For decades, the slogan for the United Jewish Appeal (the pro-Israel Jewish philanthropic group now known as the Jewish Federations of North America) was “We Are One!” That phrase represented the assumption that American Jewish identification with the struggle to create, build, and defend the state of Israel was not merely strong, but a product of a consensus that was not up for debate. And for the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and lived through the traumatic weeks prior to the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, that was largely the case.
Since then, pride in Israel’s achievements has seemingly waned. In the synagogues and community centers that once pledged their support for the Jewish state during times of crisis, bitter criticisms are now more common than praise. The belief that Israel is mistreating the Palestinians and has erected obstacles to peace has become an article of faith among many if not most American Jewish liberals. Also undermining the notion of solidarity is the resentment felt by the non-Orthodox denominations about the lack of religious pluralism in Israel.
Increasingly, American Jews look at Israel with the same disdain and lack of comprehension that urban liberals harbor toward red-state America. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that Barack Obama, who retained the loyal support of Jewish voters, was highly unpopular in Israel while Donald Trump—who is despised by the overwhelming majority of American Jews—is liked by a clear majority of Israelis.
Nor is the breakdown of the relationship a one-way street. Israelis, who have as a general rule always taken a dim view of the Diaspora, now regard their American cousins with equal distaste. Israelis look at American Jewish critiques of Israel’s security and peace policies as uninformed and naive. American complaints about the Israeli government’s not officially recognizing Reform and Conservative Judaism are dismissed as irrelevant since Israelis consider both to be marginal and essentially foreign movements.
Israeli and American Jewry are not only increasingly at odds but also mutually ignorant of and indifferent to each other’s concerns. This has created a sense of crisis in the organized Jewish world. Israel—the issue that once unified Jewry—has become the most divisive matter it faces.
How to explain the long descent from “We Are One” to the current red-state/blue-state debate between the two communities and how to fix this problem is the purpose of Daniel Gordis’s We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.
Gordis, a scholar who moved to Israel from America decades ago, helped create Shalem College, the first true liberal-arts college in the Jewish state, deserves credit for providing the most intelligent and thorough examination of this rift yet to appear in book form. But unfortunately, he is no more able to provide a formula for repairing or at least diminishing the growing gap than were the less astute commentators who’ve tried before.
Gordis, significantly, debunks the popular claim that the main reason for the divide is disillusion over Israeli policies. His book begins by citing a column by former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas whose headline sent the following warning to the Jewish state: “Sorry, Israel. U.S. Jewry just isn’t that into you.”
Like many on the left, Pinkas claimed that Israel’s illiberal politics had rendered it unattractive to North American Jewry. But Gordis’s book dismantles this argument. Indeed the greatest myth about the relationship between these two communities is that it didn’t start to fray until Israelis began electing right-wing governments, building West Bank settlements—which allegedly made peace with the Palestinians impossible—and ignoring the demands of the liberal denominations for equal treatment.
Even in the heyday of the “We Are One” campaigns, the slogan was more aspirational than descriptive. The assumption that American Jews were always steadfast proponents of Zionism and became disillusioned only by the ascendancy of the Likud (especially during Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented run as prime minister) is simply untrue. When placed in the context of the history of the modern Zionist movement that stretches back to 1898, those periods of greatest enthusiasm for Israel on the part of American Jews—specifically the reaction to the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973—were more the exception than the rule.
The difference between these two Jewish tribes goes far deeper than politics or even religion. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the two nations were founded for very different reasons, and they embrace fundamental beliefs that are in some ways poles apart. The same is true about their visions of the role of Judaism or religion itself in the life of the two countries. As Gordis rightly points out, the American Jewish problem with Israel is not with what it does but with what it is.
The two countries are bound together by support for democracy and are natural allies in the context of the contemporary Middle East, where all other countries are ruled by authoritarians and theocrats. But there is a profound difference between the American experiment in democracy, which is avowedly non-sectarian, and a nation-state whose purpose is to provide a secure home for one specific people that has been persecuted for 20 centuries. The United States is rooted in universal values that seek to break down the barriers between peoples and faiths. Like most other nations on the planet, Israel is an expression of particularism. Its priority is to reconstitute and defend Jewish sovereignty in the ancient homeland of the Jews and not to be the last and best hope of all mankind.
The inherent tension in a state whose purpose is sectarian but also democratic and respectful of religious and ethnic minority rights is a perennial theme of Israeli debates. But even in its most idealized form, a particularist project such as Zionism has been a difficult sell for American Jews. Their status as the freest, wealthiest, and most powerful community in the history of the Diaspora is based on a love affair with the American constitutional order. That Jews are so at home in the United States and, despite the reality of anti-Semitism, have almost never (there were rare instances early in U.S. history) suffered official discrimination from the state, is the living proof that American exceptionalism is no myth.
But that happy state of affairs has caused the overwhelming majority of American Jews to view sectarian concerns as inherently antithetical to their well being—and possibly racist. Having found a home in which they were welcomed and granted free access to every sector of society, it is unsurprising that they have difficulty coming to terms with an avowedly ethno-religious state whose raison d’être is so different. Indeed, with non-Orthodox Judaism having embraced social justice as its primary focus, the American Jewish ethos, as defined by leading activists and organizations, is bound to be at odds with support for Jewish nationalism.
Though non-Jewish Americans, because of their faith in the Bible, have always been inclined to sympathize with reconstituting a Jewish homeland, American Jewish resistance to Zionism was ferocious in the half-century from its founding to the birth of Israel in 1948. Though two Reform rabbis—Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver—became the leading advocates for a Jewish state in the 1930s and 1940s, the Reform movement was ideologically opposed to any thought of a promised land other than in the United States. Other mainstream groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, were similarly resistant to Zionism.
Even those Jews who did embrace it, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, did so in a manner that contradicted the assumptions of Zionists elsewhere. While classical Zionist thought regarded the negation of the Diaspora as both necessary and inevitable, even Americans who thought of Zionism as central to Jewish identity did not regard themselves as living in exile. The purpose of Brandeis’s Zionism was to support Jews living in less happy lands in their efforts to move to Palestine and create a homeland. American Jews had little intention of going there themselves.
The Holocaust and then the drama of Israel’s creation and early wars effectively squelched anti-Zionist sentiment as an active political force for decades. But that seeming consensus ended once the murder of 6 million Jews—who had no homeland to flee to before there was an Israel—was safely in the distant past. After 1973, the notion of a second Holocaust should the Jewish state suffer a catastrophic military defeat seemed more like science fiction than a source of genuine fear. Thus, the eventual return of the pre-1948 debate about Zionism was inevitable.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that liberalism and nationalism are incompatible. As Gordis aptly notes, Winston Churchill’s efforts to defend Western civilization were not a contradiction of his ardent British patriotism. Similarly, Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky envisioned a state that would be devoutly liberal in its governance while aggressively defending Jewish nationalism with an “Iron Wall” that would eventually wear down its Arab foes. That vision was proven prophetic both by the liberal nature of the Israeli state and Israel’s repeated military successes. Today, in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, we see waning interest in the century-old Palestinian Arab war on Zionism.
But an Israel that is confronted with the arduous and messy problems of conducting a generational war against Islamists and Arab nationalists who reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state was bound to horrify American Jews whose vision of liberalism has little room for particularist nation-states. Cynthia Ozick’s quip that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews” has never seemed more apropos than in the context of the debate about Israel.
There is also an American demographic reality that has undermined support for Israel. The benefits of American freedom and lack of prejudice are as obvious as they are historic. But such realities have also meant an accelerated rate of assimilation and astronomical rates of intermarriage that are fundamentally changing the outlook and character of American Jewry. Among the approximately 90 percent of American Jews who are not Orthodox, nearly four out of five are now marrying non-Jews. The profound Jewish illiteracy of the vast majority of Jews in America combined with their inherent hostility to sectarianism has created a toxic environment. Groups such as J Street that are highly critical of Israel have gained mainstream acceptance, and anti-Zionist groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace and IfNotNow have gained traction, too.
It doesn’t matter how generous Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians or non-Orthodox denominations might be. A Jewish population that no longer regards endogamy as an acceptable goal is bound to take a dim view of a country that specifically defines itself as a Jewish state.
In this regard, a seminal moment came in 2018, when popular novelist Michael Chabon spoke at a graduation ceremony at a Reform seminary. Chabon not only expressed disdain for Israel’s right to defend its borders; he condemned efforts to establish any boundaries around Jewish identity. If American Jews are no longer certain that their survival as a community matters, how can one possibly expect them to regard the interest of Israeli Jews in preserving their state against potent foes with anything but indifference.
To note the demographic implosion of Reform and Conservative Judaism is not to assert that Jewish life and support for Israel among American Jews are on the verge of becoming extinct. Though still a small minority, Orthodox Judaism—whose adherents tend to be supportive of the Jewish state—is growing in the United States. Those elements of the non-Orthodox majority who are resisting the lure of assimilation are more interested in Jewish learning and consequently deeply involved with Israel. But it would be foolish to pretend that pro-Israel activism as expressed by groups like AIPAC is not increasingly alien to most liberal Jews.
Although Gordis’s book gives a thorough account of why the divide is growing, his recommendations for how to counteract this trend offer little hope for those who still seek to recapture the Zionist fervor of the post-Holocaust era.
Gordis is right to point out that both communities need each other. Yet, as he writes, “the roots of the discord are so deep” that they are “too foundational to be engineered.” All he can recommend is that both sides make a fundamental decision to not let the relationship founder and to make an effort to see each other in the best light. This means both sides accepting their differences rather than raging against them. He’s also right to recommend letting go of the expectation that either American Jews or Israelis will somehow magically transform themselves into the other’s mirror image. Each group is the product of experiences and beliefs that are radically different from each other.
These anodyne suggestions should be followed, but the problem is baked too deeply into the identity of the two communities to do more than limit the damage. This provides little comfort, sadly, for those who understand that promoting a common sense of Jewish peoplehood is essential to the Jewish future in both America and Israel. As Gordis correctly argues, the lessons of Jewish history teach us that such divisions can have devastating consequences for a people whose numbers are still small and whose existence, for all of Israel’s vaunted military and economic strength and American Jewry’s influence and affluence, is still essentially fragile.