Controversial commercials highlight historic balancing act between Israel and American Jews
David Ben Gurion: 'In the free and prosperous countries, Judaism faces the kiss of death, a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.'
Jacob Blaustein might be the richest and most important American Jew many of you have never heard of. He has been so thoroughly forgotten that Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry under his name, the digital age equivalent of being expunged from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
Nonetheless, although he died over 40 years ago, Blaustein continues to exert great influence over American Jewish history, especially on days when three commercials of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption touched a raw nerve and sparked such a lively debate about Israel-Diaspora relations (until they were pulled).
Blaustein was a towering titan of industry who, together with his father, Louis, created what was once the world’s biggest oil supplier, Amoco. He was a close confidant of President Harry Truman and often served as his diplomatic emissary. He was President of the American Jewish Committee during the establishment of the State of Israel and for many years thereafter. And, together with his surprisingly close friend, David Ben Gurion, Blaustein was the chief architect of a historical Jewish “Concordat” that has shaped and governed the delicate and complex relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community ever since Israel was born.
If he were alive today, Blaustein would probably be at the forefront of those who so vigorously protested against the commercials aimed at persuading Israeli expats to return home. He might have gotten on a plane, as he did several times during the 1950’s, to complain to the prime minister that Israel was violating the terms of the modus vivendi that he had carved out with Ben Gurion soon after Israel declared its independence. He might have gone so far as to threaten that American Jewry would unilaterally abandon this agreement, as he did in early 1961 after Ben Gurion told the 25th Zionist Congress in no uncertain terms what the commercials at the eye of the current storm have only subtly implied, if at all: “Those who are devoted to Judaism must see the danger facing Diaspora Jewry courageously and with open eyes. In the free and prosperous countries, it faces the kiss of death, a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation”.
This was no Israeli boy calling his father “daddy” instead of “Abba”, like he does in the commercials, nor a boyfriend perplexed by his Israeli girlfriend’s preoccupation with Yom Hazikaron and not even teary grandparents who don’t know it’s Christmas time at all until they are told by their Israeli grandchild in America. This was Ben Gurion, at his most characteristically blunt, expounding on the basic Herzlian Zionist tenet of “negation of the Diaspora”, sending American Jewish leaders into a tizzy and getting Blaustein on a plane to Israel to sort things out and put them back on track.
The deal between the two, first reached in 1950 in what came to be known as “the Ben Gurion-Blaustein Exchange” was, in essence, a Jewish cease fire between what many have described as the modern-day equivalents of Jerusalem and Babel. In exchange for dropping the then non-Zionist and often antagonistic posture of the American Jewish Committee towards Israel, and thus enabling American Jewry to unite in financial and political support for the newly-established state, Ben Gurion agreed that Israel would refrain from speaking on behalf of the Jewish people, would recognize that American Jews owe their allegiance only to the government of the United States, would accept the legitimacy of American Jewry, would refrain from campaigns aimed at encouraging wholesale Jewish emigration to Israel and would even stop using the world “aliyah,” to ascend, as that implies a superiority of the Israeli-Jewish existence.
Ben Gurion agreed to the deal, which ran contrary to his core beliefs, because of the pragmatic need to enlist Jewish and American support in the fight for Israel’s existence (as well as his Machiavellian wish to outflank his main rival for global Zionist leadership, Nahum Goldmann by negotiating with the non-Zionist Blaustein). But Ben Gurion repeatedly violated his own promises, for reasons of political posturing but also because they were so difficult for him to swallow - only to retract his words whenever Blaustein found out.
Thus, in the wake of his inflammatory “kiss of death” and “abyss of assimilation” statement, Ben Gurion was forced to reconfirm his 1950 “exchange” with Blaustein in an even more formal 1961 “Ben Gurion–Blaustein Agreement” – mainly because he wanted Blaustein to speak on Israel’s behalf to President John Kennedy, who was then contemplating potentially harmful measures concerning Israel’s nuclear industry and the return of Palestinian refugees.
And even though Ben Gurion was accused by his detractors of agreeing to a Faustian sell-out to American Jews, the blueprint he concluded with Blaustein worked out reasonably well for both sides, despite occasional glitches, though it has also undergone gradual but ultimately significant changes. Blaustein, for example, would have been horrified to hear Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declare, as he did in his speech before Congress in May of this year, “I speak on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Blaustein had specifically demanded, and Ben Gurion had agreed, not to speak “on behalf of the Jewish people”, lest this buttress the accusations of “dual loyalty” regularly hurled by anti-Semites at American Jews.
As for the concept of Israel as a “Jewish state”, which has now become such a central demand in the Israeli and Jewish discourse on the peace process, it is indeed ironic that Blaustein’s representatives from the American Jewish Committee, who had been invited to voice their opinion on various aspects of a constitution that Israel had sought to enact when it was established, actually boasted of their success in removing the term “Jewish state” from the final drafts of the constitution – that was never enacted - and replacing it with the term “State of Israel.”
‘Bring them back home’
As for the commercials themselves, and the surprisingly vehement reaction to them, I am of two minds. On the one hand, the Americans who objected, including the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, do “protest too much,” as Gertrude says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, possibly because some of the situations portrayed in the commercials hit too close to home; possibly because the protestors fail to acknowledge or comprehend that Israelis who have immigrated abroad may indeed be prone to faster assimilation than American-born Jews; and just possibly because this is a good opportunity as any to vent some pent up anger at the current Israeli government without being automatically accused of “aiding Hamas and Hezbollah” or some such chauvinistic drivel.
On the other hand, one cannot ignore the insularity and self-centeredness that makes a growing number of Israeli politicians, government officials and opinion makers obtuse or oblivious to the effects of their actions on world public opinion, in general, and American Jews, in particular. Despite being forewarned, for example, so many members of the Knesset either couldn’t comprehend or couldn’t care less that the recent wave of anti-democratic legislation introduced to the Israeli parliament might alienate large swathes of liberal-minded American Jews.
Indeed, sometimes one suspects that for members of Israeli’s current ruling coalition, many of whom hail from distinctly non-democratic backgrounds and represent expressly anti-democratic constituencies, the estrangement and perhaps even the exclusion of American or Israeli Jews who support “leftist” policies or espouse “liberal” values (such as “human rights”, in quotation marks) is not simply “collateral damage” in the pursuit of loftier ideological goals – it is the end itself, the desired result, the outcome that they had intended to achieve in the first place.
As some of the reactions in Israel’s right-wing and religious blogosphere in the past 24 hours made abundantly clear, even if that was not their original intention, the misunderstood television commercials could still achieve a righteous aim by distancing “assimilationist” Jews from Israel and thus advancing the sacred goal, inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 23, to “let our camp be pure,” Amen.
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