Of Brothers & Keepers
To the Editor:
Ruth Wisse’s “Forgetting Zion” [October 2008] moves away from her usual well-mastered subject of Jewish literature and into the realm of boilerplate rhetoric about how the Diaspora has an overriding moral obligation to “secure the state of Israel.” What seems to me objectionable in her article is not her defense of the Israeli position from attacks of Arab sympathizers but rather her arrogation of a right to tell American Jews what policies they must espouse if they wish to escape condemnation by “history.”
The rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Arab conflict are not the issue here; one can condemn Arab intransigence without directing American Jewish political and cultural energies to serve the needs of Israel. Jews existed as a strong and vital community before Israel was invented, and can exist with equal vigor apart from Israel. The enormous upsurge of Jewish activity and achievement in America during the last century has owed nothing to Zionism, let alone Israel’s Hebrew culture, and it would be a serious miscalculation to anchor the destiny of American Jews to what happens in the Near East.
Howard M. Kaminsky
Ocean Ridge, Florida
To the Editor:
Ruth Wisse’s article is a disquieting commentary on the state of North American Jewry. Perhaps more worrisome than the existence of anti-Zionist Jews is the lazy thinking of so many who are avowedly pro-Israel. For too many American Jews, support for Israel is merely a matter of correct sentiments; it is sufficient for them to hear from their politicians that they consider Israel an ally. Whether their actual policies are wise for Israel or for America’s overall interests in the Middle East is not examined closely enough. At the same time, many Jews shun the friendship of genuine allies of Israel, like evangelical Christians, because of mere discomfort about their social outlook. Some liberal imagination this shows.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
To the Editor:
Ruth Wisse’s excellent article might have been better titled “Vilifying Zion.” Ours is a time, like no other in Jewish history, when Jews can adopt the stances of their enemies without suffering communal condemnation.
Earlier in the 20th century, there were Jews on the Left and Right who did not support Zionism. Bundists believed that socialism, and not the establishment of a Jewish state, was the solution to the persistence of anti-Semitism after the emancipation of Europe’s Jews. Some Orthodox Jews claimed that there should not be a Jewish state before the arrival of the messiah. But neither group became propagandists for those who attacked Jews in Europe or Palestine.
Many of today’s Jewish “doves” have effectively crossed that line. By designating the “occupation” of Palestinian land as the prime cause of Arab violence against Jews, they legitimize such violence as “resistance.” By echoing the demands that Jewish settlements in the territories be dismantled, “peace activists” endorse the Palestinian goal for a state without Jews. How hypocritical for so-called “liberals,” who in almost every other instance demand that states respect the rights of ethnic minorities.
Nevertheless, the Left has without difficulty been able to spread its message in the Jewish press and within mainstream Jewish organizations. A little while ago, I sat in a crowded Jewish community center watching an Israeli film that portrays Jewish settlers of the West Bank as (in the approving words of the left-wing Israeli commentator Tom Segev) “members of a fanatic, insane, racist, despicable, violent, and racist sect.” Last April, Avraham Burg, the former Israeli cabinet minister who now claims that Israel is an “apartheid” state, spoke at an event held in a national Jewish federation building.
If the present generation of American Jews is going to be judged, as Ruth Wisse suggests, on whether it helped secure Israel, the organized Jewish community is going to have make some dramatic changes in approach. I hope that her illuminating essay will lead to some much-needed soul-searching.
Mamaroneck, New York
Ruth Wisse writes:
I am grateful to my correspondents—Howard M. Kaminsky for illustrating the problem my article described, and Ari Cohen and Martin Krossel for their responses to it.
Mr. Kaminsky believes it is “boilerplate rhetoric” for an American Jew to insist that our highest collective priority is securing the state of Israel. His view of Jewry is both false and mean.
In the first place, if not in the last, Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel has always been the centerpiece of the Jews’ covenantal agreement with God. Which of these statements is likewise “boilerplate rhetoric”? The Lord’s telling Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”? God’s final words to Moses from the summit of Pisgah, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will assign it to your offspring’”? The prophecy of Isaiah, “For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the Lord from Jerusalem”? The Psalmist’s vow, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate . . .”?
How about the grace after meals, “And may You build up Jerusalem, the holy city, rapidly in our lifetimes. You are blessed, Lord, who in His mercy builds up Jerusalem”? The conclusion of the Passover service, “Next year in Jerusalem”? The words of condolence Jews offer in bereavement, “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”? The rabbinic saying, “Dwelling in the land of Israel is equal to all the commandments of the Torah”?
In the second place, no community of Jews ever ceased to mourn the loss of the land of Israel—until in modern times they undertook to reclaim it. Jews indifferent to the fate of the Jewish homeland have simply withdrawn from the historical continuum of the Jewish people. As Messrs. Cohen and Krossel point out, America allows them to express not only their disaffection from but their opposition to Israel. Yet Jewishness teaches, “All Jews are responsible for one another,” which on those grounds alone requires securing Israel, now the largest Jewish community in the world. (The “enormous upsurge of Jewish activity and achievement in America” that Mr. Kaminsky cites is hardly reflected in any fundamental demographic growth.)
I just returned from a memorial service at Harvard’s Chabad House for the victims of Mumbai. There, the local Israeli consul expressed his special grief that his country’s embassy in India was unable to rescue the rabbi who had turned to it for help. How strange is that? Was this not the task of India’s security forces? Apparently, as a matter of course, some Israelis take upon themselves the responsibilities for their fellow Jews that some American Jews decline to shoulder. I can hardly apologize for wishing, or expecting, the burden to be shared.