Why the Relationship Matters

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Daniel Gordis

Contrary to what we often prefer to believe, the current dustup between American Jews and Israel is not a new phenomenon. Yet lest that reassure us, it is also important to recognize why this time may be different, and that what we are now witnessing could be the beginning of a very different kind of relationship.

The troubles began even long before the state of Israel was even created. As early as 1901, just four years after he launched political Zionism with the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl penned a public letter to American Jews. “Today,” he said, “the Zionist movement has spread and received approval all across the world. Everyone recognizes that [Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel] is the only solution to the Jewish question. … The numbers of those formerly distant from us who are now attaching themselves to us is growing most successfully.” A few lines later, though, Herzl’s tone changed. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “that cannot be said of America. America, with its Jewish population growing day by day thanks to Jewish immigration, has not fulfilled its obligation of participating in the Zionist enterprise to an appropriate degree. Friends, brothers, awaken! We need your support, not merely your enthusiasm that emerges from your mass gatherings but then disappears like a whiff of smoke.”

In many ways, European unhappiness with American Zionism only deepened in the decades that followed. When Louis D. Brandeis, then Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, sought to fashion an American Zionism that would not run afoul of the prevailing American ethos that demanded that immigrants leave behind all loyalties to other countries, he spoke of Zionism as the fulfillment of American commitments. “Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so,” Brandeis wrote.
To Chaim Weizmann, however, Brandeis’ formulation constituted virtual treason. What did it mean to be a Zionist who had no interest in living in the country the Zionists wanted to create? Zionism was not about being a better American, believed Weizmann, but about redeeming the Jewish people from the horrors of Diaspora life in Europe and elsewhere. The simmering tensions between Brandeis and Weizmann finally exploded in 1921; Weizmann won the battle, Brandeis was out, and Weizmann later remarked, “There is no bridge between Pinsk [where he had been raised] and Washington, DC [where Brandeis worked].” Genuine Zionism and American Jewish life, Weizmann believed, were fundamentally incompatible.

There were other dustups, such as the famous conflict between David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, then head of the American Jewish Committee, shortly after Israel’s creation. Blaustein was infuriated that Ben-Gurion had begun speaking of Israel as the new center of the Jewish world when it constituted a mere 5% of the world’s Jewish population, and warned the Israeli Prime Minister that if he did not stop pressing American Jews to immigrate to Israel, American Jews would end all support for the fledgling Jewish state. Ben-Gurion folded, but his resentments did not abate; when he and American Jews had another blowup in 1960 after Israel captured Adolf Eichmann, he said in December 1960 at the 25th Zionist Congress, “Judaism of the United States… is losing all meaning” and “in the free and prosperous countries [Judaism] faces the kiss of death, a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.”

That is precisely the view held by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi regularly tells his inner circle that American Jews, most notably the progressives among them, are implacably hostile to Israel, and he will pay them no heed. Nor is there any point in trying to improve the relationship, he feels, because American Jews are going to disappear in a generation or two anyway. When many of us recoil at Netanyahu’s cynical callousness, it is worth recalling that David Ben-Gurion said precisely the same thing some sixty years earlier.

Is our current state of affairs, then, unpleasant but not catastrophic? Will we weather this latest round of verbal hostilities just as we have in the past? I believe that there is no reason to have such confidence; the populations on both sides of the divide have changed too much for that. In America, particularly among millennials, the sense of Jewish fragility that once animated their parents and grandparents is long gone. The Holocaust is ancient history to them; it is worth recalling that the beginning of the Holocaust is now just half as long ago as the end of the American Civil War. They feel none of their grandparents’ shame at not having spoken out more during the War, and the notion that Israel is a fragile, vulnerable state, still battling for its right to exist is utterly foreign to them.

On the Israeli side, senses of both dependability and dependence have also eroded. Israelis no longer have the confidence that American administrations will be supportive; too much happened during the Obama administration, particularly during the 2014 conflict with Hamas (after which American Jews once again voted overwhelmingly for Obama’s second term, Israelis note) for Israelis to feel assured the way that they used to. Nor do Israelis feel terribly dependent on the United States. To be sure, $3B a year in military assistance is a huge benefit, but it is not for naught that Netanyahu is cultivating relationships with China, India, South America and others. Before the US became Israel’s prime ally, that role was filled by France and before France, it was Stalin. Stalin is gone, France’s alliance is long over, and America’s, too, may soon be as well, says Netanyahu. So, he’s looking eastward to emerging powers, preparing for what may be the end of the American alliance.

Bibi may be right that American Jews are instinctively hostile to Israel’s policies; some of that criticism is justified, and much is not. He may be right that Israel can do without the American political support to which American Jews are key; or he may be right that given that there are more evangelicals in the belt between California and Texas than there are Jews in the entire world, he can have that American support via the evangelicals, even if the Jews no longer back him or his state.

Netanyahu’s attitude, though, is a grievously mistaken one. For even if Israel can do without American’s military, economic or diplomatic support, what no other country can provide is the world’s second largest Jewish population (and the Diaspora’s largest). Israel needs American Jews not for their political support, but because a relationship with them is key to Israel’s self-perception of Israel as the State of the Jewish people.

Israel has never fit a neat model of citizens and non-citizens. The Law of Return means that every Jew is, if not a citizen, then a citizen-in-potential. American Jews know that they are not citizens of Israel, yet they sing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, with passion and deep meaning. What other country can point to millions of people who are not its citizens who nonetheless sing its anthem with love? None, I would venture.

For Israel to be a state solely of its citizens, most of whom happen to be Jews, would be a traumatic and devastating diminution in Israel’s sense of self. What makes Israel unique is its devotion and obligation to not just its citizens, but also (in a different way, of course) to the entire Jewish people. The minute that Israel has gone on record that almost half the world’s Jews are of no concern to it, Israelis will find themselves living in a Hebrew-speaking, largely Jewish European country, but nothing more than that. It would be the end of Israel’s mission as we know it.

Theodor Herzl dreamt of a state that would redeem the Jewish people, and he succeeded in launching the movement that created it. He also believed that once a Jewish state existed, anti-Semitism in the Diaspora would disappear. He was utterly wrong about that, but even he could not have seen the way that Israel’s successes and its moments of fragility would alter Jewish life everywhere. It was Israel’s success in 1967 that led Soviet Jews to begin rattling the bars of the cage in which the USSR had long held them. It was rallying around Israel when it was threatened that once gave American Jews a sense of participation in Jewish history in a way no other cause did or could. For American Jews who spend extended time in Israel, the experience remains profoundly transformative, no matter what their political views.

Are we going to give all this up? Will we (on either side of the ocean) be the first generation of Jews to declare that we simply do not care about the fate of almost half of the world’s Jews? Are we so ignorant of Jewish history that we believe we can have any idea which version(s) of Jewish life and in which location(s) will be the one(s) that survive? We dare not succumb to that hubris. Who would have imagined after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE that a small group of Pharisees, but one among many sects, would create the rabbinic Judaism from which we are all descended? When Jews in Palestine heard that Hitler planned to wipe out Polish Jewry, they first laughed. The mere idea was absurd, they said. There were three million Polish Jews, and you can’t simply wipe out three million people. How horribly wrong they were. None of us can know what history has in store for the Jewish people; we will always need each other, no matter how deep our differences.

Healing this rift will take decades of devoted labor. Israelis rightly take great pride in what they have built, but we need to abandon our triumphalism and airs of superiority, and to learn to listen to Diaspora Jews, fully cognizant of its weaknesses but also deeply appreciative of its great accomplishments. And American Jews must stop believing that Israel can be a small America, embodying American values, when Israel was never intended to be a Jeffersonian liberal democracy.

It would particularly serve American Jewish progressives well to ask themselves why even Israeli liberals and progressives do not agree with them, do not take up their causes (like religious pluralism or an abiding embrace of the idea of a two-state solution), and very rarely seek them out as partners. That would require that American Jewish progressives abandon their own hubris and self-satisfaction, just as Israelis must do on their side of the ocean.

For our tenuous but critical relationship to survive, both sides will need to take a step back from the abyss. It is true that we have weathered conflicts between these two communities before, but this instance might be different, simply because of the steady march of history. If that is the case, the Jewish state could become just a state with many Jews, and American Jews could lose their tie to what is without question the most inspiring Jewish development of the last two thousand years.

Such a scenario would leave both sides deeply wounded, and the future of the Jewish people impoverished, perhaps beyond recognition. Before we can work on the fix, though, we must first acknowledge that we face a possibly unprecedented crisis, and that unlike with previous instances of this enmity, there is no guarantee that this time, the dust will settle as we wish it to.

Daniel Gordis is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book on American Jews and their relationship to Israel (Ecco/ HarperCollins, 2019).