In his new book “We Stand Divided,” Israeli educator and noted author Daniel Gordis emphatically makes the case that there is a sharp split between American Jews and Israel. American-born but now on the faculty of Shalem College in Jerusalem, Gordis examines the two main areas of Jewish population, America and Israel, to describe the multi-faceted divisions between these two groups of Jews. He begins by recounting how Zionism, which should be a unifier, actually contributes to the split.
Gordis explains that Zionism called for a Jewish state and the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language.
Neither of these goals had meaning or purpose for American Jews in the early 1900s. To the contrary, during that time and specifically for Reform Jews, America was the Promised Land, and there was no need for Palestine to be the Jewish homeland. For immigrant Jews, learning English, not Hebrew, was their passport to acceptance in their adopted country. This Jewish-American attitude was expressed in the early 1900s by Rose Halprin, president of Hadassah, when she stated the Jewish-American position: “We do not accept the concept that we are in exile.”
In sharp contrast to Jewish immigrants to America, the Zionists who went to Palestine were determined to forge a new Jew – strong, independent, casting out the weakness and diffidence of the shtetl Jew. This new Jew would have a vibrant political and cultural persona, rejecting the dependency of European relatives.
Gordis goes on with his argument for the split because of their conceptual differences over Judaism. His case is that Israelis see Judaism as a form of nationalism, the foundation of the Jewish state, while American Jews consider Judaism as an inherited religious practice. Further, Judaism has been Americanized into Reform, Conservative and Orthodox practice. Reform and Conservative Judaism have not been accepted in an Israel that is dominated by restrictive Orthodoxy.
Politically, Israel is tied to a coalition form of government that gives the religious parties influence far beyond their numbers. The acceptance of Orthodox dominance is part of Israel’s convoluted political structure, but has no relevance for American Jews.
The case for dissension, according to Gordis, extends to how Israelis and American Jews define and want to live with their respective forms of democracy. He maintains that Israel cannot be a smaller, Middle East version of American democracy.
In America, democracy provides a home for Jews where they can strive for social, economic and political opportunities. Israelis view these opportunities, along with the increasing rate of intermarriage, as acculturation that foretells the loss of a Jewish presence in America.
In Israel after the Holocaust, democracy had a different, more existential, meaning: Israel was established as an ethnic democracy to serve as a safe haven for Jews. This difference in how democracy is perceived is reflected in America’s and Israel’s political systems.
In America, the goal is for every person, every ethnic group, to have equal political representation. Israel’s coalition government gives minority groups the ability to wield undue power. For American Jews, Zionism is an ideal; for Jews in Palestine, Zionism is a way of life.
Gordis’ case for a division between American Jews and Israel is both dire and misleading. What he does not take into account is the age differences in attitude and allegiance of American Jews to Israel. American Jews 60 years and older have a strong allegiance to the Jewish state based on memories of the Holocaust, the birth of Israel and the drama of Israel defending itself in wars with Arab countries. This allegiance is more than factual – it is highly emotional.
Attitudes toward Israel are mixed among American Jews in their 20s through 40s. Yes, Israel is a necessary homeland for Jews persecuted through the centuries, but has it become an aggressor state that persecutes Palestinians? For younger Jews, this is a serious question. While its anti-Israel advocates have a loud voice, the political reality is that how Israel acts in the West Bank is not a major factor causing a split between American Jews and Israelis.
Notwithstanding Gordis’ arguments for the differences between the two Jewish groups, the United States and Israel will always have strong ties. It is not unusual, even customary, for Jews to differ, but 2,000 years in an exile that ended with the rebirth of Israel has formed an unbreakable bond.
Currently, there are groups behind the anti-Semitism now rising in this country. They are heard, they are contested; but they will not sever the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Gordis makes the case for why we are divided, but the bonds are too strong to be severed.
Herb Belkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.