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Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Winter 2023

We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel  
By Eric Alterman,  
Basic Books, 502 Pages, $35.00.  
The relationship between the U.S. and Israel and between Israel and the American  
Jewish community is very much in the news at the present time. As Israel moves  
away from its previous, at least rhetorical, support for the creation of a  
Palestinian state and its leaders’ express contempt for the non-Orthodox strains  
of Judaism practiced by most Jewish Americans, a reconsideration of both the U.S.  
and the American Jewish relationship to Israel is now under way.  
The author of this important book about that history and these changes makes the  
point that, “Israel is a red state and U.S. Jewry is blue.” He systematically  
examines this complex history and traces the debate from its 19th century origin.  
Eric Alterman is uniquely qualified to review this history and provide a  
thoughtful analysis of how Judaism has been largely replaced as a religion of  
universal values by ethno-nationalism, “pro-Israelism” and the promotion of the  
interests of a foreign state. He sees the younger generation of Jewish Americans  
rejecting this politicization of religion, creating growing tension within the  
community. They have little regard, in particular, for the Zionist belief that  
they are in “exile” in America and that their real “homeland” is Israel.  
In the 19th Century Most American Jews Rejected Zionism  
Alterman is a CUNY distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College and  
holds a PhD in U.S. history from Stanford University, with a minor in Jewish  
Studies. The author of eleven previous books, he is a contributing writer to the  
Nation and the American Prospect.  
His review of Zionism’s history in America is instructive. He notes that when  
Zionism emerged in the 19th century, “…support in the United States for the  
notion of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land came almost exclusively from  
Christians. America’s Jews at the time constituted a largely assimilated, well-  
to-do community of mostly German origins…The basic tenets of Reform Judaism could  
hardly have conflicted more sharply with those of Zionism…Reform Judaism rejected  
any hint of Jewish nationalism or peoplehood. The first Reform temple in the  
United States, founded in Charleston, South Carolina was dedicated in 1842 with  
the words, ‘This country is our Palestine. This city our Jerusalem.’”  
To Reform rabbis and lay leaders, the religion shared by Jews, Alterman points  
out, “consisted exclusively of a set of theological beliefs and extremely lightly  
worn religious practices. Jews could be Jews anywhere and everywhere, without  
concern about where their loyalties lay so long as they dedicated themselves to  
spreading the ideals of social Justice and universal cooperation among all  
After the Holocaust, Support for Zionism Grew  
In the mid-twentieth century, with the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust which  
followed, support for Zionism grew in the American Jewish community. Still, vocal  
opposition to Zionism continued. Alterman points to the role played by the  
American Council for Judaism: “Not all American Jews were eager to hop aboard the  
Zionist express. The most vociferous voice of the movements undoubtedly belonged  
to Elmer Berger, a prominent Reform rabbi in Flint, Michigan. Funded by some of  
the great fortunes of American Jewry, including Lessing Rosenwald, son of Sears  
Roebuck magnate and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, Berger organized anti-  
Zionist Jews into the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) in 1942…The ACJ’s  
members ‘looked forward to the ultimate establishment of a democratic autonomous  
government in Palestine,’ with Jews, Muslims and Christians ‘enjoying equal  
rights and sharing equal responsibilities…Our fellow Jews will be free  
Palestinians whose religion is Judaism, just as we are Americans whose religion  
is Judaism.’”  
Alterman characterized the ACJ’s influence this way: “While the group’s  
membership was small, …it continually punched well above its weight politically.  
In part this was due to the fact that its views were very much appreciated within  
the U.S. national security establishment and especially the State Department.  
Only slightly less significant was the support of the Sulzberger family’s  
newspaper, the New York Times.”  
In the end, Israel was established as a Jewish state in 1948 and most of the  
organized Jewish community embraced it, although it did not initially go so far  
as to urge American Jews to view it as their “homeland” and to make “Aliyah,”  
emigrate to it. Alterman writes: “As no diaspora community ever had to deal with  
a sovereign Jewish nation in two millennia, the nature of the relationship  
between the American Jewish community and the Israeli government required  
definition…an entirely new set of challenges arose—-ones for which few, if any,  
historical precedents, much less roadmaps, could be found…American Jews’ embrace  
of Zionism had been predicated on the formula enunciated by Justice Louis  
Brandeis in the 1920s. It focused exclusively on the need to find a home for  
Jewish refugees. American Jews liked America just fine. Not much more than 1 per  
cent—-six thousand of roughly five million American Jews had chosen to emigrate  
to Israel after its founding.”  
Israel Urges American Jews to Emigrate  
Israel persisted in urging American Jews to emigrate. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion  
declared that “Our next task consists of bringing all Jews to Israel…We appeal  
chiefly to the Jews of the United States.” After pressure from, among others,  
Jacob Blaustein of the then-non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, Ben-Gurion in  
April 1950 declared, “The Jews of the United States, as a community and as  
individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States  
of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel.” In response, Blaustein  
added that he, “would be less than frank” if he did not say “that American Jews  
vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile.” Here,  
Alterman makes clear, “Ben-Gurion refused to agree. Even so, he was consistently  
pilloried inside Israel for the concessions he did make.”  
Slowly, the American Jewish community transformed itself into a vocal and  
influential lobby on behalf of Israel. After the state’s creation, Alterman  
writes, “Israel and its U.S. supporters fought—-and won— a multipronged  
propaganda war both to defend its conquests and refuse the return of refugees,  
regardless of whatever State Department officials may have wished. To build  
public support, the Israelis disseminated a myth of a purely voluntary Arab  
exodus during the war, unabetted by forced expulsions or the threat of potential  
massacres such as those carried out in the villages of Deir Yassin and Lydda. (In  
January 2022, in the documentary ‘Tantura,’ directed by Israeli filmmaker Alon  
Schwartz and premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, several Israeli combat  
veterans detailed their participation in another 1948 massacre, this one of an  
estimated two hundred to three hundred residents of the Arab village of Tantura.  
All reports of the event were subsequently covered up and quashed by Israeli  
authorities.). The Israelis also invented an imaginary series of ‘radio  
broadcasts’ by influential local and regional voices allegedly instructing local  
Arabs to temporarily leave their homes and villages just long enough for the Arab  
armies to expel the Zionist invaders.”  
Zionist spokesmen, Alterman shows, did not hesitate to lie to Congress about what  
was taking place: “Testifying before a congressional hearing in 1951, Isaiah L.  
‘Si’ Kenen, who headed the American Zionist Council (forerunner of AIPAC) …  
insisted on what he called ‘the central and incontrovertible fact…that the Arab  
Higher Committee stimulated, organized and directed the mass exodus.’ He told the  
congressmen present that Zionists regarded this ‘as a disaster,’ as it prevented  
the Israelis from demonstrating ‘that the Jews and Arabs could live together,’ a  
line that pro-Israel lobbyists would stick to for decades, and that many continue  
to repeat today.”  
Ben-Gurion Admits, “We Had Taken Their Country”  
In fact, Alterman shows, what Israeli leaders said privately and what they and  
their American friends said publicly, were almost precisely the opposite. Not  
long after independence had been achieved, David Ben-Gurion told Nahum Goldmann,  
the Zionist leader, “Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader, I  
would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We had taken their country.  
Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not  
theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, but what is  
that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was  
that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their  
country. Why should they accept that.”  
After the 1967 war, the American Jewish community turned its attention almost  
completely to Holocaust remembrance and the promotion of Israeli interests. The  
theologian Marc Ellis posited the birth of “Holocaust theology in which a Judaism  
emerges that fuses its religious and cultural heritage with loyalty to the state  
of Israel.” The rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim, in his book “To Mend A  
World,” defined the defense of Israel as the “orienting reality for all Jewish  
and indeed all post-Holocaust thought.”  
There were, of course, dissenters. Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a former assistant to  
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and later a friend and mentor to a young Barack  
Obama, wrote a 1979 essay, “Overemphasizing the Holocaust.” In it, Wolf lamented  
the fact that in “Jewish school or synagogue…one does not now learn about God or  
the Midrash …nearly as carefully as one learns about the Holocaust.” Worse,  
American Jewish leaders were using “the Shoah as the model for Jewish destiny,  
and so ‘Never again’ had come to mean ‘Jews first—-and the devil take the  
hindmost.’” Historian Peter Novick argued that “as the Middle Eastern dispute  
came to be viewed within a Holocaust paradigm,” it simultaneously became “endowed  
with all the black-and-white simplicity of the Holocaust”—-a framework that  
promoted “a belligerent stance toward any criticism of Israel.”  
Liberal Rabbis and Intellectuals Form “Breira”  
In 1972, a group of prominent liberal rabbis and intellectuals came together in a  
group called “Breira” (Choice). The group called on Israel “to make territorial  
concessions” and “recognize the legitimacy of the national aspirations of the  
Palestinians” so as to reach a peace agreement that reflected “the idealism and  
thought of many early Zionists with whom we identify.” Breira’s founding chairman  
was Rabbi Arnold Wolf. In March 1973, he wrote in the Jewish journal Sh’ma that,  
“Israel colonizes the ‘administered’ territories without regard to international  
law or the rights of the indigenous Palestinians…Israel may be the Jewish state;  
it is not now and perhaps can never be Zion.”  
Breira came under immediate and bitter attack from the Jewish establishment.  
Reform leader Arthur Lelyveld accused Breira of giving “aid and comfort…to those  
who would cut aid to Israel and leave it defenseless before murderers and  
terrorists.” Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg refused to speak at a meeting where a Breira  
representative had also been invited. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Simcha  
Dinitz made it clear that all differences between Israel and American Jews should  
be aired only privately. Commentary launched an attack calling Breira “a vivid  
demonstration of the inroads made into the American Jewish consciousness by the  
campaign to delegitimize Israel.”  
Breira was not able to survive. Alterman writes: “Members quit. Donations dried  
up, and the organization simply fell apart by the winter of 1977-78. The power to  
speak for, and represent, American Judaism had long ago passed from rabbis and  
intellectuals to the professional organizations whose leaders would brook no  
criticism. As Rabbi Max Ticktin, whose job at Hillel was also threatened…would  
observe in retrospect, ‘We were naive about the power of the American Jewish  
establishment and that came out painfully when they began to attack us and limit  
our activity.’”  
AIPAC’s Role Influencing American Politics  
Discussing the role played by AIPAC in promoting Israeli interests, Alterman  
notes that, “AIPAC went beyond merely influencing congressional votes. It not  
only wrote legislation but also recruited congressional candidates, and it  
ensured that…their races were well funded….It created think tanks , sent  
politicians (and their wives) on VIP tours of Israel, policed the public  
discourse, and smeared pro-Palestinian voices as antisemites, self-hating Jews,  
and worse…It guided the hiring practices of not only senators and congressmen,  
but also of the Defense Department, the State Department and other agencies…”  
After returning from a three-week study tour of the Middle East in 1975, Sen.  
Charles Percy (R-Il), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted  
that, “Some elements of the American Jewish community are more extreme in their  
point of view, and unrealistic, than the people of Israel, who are actually  
living there.” AIPAC played an important part in defeating Sen. Percy not long  
The result of all of this activity by AIPAC and the organized Jewish community  
has, Alterman shows us, paid off dramatically: “Since its founding in 1948,  
Israel has been by far the largest U.S. foreign aid recipient , despite the fact  
that it has grown to be among the world’s dozen wealthiest nations…U.S. law  
ensures that Israel receives sufficient military support to maintain ‘a  
qualitative military edge’ over any and all combinations of its potential  
adversaries…under President Barack Obama, the U.S. signed a Memorandum of  
Understanding in which it committed itself to providing Israel with $38 billion  
in military aid over a period of nine years. This pledge is unlike any other U.S.  
foreign commitment. Diplomatically, the U.S. government has often treated Israeli  
priorities as indistinguishable from its own. Between 1946 and 2012, for  
instance, fully more than half of the vetoes the U.S. employed in the United  
Nations Security council were devoted to the defense of Israel.”  
Criticism of Israel’s Invasion of Lebanon is Widespread  
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Criticism of Israel was widespread. The effort  
to silence such criticism engaged the Jewish establishment and its usual tactic,  
accusing critics of “antisemitism” was immediately under way. An example Alterman  
points to is Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary: “Podhoretz insisted that  
everyone who refused to take Israel’s side was guilty ‘not merely of anti-  
Semitism but of the broader sin of faithlessness to the interests of the United  
States and indeed to the values of Western civilization as a whole.’ Podhoretz  
insisted that the criticism Israel now faced had nothing to do with its actions,  
which had been, without exception, exemplary. It was instead a mere manifestation  
of heretofore hidden antisemitism and Jewish self-hatred on the part of those who  
had previously felt compelled to hide it.”  
In an article titled “J’Accuse,” (Commentary, Sept. 1983), Podhoretz charged  
America’s leading journalists, newspapers and television networks with “anti-  
Semitism” because of their reporting of the war in Lebanon, including the  
slaughter of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and  
their criticism of Israel’s conduct. Among those so accused were Anthony Lewis of  
the New York Times, Nicholas von Hoffman, Joseph Harsch of the Christian Science  
Monitor, Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, Mary McGrory, Richard Cohen, Alfred  
Friendly of the Washington Post and a host of others. These individuals and their  
news organizations were not criticized for bad reporting or poor journalistic  
standards. Instead, they were the subject of the charge that always seemed to be  
on the lips of Israel’s defenders: anti-Semitism.”  
At this time, Albert Vorspan, a leading voice in Reform Judaism, mused aloud in  
the New York Times Magazine that “following the euphoric mood after the Six-Day-  
War,” when American Jews had “felt 10 feet tall,” they were now “suffering under  
the shame and stress of pictures of Israeli brutality televised nightly” and  
would have liked “to crawl into a hole.” Vorspan deemed this depressing reality  
to be “the price we pay for having made of Israel an icon—-a surrogate faith,  
surrogate synagogue.”  
“The Only Democracy In The Middle East”  
Israel’s defenders, Alterman points out, “consistently argued that it was ‘the  
only democracy in the Middle East…and that it alone lived up to Western standards  
of human rights protections.” But this, he argues, “was true only for Jews.  
Israeli Palestinians may have had more recognized rights than most of the  
citizens of the Arab dictatorships surrounding it…but when it came to actually  
enforcing those rights, they often proved a mirage…Israel’s official  
investigation into the lives of its Arab inhabitants in 2003, Known as the Or  
Commission Report, found that they could not depend on its police force to  
‘demonstrate systematic and egalitarian enforcement of the law.’ This was another  
way of describing the persistent institutional discrimination Arabs had faced  
since the state’s founding. Human rights groups won an important victory when, in  
1999, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the ‘routine’ torture of prisoners was  
illegal. In any case, the violence-minded settlers were more than happy to take  
matters into their own hands. Palestinians on the West Bank lived a life of near  
lawlessness between local authorities, roving gangs of self-appointed enforcers,  
Islamic decrees, and both Israeli troops and Jewish vigilantes.”  
One group of Jewish advocates for Israel, the “neoconservatives,” after the 9/11  
terrorist attack upon the United States, “presented Americans with a lengthy list  
of nations they believed should be invaded or, at the very least, attacked,”  
writes Alterman. Among the individuals he cites are then Weekly Standard editor  
William Kristol, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, former Forward  
editor Seth Lipsky, and Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz.  
Alterman reports that, “Nine days after the 9/11 attack, forty neoconservatives  
(and others) sent an open letter to George W. Bush insisting that he target not  
only Saddam Hussein, but also Syria and Iran, if the latter did not stop  
supporting Hezbollah, as well as Hezbollah itself…Its authors reminded Bush that  
‘Israel has been and remains America’s staunchest ally against international  
terrorism.’ Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Seth Lipsky…a former editor of  
the (Jewish) Forward, called for U.S. attacks ‘from Afghanistan to Iran to Syria  
to the Palestinian Authority.’…Norman Podhoretz, writing in Commentary, termed  
George W. Bush’s mission to be to fight what he called ‘World War IV—-the war  
against militant Islam.’ Among his favored targets: Iraq, Iran, North Korea,  
Syria, Lebanon and Libya, as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinian  
No Distinction Between Defense of Israel and the U.S.  
For neoconservatives, who also included Jewish Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz,  
Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, in Alterman’s view, “…there was no distinction  
to be made between the defense of Israel and the defense of the United States.  
With countless American Jews, these identities had thoroughly merged. To be a  
patriotic American meant to support your government in war, and so, too, to be a  
patriotic Jew meant to support Israel. To be an American Jew meant supporting  
both and questioning neither—-at least when Israel was involved….The idea that  
the interests of these two nations …could diverge, became, for many, literally  
The views promoted by the organized Jewish community, Alterman shows, became  
closely tied to Israel’s right-wing and did not represent the thinking of the  
vast majority of Jewish Americans. He writes: “…the decision makers in key Jewish  
organizations, such as AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, were Likud-  
supporting hardliners, while most American Jews were not. The organized Jewish  
world was decidedly non democratic: it represented its conservative funders’  
views with far greater fealty than it did the views of those in whose name its  
leaders professed to speak. Opinion survey after opinion survey consistently  
demonstrated support for a far more dovish foreign policy, both for the U.S. and  
It is instructive to consider the advice given by Ruth Wisse, a militant Zionist  
who was Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard, during a 2007 program at the  
Center for Jewish History in New York for young aspiring Jewish journalists.  
Alterman provides this description: “Wisse had instructed them to think of  
themselves not as honest and independent-minded public intellectuals …Rather, she  
said, they were ‘soldiers’ in Israel’s cause, armed with pens rather than Uzis.  
This was, of course, not only awful advice …but also about the most un-Jewish  
attitude a person could hold. After all, the Talmudic tradition is devoted to  
endless ethical and intellectual disputation.”  
“Dual Loyalty”  
Another term for this kind of advice, Alterman declares, is “dual loyalty.”  
Alterman writes: “The term is poison in public discussion of Israel and raising  
it almost always leads to charges of antisemitism. But it is also an undeniably  
genuine phenomenon. For instance, at an American Jewish symposium held at the  
Library of Congress in 2006, the brilliant Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick  
announced, ‘I have a dual loyalty—-to the country where I live and the same  
feeling toward Israel.’ She was attacked for this by the Israeli novelist A.B.  
Yehoshua—-not for being disloyal to the United States but for being  
insufficiently committed to Israel.”  
In early 2020, The Forward published an article by a Jewish New York teacher  
based on her experience at six different Jewish schools. She said she judged the  
schools’ respective connection to Israel to be “the most essential attribute” of  
their identity. At these institutions, she noted, “Hatikvah,” the Israeli  
national anthem, was more commonly heard than the Pledge of Allegiance or the  
“Star Spangled Banner,” and Israeli national holidays were taught with greater  
reverence than either religious or American ones. Veterans Day was never  
discussed, but Yom HaZikeron, Israel’s Memorial Day, “had special projects and  
assemblies.” She also quoted fellow faculty members saying to student assemblies,  
“You don’t belong in America. Israel is your country, the IDF are your soldiers.”  
Joshua Shanes, an Orthodox Jewish scholar who is director of the Arnold Center  
for Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, sends his children to a Jewish  
day school in Illinois, where Israel is referred to as “our homeland.” He  
observed the presence of the Israeli flag at many synagogues as well as the fact  
that while “most synagogues that recite a blessing for America and/or its  
military forces also recite one for Israel and/or its military forces, some do so  
only for Israel.”  
Zionism Being Substituted For Judaism  
Young American Jews are, Alterman shows us, increasingly alienated from a Judaism  
which has substituted Zionism and political support for Israel’s right-wing for  
the humane Jewish moral and ethical tradition. In a much discussed article in  
2010 in the New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart, an editor of Jewish Currents  
and formerly a liberal Zionist, wrote, “For several decades, the Jewish  
establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s  
door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have  
checked their Zionism instead…Because their liberalism is real, they can see that  
the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.” He predicted that  
if American Jewish leaders did not change course, “they will wake up one day to  
find a younger, Orthodox-dominated Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to  
Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who  
range from apathetic to appalled.”  
In contemporary, 21st century America, Alterman writes, “…the Shoah and Israel’s  
founding had become for most young American Jews, both ancient and distant  
matters. Israel’s unquestioning defense made little sense to those whose only  
experience of Israel was of an increasingly illiberal nation that allied itself  
with the American right wing, that helps to arm and train the military and  
intelligence agencies of repressive nations across the world, and that occupies  
another people’s land, denies these people even the most basic political rights ,  
and occasionally launches bombing raids against a population forced to live  
without access to dependable electricity, clean water and, oftentimes, food and  
shelter. Rather than the refuge from antisemitism that their parents and  
grandparents understood a Jewish state to be, young Jews experience Israel as a  
motivation for attacks on Jews…And finally, many Israelis…especially Israeli  
religious and political authorities, continue to show virtually no respect for  
American Jewish religious practice.”  
Today, Alterman explains, “Young American Jews have been voting with their feet—-  
running, not walking, away from the Israel-and-the-Holocaust grounded Judaism of  
their parents and grandparents. The 2020 Pew study found that compared to their  
elders sixty-five years old and up, barely half as many Jews between the ages of  
eighteen and twenty-nine identified with Reform or Conservative Judaism. And Jews  
who defined themselves as belonging to no denomination or religion have proven  
unlikely to pass along their Jewish identity…Fewer than half of Jewish adults  
under the age of thirty described themselves as even ‘somewhat’ emotionally  
attached to the Jewish state, and many of those who retained that attachment were  
strongly opposed to its actions.”  
Which Direction For Judaism’s Future?  
If Judaism is to have a future in America it must be a religion which speaks to  
the needs of a new generation of Americans, not an ethno-nationalism which  
focuses its attention and energies on the needs and interests of a foreign  
country. Alterman makes the point that, “Resources devoted to defending every  
action undertaken by Israel’s government might instead have been devoted to  
Jewish education, community service, and the Jewish tradition of social Justice  
known as tikkun olam, all of which have gone begging in recent decades. Clearly a  
reimagining of what it means to be a diasporic Jew is necessary if the community  
is to retain even a significant fraction of those drifting away from the faith,  
much less find a way to grow again.”  
Eric Alterman has carefully examined the long debate over Zionism that has  
sharply divided the Jewish community and has had a dramatic impact upon U.S.  
foreign policy. The organized Jewish community’s focus on Israel and Middle East  
policy rather than Judaism and its universal moral and ethical tradition have  
made the state of Israel a virtual object of worship, a form of idolatry to many  
observers. Which direction American Judaism will follow in the future remains to  
be seen. Hopefully, Reform Judaism will return to its traditional universalism  
and rejection of nationalism. Those concerned about that future would do well to  
read Eric Alterman’s thoughtful book, which examines and explains how American  
Judaism has reached this precarious position. *

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