religious experience through land, through the senses and the body. What this has led to, what it historically has always led to in other religions, is the distortion of a rich religious heritage that has a deep set of ethical commitments to the stranger, in biblical language the gerim, those non-members of one’s culture who happen to reside on the land as well. The biblical prophets were aware that this level of intoxication with the land is poisonous . . . They required a balance between love of land and moral restraint, a stepping back from land intoxication . . . To recapture our sense of religious morality, we must undertake a fundamental re-evaluation of our relationship to the land."  

The 19th century founders of Reform Judaism rejected the notion of a God confined to a particular "holy" land and embraced, instead, a universal God, the Father of all men, and a religion of universal values, as relevant in New York or London as in Jerusalem. Early in this century, Hermann Cohen, one of the foremost Jewish philosophers of modern times, understood the danger that Zionism would re-ignite an intoxication with the land that would strangle Jewish morality. This concern motivated those in the United States who rejected the Zionist enterprise. Indeed, even those who embraced Zionism in the U.S. altered its meaning, never accepting the idea that American Jews were, somehow, in "exile."  

Professor Melvin I. Urofsky of Virginia Commonwealth University made this clear in a lecture he delivered at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. He explained that an early leader of American Zionism, Louis Brandeis, created a "synthesis" and "married Zionist idealism to American Jeffersonian principles. In Palestine, the ‘new’ Jew would build a new society, one free from the prejudices and economic disparities that marked so much of Europe and even the U.S. Those Jews who needed to flee from anti-Semitism would now have a home to go to, while those Jews who lived in a land of liberty, the United States, would now have a mission to help their brethren build the new land . . . By denying the need for aliyah, Brandeis took away the great stumbling block that worried many American Jews. Yes, they wanted to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but not if it meant that would have to go live there."  

American Zionism  

In Urofsky’s view, the Zionism that emerged in America was not really Zionism in the European sense for it "recognized the commitment of American Jews to the United States and yet allowed them an opportunity to help in the building of the Jewish State . . . America took in my grandparents, and millions of other people, but on condition—that they renounce all other loyalties and truly pledge their allegiance to the United States. This they did, with the greatest of sincerity and commitment, and they passed it down to their children and to their children’s children . . . We Jews had a special debt of gratitude to the United States that we could never forget. And we haven’t."  

In the years since 1948, however, Israel has become a substitute religion for many American Jews. In his book, Faith Or Fear, How Jews Can Survive In Christian America, Elliot Abrams, who heads the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., notes that, "It is not too much to say that support for Israel has become a key element of Jewish faith for most American Jews. Support for Israel became central to Jewish identity . . . To many American Jews, it became the essence of their lives as Jews . . ."  

In recent years, many American Jewish leaders have expressed concern about the substitution of Israel for God as the "central" fact of Jewish life, which is precisely the configuration sought by Zionism.  

In the Fall 1994 issue of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared that, "For many Jews, the Land of Israel remains the sole touchstone of their Jewish existence . . . They have for too long been plugged into Israel as if it were a dialysis machine . . . Equating Judaism with Israel does irreparable harm. We will never know who we are if we continue to use Israel as a fig leaf to cover our own nakedness."  

Even religious advocates of Zionism have expressed dismay at the manner in which Judaism has been corrupted by its involvement with the political life of a sovereign state.  


Terror Groups  

Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, laments that, "Anti-religious feeling was . . . stirred up by Jewish religiously agitated terror groups operating against terror targets, and by ugly confrontations over Sabbath desecration, bones found in the archeological digs, the exhumation of a non-Jew buried in a Jewish cemetery . . . To me, even more disturbing were other by-products of this unholy partnership. The moral conscience of the Jewish people has been all but despiritualized, transferred from its traditional custodians, and virtually monopolized by the secularist masses and their spokesmen. When over 10 percent of Israel’s Jews, aroused by moral qualms over the war in Lebanon, participated in what must have been proportionately one of the largest spontaneous demonstrations ever seen anywhere, there were few rabbis among the protestors, and certainly none of the better known religious leaders who constantly summoned mass demonstrations against some isolated desecration of the Sabbath or of some suspected graves."  

Rabbi Jakobovits notes that, ". . . ideals such as peace, conciliation, tolerance, sympathy for the sufferings even of one’s enemies, and simple faith in the eventual triumph of human understanding — all so deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition — were virtually obliterated from the religious vocabulary of virtues. This religious insensitivity to Jewish moral values continues to baffle and trouble me to no end."  

This transformation of Jewish life into nationalism and the replacement of a spiritual vision with a political agenda has produced in many sensitive Jewish believers such as Rabbi Jakobovits what he describes as "my desolation over this disengagement of Judaism from its moral imperatives."  

For some time, the Zionist establishment in both Israel and the U.S. promoted the idea that Israel is "central" to Judaism and to Jewish life. In 1968, the 27th World Zionist Congress adopted a resolution recognizing its "Jerusalem Program" as the official pronouncement of basic Zionist aims. The key element of this program is its first provision which affirms "the unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life" as the Zionist aim. Even Reform Judaism, which previously opposed the Zionist concept of Jewish ethnicity and advanced a universal Judaism free of nationalism, adopted this policy.  

Serious Reassessment  

Now, with the celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary, there is serious reassessment in the American Jewish community. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared in a talk in Philadelphia in 1997 that, "The age of ethnicity is over . . . Jews will wish to be Jewish only if our people/religion can help us to find a transcendent meaning in our lives . . . Judaism must reach out for the spiritual, the transcendent, the holy. We need to fill the spiritual vacuum with serious Jewish reflection on God and on mitzvah and on the meaning of life."  

The gap between Israel and American Jews is growing and it is clear that Israel is not "central" to Jewish concerns, writes Yosef Abramowitz, editor of the magazine Jewish and Family Life. He states: "In nearly every dimension of American Jewish life that has been associated with Israel — from advocacy to fund-raising to education — Israel has lost its centrality."  

Dr. Sidney Schwartz, president of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, states: "You can no longer fund-raise on the back of Israel. Almost no one is interested. The annual campaigns are being supported by older Jews for whom Israel holds a special place, but not by the next generation of givers."  

Daniel Cohen, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Dayton, Ohio notes that, "The intifada complicated Israel for a lot of Israel supporters. No longer was it possible to rehearse the same old lines that Israel was always right, Arabs always wrong. All those debating points were simply not enough to carry the argument in public or even in the minds of Israel’s supporters. Many people simply disengaged from Israel."  

In Israel itself, the 50th anniversary was dominated by a discussion of the rifts which are sharply dividing that society. Author A.B. Yehoshua declared that, "For 50 years, we had an external enemy who obliged us to lower the tenor of our internal tensions. But the external enemy doesn’t unite us anymore."  

Rabbinical Monopoly  

The Orthodox rabbinical monopoly on marriage and burial has become increasingly controversial within Israel, particularly in the wake of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union. Immigrants who are not officially "Jewish," usually meaning that their mothers are not Jewish or that they have not been converted by an Orthodox rabbi, cannot get married in Israel. There are few places for them to be buried. Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University, declares that, "We are really near the edge of where people can tolerate one another."  

As the harsh rhetoric of Israeli rabbinical leaders escalates, so does the negative response among American Jews.  

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron — who has initiated a dialogue with the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas — dismisses Reform Judaism as "a fabricated religion." Referring to Reform Judaism as "a joke," he states that, "The Reform have no future. They’re bankrupt." Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu compared Reform Jews to "Karaites," members of a medieval Jewish sect which rejected rabbinic law and was considered by the rabbis as virtually a separate faith.  

Another prominent Orthodox rabbi, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, told thousands of supporters at a Jerusalem rally in October that the Reform and Conservative movements to which most American Jews belong have abandoned Judaism. Also in October, Jerusalem’s Harel Reform Synagogue was covered with swastikas and the words "Damned Wicked Ones" were written on the glass-enclosed billboard at the entrance to the temple. On August 31, a firebomb was thrown through the window of a kindergarten operated by the Reform movement in Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem. The private school was almost completely destroyed.  

An Israel in the grip of a militant’ Orthodox establishment which is intolerant of other streams of religious thought is not the kind of Jewish state most American Jews thought they were supporting. Similarly, an Israel dominated by fundamentalist political parties which believe that any compromise with Palestinian aspirations for statehood is a violation of biblical commandments, is at odds with the thinking of the vast majority of American Jews.  

Distance From Israel  

One result of this changing attitude, reports J.J. Goldberg, author of the book Jewish Power, is that, "What we’re seeing is a much greater willingness by mainstream Jews and Jewish groups to distance themselves from Israeli policy . . ."  

What will the future hold? This, of course, is impossible to say. Michael Lerner believes that, "By the middle of the 21st century . . . the chauvinistic consciousness that today predominates in some sections of the American Jewish community and in the government and religious communities of Israel will be viewed in the same way that we today view those who supported slavery or who opposed the right of women to vote."  

By substituting support for Israel for the religion of Judaism, it can be argued, both Israel and Judaism have suffered. Israel has suffered because it has become dependent upon support by the American Jewish community and its influence in Washington. It has relied on Washington’s aid and support and, perhaps, has not made the difficult decisions needed for a compromise peace agreement with its Middle Eastern neighbors. Judaism, of course, has been denigrated by its association with the interests of a particular sovereign state and its transformation from a universal religion to one tied to a nation-state.  

In the meantime, many American Jews have viewed their overwhelming success in the free and open American society as, somehow, a cause for concern rather than celebration. Professor Gary Tobin of Brandeis University points to this strange anomaly: "So have we stood back and enjoyed this wonderful American success? No. We’ve turned it into the intermarriage crisis. We don’t know how to deal with normality. As American Jews, we should take the next twenty years to get our house in order; that’s the most important aspect of relating to Israel. Because right now the American Jewish community is behaving in ways that are insecure, confused, backward—looking and neurotic."  

Normal Lives  

Zionist leaders once said that their goal was for Jews to live "normal" lives. There is no place in which such "normality" can be said to exist more than in the United States, where every citizen is free to practice or not practice religion as he or she sees fit. It is in America, not Israel, where Jews are free to follow their consciences and beliefs in matters of faith Yet, this reality, which should be celebrated, is turned on its head by those who repeatedly speak of a "continuity" crisis. Normality, it seems, is hard for some people to accept.  

Fortunately, Israel’s 50th anniversary has provided an occasion for the introspection which has been needed for so long within the American Jewish community. Sadly, American Jews have spent many years substituting nationalism and politics for religion. Perhaps the vision of a universal faith of ethical values for men and women of every race and nation which the Prophets preached and generations of Jews believed will once again become the real "center" of Judaism, and God, not the State of Israel, will once again become the object of worship.

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