In an opinion piece recently published in Haaretz, two American Jewish historians, Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld, bemoan the loss of an Israel that they once held dear. Diner describes her past love as a “nave delusion.” Feld describes hers as the product of “propaganda.”
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Others have ably refuted the facile arguments that Diner and Feld put forth. It is disappointing to see tired slogans about “colonialism,” “racism” “imperialism,” and “ethnic cleansing,” repeated by respected scholars, without any reference to the well-known literature that challenges and nuances these incendiary claims.
Perhaps that is what happens when American Jewish historians venture far from their area of expertise.
Where Diner and Feld do reflect larger currents is in their admission that they grew up loving Israel more than they actually understood it. Indeed, as I argued back in 1988 as part of a symposium in Commentary Magazine, “The Israel of American Jews -- the Israel that they imagined in their minds, dreamed about, and wrote about -- was for well over a century a mythical Israel, an Israel that revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities.”
Years ago, some in America depicted Israel as a “holy” land, a land where desperately poor and scrupulously faithful Jews engaged in prayer and study; a land, in short, where the material life, values and practices of Jews were precisely the reverse of American Jews’ own.
Later, alongside this image, a new one arose: the image of the bold desert pioneer, the hard-working agricultural colonist, the brawny Jewish farmer -- the answer, in other words, to those who claimed that Jews were merely parasites, racially incapable of "productive" labor.
Finally, in the 20th century, Zionists like Louis D. Brandeis added a further twist to this image: Israel became for them an extension of the American dream, a Jewish refuge where freedom, liberty, and social justice would reign supreme, an "outpost of democracy" that American Jews could legitimately, proudly, and patriotically champion.
All of these images, whatever truth they may have contained, took on mythic proportions in America. They embodied American Jews' hopes and fantasies, responded to their psychological and emotional needs, and helped them to counter the malicious slurs of their enemies.
Many American Jews, including, one suspects, Diner and Feld when they were young, began to look upon Israel as an embryonic heaven on earth.
It became for them what the Soviet "socialist paradise" had been for some of their parents: a kind of Jewish utopia, a place where their fondest hopes and dreams might be realized.
It is no wonder that those dreams were eventually punctured (though Feld’s use of the term “reeducation” carries more sinister associations). Nor is it surprising that, in response, some American Jews – and not just Diner and Feld -- have exchanged their utopian myths for demonic ones.
In Diner’s case, for example, she now contends that “the death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity has impoverished the Jewish people.”
Having written a book about the aftermath of the Holocaust, she knows perfectly well what actually caused “the death of vast numbers of Jewish communities.”
But when dreams give way to disappointment, even professional historians sometimes sacrifice truth to advance their newfound ideology.
Diner and Feld do not claim to represent the entire field of American Jewish history, and readers should be careful not to draw any such inference. American Jewish historians, like the people they study, actually adhere to a full spectrum of views concerning Israel.
Personally, although I by no means agree with every one of the Israel government’s policies (I do not agree with every policy of the government of the United States either), I greatly admire Israel’s accomplishments and visit as often as I can.
Nor, in my experience is “Jewish Studies a difficult space in which to criticize Israel.” As Diner and Feld surely know, the policies of the current Israeli government are far more commonly criticized in Jewish Studies circles than they are defended.
What then can we learn from Diner and Feld? It would be a mistake to see their column as evidence of further “distancing” from Israel. Diner tells us that she crossed her “personal rubicon” in 2010 and Feld’s 2014 book suggests that her anti-Israel animus dates back at least as long.
What is new, thanks to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, is the pride that Jewish leftists now take in publicly dissociating from support of Israel. Their sense, perhaps based on the strength of that movement, is that they “are a part of something much larger.”
My own sense, based on history and experience, is that Diner and Feld’s current view is at least as much a “nave delusion” as the earlier one that they rejected.
Sadly, instead of drawing serious, nuanced, scholarly lessons from history, they have provided us with just what they claim Israel’s supporters once gave them: propaganda.
Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, where he chairs the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. His most recent book, Lincoln and the Jews (with Benjamin Shapell), has just appeared in a Hebrew edition from Dvir.