Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2003, pages 64-65

Israel and Judaism

Consensus Grows That Israel as Surrogate Religion for American Jews a Failed Strategy

By Allan C. Brownfeld

In recent years, American Jews have been told repeatedly that the state of Israel is "central" to their identity. Even the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents Reform Judaism, recently adopted "Ten Principles For Reform Judaism" which included the declaration, "We encourage Reform Jews to make aliyah, immigration to Israel."

In fact, the notion that Israel, rather than God, is central to Judaism and Jewish identity is a rather recent idea, and was adopted by Jewish organizational leaders as a strategy to keep American Jews within the fold.

In a thoughtful book, Divided We Stand: American Jews, Israel, And The Peace Process (Praeger, 2002), Professor Ofira Seliktar of Gratz College reports that, after the l967 war, "Making Israel the focus of Jewish identity was a logical choice for a community in search of new self-definition. The spontaneous, emotional and almost universal response of American Jews left no doubt that the ethnic-tribal sentiments written off in the fifties were very much alive. Scholars have noted that, in recalling the war effort, individual Jews and Jewish publications would often use the term Ôwe' as in Ôhow splendidly "we" have fought' or 'how many Arabs did "we" kill?' A rabbi described his congregation overtaken by vicarious heroism: ÔI, the shoe salesman, killed an Arab. I, the heart specialist, captured the tank.' As Kurt Levin, a leading social psychologist, postulated, such a proprietary use of the term Ôwe' denoted interdependence of fate, a key ingredient in ethnic identity."

Dr. Seliktar noted that, "The Ôreethnization' of the community around Israel had a number of advantages. Most importantly, Israel became the lynchpin of the evolving Ôcivil religion' of American Jews. It became the center of Jewish aspirations and an extraordinary resource for revitalized Jewish consciousness. By working for Israel, Jews would reestablish the ethnic-communal bonds that had worn thin in the process of assimilation. So much so that for large segments of American Jewry the Jewish state replaced the synagogue and the Torah as the symbol of Judaism. Irving Greenberg contended that the most widely observed mitzvah was a contribution to the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) and Israel Bonds. Some sociologists argued that nonsupport for Israel was judged to be a more severe form of deviance than intermarriage...The Jerusalem Program adopted by the World Zionist Organization in l968 reaffirmed the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. Among others, the program aimed at preserving Jewish identity through fostering Hebrew education and other contacts with Israel. To this end, there was an increase in the number of Hebrew classes offered by synagogues and Jewish centers, and trips to Israel became a popular form of Ôpilgrimage'...Albert Chernin, the longtime executive of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), declared that in the field of communal relations, Ôour first priority is Israel,' a stunning admission that Ôthe political effort to shore up Israel superseded all other concerns.'"

The Israeli government urged the organized American Jewish community to suppress dissent.

As a strategy of ensuring Jewish "continuity," making Israel "central" to Jewish life has been a dramatic failure. According to a nationwide survey released in October 2002, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews fell by 5 percent from l990 to 2000, the first statistically significant decline in the U.S. Jewish population since l800. There has been much talk of a "demographic crisis." A report issued in May of this year indicated that intermarriage rates in the American Jewish community point to a time when there will be more intermarried than "in-married" households.

Although the notion of making Israel "central" to American Jewish life was embraced almost without debate by leading American Jewish organizations, a number of prominent individuals rejected the idea from the outset.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a respected scholar, was among the first to warn that pro-Israelism could not solve the identity crisis of the community. The United States was a much better place for Jews than Israel, he declared, pointing out the "irony of religious passions being lavished by mainly secular people upon a state, which, like all other states, is a contingent and this-worldly fact."

Daniel J. Elazar coined the term "Israelotry" to denote his contention that American Jews turned to worshipping Israel rather than the God of Israel. Immanuel Jacobovits, the chief rabbi of Britain, bemoaned that, for many Jews, Israel became a "vicarious haven of their residual Jewishness, conveniently replacing the personal discipline of Jewish life." Said Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, "We cannot function as Jews by trying to live a vicarious Israeli experience on American soil." David Clayman, a high-ranking American Jewish Congress official, noted that "fund-raising was the key. You worshiped at the altar of Israel by contributing. Jewish observance was raising money, not going to the synagogue."


When dissenting voices appeared in the Jewish community, the established organizational leadership attempted to crush them. Consider the case of Breira, a group founded in l973 as the Project of Concern in Israeli-Diaspora Relations. The name, meaning "Alternative" in Hebrew, was chosen to denote an alternative approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among those active in this group were Balfour Brickner of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi David Wolf Silverman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Max Ticktin, the associate director of the national B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation.

Breira called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories and a comprehensive peace based on territorial concessions. The moral implication of Breira advocacy was a challenge to the mainstream, since its focus no longer was solely on what happened to Israel but also upon the fate of the Palestinians. The group attracted the attention of major newspapers, leading to headlines that emphasized the willingness of American Jews to publicly criticize Israel. Breira's work with Israeli peace activists and its meetings with Palestinian representatives created sensational news, with some articles pointing to a Jewish "civil war." Alarmed, the Israeli government urged the organized American Jewish community to suppress dissent.

The attacks upon Breira grew. It was denied membership in local Jewish bodies, and individual members, many of them Hillel rabbis, came under intense pressure to quit the organization in order to save their jobs. The group was forced to disband shortly after its first and only national conference in l977.

In Dr. Seliktar's view, "Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the Breira affair related to the issue of free discourse. For a community priding itself on individualism and a democratic tradition, the exercise of collective censorship was highly demoralizing. Critics compared it to McCarthyism, witch-hunt or a communal herem, or Ôostracism,' where Breira activists were proclaimed by most Jewish professional and communal leaders as Ôheretics' (if not traitors). One critic reminded his readers that Old Testament prophets spoke out against their fellow Israelites and their leaders, but had never been branded as traitors. Rabbi Borowitz noted that the need to rally around Israel introduced a new Ôsacred cow'...even mild dissent was seen as sacrilegious...Stifling criticism became synonymous with boundary maintenance, turning the positions on the peace process into a series of litmus tests for communal membership."


At the same time, right-wing groups were forming. Leading the way was the Jewish Defense League (JDL), founded in l968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Bertram Zweibon and Morton Dolinsky. The JDL distributed a book, Battleground: Facts And Fantasy In Palestine, written by Shmuel Katz, the propaganda chief of the Irgun and a close associate of Menachem Begin. Katz contended that the Palestinians were recent arrivals in the land of Israel and did not deserve self-determination.

In 1971 Katz, who became a leader in the Land of Israel Movement, a maximalist Israeli organization, helped to create the Americans for Safe Israel (AFSI). AFSI's goal was to persuade American Jews to reject the land-for-peace formula. One of AFSI's founders, the sociologist Rael Jean Isaac, published a number of bitter attacks upon Breira. Such allegedly "mainstream" groups as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and NJCRAC distributed its publications, including Katz's Battleground.

Ruth Wisse, a professor at Harvard, wrote an article in Commentary denouncing American Friends of Peace Now, drawing a parallel between Nazi and PLO "delegitimation of the Jews" and such leading American Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Moment magazine editor Leonard Fein.

With the rise to power in Israel of Menachem Begin and the war in Lebanon in l982, the idea of American Jewish "unity" with regard to Israel became almost impossible to maintain. Ofira Skelitar notes that, "In June l982, the fault line between hawks and doves, which had been threatening to split American Jewry apart for a decade and a half, broke open...The war had exacerbated the simmering tensions between the tribal-nationalist and the universalist-prophetic wings of the community...the occupation of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacre made it clear to many American Jews that Israel crossed into the perilous territory of an offensive war. Norman Podhoretz asserted that Israel's incursion into Lebanon should be compared to the allied troops who invaded France during World War II in order to liberate it from German conquerors...But the alienation of younger Jews from Israel had implications that went beyond the war in Lebanon, touching as it was on the survivalist imperative of the community...As the demographers and the sociologists argued their case, the role of Israel as a chief agent of Jewish identity came under renewed scrutiny...After the Beirut massacre Rabbi Alexander Schindler stated that Ôthe question for us now is how to take people who have been using Israel as a kind of kidney machine, without which they cannot live, and teach them...that they have worth as Jews independent of Israel.'"

Instead of a source of "unity," preoccupation with Israel became a source of division for American Jews. The outbreak of the intifada shattered any consensus and forced American Jews to engage in the painful process of soul-searching. Emet VeEmunah, the l988 Conservative movement manifesto, proclaimed that the "litmus test of the character of a democratic Jewish state is the treatment of and attitude to religious and ethnic minorities." Argued Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, "We did not survive the gas chambers and crematoria so that we could become the oppressors of Gaza." Tikkun suggested that a prayer for the Palestinian people should be included in the Passover service. Commentator Ze'ev Chafetz wrote: "Judaism doesn't seem to be about anything. It is a holding operation—an effort to wring one more generation of allegiance from people who are no longer sure what being a Jew is all about."

Reform leader Albert Vorspan said that American Jews suffered "shame and stress" because of developments in Israel and wanted to disassociate themselves from the "political and moral bankruptcy" of Israeli policies. Gershon Cohen, a former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, described the pretense of the "centrality of the state of Israel in the life of the Jewish people" as an "absurd shibboleth." Leonard Fein argued that as they "became virtuosos at euphemisms, at excuses and alibis," many Jews had become alienated not just from Israel, but from Judaism itself. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "Israel in the eyes of American Jews has gone in 20 years from substitute religion to a source of religious delegitimation, and from a source of political identity to a source of political confusion."

At a Moment magazine symposium celebrating Israel's 50th birthday, the subject was "Is Israel Still Important to American Jews?" Most of the participants agreed that Israel had become more marginal to the concerns of individual members of the community. A special issue of the Jewish Spectator found that the "gap widens between American Jews and Israel." The American Jewish Yearbook openly focused on the "disenchantment of U.S. Jews from Israel." Even Commentary questioned the depth of the relation. Hillel Halkin summed up the tenor of the debate by noting that about 25 years ago Israel was proclaimed central to the "civic religion of American Jews, today that faith is losing its congregation."

Recent surveys by the American Jewish Committee show a decline in attachment to Israel. Only 25 percent of American Jews said they felt very close to Israel in a l998 poll, and a l998 survey carried out by Steven Cohen for the Jewish Community Center Association found that just 9 percent of the sample felt extremely emotionally attached. When asked about closeness to Israelis, only 8 percent felt very close. Just 20 percent felt it was essential for good Jews to support Israel. Cohen emphasized the "limited extent to which Israel figures in the private lives of American Jews." According to Charles S. Liebman, the postmodern "privatized" form of identity was gaining dominance over the ethnic-communal model centered on Israel. Cohen and Liebman concluded that the ethnically driven "mobilization model" of American Jewish identity that flourished in the l967-77 period had lost its appeal.

Assessing this data, Ofira Seliktar concludes: "Israel has been transformed from a symbol of communal unity and, indeed, the center of its civic religion, to a topic of deep division and much bitterness...In what may be the ultimate irony, the struggle over the Jewish state may hurt the identity and demography of the Diaspora."

In the end, Seliktar believes, those Jews who opposed Zionism and Jewish nationalism at the beginning as being antithetical to the moral and universal Jewish message are being proven correct. Those who argue that Israel is, somehow, "central" to Judaism will have an increasingly difficult time making their case.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.





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1983, Lebanon, U.S. Embassy bombed, 63 killed. Months later, Marine Barracks bombed, 241 killed.

1987, Cassie accepts a job teaching Shakespeare at a private academy near Princeton, to forget memories of her late husband killed at the barracks.

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