Commentary Magazine


Israel and American Jewry

As soon as the Arab armies began to mass on the borders of Israel during the third week in May, the mood of the American Jewish community underwent an abrupt, radical, and possibly permanent change. In general, the immediate reaction of American Jewry to the crisis was far more intense and widespread than anyone could have foreseen. Many Jews would never have believed that grave danger to Israel could dominate their thoughts and emotions to the exclusion of all else; many were surprised by the depth of their anger at those of their friends who carried on as usual, untouched by fear for Israeli survival and the instinctive involvement they themselves felt. This outpouring of feeling and commitment appears to contradict all the predictions about the evaporating Jewishness of the American Jews. What happened here between the middle of May and the middle of June therefore demands explanation.

Unfortunately, it did not occur to any of the research agencies in the social sciences to initiate a disciplined study of the American Jewish response as the events were unfolding. So we have to rely, at least for the moment, on impressionistic reportage. Obviously no single person can have firsthand knowledge of everything that went on during the weeks in question. I myself was involved most directly as the rabbi of a suburban congregation on the edge of New York—in Englewood, New Jersey. At the height of the fund-raising activity throughout the country I also addressed a number of rallies and meetings in several different towns. In addition, I witnessed the besieging of the offices of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Consulate in New York by hundreds of young people who volunteered, when the Israeli army was mobilized, to go to work in Israel. And finally, I have compared my own personal impressions with those of friends who were active in other communities and concerned with other aspects of the American Jewish response. On the basis of all this, let me try to describe the situation, at least in its major outlines, before attempting to speculate on what the extraordinary behavior of the American Jewish community during the crisis may mean for the future.

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It is ingrained in the American Jewish soul that the correct response to a danger is to give money. This was certainly the most immediate reaction to the Middle East crisis, but with one important difference: much more money was given by many more people than ever before in history. There are innumerable stories from every Jewish community throughout the United States not only of giving on a fantastic scale by people of large means, but also of the literal sacrifice of their life’s savings by people of modest means. It all moved so quickly that the bookkeeping has lagged behind the giving, and exact figures are still not available. We do, however, know that during the little more than two-week period which marked the height of the crisis—between the day when Nasser closed the Gulf of Aqaba on May 23 and the end of the war on June 10—well over one hundred million dollars, the bulk of it in cash, was realized for the Israel Emergency Fund of the United Jewish Appeal. This was a fund-raising effort unprecedented not only in Jewish experience, but also in the history of private philanthropy in the United States.

It is in itself a significant fact that the drive did not begin from the top. The national board of the United Jewish Appeal met in special session on Monday, May 29 in New York to launch its nationwide emergency campaign, but by that time—six days after the inauguration of the blockade—local campaigns were already under way in dozens of communities which had not waited for anyone to ask them to move. Moreover, it was not only the old-line, late-middle-aged leadership of these communities who were acting in this way. Many people in their thirties and forties who had never participated in organizational Jewish life suddenly emerged to take the lead both in giving and in working. The financial contributions of these newer elements were astonishingly large—perhaps because of a desire to make up for past neglect and a wish, or even a need, to be counted in during a moment of manifest danger.

In my own synagogue a congregation approaching High-Holiday size walked in on Friday night, May 26 in a subdued and very somber frame of mind. An hour or so later, after we had done something never before done in our synagogue’s history—an appeal for money at a service with the calling for open announcements of contributions—the mood had changed to one of elation. Anxiety over the danger to Israel had not diminished, but by giving substantial sums of money, we had to the best of our immediate ability enlisted in the struggle and become participants instead of passive spectators. Similar things happened where-ever Jews live. If it was true in Israel that more reserves showed up in some places than had been ordered to mobilize, American Jewish fund-raising was, in its own way, a comparable phenomenon.

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Concurrently, a no less remarkable political change was taking place within American Jewry. The most striking fact was the unanimity of opinion. The pollsters found that 99 per cent of all the Jews in America undeviatingly supported the Israeli position. Even when Israel went to war, not a single voice was raised in public among Jews to deplore a resort to arms. Yet in the 1940′s there had been a vocal minority within the American Jewish community which kept arguing in public that a Zionist solution to the problem of the European Jewish refugees was against the interests and desires of American Jewry, and during the first days of the 1956 Suez campaign, important elements of American Jewish opinion—including organizations which were usually pro-Israel—had been more than uncomfortable when Israel launched its attack. In the months of diplomatic haggling after the guns were stilled in 1956, Israel reluctantly settled for an arrangement which did not require Nasser’s formal and public agreement, and which did not make effective at all any rights of passage for its ships in the Suez Canal. The pressure on the Israeli government to accept such a solution then came largely from the United States, and the White House and the State Department managed to persuade some very influential American Jews to counsel Israel to temper its demands.

Ten years later the picture was entirely different. Even the militant anti-Zionists of the American Council for Judaism, who had always appeared at critical moments to attack Israel, refrained from issuing any public statements until the end of the war, and the mutterings since then have been isolated. More surprising still, a number of prominent Council figures are now actually supporting Israel as devotedly as the most passionate Zionists.

The question of Vietnam might have been expected to be divisive, but it turned out not to be. Many of the Jewish establishments, especially those of the Conservative and Reformed rabbinic and lay bodies, are more or less officially dove-like in their positions on Vietnam. In this they are at one with such non-Jewish leaders of American religious opinion as Martin Luther King and John Bennett. All these people, including several important Christian doves, rallied instantly to the side of Israel, and they did not withdraw their support even when Israel went to war. There were, of course, jibes at the Vietnam doves now transformed into Middle Eastern hawks. The reasons advanced to counter these complaints may or may not have been convincing, but the truth of the matter is that no one had the time or the inclination to produce a theoretical case which would harmonize the two positions. American Jews, and some of their friends, acted instinctively in the face of a threat to the survival of Israel, and their concern for the life of the besieged Jewish state was not to be compromised by any embarrassment that might come to them out of any other views on other matters, even one so serious as the war in Vietnam.

Within a very few days, however, a rationale began to be developed. The pro-Israel Vietnam doves argued that American support of the government of South Vietnam represented an involvement in a regime which had no popular roots. The last thing that could be said of the State of Israel, by contrast, was that it lacked popular roots. A similar contrast was drawn between American diplomatic commitments in the two cases: they had always been less than perfectly clear in Vietnam, whereas no one could possibly deny that to support the integrity of Israel has been a solemn American obligation for nineteen years. Why then was it inconsistent to demand that America honor its commitment to a rooted democracy fighting for its life, and to withdraw from a dubious venture to prop up an unpopular military clique?

Though this case is reasonable, it does not solve all the problems of the pro-Israel Vietnam doves. The opponents of the war in Vietnam have all repeatedly rejected Johnson’s domino theory, and even though the White House has said little overtly to suggest that the President is supporting Israel for comparable reasons—in order, that is, to keep Russia from spreading further into the Middle East—this connection is clearly in his mind. My own reading of my friends in the peace movement is that they hope that the Russian attacks on Israel, violent though they are in public, will indeed lead to such a linkage of the two problems—not, of course, because they want to open another cold-war front in the Middle East, but rather because they think that a tandem settlement of both questions by the superpowers may become possible.

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Perhaps the most complicated and difficult problem is to assess correctly what really did happen in the response of American Jewish young people to the crisis. In the last days of May, Israeli consulates and the Hillel directors in the colleges were overwhelmed by hundreds of young people who wanted to go to Israel to take over the civilian jobs of their peers who had been mobilized for the army. By the day war broke out, when the American ban on travel to the area was imposed, some ten thousand such applications had been recorded throughout the country, more than half of them in New York at the offices of the Jewish Agency. On June 5 itself, the outpouring of young people completely swamped every one of the bureaus. A high official of the Jewish Agency told me that as he arrived at the front door of the building very early that morning, a cab drew up and a man jumped out followed by two younger men. He stopped this Agency official and said to him: “I have no money to give but here are my sons. Please send them over immediately.” That day this was no isolated incident.

But who were the young people who came? Dr. Arnulf Pins, Executive Director of the Council on Social Work Education, offered his services to help process the volunteers at the New York office of the Jewish Agency. He had some questions included on the forms they filled out concerning their Jewish educational and organizational background and their involvement in such causes as Zionism, race, and peace. Dr. Pins has not yet had the time to tabulate his results adequately, but he took the trouble to give me a reading of what he found in a random sampling. Those who came in May and who therefore constituted the large majority of the young people who actually did get to Israel before June 5, were from yeshivot and from the relatively small circle of American Jewish youth whose main interests are Jewish. At least a third of all the ten thousand who ultimately came to volunteer had had a substantial Jewish education and a continuing Jewish concern. In their answers to the political questions, another third showed that they had spent their young adult years worrying about race and Vietnam, and that they now lacked any organizational Jewish ties. Yet even this group had had some Jewish education in childhood or even into the teens. What seemed to be happening to them was that a dormant loyalty had suddenly been stirred and had become at that moment an overriding passion.

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What of the young Jews of the New Left? I am told by friends who are in close touch with these circles that they were, if not enthusiastically pro-Israel in their mood (though some were), much less hostile than might have been anticipated. My own impression is that the Jews of the New Left were on the whole sufficiently Jewish to care, but that this concern was neutralized by their sympathy for Nasser as a “progressive” Third World leader. In any event, unlike many Jews of the old Left, the young in the New Left are generally unwilling to look upon the fact of their Jewishness as a dimension of being deep enough to justify a reordering of intellectual and moral priorities at a moment of high drama and crisis such as was experienced last June.

A radical shifting of priorities was, however, effected in another circle of Jewish opinion—the circle which has been most directly influenced in recent years by the spirit of ecumenism. Despite some quite vocal opposition to the broadening of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, the majority view within both religious and secular Jewish organizations has cherished the increasing contact between Jewish and Christian groups and the greater openness to which this contact has led. When the crisis broke, Jews found that leading individual figures within the various Christian denominations—Niebuhr, King, Schmemann, Higgins, and Archbishop Hallinan, to mention only a few—were quick and firm in their public commitment to justice for Israel, but that the formal establishments of both the Protestant and Catholic churches remained largely silent. In the last days of May, as the crisis was building toward war, almost no statements could be elicited from any of these communions even supporting Israel’s right to exist.

As soon as the war was over, several emergency meetings were arranged between Jewish figures with a large stake in the dialogue and their Christian peers. As individuals (though not as spokesmen for their churches), some of the Christians present had supported Israel’s right to life, but the prevailing Christian sentiment in those tension-filled rooms was directed toward the question of Arab refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Israel was denounced as the aggressor in the conflict and there was general discomfort in being pressed hard by Jews to think differently.

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The Jewish participants in these discussions had not prepared any statements in advance, and yet they were as one in their answers. Every one of the Jewish ecumenists—including Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, perhaps the leading figure in this field—arose in turn and said to the Christians that the existence of Israel was not a negotiable matter for any Jew, and that Jews would regard Jewish-Christian relations in America as greatly damaged if the organized Christian community failed to support Israel’s right to live. It was made very clear that Christian emphasis on the Arab refugees, no matter how correct the argument might be both morally and politically, would be taken by Jews as an evasion or worse, because the effect of such talk, if it was not linked to Israel’s right of existence, would be to encourage the Arabs to remain obdurate. The day had now come when Jews could afford to dispense with good will from the churches if that was the price they might have to pay for their passion for Israel’s existence. (Rabbi Tanenbaum and a number of others, however, did concede that the Jewish ecumenists had been at fault in having failed to make clear to their Christian colleagues in the past that Israel is no less important to the Jews of America than such “diaspora” issues as the Christian roots of anti-Semitism and the theological status of Judaism as a religion.)

These battles were not confined to private meetings. Rabbi Balfour Brickner, speaking at the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the present writer, in a column for the National Catholic Reporter, said similarly sharp things in public. Brickner and I were answered in a very tough article by Mon-signor George Higgins, the executive secretary of the American Catholic hierarchy. Higgins, who had personally been courageously and consistently pro-Israel, was angered by Jewish pressure on the Church as a whole to take such a stand, and he accused Brickner and myself of trying, in the name of our ecumenical ties, to blackmail the Church into supporting Israel.

At the very least, these passions and counter-passions are shaking some of the ecumenical bridges that Jews have been building in the last few years. The issues of Arab refugees and the Old City of Jerusalem will go on being debated, and will continue to have a palpably different weight in the thinking of Christian establishments than they will for Jews. Not even the hardest of hardliners in Israel—and certainly no Jew in America—doubts that Israel has a responsibility to make a large contribution to the solution of the Arab refugee problem. No one denies the international interest of all the major faiths in all the holy places. Nonetheless, American-Jewish opinion is overwhelmingly convinced that these matters can be dealt with only as part of a larger peace settlement. Many Christians, the Pope among them, are being very precise in their concern about the Old City and the Arab refugees, and very vague in their concern for Israel’s safety and peace. American opinion as a whole is going to be divided in the months ahead over how the crisis should be settled. The likelihood is that the Jews of America will be arrayed in overt battle, not only with known adversaries, but even with some of their friends. The American Jewish community today seems not to be afraid of such a confrontation.

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The main outlines of the effect that the Middle East crisis has had on American Jewry are, then, relatively clear. It has united those with deep Jewish commitments as they have never been united before, and it has evoked such commitments in many Jews who previously seemed untouched by them. Very large numbers of American Jews now feel their Jewish identity more intensely than they have for at least a generation, and they are much less worried than ever before about what the rest of the world might be thinking of their feelings or of the actions through which they have been expressing these feelings. This crisis has forcibly reminded many, perhaps most, American Jews that the posture and destiny of Jews in the world continue to be quite unique and that Israel is not a state like all other states. Thus for the moment, at least, the organized Jewish community in America has a different look about it. It is enlarged and refreshed in numbers and its courage and resolution are high. It will yet have to grapple with the problem of maintaining connection with all the new or relatively new people who worked as Jews at the height of the crisis. Whether it will be able to do so is not at all certain.

Any estimate of what this transforming moment might mean for the future of American Jewry must necessarily rely on an assessment of the factors that underlay the responses we have been examining. Here one can only guess, but I would say that the most widespread influence—on Jews in Israel and America alike—was a revulsion against the passivity of the Jewish victims of the Nazis. “Good” Jews have been largely arguing since 1945 that this passivity was a distinctively Jewish form of heroism, but it is now apparent that many who have interpreted it in this way never really succeeded in convincing themselves. Now, confronted by a threat to Israel’s existence, Jews almost universally felt that precisely because of the horrifying prospect that Israel might go down, let it go down fighting. A related element was the memory of Jewish conduct in the United States and, for that matter, in England during the years of World War II. These two communities had made little dent on Roosevelt and Churchill, because Jews were not then bold enough to engage in a vehement confrontation with the two war leaders over the parochial destiny of the Jewish people. The response to the Middle Eastern crisis was a way of saying that, come what might, Jews would not repeat such conduct.

But Israel evoked more in American Jews than a sense of moral reparation for the memory of the passive victims of mass murder. The sense of belonging to the worldwide Jewish people, of which Israel is the center, is a religious sentiment, but it seems to persist even among Jews who regard themselves as secularists or atheists. There are no conventional Western theological terms with which to explain this, and most contemporary Jews experience these emotions without knowing how to define them. Perhaps the point can best be made by recounting an incident. Two days after the end of the war there was a major gathering in New York of Jewish leaders from all over the country, many of whom, as I happen to be able to attest, are remote from the synagogue. Yet when the meeting was concluded with a very simple recitation of the blessing in which we thank God for “having allowed us to live and be present to witness this day,” almost everyone in the room wept.

At the deepest level, the American Jewish response was the result of a paradox. Jacob Klatzkin once observed that Theodor Herzl could not have arisen directly out of the East European ghetto. What made Herzl possible, in his bold openness about the situation of the Jews and his straight-backed stance before the powers of the world, was two generations of assimilation in Central Europe. The Jewish community has now undergone two generations of comparable acculturation in America. Because Jews are now so very much at home in America, more at home than Herzl ever was in Budapest or Vienna, it was possible for them in this crisis to be boldly Jewish in very angular ways. Perhaps it did not quite happen ten or twenty years ago because Jews were then more nearly an immigrant group.

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It is possible to believe that the Middle East crisis of 1967 occurred at precisely that moment in the history of American Jews when an ascending curve of nearly complete outer and inner emancipation intersected with a descending curve of Jewish commitment. If this is so, then such a moment is not likely to recur, for these two forces will diverge ever more widely as the years go by. It is, however, also possible, on the evidence now at hand, to take another view. Israel may, as some Zionist theoreticians predicted a Jewish state in Palestine would, now be acting as a very strong focus of worldwide Jewish emotional loyalty and thereby as a preservative of a sense of Jewish identity. There is some reason for thinking that American Jewish education, despite all its inadequacies, has played a significant role in implanting an often deeply hidden Jewish loyalty in many younger people (and most now receive some Jewish training). Perhaps the force of Jewish commitment and the attractions of the almost completely open society are on the point of reaching an equilibrium which might endure indefinitely or even permanently. If that is the case, then the American Jewish community is realizing, at last, the two-centuries-old hope of the Jewish emancipation: that Jews and their Jewish loyalties could survive and even find new space in which to express themselves in a free society.

Which of these two interpretations is right I do not know, but in either case it is clear that the Middle East crisis represented a lightning flash which has illumined the landscape of the American Jewish future.

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