Commentary Magazine


Where Is Zion?

To anyone resident in Israel during the months since the Arab uprising (intifada) began in December 1987, or who has followed newspaper accounts of the effects it has had on Israel’s “image” abroad, it will come as no surprise that among those effects has been a conspicuous drop in the numbers of American Jews visiting the country. Some Israeli hotels have reported cancellation rates by American Jewish groups approaching 100 percent. According to one press item, numerous Conservative rabbis, planning to attend an assembly in Israel in July, cancelled their visits because “many rabbis were planning to come with tour groups from their congregations to help cover expenses. But . . . many of these tours are not coming.” The few prominent American Jewish intellectuals who have kept their commitments to participate in conferences and the like have been received in Israel with a gratitude in no way diminished by their own seemingly compulsive desire to bite the hand that (very lavishly) feeds them, by publicly “testifying” against Israeli policies.

Of course, the intifada in its various forms has kept most Israelis too busy to worry about the mysterious absence of their American cousins. But awareness of it grows apace. As one young acquaintance of mine, just back from three weeks of reserve duty (now increased to sixty days a year) in Nablus, asked me sharply: “What are your American Jews, who are always declaring ‘We Are One,’ doing while we are dodging bricks and petrol bombs?”

Some of them, I answered, are dutifully reciting, for the benefit of the great American public, what the Israeli critic Gavriel Ben-Ephraim calls “the Anthony Lewis conjugation, in serialized weekly numbers: Israel will lose its soul; Israel is losing its soul; Israel has lost its soul.” Others, including editors of magazines and heads of large Jewish organizations, are lining up in television studios and in print to explain why their sense of ethical idealism requires that they condemn all Israeli use of force against Arab rioters in the most forceful language they can marshal.

Still a third group—so I told the astonished young soldier—is deeply immersed in considering the special Jewish mission to Gentile America, a mission it defines as nothing less than tikun olam, repairing the universe. The concerns of the earthly Jerusalem, pressing though they may seem to its inhabitants, can hardly be expected to distract those who are building the heavenly Jerusalem in America.

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Now, the idea of America as a new Zion was a prominent theme of the Puritans who built the country; even the enlightened Thomas Jefferson wanted “Israel” on the seal of the United States. But recently this idea has been infused with a specifically Jewish—and also anti-Zionist—energy, and it has found articulate spokesmen in more than one sector of the ideological spectrum of American Jewry.

Thus, in March 1987, a few days after Jonathan Pollard had been sentenced to life imprisonment for spying for Israel, the scholar Jacob Neusner, who usually identifies himself as a political conservative, published an article in the Washington Post designed to show the absurdity of American Jews’ attaching themselves to Israel when they were already walking the streets of El Dorado: “If ever there was a Promised Land, Jewish Americans are living in it.” As it happens, this is the same Neusner who in a 1981 book (Stranger at Home) had written that “American Jewry simply does not add up to much. Its inner life is empty, its public life decadent.” Yet here he was, at a particularly delicate moment in relations between Israel and the United States, praising the cohesiveness, security, prosperity, philoprogenitiveness, and “authentically Jewish voice” of the American Jewish community.

A much more ambitious attempt to relocate Jerusalem in a greener, more pleasant, and more peaceful place than the state of Israel is that of the leftist Leonard Fein, the founder and first editor of Moment magazine and a veteran fomenter-from-within of American Jewish agitation against Israel’s government, especially when that government has been dominated by the Likud coalition. “Where is Jerusalem?” is the crucial chapter in Fein’s Where Are We?,1 a book whose title conveys the sense of befuddlement of someone lost in a troubled universe, a sense that is not belied by the text. Although Fein’s stated subject is “the inner life of America’s Jews,” he can only approach that subject by elaborately disentangling himself from the claims of Zionism or, as he puts it, by constructing a “theory of American Jewish life” that can match that of Zionism, a “coherent ideological view with which to counter the ideological argument for aliyah.”

Why does Fein feel compelled to guide the American Jewish community into spiritual, psychological, and political competition with the Jewish state? The answer is implicit in the anecdote with which the book begins. It is a tale of 19th-century East European Zionists who believed in their moral superiority and in their ability to sustain that superiority in Jerusalem, where they would “prove that even with guns we will not become hunters.” But since that time, according to Fein, and especially “in our generation, the Jews have come to power, in Israel and in America.” So certain is Fein that Jews are now “an empowered people,” an “empowered community,” that he confidently declares, covering both American Jews and their Israeli cousins in a single possessive pronoun, “today it is no longer our physical safety that is the principal item on the Jewish agenda.” Rather, the principal item is “whether, now that we have guns, we are on the way to becoming hunters.” Fein formulates this supreme question in his introduction, and hands down the verdict eighty pages later: it is “now plain” that the Israelis, at least, “have come to hunt, have even perhaps become hunters.” In between, he sets forth his own considered view of “Jews, God, and Judaisms [sic].”

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Fein presents himself as (by traditional standards) a “non-believing Jew” who takes what he likes from tradition; who does not admit the Jews to be a chosen people; who prefers anarchy to authority; who is eager to “reassure” the reader that his “references to God neither presume nor recommend belief”; and who rejects the characteristically Jewish idea of distinction that separates Jew from non-Jew, clean from unclean, man from woman.2 Fein does allow that Judaism is “a religious way,” but he repudiates the notion that there can be “a ‘Jewish view’ of this or that.” His oceanic receptivity to all forms of Jewish experience, “from studying Talmud to marching with the lettuce workers,” calls to mind Joseph Epstein’s severe judgment that “In our age vulgarity does not consist in failing to recognize the fish knife or to know the wine list but in the inability to make distinctions.”

Yet even Fein must draw the line somewhere. He too must show that he can say no to something, and he does. “I have,” he writes, “set ‘us’ against the Orthodox. . . .” Because they have failed to see that “relativism” is the “necessary consequence” of the Enlightenment, the Orthodox force him to speak of “Judaisms, not a single Judaism.” In Fein’s “necessarily” relativistic Judaism, by contrast, “the question of whether or not there was a Revelation at Sinai seems to me considerably less important than the question of whether or not I was there.”

But Fein’s uncertainty over whether or not Sinai “happened” is in any case only a foil for his certainty that Sinai’s place as a starting point for Jewish life has been wrongfully usurped by the double obsession of American Jewry with the Holocaust and with the state of Israel. It is guilt over their “shameful silence” during the Holocaust that in Fein’s judgment fuels the attachment of American Jews to Israel, and it is their feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Zionist claim of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life that ensure the uncritical nature of that attachment. Since, according to Fein, American Jews expect Israel to “sustain our sense of moral distinction,” “we have not written of Israel’s flaws in our journals or spoken of them from our pulpits.” (Is this breathtaking assertion owing to simple amnesia, or to the self-deception that afflicts people incapable of dissenting from the conformity of dissent?)

Fein undertakes to cure his fellow American Jews of their sense of guilt, to remove this major impediment to their reascent to Sinai, by enlisting a distinction advanced by the Zionist thinker Ben Halpern: the distinction between merely geographical exile, or dispersion, and Exile as the symbol of a disordered condition of the universe. The Jews’ physical exile and its theological meaning are by this means psychologized and universalized—“A Jew is also in Exile whether he lives in Boston or in Jerusalem”—into a condition that can never be set right by a simple return to Zion, but only by tikun olam, the repair of the whole universe.

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Here, then, is the real reason why American Jews are not to be seen in Jerusalem: “They stay where they are, reject the return, because they await the larger Redemption.” They reject the earthly Jerusalem for the “Jerusalem that remains a yearning, answer to Exile, home.” Some Israelis, unspiritual beasts that they are, have accused American Jews of falling in love with the fleshpots of the Diaspora. Not so, Fein retorts. Their love affair with Exile is less an attraction to its comforts than a Jewish thriving on “marginality” and “limited liability,” symbolized for Fein by no less a figure than Woody Allen—who, considering his notoriously craven statement of dissociation from Israel in the New York Times last January, could hardly be a more fitting emblem of “limited liability.”

One wonders, indeed, how to square Fein’s celebration of Exile and “limited liability” with his insistence that American Jews are an “empowered community”; for if they are empowered, surely they must take responsibility for something. Are they, perhaps, to be held responsible for the actions of those among their fellow Jews of whom Fein never tires of boasting, as when he writes with pride that “more than half the delegates to the 1965 national convention of SDS . . . were Jews,” and so was Mark Rudd, “and so were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and so were I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse, . . . and so were William Kunstler and Leonard Boudin”? Any nurse who has ever lifted a bedpan has done more for tikun olam than all the world-betterers listed by Fein. This whole sorry discussion should put us in mind of the young idealist who asked Thomas Carlyle how best to go about the task of reforming the world, and was told: “Make an honest man of yourself, and then there will be one rascal less in Scotland.”

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Contemptuous of American Jewry’s “obsession with survival,” insistent on a specifically American Judaism based on “values” congruent with American Left-liberalism, Fein has resurrected for the 1980′s (and more specifically for the election year of 1988) a suitably updated version of the “mission” theology of 19th-century Reform Judaism, according to which the Jews have a moral duty to carry the universal ethical content of their religion to a world that has not yet realized the culture of monotheism. Only that mission, argued the Reformers (in a bogus theology that has been exploded a thousand times over3), justifies the continued existence of Jews as a religion and a culture. For Fein, too, this mission remains the only acceptable raison d’être of future Jewish existence. “It is unlikely the Jews can survive, and it would be unseemly if they did [emphasis added], except as a community organized around values and committed to tikun olam,” he writes in perhaps the most presumptuous formulation in this book.

To this does liberalism always seem to come with respect to the Jews. Only they must serve a higher meaning, a “mission,” if they are to be permitted to carry on. When Orthodox Jews assert, “This is the way,” Leonard Fein is profoundly offended; but he for his part does not hesitate to specify the only admissible grounds for the survival of a people who may, just may, wish to go on living without being able to articulate or “justify” this mysterious urge. “Political activism,” “Lofty utopian ambitions,” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity/Sorority—or Death: such is Leonard Fein’s ultimatum to the American Jewry he has come to rescue from the clutches of Israel.

To recover the real meaning of tikun olam, a meaning grossly distorted not just by Leonard Fein but by a host of current exploiters, one can do no better than to turn to the theologian Emil Fackenheim.4 Tikun, a notion of some intricacy, refers not to the crude utopianism of a Leonard Fein (anyway a mere cover for a highly specific politics) but to a mending of what has been broken, a reunion of ruptured historical and cosmic realities. In To Mend the World (1982) Fackenheim, while eschewing any attempt to “justify” the Holocaust retrospectively, asks what sort of tikun might repair that catastrophic rupture:

What then is the tikun? It is Israel itself. It is a state founded, maintained, defended by a people who—so it was once thought—had lost the arts of statecraft and self-defense forever. It is the replanting and reforestation of a land that—so it once seemed—was unredeemable swamps and desert. It is a people gathered from all four corners of the earth on a territory with—so the experts once said—not room enough left to swing a cat. . . . It is a City rebuilt that—so once the consensus of mankind had it—was destined to remain holy ruins. And it is in and through all this, on behalf of the accidental remnant, after unprecedented death, a unique celebration of life.

This tikun, far from being “parochial” or “particular,” has within it the potentiality of being a true tikun olam, because the Holocaust “called into question not this or that way of being human, but all ways.” It is no exaggeration to maintain that to mend that rupture would be to offer consolation and hope to the whole world.

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Some of the practical consequences of having Jews carry their utopian zeal into the public square have been suggested in a recent debate between Fein and Milton Himmelfarb on “The New Jewish Politics.” (The debate took place at this year’s annual meeting in New York of the American Jewish Committee.) Himmelfarb urged that Jewish voters recognize themselves as, among other things, a special-interest group, and vote accordingly. Noting that in recent electoral campaigns the Democratic party has “conspicuously refused to be anti-anti-Semitic”—by refusing, that is, to utter a word that might be construed as critical of Jesse Jackson—he warned that a failure by Jews to react strongly to such provocation would be “pretty near suicidal for the American Jewish community.”

Fein, for whom Jewish history follows an arrow-straight course from “Sinai” to the left wing of the Democratic party, responded to Himmelfarb by urging Jews “not to vote just on the basis of narrow interests.” (It was, of course, just their ability to rise above their “narrow interests” and give their unstinting support to Franklin D. Roosevelt that led to what Fein himself, in Where Are We?, terms the “shameful silence” of American Jews during the Holocaust; needless to say, this is a contradiction he neglects to explore.)

Himmelfarb’s view of the conflict between Jewish liberalism and Jewish pragmatism in America is expressed more fully in a little volume titled Jews in Unsecular America,5 which contains the edited proceedings of a conference held in 1987 under the auspices of the Center for Religion and Society. Of the many shrewd things Himmelfarb has to say both in his formal address and in the ensuing discussion, perhaps the shrewdest is his insight into the apparently incurable tendency of Jewish liberals to allow ideology to drown prudence and common sense, whether the issue at hand is school prayer, or Israel, or abortion, or welfare. He notes that three out of four Jews polled in 1984 supported government programs of welfare and food stamps, even though two out of three believed that these programs have many bad effects on the very people they are supposed to help. These are Jews whom Fein, using a repellent expression which means exactly nothing, repeatedly calls “caring” people—i.e., do-gooders who think they are doing good when they feel good about what they are doing.

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The conference took off from the premise that any assessment by the Jewish community of its relation to society at large must begin with the recognition that (as the editors put it) America is “incorrigibly and increasingly religious,” and that “the religion in question is overwhelmingly Christian.” The Christian participants in the conference, including evangelicals, genuinely wished to hear Jews speak to them as Jews about their relation to American society. The most striking response to their request for instruction came from Rabbi David Novak, a spokesman for traditional Judaism and—probably to the surprise of many—a spokesman as well for the idea of the “Mission of Israel” within America.

Novak recalls that this Reform idea, at first strengthened among some American Jews because of its resemblance to the “Social Gospel” of certain Protestant groups, eventually lost favor and was discredited because it always trailed obediently after liberal political programs whose outlook was wholly secular. Neither was it helped by the fact that nearly all its advocates were anti-Zionists. But now, Novak maintains, something like the Mission of Israel has emerged among the most traditional Jewish thinkers in America, although they avoid using the slogan.

Whereas the liberal Fein derides traditional Judaism because “it ignores the circumstances, the culture, the consciousness of each generation,” Novak insists not only on its capacity for doctrinal development but on the genuine concern of traditional Jews with the moral and spiritual life of the general society. Although such Jews remember that “the raison d’être of Judaism is not to teach the Gentiles but to obey God’s Torah, whether the Gentiles are interested in it or not,” they are now (he argues) a sufficiently integral part of America to formulate opinions on issues of public debate and thus to help America develop along “ethical and religious lines that are not antithetical to Judaism’s theocratic view—namely, that the revealed Law of God is to be the basic norm for every society.”

Novak sees clearly that the Judaism espoused by the Enlightened Jew, eager to diffuse light among the nations, was not Judaism at all, but the particular mode of egress he had chosen from Judaism: specious theories, seductive utopias, new idols. It is, instead, only by being true to themselves, which for Novak means being true to the recognition that ethics is law and cannot be removed from theology, that Jews can expect to be taken seriously by American Christians and aid in bolstering democracy by means of shared religious values.

Unlike Fein, Novak is thus not impelled to invent a specious theory of American Jewish life, and he is certainly not impelled to do so mainly for the purpose of fending off Zionism. Nevertheless, he too must understand that the very notion of a special Jewish mission in America—even if that mission is defined more modestly, honestly, and cogently than liberals past and present have been wont to do—cannot help drawing Jews away from Zionism and Israel. Where the liberal Jewish missionaries are busy offering prophetic visions of freeing the oppressed and clothing the naked, the traditional Jewish missionaries offer lessons, drawn from experience, about “the danger of depersonalization,” “the danger of deculturization,” the dialectic between faith and history. Neither the one nor the other seems much interested in putting on the “new agenda” (a phrase used with alarming frequency by these writers) that form of tikun olam adumbrated by Fackenheim, a mending of the world that begins in the earthly Jerusalem.

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Meanwhile, as all this missionary activity is being planned by some Amercan Jews for the benefit of their fellow-citizens in the spiritual Jerusalem, the earthly Zion is burning, not metaphorically but literally. Several times in his book Fein subscribes to the metaphor of Jews as “a family,” yet when he quotes his favorite passage from Isaiah 58 he emphasizes only the socially visionary lines about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, not the line that follows them: “And not to ignore your own kin.” To anyone who truly believes that American Jews belong to the same family as Israeli Jews, the text to be pondered today is not Isaiah 42:6 (“I have given you as . . . a light to the nations”) but Song of Songs 1:6: “They made me a keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not kept!”

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Footnotes

1 Harper & Row, 329 pp., $19.95

2 The sexual boundary is particularly galling to Fein, who has tried to placate Big Sister by writing his book in Feminese. Not only does he strive for equal-opportunity pronouns—“his/her,” “he/she”—in dealing with mere mortals; he even urges us “to love God whether or not He (or She, or It) exists.”

3 “Prior to the time of [Moses] Mendelssohn. . . I challenge you to produce a single Jewish text . . . in which the idea of a state of universal social justice is more than a marginal concern or messianic afterthought; and I challenge you to find anywhere the concept of a Jewish mission to help bring about such a state. Nothing in fact could be further from the traditional Jewish mentality, which has always looked upon the Gentile world as an arena of blindly chaotic and idolatrous forces. . . . One might as well seek to pacify earthquakes and floods. In such a view . . . social justice in the world is anything but the proper worry of a Jew.” Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend (1977).

4 For a fuller discussion of Fackenheim's thought, see “Judaism According to Emil Fackenheim” by Robert M. Seltzer, beginning on p. 31 of this issue—Ed.

5 Edited by Richard John Neuhaus and Ronald Sobel, Eerdmans, 120 pp., $8.95.

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