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Israel Is Not the Homeland of American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2011

The declaration that “Israel is not the homeland of American Jews” should hardly need to be made.  
Sadly, because the organized American Jewish community has embraced the philosophy of Zionism, which holds that the State of Israel is indeed the “homeland” of all Jews, and that all Jews should make “aliyah,” or emigrate to that state — and that those who do not do so should, at least, make Israel “central” to their practice of Judaism, it is necessary to clarify the real nature of Jewish life in our country at the present time.  
For more than 350 years, American Jews have considered themselves to be Americans in precisely the same manner as Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and those with no religious affiliation. They have been American by nationality and Jews by religion, and until recent years no one doubted this to be true.  
Americans from the Beginning  
Even a brief review of this history is instructive. Jews have been an intrinsic part of the American society from the very beginning. In colonial America, writes Howard M. Sachar in A History of Jews in America, “… not a single law was ever enacted … specifically to disable Jews … They were free to engage in any trade, in any colony, but also to own a home in any neighborhood … By l776, the two thousand Jews of colonial America were the freest Jews on earth.”  
Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist who visited New York in l748, reported: “Jews enjoyed all of the privileges common to all other inhabitants of the town and province.”  
One observer, the Rev. Martin Bolzius, minister of Georgia’s Salzburg Lutherans, wrote in 1730: “The Englishmen, nobility and common folks alike, treat the Jews as their equal. They drink, gamble and walk together with them; in fact, let them take part in all their fun. Yes, they desecrate Sunday with them, a thing no Jew would do on their Sabbath to please a Christian.”  
Full Participation  
Discussing life in colonial-era Richmond, Professor Melvin Urofsky of Virginia Commonwealth University, notes that, “The Jews who lived in Richmond and other parts of Virginia seemed not to have suffered either from social anti-Semitism or legal restrictions on their political or economic rights. They participated not only in the affairs of their religious community but also on the wider public stage. Many joined the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, and Solomon Jacobs, who served for a time as Richmond’s mayor, also took part. Joseph Darmstadt held the office of grand treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Virginia Masons at the same time that John Marshall, chief justice of the United States, was the grand master.”  
When George Washington led an expedition in 1754 to warn the French away from the Falls of Ohio, two Jews, Michael Franks and Jacob Myer, accompanied him. Thomas Jefferson credited a Jew, Dr. John de Sequeyra, with introducing the custom of eating tomatoes, which previously had been grown only as ornamental plants.  
Religious Freedom  
The religious freedom which the early Virginia patriots embraced was not that of “toleration” but, instead, a belief that an individual’s right to worship God was a matter of principle and applied to men and women of all faiths.  
When the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island sent George Washington their congratula-tions upon his assuming the presidency, Washington replied: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support … May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”  
Illustrating the comfort that Jews felt in their new land, in l806 Charleston’s congregation wrote in the following terms to London’s Sephardic community to request recommendations for a hazan: “In a free and independent country like America, where civil and religious freedom go hand in hand. Where no distinctions exist between the clergy of different denominations, where in short we enjoy all the blessings of freedom in common with our fellow citizens, you may readily conceive we pride ourselves under the happy situation which makes us feel we are men, susceptible of that dignity which belongs to human nature, by participating in all the rights and blessings of this happy country.”  
This Country Our Palestine  
American Jews, from the very beginning of our country, felt themselves to be fully American. In l84l, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared: “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple.” American Reform Judaism, the dominant Jewish expression of the 19th century, declared in its l885 Pittsburgh Platform that, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious commu-nity.”  
As ideas of Jewish nationalism began to emerge in Europe, the leader of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, speaking of Theodor Herzl and the nascent movement, declared: “We denounce the whole question of a Jewish state as foreign to the spirit of the modern Jew in this land, who looks upon America as his Palestine, and whose interests are centered here.”  
It has always been the Zionist view that Jews are a “nation,” rather than a religious community. In the book Zionism And The Jewish Future, published in England in 1916, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann argued bluntly that no matter what success and prominence a Jew achieves “he is felt by the outside world to still be something different, still an alien.” From this it followed that “the position of emancipated Jews, even though he does not realize it himself, is even more tragic than his oppressed brother.”  
Knew Where They Stood  
In other words, unlike the British, French or American Jew, the Russian or Romanian or Polish Jew, miserable as he might be, at least knew where he stood. In the same book, Rabbi Moses Gaster dismissed those who refused to acknowledge that Judaism was “the expression of the religious consciousness of the national life of the Jews.” He put his conclusion as bluntly as had Weizmann: “The claim to be Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion — that is, English by nationality and Jewish by faith — is an absolute self-delusion.”  
Ironically, Zionists and anti-Semites shared the view that Jews were an “alien” group in the body politic. In his book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Professor Israel Shahak of the Hebrew University writes that, “… relations have always existed between Zionists and anti-Semites … Many examples of such alliances are well known. Herzl himself allied himself with the notorious Count von Plehve, the anti-Semitic minister of Tsar Nicholas II. Vladimir Jabotinsky made a pact with Patlyura, the reactionary Ukrainian leader whose forces massacred 100,000 Jews in 1918-21 … Perhaps the most shocking example of this type is the delight with which some Zionist leaders in Germany welcomed Hitler’s rise to power, because they shared his belief in the primacy of ‘race’ and his hostility to the assimilation of Jews among ‘Aryans.’ They congratulated Hitler on his triumph over the common enemy — the forces of liberalism.”  
Celebrating Hitler  
Dr. Joachim Prinz, a Zionist rabbi who subsequently emigrated to the U.S. where he rose to be vice-chairman of the World Jewish Congress and a leader of the World Zionist Organization, published in 1934 a book Wir Juden (We Jews), to celebrate Hitler’s so-called German Revolution and the defeat of liberalism: “The meaning of the German Revolution for the German nation will eventually be clear to those who have created it and formed its image. Its meaning for us must be set forth here: the fortunes of liberalism are lost. The only form of political life which has helped Jewish assimilation is sunk.”  
The victory of Nazism, Dr. Prinz pointed out, rules out assimilation and mixed marriages as an option for Jews: “We are not unhappy about this.” In the fact that Jews are being forced to identify as Jews, he saw “the fulfillment of our desires.”  
What Rabbi Prinz sought was set forth in these terms: “We want assimilation to be replaced by a new law: the declaration of belonging to the Jewish nation and Jewish race. A state built upon the principle of the purity of nation and race can only be honored and respected by a Jew who declares his belonging to his own kind … Only he who honors his own breed and his own blood can have an attitude of honor towards the national will of other nations.”  
Zionism and Anti-Semitism  
In Professor Shahak’s view, “Anti-Semites claim that Jews are ‘by nature’ strangers forever and cannot be completely Americans, Frenchmen, etc. The overall Zionist ideological answer is essentially that anti-Semitic accusations are correct.”  
In his book The Aryanization of the Jewish State, Michael Selzer argues that Zionism rejected entirely the uniqueness of Judaism and its mission in the world: “The most startling innovation of this new Zionist doctrine lay precisely in the fact that it rejected belief in the unique constitution of the Jewish people. The Jews were now declared by the Zionists to be ‘a nation like all other nations’ — or rather they would be once their territorial sovereignty had been restored … In effect, the Zionists would attempt to mold their new society in a manner which would invalidate the accusations of their oppressors … for nothing would more definitely ensure the approval of anti-Semitism for ‘the new Jewish society’ than its success in recreating the Jew in the image of his oppressor … what we might call the ‘Aryanization’ of the Jews.”  
Zionism was, from its very beginning, unaware of and indifferent to the experience of Judaism in the United States. The future of American Jews was carefully charted in Jerusalem during the 23rd World Zionist Congress of 1951, the first to convene since the establishment of the State of Israel. Fifty four years had passed since Zionism’s Basel Platform of 1897. A new program had to be formulated. For, if the creation of a sovereign state had been the only goal of Zionism, its work would be completed. But at this meeting, Israeli Zionists insisted that the tag “exiles” be applied to all Jews outside of Israel. The following resolution, adopted by a vote of 286 to 0 declared: “The task of Zionism is the strengthening of the State of Israel, the ingathering of the exiles in Eretz Israel and the fostering of the unity of the Jewish people.”  
Emigrate to Israel  
Another resolution unanimously called upon the youth of the Jewish community, particularly those in the U.S., to emigrate to Israel. The head of the American section of the Jewish Agency, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, declared: “We accomplished a great job. American Jews have always been asked for money and came through beautifully. Now we shall ask them for children, and I am confident that they will come through after much education and effort.”  
The Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Berl Locker, made in 1950 this formal statement before the Action Committee of the World Zionist Organization: “Israel’s flag is our flag and it is often necessary to suffer for a flag. We must see to it that the Zionist flag which has begun to fly above the State of Israel is hoisted aloft over the entire Jewish people until we achieve the completion of the ingathering of the exiles.”  
Ever since, Israel has spared no effort in attempting to stimulate the emigration of Jews. On a January 1996 visit to Germany, Israeli President Ezer Weizman declared that he “cannot understand how 40,000 Jews can live in Germany,” and asserted that, “The place of Jews is in Israel. Only in Israel can Jews live full Jewish lives.”  
In July, 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued an appeal for all Jews in France to move to Israel “immediately” in response to a number of anti-Semitic acts. He said: “Move to Israel as early as possible. That’s what I say to Jews all over the world.”  
Aliyah for American Jews  
In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon American Jews to make a “mass aliyah” to Israel. In 2000, Israeli President Moshe Katsev called upon Jews around the world to make aliyah and argued against “legitimizing” Jewish life in other countries. In a book published in 2000, Conversations With Yitzhak Shamir, the former Israeli prime minister declared: “The very essence of our being obliges every Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael … In my opinion, a man has no right to consider himself a part of the Jewish people without also being a Zionist, because Zionism states that in order for a Jew to live as a Jew he needs to have his own country, his own life, and his own future.”  
Visiting Washington, D.C. on a trip to promote immigration to Israel, 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.”  
When Israel was first established, many prominent American Jews were concerned about Zionist leaders’ contempt for Jewish life outside of Israel and their desire for a massive emigration of all Jews to the new state. In particular, they did not want Israel to interfere in the internal affairs of the American Jewish community.  
Historic Exchange  
An historic exchange in 1950 between the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, and Israel’s prime minister David Ben-Gurion, sought to allay these fears.  
As summarized by the committee, the agreement stipulated that: “(1) Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment, namely to the United States of America; (2) that the Government and people of Israel respect the integrity of Jewish life in the democratic countries and the right of Jewish communities to develop their indigenous social, economic and cultural aspirations, in accordance with their needs and institutions; and (3) that Israel fully accepts the fact that the Jews of the United States did not live ‘in exile’ and that America is home for them.”  
As we have seen, whatever David Ben-Gurion may have said in 1950, ever since the State of Israel has persisted in promoting the idea that Jews living outside its borders are indeed in “exile” and that all Jews should emigrate to that state.  
In recent years, a mass emigration effort organized and partly financed by Nefesh B’Nefesh, has sought to boost North American emigration to Israel, providing grants of up to $25,000 for each new immigrant. This program, said Prime Minister Netanyahu, will “bring home to Zion our Jewish brethren from the diaspora.”  
Hesitant to Criticize  
American Jewish organizations have been hesitant to criticize Israeli government programs which promote the idea that all Jews belong in Israel and that the United States, however comfortable, is “exile.” This concept, repugnant to the vast majority of Americans of Jewish faith, who consider themselves to be fully American and very much at home, is now even being promoted by American Jewish organizations themselves. The Reform movement, which previously rejected Jewish national-ism, in 1999 adopted a statement of principles which encourages Reform Jews to “make aliyah,” or emigrate permanently to Israel.  
In recent years, Jewish religious bodies, ranging from the Orthodox to the Conservative to the Reform have embraced the notion that the State of Israel — not God — is, somehow, “central” to Judaism. In Miami, in 1997, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), a Reform body, adopted a platform which declared that Israel serves “uniquely as the spiritual center of world Jewry.”  
The 27th World Zionist Congress in 1968 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.”  
From Israeli flags in synagogues to “Birthright Israel” trips sending young people on free visits to Israel to a host of Jewish organizations focusing on influencing U.S. Middle East policy — including current efforts to secure the release of Jonathan Pollard, the Naval intelligence officer convicted of spying for Israel — the center of attention within the organized American Jewish community has not been the traditional Jewish religious commitment to God but something far different.  
Religion Is Central to Judaism  
The fact is, of course, that it is religion which is central to Judaism, not the State of Israel, the Jewish people, or any other human entity or enterprise. Indeed, the substitution of a political creation — a sovereign state — as a virtual object of worship is clearly an act of idolatry.  
The notion of making Israel “central” to American Jewish life was embraced almost without debate by the leading American Jewish organizations, although a number of prominent individuals rejected the idea from the outset. Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a respected scholar, was among the first to warn that pro-Israelism would not solve the identity crisis of the community. He declared that the U.S. was a much better place for Jews than Israel and pointed out the “irony” of religious passions being lavished by mainly secular people upon “a state which, like all other states, is a contingent and this-worldly fact.”  
Daniel J. Elazar coined the term “Israelotry” to denote his contention that American Jews turned to worshiping Israel rather than the God of Israel. Immanuel Jacobovitz, the chief rabbi of Britain, bemoaned that, for many Jews, Israel became a “vicarious haven of their residual Jewishness, conveniently replacing the personal discipline of Jewish life.” Rabbi Eugene Borowitz said that “we cannot function as Jews by trying to live a vicarious Israeli experience on American soil.”  
Morality and Justice  
All too often, the Jewish commitment to morality and justice has been replaced by an “Israel, right or wrong” position. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writing in the journal Reform Judaism (Spring 2010) declares: “What Israel needs from us now is unconditional support. It needs our visits, our dollars, and our engagement. It needs our political activism.”  
Many other voices — and their numbers are increasing — disagree. Tikkun editor Michael Lerner asserts that, “We did not survive gas chambers and crematoria so that we could become the oppressors of Gaza.” Henry Siegman, an ordained rabbi and once a leader of the American Jewish Congress, charges that American Jewish organizations have substituted blind support for Israel for the traditional Jewish search for truth and justice. A refugee from Nazi-occupied, Siegman says that what he went through as a child makes it easier to understand what it is like to be a Palestinian living under the “fear and humiliation” of the Israeli occupation.  
Douglas Rushkoff, a professor at New York University and author of the book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, writes: “At the very least, we must consider the possibility that Israel is not the ultimate realization of Jewish ideals, but a temporary surrender of those ideals … In a sense, the real Jewish nation — at least in principle … .is the United States, which was founded on more consistently Jewish ideals than Israel itself … If I had to pick a flag that best represented the spirit and law of my Torah, it would be the (American) flag.”  
Substitute for Religion  
For many American Jews in recent years, support for Israel — whatever its policies — has become a substitute for religion. Professor Eric Alterman, writing in Moment (Nov.-Dec. 2010) reports that without a real religious faith, “Many have turned to the defense of Israel as a kind of religious precept and the result, too often, is a repetition of political talking points as if they were the Amidah. They are not and will not sustain generation after generation of what is, after all, vicarious experience, and one that is based less on genuine attachment to Israel than to a mythic version of it.”  
Young people are increasingly alienated from the Israel-centered Judaism they encounter. A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54 per cent feel “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen explained, is an aversion to “hard group boundaries” and to the notion that “there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else.”  
Israel, uniquely in the world, claims millions of men and women who are citizens of other countries as being in “exile” from their real “homeland.” Why is it not content to be the homeland of its own citizens?  
American Jews Are Americans  
It must be made clear that Americans of the Jewish faith are Americans, that Israel, however sympathetic to it many may be, is not their homeland. To the extent that the Israeli government continues to speak of American Jews as, in effect, Israelis “in exile,” they are interfering in the domestic affairs of our country.  
Jews have been an intrinsic part of America from the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the 21st century. There were Jews at Valley Forge, the Alamo, Gettysburg — at every moment in our nation’s history. To argue that they are in “exile” and that Israel is indeed their “homeland” is to turn history on its head.  
Knowing Where Home Is  
Zionist philosophy never factored in a free and open society with religious freedom for all of its citizens. Millions of American Jews — for many generations — have embraced that free society. A narrow, exclusivist, theocratic state holds little appeal for them. Abba Eban once said that the Jews were a people “who would not take yes for an answer.” American Jews have — and have no doubt where home really is.  

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