The first sentence in a Wall Street Journal article published today on Israel’s efforts to deal with illegal immigration from Africa via its border with Egypt describes Israel as “a country established to absorb Jewish refugees after World War II.” In its small way, this phrase points to the essential problem of a century of Zionist advocacy in the United States.
This problem was evident in the career of Louis Brandeis, the first prominent American Jewish advocate for Zionism. Already a famous lawyer when he assumed leadership of the Zionist movement in the United States in 1914 (a reputation that would bring him to the Supreme Court in 1916), he gave the movement a tremendous boost in American renown and credibility.
But Brandeis brought with him an insistence that Zionism had nothing to say for American Jews. The establishment of a Jewish state would for him be a refuge for Jews lacking the means or ability to get to a place like the United States where their rights would be assured. So it was that principally along these
lines – Zionism as a refuge for the persecuted and impoverished Jews of Europe and elsewhere and little else besides – that the Zionist case was made by
American Jews before World War II.
The Holocaust only strengthened this line of argument, making the rhetoric of security and refuge irresistible. The same kind of thinking behind Brandeis’ Zionism remained evident in the important exchange of letters between the American Jewish Committee leader Jacob Blaustein and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1950. In them, Blaustein underlined the view that Israel was a “home” for “hundreds of thousands” of Jews from “Europe, Africa, and the Middle East,” but that “home” for American Jewry was the United States, and it was there that they found “freedom” and “security,” not a continuation of “exile.”
This thinking, whether from Brandeis, Blaustein, or the many other Jews they and other American Jewish leaders have represented, seems determined by the fear that defining Israel as the Jewish homeland puts into question their standing in their country of citizenship. Effective American Jewish Israel advocacy has largely been built in the last 50 years on the avoidance of this fear. It was and is far easier to invoke the Holocaust, to claim no more than “Israel is our insurance policy,” as the protagonist in the 2010 movie “Barney’s Version” learns.
No wonder then that the message Americans hear, whether the writers and editors of a “friendly” newspaper like the Wall Street Journal or the current American president, is exactly what we tell them: Israel’s foundation is Jewish persecution, and its establishment was and remains based on providing those Jews unlucky enough not to have landed in the United States freedom and security.
It would be foolishly easy today to criticize the fears for acceptance of Jews living in the immediate era of Russian pogroms and German Nazism. But Jewish acceptance in America is now something that is itself well-established. Long past time then for America’s Jews to start telling our fellow citizens that Israel
was established as the expression of the Jewish right to self-determination in our historic homeland, and not merely as a refuge.