Writing in the aftermath of the 1967 War, a conflagration that redefined the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, the then-editor of Commentary and budding neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz succinctly summed up the moment when he quipped : “Thus did Israel now truly become the religion of American Jews.” Reflecting on the 1967 moment, also in the pages of Commentary, the prominent Jewish-American spiritual leader Rabbi Arthur Herzberg cited one contemporary poll that found that 99% of American Jews “undeviatingly supported the Israeli position” that fateful June. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, writing on its 40th anniversary, likewise noted the milestone that “The Six Day War made us all Zionists.”
- Gaza Requiem: Six Remarks on Image, Perceptions, and Four Dead Palestinian Children
- Amid Gaza Escalation, U.S. Jews Rally Around Israel From Afar
- David Broza Sings for Peace, but the Message Is Lost on Diaspora Jews
- U.S. Condemns Israel's Settlement Expansion Plan in Jerusalem, West Bank
- Union for Reform Judaism Denounces Israel’s Decision to Expand Settlements
- The Dangerous Myopia of American Jewish Leaders
- Israel's Leaders' Defiance of Reality Is the Real Danger
- Feiglin: Israel's Clear and Present Danger
- Rabbi Cherlow's Amazing Journey Outside the Israeli Orthodox Ghetto
- U.S. Jews: Don't Fall Into the Trap of Fatalism
If it seems clear that the 1967 war marked a turning-point for Jewish-American engagement and validation in respect of Israel, since then, such activity and unanimity has declined, especially since the 1990s. However, that historical sense of unity returned during the latest skirmish between Israel and Gaza, which may have been the least contentious battle for the hearts and minds of American Jewry since 1967.
In terms of the mainstream U.S. Jewish community, Operation Pillar of Defense was a 1967 redux: it was perceived as another cosmic drama played out over synagogue pulpits, televisions, and radio, but this time with the addition of email alerts, twitter feeds, and Facebook posts. Across the United States, spontaneous informal demonstrations of support appeared alongside missives and assemblies directed by the organized Jewish community. While the diversity of Jewish organizations and institutions in the American Jewish community is much greater than in years (and wars) past, peacetime quarrels were seemingly set aside for the week. Here in Boston, the Combined Jewish Philanthropy-mobilized Rally to Support Israel: Freedom from Fear on Monday November 19th was co-sponsored by no less than 35 partner organizations, including synagogues representing the three major Jewish denominations, Zionist organizations - from the Jewish National Fund to J-Street - and two Christian-Jewish interfaith groups.
In fact, the nature of the most recent Israeli-Palestinian encounter — with Hamas’s wanton targeting of Israeli non-combatants and an air-based military campaign that avoided the stunning casualties of a ground invasion — flattened some of the agonizing debates that accompanied Israel's Cast Lead offensive in 2008, and allowed the American Jewish community to unify around a relatively modest common denominator of self-defense and human rights for innocent civilians. Unlike four years ago, there was less preoccupation with the motivations for the strike (especially after President Obama’s declaration of Israel’s right to defensive maneuvers) and the morality of its consequences in terms of large and mostly Palestinian civilian casualties and destruction of homes, businesses, and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Yet, as rockets rained and bombs fell on homes, schools, and businesses in both Israel and Gaza, cracks emerged in – to twist Lincoln’s phrase - the foundation of the Jewish community’s 'house united'.
The first salvo occurred far away from Ashkelon at the interdenominational Marcus Jewish Community Center in Atlanta, which decided to retroactively un-invite the American Jewish community’s favorite whipping-boy Peter Beinart from its annual Jewish book festival on the first day of the war. Rushing to his defense was none other than arch-rival Daniel Gordis, who decried the boycott and charged American Jewry with having “utterly abandoned the intellectual curiosity that has long been Judaism’s hallmark,” questioning, “are we not ashamed to have created a community so shrill that any semblance of that Talmudic curiosity has been banished? Has the People of the Book really become so uninterested in thinking?” (Beinart, who penned a number of unremarkable — other than in their bending-over-backwards for balance — columns that should have raised no-one’s eyebrows over the course of the week, was subsequently engaged by another Atlanta-based Jewish group for an appearance and seemingly emerged from the latest conflict with his pre-Atlanta reputation unscathed.)
Yet Gordis, the scion of (big C) Conservative Jewry no sooner disengaged from the Beinart brouhaha before launching his own attack on Rabbi Sharon Brous, the L.A. based spiritual leader of the IKAR movement, charging her with failing to instruct her followers to pick a side in the Manichean struggle in the political space of Israel-Palestine. Her rebuttal, in turn, accused him of “lowering the bar” of Jewish-Zionist “betrayal”, by interpreting the human empathy she had publicly expressed for suffering Palestinian civilians as equivalent to an act of disloyalty. Other Jewish-American intellectuals chimed in, in one case chiding Gordis for “moral absolutism.” But however intense this debate was, it was a limited phenomenon, whose voices were restricted to a small coterie of LA-based Jewish intellectuals and leaders of Conservative Jewry, and soon faded from the self-referential headlines into an inconclusive stalemate by the end of the war.
Gordis was roundly criticized for inconsistency in starting the week pleading for pluralism (on behalf of Beinart) and ending it with a call for exclusive partisanship (on behalf of Israel). This charge appears somewhat myopic, when you consider his career as a moderate, and his palpable frustration in choosing sides in an asymmetric morality contest. However, the notion that some in the U.S. Jewish community could charge him of being both a left-winger and a right-winger in the same week, mostly tells us of a Jewish America that has little understanding of where it itself stands, or of the complexity of the issues and personalities involved. The organized Jewish communal strategy may have been to “stand with Israel”, but this began to feel an increasingly empty slogan when there had been so little substantive discussion of what the community and Israel stands for and against.
Instead, as in previous conflicts, American Jewry spent the high-stakes week staggering from one end of the universalism/particularism spectrum to the other, weighing humanistic impulses with narrower loyalties – or, put otherwise, global culture against Zionist-Jewish concerns -hoping and praying to strike the right balance as the real war continued.
Once the dust settles, the American Jewish community will inevitably return to the status quo ante, hoping that somehow the Gordian (if not the Gordisian) knot can be unbound. So the Beinarts and Brouses will battle on, although the debate mostly rages by and for an aristocracy of engaged American Jews in its elite salons and Jewish media outlets and the broader Jewish-American public is forced to fight the war for its soul on its own. At least in the case of younger American Jews, the debate is less about a house divided over Jewish universalism and particularism, but is more basic than that: In regards to Israel, there just isn’t anyone at home.
Fortunately or unfortunately - for both American Jews and Israel - the Israel-Gaza conflict did little to fundamentally alter American Jewish attitudes towards Israel or themselves. The moral calculus of the latest encounter required less soul-searching on the part of American Jews than in 2008, but, nevertheless, the Jewish-American house (and its houses of worship) remain divided over the question of humanist-universalism and particularism, in the form of special engagement with Israel.
The tremors may have been almost imperceptible, but if the American Jewish community does not reconcile the very real conflict in the war of ideas, both in the external conflict between dueling Israeli and Palestinian narratives during the conflict, and in the internal clashes between assimilation, humanism and a ghettoization that explicitly prioritizes the Israeli narrative, the community won’t know what it stands for when the next crisis comes - or whether it can stand together at all.
Dr. Sara Hirschhorn is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her dissertation, '"City on a Hilltop: The Participation of Jewish-American Immigrants Within the Israeli Settler Movement, 1967-1987," is now available on Proquest.