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An Irreconcilable Love Affair with Israel?

Leonard R. Sussman
Spring 2001

Timing is everything.

Any Jew was fiercely excoriated in the 1950s for questioning the near-monopolization of U.S. Jewish organizations (including the religious establishment) by Zionists directed from Jerusalem. In the 1960s, any Jew who urged a dialogue between Muslims or Arabs and Jews would be made a pariah. By the 1970s, however, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent massacre of hundreds of Arab refugees in their camp, produced the first critical questioning by many American Jews of the nearly mythological certainty of Israel's governmental morality and geopolitical success. Times were changing — slowly.

The accurate, balanced history of how — not only times but also the attitudes of American Jews — changed toward Israel and Zionism is told by Steven T. Rosenthal in his new book Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel (Brandeis University Press, 248 pp., $24.95). [pub date April 6, 2001]

Dissolution of Consensus

Rosenthal devotes a chapter to each of the mileposts along the 30-year road leading to the dissolution of the American Jewish consensus on Israel, and the public questioning by Jews of Israel's military, political and religious policies. He examines the slow but steady gap between the two bodies of Jews over the invasion of Lebanon, the Pollard spy case, the Palestinian Intifada, and the "Who is a Jew?" controversy. These cases, says the author, "have transformed the American Jewish relationship with Israel."

To understand this sea change, Rosenthal examines "the evolution of Jewish identity in both America and Israel." No citizens of one country have ever been so committed to the citizens of another country as American Jews have been to Israel. Yet, he adds, "the vast majority of American Jews have remained astonishingly ignorant about the object of their devotion."

Identity as Americans

He believes that "from their early indifference to Zionism, through a quarter century of unequivocal support for Israel, to the breakdown of the consensus in the 1970s and 1980s and the present fragmentation, American Jews have related to Israel primarily through their identity as Americans." In Rosenthal's analysis, Israel took the place of Judaism as a way of maintaining one's Jewish identity. "Israel's image as a secular, progressive, pragmatic, and democratic state accorded with American Jews' selfconception and provided a convenient way to present their identity to the larger society." The new "Jewishness" was centered in local Israel-oriented organizations or activities. Fund-raising coordinated from Jerusalem, Rosenthal might have noted, was the most obvious "Jewish" activity. To equate Israel with "Jewishness," writes Rosenthal, "was for many a comforting way to avoid the encumbrances of religion by focusing one's Jewish identity on a secular state 8,000 miles from home."

American Jewish unanimity with Israel was transformed into "secular veneration" by the Six-Day War of 1967, the author states. Even private criticism of Israel's military actions was discouraged as "immoral" for those who lived in peace. "Enforcement of this orthodoxy," says Rosenthal, "often fell to the federations [of U.S. fund-raising] which did their job so effectively that by the late 1960s criticizing Israel was seen as a worse sin than marrying out of the faith." At the time, only the American Council for Judaism questioned the role of the federations as a mobilizer of U.S. Jews for Zionist-Israeli politico-military as well as philanthropic support. Rosenthal mentions the Council in one sentence.

Invasion of Lebanon

But with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Arab refugees by Israel's Christian ally, many American Jews "called into question," says Rosenthal, "the cherished notion that Israel was qualitatively different from other states." Israeli leaders "could be just as prone to stupidity, arrogance, and mendacity as those of other states," Rosenthal writes.

He regards the Pollard spy case as "even more divisive." The arrest of the American Jew caught spying for Israel "went to the heart of the American Jewish-Israeli relationship." This case undermined the long-time Zionist effort to avoid charges that its supporters harbored dual loyalty. The case also placed Zionists on the defensive for their historic demand of aliyah, the permanent emigration of American and other Jews to Israel as the only way to avoid anti-Semitism or dissolution of Judaism.

In outlining the fundamental history of Zionism, Rosenthal draws on Jacob Klatzkin in The Zionist Idea: "Galut [exile] can only drag out the disgrace of our people and sustain the existence of a people disfigured in both body and soul — in a word, of a horror ... Such a life [outside the "homeland"], even if it continues to exist, will represent no more than a rootless and restless wandering between two worlds. It will cause rent and broken human beings to persist — individuals diseased by ambivalence, consumed by contradictions, and spent by restless inner conflict." Klatzkin said the only function for Jews in America or elsewhere was to supply the resources for the goal of a homeland. Otherwise, galut was "nothing more than a life of deterioration and degeneration." Klatzkin himself lived rather well in Switzerland and summered in Massachusetts.

Uncritical Support

Rosenthal does not make this point directly, but such demands for uncritical support for traditional Zionist programs may have been a subliminal factor in the reaction to the Pollard case by American Jewish leaders. They could no longer accept uncritically every Israeli policy, especially when Pollard's theft of major American security documents, paid for by Israel, exposed U.S. Jews to charges of dual loyalty. The affair, says Rosenthal, put Israel's "special relationship" with the United States at risk. Exacerbating the split between American and Israeli Jews were the latter's assertions that "the protests of American Jews were naive, self-serving, and even cowardly," Rosenthal notes.

The Palestinian Intifada, beginning in 1987, "converted American Jewish disagreement with Israeli policy into a mass phenomenon," writes Rosenthal. As American television earlier soured the U.S. public on the war in Vietnam and later in Somalia, American Jews were "deeply affected" by television images of Israeli soldiers clubbing young rioters. U.S. Jews did not rush to Israel's defense, says Rosenthal, "when its method of suppressing the rebellion was universally attacked." Instead, he writes, "unprecedented numbers [of Jews] joined the critical chorus., leading to what would become a permanent cleavage in the American Jewish community."

By 1990, about three quarters of American Jews declared themselves to be in favor of talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This was in sharp contrast to the opprobrium aimed years earlier at Rabbi Elmer Berger of the American Council for Judaism and Rita Hauser of the American Jewish Committee when — separately, as personal, not organizational representatives — they engaged in such contacts.

Rabin's Election

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's election in 1992 raised the possibility of a peace treaty with the Palestinians, and deepened the fragmentation in Israel and the United States. The religiously Orthodox and politically conservative U.S. Jews, writes Rosenthal, "equated public Jewish criticism of Israel with treason." Rabin paid with his life. His assassination generated the unprecedented assemblage at his funeral of Arab, Israeli, and American leaders. The search for a peaceful resolution of the half-century conflict seemed possible.

Any easing of differences between American and Israeli Jews was decisively ended, however, with the protracted crisis in Israel over "Who is a Jew?" Rosenthal describes this deepening, still unresolved conflict:

"The philosophical contradictions of Israel's foundation, its imperfect parliamentary system, the growing power of the Orthodox, and the decline of traditional Zionism, as well as the growing assertiveness of American Jewry, produced a political cataclysm the substance of which is overwhelmed by its symbolism."

Role of Religion

Rosenthal might have added that Israel's lack of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, and its juridical commitment to a "Jewish state" further added to the domestic politicking over the role of religion vis-a-vis the political rights of its citizens — Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The controversy was centered primarily, however, on the Orthodox establishment's demand that Reform and Conservative Judaism be denied legitimacy in Israel. The Orthodox rejection of converts to Judaism by Reform and Conservative rabbis was regarded as deligitimizing more than 80 percent of the community, relegating them to second-class citizenship. The controversy sent waves of anger through the Reform and Conservative establishments in the United States and their related secular institutions. This, said Rosenthal, "strikes at the heart of their connection with Israel, which is so vital to their sense of Jewish identity." Ironically, the author could have noted, the earlier argument that Zionist-Israel would enhance Judaism and "Jewishness" in America, was now the reason for the deep psychological gap between the two groups of Jews.

New Intifada

In 2000, when Ariel Sharon visited a Muslim holy place in Jerusalem, he ignited the violence of a new Intifada. Rosenthal's book ends before that visit short-circuited the Barak-Clinton-Arafat peace process, and catapulted Sharon into the Prime Ministership. The peace talks had reached a level unimaginable just a half-year earlier. President Clinton had put on the table, presumably with Prime Minister Barak's knowledge, a plan for Muslims and Jews to share a portion of a holy place in Jerusalem. The reaction and continuing violence did not end the fragmentation of Jews inside and outside Israel.

The author's conclusion: "Given the failure of Israeli and mainstream American Jewry to produce meaningful cultural bonds, there is less and less to connect the two peoples.' A half century of "obsession with Israel," says Rosenthal, resulted in the neglect of American spiritual and educational institutions.

Inherent Conflicts

The problem is now being addressed belatedly as the consequences of that obsession are understood. Rosenthal's Irreconcilable Differences? is an excellent starting point for those who would review the fundamental conflicts inherent in the "American Jewish love affair with Israel." Such a review could posit a normal relationship for the two increasingly different groups of Jews. As an American or an Israeli, each would reflect the national interests of their respective country and recognize that no nation's national interests are the same as any other's; and that theocracy cannot co-exist with democracy in a modern state.

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