American Jews & Israel
To the Editor:
With its timely February symposium, “American Jews and Israel,” COMMENTARY provided the American Jewish community with an invaluable service. Many of the respondents demonstrated by their replies that Jews view the state of Israel in terms that transcend standard categories of political discourse; this lent the symposium a particular depth. As a result, the February issue resonated with ethical and theological assertions of the validity of a Jewish state. . . .
Flushing, New York
To the Editor:
. . . I think the symposium is so important it should be reproduced in pamphlet or paperback form and distributed to all college libraries and reading rooms in the land. . . .
[Colonel] Harry C. Keeney,
U.S. Army [Ret.]
To the Editor:
I have been a regular subscriber to COMMENTARY for at least two decades and wish to congratulate you for bringing a breath of fresh air that clears the atmosphere . . . created by self-hating Jews, leftists, and other enemies of the Jewish people. . . .
Miami Beach, Florida
To the Editor:
In the COMMENTARY symposium I looked in vain for a sustained appeal to Zionism as a theory of Jewish existence, let alone to Zionist issues and perspectives. Most participants write as if the state of Israel were a merely contemporary event, lacking all intellectual roots in the history of Judaism and of the Jewish people, lacking all consequence for Judaism and the Jewish people today: a merely political entity, which we are “for.” That is a tragic, because shallow, perspective.
Contemplating the state of Israel without the Zionist perspective trivializes the most momentous event in the history of Judaism since the destruction of the Second Temple. I say “Judaism,” not merely the Jewish people. On the list of momentous events are other political changes of a fundamental order, e.g., the development of a bifurcated Jewishness in the 19th and 20th centuries; but this is far more important, because Zionism through the creation of the Jewish state forms the first and sole reunification of Jewish existence on a new and other foundation than the familiar one of the dual Torah. The urgent and critical issue of contemporary Judaic thought can only be the Zionist challenge, and a measure of our own limitations is that we have not sustainedly addressed it.
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
. . . It was comforting to note that only six of the forty-nine contributors to your symposium (12 percent) . . . supported the right of American Jews to criticize Israeli policy even though it pertains to Israeli security. In contrast to their philosophy, Murray Friedman of the remaining forty-three put it best when he wrote, “The rule to guide us generally, it seems to me, is whether the issue involves the safety and security of the state. Israelis who have to live with the day-to-day results of actions taken by their government to protect them must be left free to make their decisions without public pressure from their brethren abroad.”
I myself, as a somewhat prolific writer of letters to the TV networks and the press about issues relating to Israel, have religiously avoided criticizing Israel’s government when I felt its decisions have not been in the interests of its people and security. I believe it is vital to avoid giving enemies of Israel in the American media (many with long records of bias against the Jewish state) and in our government (mainly the executive branch) any ammunition against Israel beyond what they fabricate in artful ways that many Americans do not realize. . . .
Lawrence I. Gould
To the Editor:
. . . What can American Jews (or non-Jews, for that matter) do that would assure a peaceful solution to the vexing problems confronting the Middle East? Surely it is not more negative criticism that Israel needs now. As a kind of American outpost in that troubled, oil-rich region, Israel exerts a stabilizing influence. It is moral support, therefore, that is called for, not carping. . . . Left alone by the so-called superpowers, the contending regional parties should be encouraged to sit down and, to quote Lyndon Johnson, “reason together.” . . . After all, we do not live there, as Midge Decter points out in her symposium contribution. What right do we have, therefore, to give gratuitous advice that no one asks or calls for? . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
During my last visit to Israel, I was again reassured by the sight of Jews carrying arms. I only wished that we, the Jews of Europe, had had arms when we were mercilessly and methodically slaughtered, while the uncaring world looked on.
Upon my return, I was shaken out of my complacency by the organized riots in Gaza and the West Bank, but even more so by the outpouring of invective from Jews, directed against Israel. (Attacks from non-Jews come to me, a survivor, as no surprise. . . .)
Your symposium is timely and very much needed. The responses restored, to some degree, my trust in the basic integrity of American Jews, if not in the wisdom of some of their so-called leaders. There were no surprises in the names of the moralists and op-ed writers who spoke out publicly against Israel. Have these Jeremiahs on the Hudson—the rabbis, social leaders, apparatchiks running the organizations, film-makers, and others without a discernible label—forgotten the lessons of Jewish history? . . .
They forget that Israel is not America. True, the majority, if not all, of these moralists are also against any effort by this country to defend its (and their) rights by force. Still, America is a mighty country which will survive their attacks. But when they call for Israel’s surrender they forget that Israel, a tiny country surrounded by hordes of implacable enemies in wait for their version of the Final Solution, may not survive. . . .
I can feel compassion for the young Arab boys and girls who are sent to be maimed and sometimes killed by their insidious elders, but I must also remember that those who throw stones today will be ready to arrange for tomorrow’s Kristallnacht. . . .
Samuel Lipa Tennenbaum
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
. . . I wish that your symposium had included a contribution from a non-Jew like me, but a writing one. William F. Buckley, Jr.? George Will? Where are the Gentiles who see the dirt being done to Israel and who protest to their flocks?
I never want to hear another well-wisher propose that Israel “trade territory for peace.” Has nobody a map? Israel is fresh out of Sinais to trade, and it did not get its territory’s worth of peace for that bargain.
I do not want to hear any more about Israel’s higher obligations until someone teaches me about another state that does or ever did meet the standards of Israel’s critics. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
I enjoyed reading your symposium in the February issue, . . . and I particularly agreed with Gertrude Himmelfarb’s distinction between criticism of the internal affairs of Israel and criticism on issues affecting its very existence. The status of the West Bank is a grave and serious matter to Israel, and those of us who have chosen not to live there should be very careful about passing judgment on these potential life-and-death issues for Israelis.
I do think, however, that Israel’s system of proportional representation—whereby groups with minute followings have the ability to veto certain actions of the government—should be changed. That system may be appropriate for countries like Belgium or the Netherlands, but it is not appropriate for Israel, which is surrounded by enemies and . . . needs a strong leadership which will be innovative and creative in dealing both with its neighbors and with the occupied territories. . . .
Israel simply cannot conduct its affairs properly under its present system of electing its national parliament.
Philip J. Schiller
To the Editor:
Thank you for your symposium on American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. I would urge those who indulge in nostalgia for Israel’s first two decades to take a more objective view of those early years.
From its rebirth in 1948 until 1967, Israelis were subjected to government control unseen anywhere outside of the Communist world. The Labor party controlled housing, jobs, education, industry, agriculture, communications, transportation, medicine, and all social institutions. Government censors forbade television, monitored all entertainment, and limited broadcasts to patriotic songs, sermons, and speeches. Bureaucracy became bloated and “protektsia,” a system of petty bribery, proliferated. Sephardi Jews performed menial and blue-collar jobs and Labor party leaders assumed it would take generations for them to catch up to Western Jews. . . .
The fact that people as feisty as the Israelis submitted to this rigid government control is testament to their zeal for building a state.
In addition to exerting influence, Israel’s early leaders were a dour and humorless lot, who indulged in self-righteous preening, gladly echoed by Israel’s American supporters. It is no wonder that this endless moralizing led to Israel’s being judged by a double standard.
I visited Israel last fall after an absence of twenty-seven years. I found it to be better than ever—more diverse, more interesting, more pluralistic, endlessly debating its course, and, despite the danger, much more fun to live in. The Labor party’s iron grip has been shattered, Sephardi Jews participate fully in every aspect of political and professional life, and competition and enterprise are thriving.
If a visitor avoids the Jerusalem Post, academics, and urban professionals, he will meet Israel’s real citizens—patriotic, down-to-earth, realistic, and tolerant, without the moral posturing. Israel is what all real Zionists ever hoped for—a Jewish state, with a strong army, whose citizens are willing and able to ensure its survival on their own terms.
Ruth S. King
New York City
To the Editor:
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.” Not one of your symposiasts invoked so primal a sentiment, though there were faint echoes from a few. Instead, it was all (somewhat monotonously) democracy worth our support, dependable ally, remarkable achievement when viewed by reasonable standards, Jewish refuge after the Holocaust, etc. etc. And yet, how could it be otherwise? For we are Americans, are we not, before we are Jews? Assimilation is a fact. How many of your symposiasts are the products of intermarriage? Or have taken a Gentile spouse? How many have children who are Jews by religious law? And even if unambiguous “ethnic Jews,” how many are irreligious? . . .
What does it mean to be Jewish to those who are only slightly distinguished from their countrymen by mild ethnic or religious attachment? Are we defined by the experience or threat of anti-Semitism: Hitler would have killed me, therefore I must express solidarity not based on a common or unique culture? Or is it, indeed, a sort of familial tie, through one’s grandparents or great-grandparents—in which case, what do Ashkenazi Jews have to do with Sephardim, absent a strong religious tie? . . .
I too love democracy, and am alarmed by religious fanaticism. I wish Israel to be a modern, democratic nation. . . . And yet . . ., finally, the future of Israel is with the Likud, its atavistic impulses held in check by a vigorous Labor opposition. This is not merely a fact of electoral demographics, but of historic necessity. Israel does not make enough sense to survive internal strains and external threats without a vigorous Jewish nationalism—and a vigorous Jewish nationalism makes little sense unless it is based on the ancient history of the children of Israel, the informing stories which bind all Jews who choose to take that identity in some way seriously. The interpretation of these stories need not be strictly religious. But there is no “Jewish people” not in some sense rooted in the Exodus from Egypt, the establishment of prophetic monotheism, the promise of Davidic kingship, the experience of exile. The Holocaust is of limited utility in providing a sufficient sense of national identity. As long as the United States exists, can anyone say that there is greater security and opportunity for Jews in Tel Aviv than in Brooklyn? . . .
The future is Likud because there is little reason to put up with the realities of Israeli life if Israel is merely a Western outpost. Only those who love Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, will have the stomach to endure. Those of us who love Eretz Yisrael faintly, romantically, not in the gut, stay where we are, not forgetting Jerusalem, yet not living there, either. . . .
Michael David Blume
To the Editor:
I read COMMENTARY’s symposium on American Jews and Israel with a mixture of sadness and hope. Sadness, because I find it depressing to witness Jews again huddled, as it were, passively awaiting bleak news from abroad. Hope, because at least this time it is only American Jews who remain relatively inert. . . . Israelis have some real control over their fate, hence, ultimately, over ours, since the fate of all Jews is bound up, in my view, indissolubly. Notwithstanding any legitimate criticism that can or has been made of past or present Israeli policy, I find that to be cause for comfort. If any people can survive and prosper in this world, it is surely the Israelis.
But I think the coming task for American Jews as a community is to face up to the increasingly strong likelihood that Israel will be forced into stern actions vis-à-vis the Arabs, exceeding anything necessary to date, actions that will outrage much of the world, including American public and government opinion, and perhaps risk an outright breach with the United States. Broaching this subject is a terrible act, fraught with all sorts of horrific associations. . . . But to be blunt: with the “Jordanian option” apparently fading (and perhaps overrated to begin with) and Palestinian Arab demands and expectations almost certain to remain impossibly high, Israel may have to contemplate an eventual war of expulsion.
Even if outright expulsion is ruled out, Israel may have to consider a modified Kahanism, making life sufficiently miserable for the Arab population that large numbers will leave the country. The alternative of an Israel, with or without a Jewish majority, containing four or five million irreconcilably nationalistic Palestinians in a generation or so is plain enough, and almost surely unacceptable.
It is not sufficient for American Jews to say they will trust in whatever Israel develops. We have a responsibility to do our part to prepare American opinion for the eventuality. It would be irresponsible to ignore it until the last minute, even if it is arguably premature, not to say distracting, to raise it now. One need only reflect on the uproar created early on in the riots by the mere deportation of four Arab agitators—one prominent American Jew compared it to the Hitler deportations—to recognize how vast is the task. . . .
The alternative of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the territories will no doubt be the popularly preferred position. . . . Needless to say, such a decision is solely Israel’s to make and urging it carries no social or political risk whatsoever for American Jews. But suggesting that Israel may have to expel the Arabs does entail risk. Today it remains unacceptable. Whether it becomes more acceptable, or at least understandable, in the future, depends on the willingness of American Jews to deal with it as directly as possible, from both a moral and strategic perspective. . . .
Seth A. Halpern
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
Your February symposium makes for interesting reading, but more important than the attitudes toward Israel of Jewish intellectuals are the attitudes and feelings of the general Jewish public. . . . The vast majority of concerned Jews take their cue from the organizations in which they are active and follow the “line” expounded by their leaders. How these leaders would have responded to the symposium questions would therefore have been a better barometer of how Jews generally feel. And since Israel’s future and Jewish security are tied to American political goals, it would have been still more meaningful to learn how the growing number of Jews elected to public office, especially to Congress, might have responded to the symposium questions.
One thing is clear, however. We are far from reaching a consensus as to how we can best ensure Israel’s future and that of the Jewish people regardless of where they live. . . .
Hyman H. Haves
Pacific Palisades, California
To the Editor:
We have been subscribers to COMMENTARY since it began publishing because we admired your reasonableness and your high level of integrity in journalism. It was therefore with great dismay and bewilderment that we read your . . . February issue. The timing of your symposium could not have been worse, and there could not have been a less intelligent choice of contributors.
How many of your philosophers and journalists were victims of the Holocaust, or children of such survivors? (Our family contains many.) How many of them went to Israel to drain the swamps, plant the fields, and fight in the wars? (One medical colleague of ours, age sixty-five, has flown to Israel to serve in the army medical corps at the outbreak of every war.) How many of them are parents who search the fields (as a nephew of ours does) after each battle to find wounded or slain children?. . . How easy it is to live in the safest and richest country in the world and from this cozy nest to pontificate on what Israel should and should not do!
When Lincoln was attacked for his conduct of the Civil War in August 1862, he responded with clarity and force, “I do what I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
Fifty, nay, twenty-five years from now, the world will little care or remember what your . . . intellectuals said, but the fate of world Jewry will be decided by what happens to Israel today.
Ruth K. Schoenberg
West Palm Beach, Florida
To the Editor:
Having just received your February issue with the “Four Questions” symposium (which reminds me somehow of the introductory questions of the Haggadah), I should like to ask another four questions (it being said that Jews are sometimes in the habit of answering questions with other questions).
- Is moral and/or financial support from American Jews enough (fair criticism included), or should this support find its expression in full personal commitment—i.e., aliyah? . . .
- What are Jews living abroad doing about the fact that the substance of Jewry is being constantly and “silently” reduced, albeit in a nonviolent way, by assimilation, acculturation, and intermarriage? . . . Does this state of affairs worry them?
- Is the Return to Zion in all its implications merely a political and rational matter, or does it also have meaning in the realm of metaphysics and eschatology?
- To what extent should the attitude of the Gentile world determine basic Jewish attitudes and beliefs? (I am reminded of what Ben-Gurion said during one of Israel’s critical periods: “What matters is not what the Gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do.”)
In conclusion, may I say that I was born in Germany and have lived in Israel for almost fifty-two years—without ever having taken a “day off” abroad.
To the Editor:
COMMENTARY is to be thanked for its symposium on American Jewish attitudes toward Israel in the 1980′s. Many important questions are raised by . . . this symposium, but some equally important questions are left out.
COMMENTARY is rightfully known and respected for bringing out unspoken truths and unfashionable views. But your choice of respondents to the symposium questionnaire shows you have surrendered—by omission—to a malady common to both American Jewish and Israeli society.
Where in your symposium is the voice of those American Jewish supporters of Israel who have acted on their beliefs and come to Israel on aliyah, thereby becoming full partners in its challenges and its fate? If, by moving to Israel, these individuals have placed themselves beyond the scope of your symposium—and of American Jewry in general—this situation raises yet other questions.
Where are we to look in order to find the real leadership of pro-Zionist American Jewry? If, as one symposium participant wrote, it is the right of all American Jews to help put the Jewish “house” in order—and I agree that Israel is house and home to all Jews—would it not be reasonable to hear the voice of those who have gone to live in this house? . . .
The dialogue between today’s American Jews and their brethren who now live in Israel should be actively enhanced for the benefit of the Jewish people as a whole.
To the Editor:
. . . Does COMMENTARY mean to imply in the symposium’s opening statement that to criticize Israeli government policies openly is to delegitimize and attack the state itself? Can this be the “hidden agenda” Daniel Bell challenged you to reveal? Further, I wonder about the “mix” of your respondents, and the process of their selection. . . .
Some respondents explained the keen disappointments about Israel increasingly observable in the American Jewish community as due to the pernicious influence of the political Left. Others stressed the prevalence at Israel’s birth of utopian, perfectionist, or messianic expectations impossible of realization. Important as both these factors undoubtedly have been, they are very far from telling the whole story. . . .
As regards changes in attitude, one must keep in mind that over the years . . . an increasing number of American Jews have become knowledgeable about the Israeli scene. . . . They have come to know Israel as a living, operational organism, warts and all. This had to lead to a sobering of attitudes, to disappointments, and to criticism.
As regards expectations, it was not unreasonable to expect that Israel’s economic policies over the years would be responsible rather than opportunistic, short-sighted, and debilitating. It was also not unreasonable to expect that Israel’s basic political, social, and religious policies would reflect the majority will, and not be held hostage . . . by small religious minorities whose swing vote in successive coalition cabinets gives them an effective veto over the majority will. And it was also not unreasonable to expect that Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews would be able to live with one another in mutual tolerance rather than sharp discord. These dashed expectations were not utopian, perfectionist, or messianic.
Finally, as regards public criticism of Israel: American Jewish leaders (organization leaders, not intellectuals) have always been able to voice their doubts and criticisms to Israeli leaders. They avoided open criticism for more than three decades (and many still do), but they were not taken seriously until some of them began to voice their uneasiness and criticisms in public. It is not surprising that the intellectuals who contributed to your symposium seem oblivious of this reality, since it is not they to whom the Israelis have turned for money, or for assistance in influencing the White House, the Congress, and the media. For these purposes, the Israelis have turned to the leadership of Jewish organizational life, with large followings or memberships . . .
Criticism by these leaders therefore is not criticism from the sidelines or from lofty observational posts. . . . When occasionally, as invited “partners,” they do not see eye-to-eye with an Israeli government, and find that no weight is attached to their private advice or warnings, what is left for them to do?. . .
Louis J. Walinsky
To the Editor:
After reading the symposium in the February issue of COMMENTARY I should like to offer three observations. First, if any Gentile were to criticize the state of Israel as it is now being criticized by many Jewish liberals, such a person would be denounced as a reincarnation of Julius Streicher. Second, something must be very wrong with Judaism in the United States when so many wealthy and privileged Jewish people are anti-Israel, anti-American, and anti-Western. Third, the only reliable Gentile supporters of the state of Israel in the United States are fundamentalist Christians who are reliable because their perceptions of the real world are not befuddled by liberal mythology.
[Reverend] Roland Thorwaldsen
Saint Stephen’s Parish
To the Editor:
In your February symposium, Lionel Abel says: “I do not believe the assertion of Arthur Hertzberg that in 1967 Israel was ready to take on the whole world, and I am very much afraid that reckless assertions of this sort may lead to the whole world taking on Israel.” Mr. Abel’s moralizing is based on an untruth. I challenge him to produce such a quotation from any of the many essays that I have written about Israel in the last forty years.
I suspect what lies behind his unfortunate error is a lapse of memory. In an article in the New York Review of Books last June, I quoted a boast by General Ariel Sharon, in the euphoria after 1967, when he claimed that Israel had become the third military power in the world outranked only by the United States and the Soviet Union. If Mr. Abel thinks that such a remark is recklessly grandiloquent, then he has problems with General Sharon and not with me.
[Rabbi] Arthur Hertzberg
Hanover, New Hampshire
Lionel Abel writes:
Arthur Hertzberg complains of “untruth”—or at the very least, of “unfortunate error”—in the version I gave of his views on Israel, and has challenged me to provide him with a quotation from his writings. Now I shall do no less, and in doing so perhaps teach a man who is a rabbi one of the very sad facts of life—namely, that we sometimes do not know what we have actually said until this is told us by another, and maybe by someone not wishing us well.
That Rabbi Hertzberg is uncertain about what he actually wrote is clear to me from his mention of “forty years of writing” on Israel and his suggestion that I may have been influenced by a remark of General Sharon’s cited by him in a June issue of the New York Review of Books. Perhaps Rabbi Hertzberg means his article of May 28, 1987 entitled “Israel: The Tragedy of Victory” (there is no article by him in the New York Review of Books in June 1987). The May article is my source. It contains no mention of General Sharon’s boast. It does contain, among other remarks to which I took great exception, his expression of regret for Israel’s victory. It would have been so much better, according to Rabbi Hertzberg, if the fighting had ended in a draw!
This article, which I think justified what I wrote, is from beginning to end an indictment of Israel, its leaders, and the American Jews influenced by them. And for what? For defying the world. My charge was, of course, a summary of many statements in the piece, but before I come to the decisive quote I was challenged to provide, let me cite an example of Rabbi Hertzberg’s thought on Israeli hubris:
In 1967 Israel chose to go to war when Lyndon Johnson was suggesting yet another formula for “buying time,” when de Gaulle was denouncing the Israelis as aggressors, when the British were on the borderline between neutral and unfriendly, and when it was feared that the Russians might intervene to support their two major clients then in the Middle East, Egypt and Syria.
There is much more I could say about the piece. But Rabbi Hertzberg has challenged me to quote him directly and I shall. Commenting on the Israel of 1967, Rabbi Hertzberg wrote: “The Jewish state could not regard itself as validly in existence until it had, at least once, perceived itself to be defying the world.”
Here is the citation you asked for, Arthur Hertzberg, so you are no longer able to deny the words you were once not reluctant to set forth in print. Will you now grant that you should not have expressed yourself as you did, and take back your claim that what I wrote is untrue?