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Idolatry Increasingly Characterizes the American Jewish Community’s Embrace of Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld
Autumn 2019

The first of the Biblical Ten Commandments declares, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In Jewish history, the worship of something other than God, can be found at the very beginning. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, a golden calf was erected as an object of worship. Idolatry has been defined as the worship or fetishization of an idol or cult image in place of God. It seems alive and well at the present time.  
In many ways, those who have made Israel “central” to their Jewish Identity are, in fact, engaging in a form of idolatry, making the State of Israel a virtual object of worship and veneration, replacing God and the Jewish moral and ethical tradition. This can be seen as synagogues display Israeli flags, use their religious schools to teach Israeli culture, and promote Birthright Israel trips for young people to make sure that their Jewish identity is tied to this proclaimed “homeland” of all Jews. Replacing Judaism, the religion of universal values, with Zionism, an ethnographic-politicalmovement, is idolatry carried to an extreme.  
Religion is repeatedly being used by many Israelis and their American friends to advance the thesis that Israel’s role in the Middle East is ordained by God. Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, has used the Bible repeatedly to advance the Jewish connection to the land. Speaking before a Security Council meeting in May, Danon opened the Bible, held it up and declared, “This is the deed to our land.”  
“An Altar of Holiness”  
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who is an ally of the Israeli settler movement, and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state referred to the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as “an altar of holiness” and the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as a “shrine.” At a ceremony in Jerusalem, he declared that Israel “was on the side of God.” The U.S. and Israel, he said, should grow even closer, which would be a sign of “holiness.”  
Making the Israeli State “holy,” and therefore a legitimate object of worship, has been accompanied by the virtual canonization of those who embrace its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  
Miriam Adelson, wife of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and a major contributor to the Trump campaign as well as Birthright Israel and other Zionist causes, on June 27 proposed that the story of Donald Trump, “hero and patriot,” ought to be added to the Bible. Her article, entitled “A Time of Miracles,” appeared in the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which her husband owns and she publishes. The paper supports Prime Minister Netanyahu, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and supports annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.  
Contributed Hundreds of Millions  
According to OpenSecrets, the Adelsons have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party and tens of millions of dollars to Donald Trump. In November 2018, Miriam Adelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a gesture which ABC’s Robert Schlesinger said, “Perfectly captures the crassly transactional nature of Donald Trump and his presidency.”  
In her branding of Trump as a modern-day prophet, Miriam Adelson framed his unpopularity among Jews in biblical terms: “Scholars of the Bible will no doubt note that the heroes, sages and prophets of antiquity were similarly spurned by the very people they came to raise up. Let us at least sit back and marvel at this time of miracles for Israel, for the U.S. and the whole world.”  
For many years, the idea that the State of Israel is “central” to Jewish identity has been widely proclaimed. 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 the program is its first provision which affirms “the unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.” In the years following, America’s major Jewish religious bodies, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, have adopted this position.  
Israel: The Land Where Jews Dwell  
Writing in Forum, a publication of the World Zionist Organization, Ephraim Urbach declared “Zionism’s task in the coming years is to transform the State of Israel from the center of interest for the Jews to the land wherein they dwell and take root.”  
Visiting Washington, D.C. on a trip to promote Aliya — immigration to Israel — cartoonist Ya’akov Kirschen, a New York native who himself emigrated, told students at George Washington University: “You’re not Americans — you’re Jews in the last stage of throwing off your identity. Going to Israel, you won’t be tearing up your roots, because this isn’t where your roots are. You’ll be coming home.” (Washington Post, April 9, 1979).  
Within Reform Judaism, which traditionally rejected such a notion entirely, there have been many voices advancing the idea of the “centrality” of Israel. In 1972, Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, announced that the headquarters of the Union would be moved to Jerusalem. He declared that, “Jews are a people. Neither we nor the non-Jewish world is capable of constricting Jews to a faith or a philosophy or a narrowly-defined religious movement... the State of Israel is restoring to world Jewry the characteristics of peoplehood... of which the current emphasis on Jewish identity and ethnicity is a reflection.”  
“Centrality of Israel”  
The dramatic change was welcomed editorially by “The Reconstructionist” (March 16, 1972) which said of this willingness of Reform Judaism to adopt the idea of the “centrality of Israel” that, “No one can fail to rejoice in this historic decision which, in effect, completely transforms Reform Judaism from its 19th century character.”  
Even in those days there were a small number of dissenters. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, addressing the board of the Reform Jewish group in Denver in 1982 called on American Jews to exert greater efforts to “affirm our own identity” apart from Israel. He lamented that many American Jews had been plugged into Israel as if it were a kidney machine, a scientific marvel that keeps them Jewishly alive.” He cautioned against making that country “our surrogate synagogue” and declared that, “We have slipped into the sloppy equation which says that Judaism equals Zionism equals Israel. For many American Jews the state has become the synagogue and the prime minister their rabbi. Their opinion on domestic and international issues are often determined by the standard — is it good or bad for Israel? We do ourselves irreparable harm... when we permit our Jewishness to consist almost entirely of a vicarious participation in the life of the state.” (New York Times, Dec. 5, 1982).  
Rabbi Schindler declared, “There is a greater Israel that sustained our Jewishness through the many centuries of our dispersion. It is not the same as this political state. And it is this greater Israel that we must nurture if we and it are to survive; a faith, a culture, a commitment to social justice and to the dignity of man created in the likeness of his Maker...The Jewish community I envision will refuse to withdraw into a spiritual ghetto.”  
This Is My Home  
In an article entitled “‘We’ and ‘They’ — Or One People?” appearing in “Jewish Frontier,” Rabbi Jacob Neusner declares,’ “...this is where I propose to live. This is the Society whose problems are my problems. In the Talmud there is a story of two sages who find a dreadful village in which the flies are so large as to threaten the lives of children. But the people praise the pleasures of living in this town. The sages say, ‘Blessed is he who made this place charming for the people who live here.’ Can our brethren in Israel not find the tolerance to say so of us?”  
Discussing the tendency of many Jews to make an idolatrous false idol of the Israeli State, Rabbi Neusner notes that, “We have just gone through difficult times and have learned not to place confidence even in the best and brightest..., in a measure to distrust all authority and all government. Israelis have yet to learn the dangers of excessive allegiance ...to the state as an end in itself. Can you imagine how Amos or Isaiah would laugh if someone told them Israel, that Israel, the Jewish people, had set for itself the ideal of devotion to the state — any state — including its own?”  
The willingness of many Jewish organizational leaders to accept the Zionist idea of “the centrality of Israel” to Jewish life, has led, in effect, to the impoverishment of Jewish organizational life in the United States. Writing “Judaism” (Fall 1972) Rabbi Joseph I. Norad, editor of “The Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis,” provides this assessment: “Israeli needs, Zionist enthusiasm and the discovery by American Jews in Israel of a young, fresh and pioneering Jewish cause have merged to shut out concern for Jewish life outside of the State of Israel. Local American Federations and Welfare Funds, Israel- oriented and directed agencies, as well as rabbis — often Reform — have forged the alliance that threatens to impoverish Judaism and Jewish life in America. An Israeli educator tells a convention of American Jewish (Reform) educators they should give their attention only to those American Jewish children who will eventually settle in Israel...American Jews, who accept unquestioningly the new extremism are flattered with National American and Israeli honors with which no American Jewish cause can compete. And all the while, rabbis and lay men who protest the new extremism are regarded as virtual traitors...”  
Incompatibility between Zionism and American Jewish Aspirations  
At a May 4, 1972 meeting of the American Jewish Committee, Bertram H. Gold, the committee’s executive Vice President, showed the incompatibility between Zionism and American Jewish aspirations. He said: “the majority of American Jews affirm the viability of Jewish life in the Diaspora. They reject the classical Zionist ideology that predicts a continuous and irreversible erosion of Jewish life outside of Israel, and they reject equally the view expressed by Ahad.  
“A Jew Can be Jewish Everywhere.”  
At the same meeting, Elie Wiesel, the respected author and chronicler of the Holocaust, rejected the entire notion of “Aliya” or the “centrality of Israel.” He declared: “A Jew can be Jewish everywhere, not only in Israel, providing he claims kinship with the totality of his people’s experience... He who says that a Jew in Israel is better than a Jew in Russia or America or Iraq does nothing but divide our people, and harms it more than some of our enemies...”  
At the 73rd national convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) in 1973, Dr. Gerson D. Cohen, then-chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, stated that, “The time has come for us to acknowledge that the legitimate place of the Jewish people, of Jewish culture and Jewish religion is not limited to a single geographical location. The original Zionist dream, which saw Israel as the home for all Jews, was unrealistic. To attempt to give substance to that dream by denigrating the Diaspora and the ‘exile mentality’ would alienate Diaspora communities...” Rabbi Irving Lehrman, President of the Synagogue Council of America, charged: “As long as American Jewry is perceived by Israel as a cow to be milked for funds, for political pressure, for Aliya — the possibility for meaningful dialogue simply does not exist.”  
Indeed, the Zionist idea is not a new and modern one but is a step backward from universalism to tribalism. In his book “Zion Reconsidered,” Rabbi Jacob Petuchowski of the Hebrew Union College argues that the notion of “linking gods, cults and territories” was “found wanting.” To maintain that for Judaism geography is the determining factor in living one’s life according to the Will of God is a retrogression to the territorial gods of ancient paganism to the denial of the Prophetic claim (Malachi 1:5) that ‘God is great beyond the boundaries of Israel.’”  
“Spiritual Center”  
Rabbi Petuchowski criticizes the presentation by Zionists of Israel as this “Spiritual Center” of world Jewry because it ruled out “the possibility of a full Jewish life in anyplace but the State of Israel.” He said that such a view had advanced to the point that “the Jewish policeman in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square is a more concrete symbol of reality than the rabbi who together with Protestant and Catholic clergymen, participate in the inaugural ceremonies of the American President.”  
Writing in “Moment” (May 1986), Daniel Bell, Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University, set forth the thesis that rather than Israel being the “center” of Jewish life, there are, in fact, two “centers”——one of which is the United States. He declares that, “The most important change is to eliminate the distinction galut and Eretz Yisrael and the assumption that only in Israel can one be completely a Jew and live a full Jewish life.”  
In all of this, Dr. Bell notes, there is “a profound irony.” He points out that, “The impulse to Zion was the idea of normalization, that only in one’s own land could one live a normal life. Yet the paradox today is that living in Israel is abnormal, for Israel is a siege society and, in the occupation of the West Bank, a garrison state, while in the United States life for Jews is normal, without the grotesque psychological convolutions that the older idea of galut or the parameters of pariah and parvenu had defined. Given these circumstances... we are in a new phase of Jewish history in which the categories that shaped our debates for 200 years have by now been exhausted.  
Israelis Emigrating to the U.S.  
Most ironic of all may be the fact that rather than Israel being “central” to Jewish life in the United States — and rather than American Jews emigrating to Israel — the opposite has been the case for many years. More and more Israelis are emigrating to the United States — as well as to Germany and other countries — Indeed, America has become “central” to the life of Israelis.  
This point was made many years ago in an article, “America in the Mind of Israel,” (The New York Times Magazine, May 25, 1986) by Thomas Friedman, then chief of the paper’s Jerusalem bureau.  
Friedman writes that “for Israel’s Founding Fathers America was supposed to be a benign distant giant, and the Jewish state was supposed to become self-sufficient, independent and so attractive that Jews from all over the world, including the United States, would flock there. Israel was going to be the center of the world, with its own original Hebrew culture, and America, in the mind of Israel, was going to be little more than an after- thought. But now, as a recent hit song in Israel puts it, ‘Everyone is dreaming about America.’”  
Israel, Friedman pointed out, “was founded on the radical thesis that the Diaspora was not a viable solution to Jewish existence......But America, with its bounty, pluralism and endless opportunities for Jews and other minorities, calls into question that thesis. America, in a way, has become the biggest challenge — some Israelis would even say threat — to Zionism, and as powerful a magnet for Jews as Israel...Since 1948, ...only 25 per cent of American Jews have visited Israel even once.”  
America Defies all the Rules  
Daniel Elasar, an Israeli political scientist, says that, “The Zionist vision of history was that Israel would become so attractive a place to live, and the rest of the world so frightening for Jews, that they would all want to come live here. What happened, though, was that America became so attractive to the largest segment of world Jewry — the American Jewish community — that they don’t want to come here and now some Israelis want to go there. What’s worse: America defies all the rules of the game; it is actually a nice place for Jews to live.”  
Rabbi David Hartman, a respected Israeli academician, stated that, “When the early Zionists spoke of life in the Diaspora, they never had America in mind, with such a vibrant Jewish community and such a vibrant American community. What this means is that Israel simply can’t any more say to American Jews, ‘Come because you are either going to assimilate or suffer a pogrom.’ That isn’t sufficient, especially when Israel’s own future depends in a way on there being a vital American Jewish community. No, the challenge of America to Israel is to revitalize itself, to build a society that will be compelling, meaningful attractive. ...It is not enough any more for Israel to proclaim its ‘centrality.’ With America out there, it is going to have to prove it.”  
Thomas Friedman argues that, “Zionism essentially set out to provide a safe haven for the Jews and at the same time widen the range of experiences and occupations available to them, to make them ‘normal,’ so to speak, and to make them like all others. But, as some Israelis ask, what is the meaning of this ideal when there is in America over the horizon where a Jew can be as safe, if not safer, and as normal, if not more normal — and with almost the full range of human opportunities open to them.”  
Zionist Philosophy of Exile  
The Zionist philosophy of “exile” has been alien from the American Jewish experience from the beginning. The notion that Israel — rather than a religious commitment to Judaism — is “central” to Jewish life is a secular political nationalism which is rejected by the vast majority of American Jews, although it continues to be embraced by the institutions and organizations which speak in their name  
What Jewish life in America all too often lacks is not the politics of the Middle East — which has interposed itself into the synagogue — but religious faith and commitment. Rabbi Samuel Dresner lamented that, “Judaism — if not the Jews — is vanishing. It is vanishing not only in Jewish centers, societies, organizations, schools journals and neighborhoods; in the synagogue. The citadel of holiness is well on its way to being turned into a secular institution. One would have a hard time distinguishing the tone of many synagogue board meetings from that of local aldermen. One watches in vain for the sight of an awestruck face among the worshippers.”  
If Judaism is to survive in America as a meaningful religious faith it must reject the “centrality” of Israel which has led to its idolatry. This should be replaced with Judaism’s unique historical contribution, its spiritual and moral insights. The Prophet Isaiah looked forward to a time he described this way: “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robes of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” Will there be enough Jews of that ancient tradition to go around? Unless dramatic changes are made, Judaism will have transformed itself into a religious nationalism — with a state and a flag and an army which replaces God as a virtual object or worship — the very idolatry deplored by Judaism, the religion. In that circumstance, God will surely be someplace else.*

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