Anyone who has paid any attention to the Jews in recent years could not have missed the latest anxiety-inducing truism sweeping through Jewish life: that a rift has developed between Israeli and American Jews, and that it is growing at an alarming pace. Old attachments are fraying, we are told, and the reason is obvious.
Rendered by the left, the thesis goes something like this: Right-wing Israel, locked in conflict and occupation, grates against the moral sensibilities of liberal American Jews. Religiously conservative Israel, in thrall to an increasingly assertive and illiberal religious establishment, regularly insults and even delegitimizes American Jewish cultural and religious life.
There is a right-wing version too: American Jews, living lives of privileged luxury and safety in distant America, cannot comprehend the compromises that a cutthroat Arab Middle East demands from any minority that wishes to survive in it. It is Americans’ profound ignorance of the hard truths of the region, of Israeli history and of the real intentions of Palestinian political movements, and not their liberal values, that is turning them away from Israel.
Though they blame different sides of the rift for its existence, both sides take for granted that it exists, that it’s growing, and that the chief cause is essentially political. An Israel once seen by most American Jews as heroic and necessary no longer meets their political and moral expectations, and that fact — so the locus communis now goes — is tearing the Jewish people apart.
There’s just one niggling little problem with this conventional explanation for the rift: It cannot be true.
American Jewish disquiet over Israel can’t be summed up as a product of diverging views on the Palestinian conflict for the simple reason that it is much older than the conflict. Prominent American Jews have been fretting about Jewish nationalism and military power long before Benjamin Netanyahu bickered with Barack Obama, long before the occupation in the West Bank, and indeed, long before Israel was even founded.
Similarly, Israelis are not, and have never been, sun-tanned versions of their American Jewish counterparts in the vein popularized by Leon Uris’s Exodus. Most Israeli Jews scarcely understand the visceral anxieties they spark in American Jews, and so have little respect for them.
As a new book by American-born Israeli professor and author Daniel Gordis argues, while the political divide may generate the most noise, it is only the most proximate symptom of a much deeper and longstanding divide in how each community thinks about history, religion and identity. The book, “We Stand Divided,” is among the best efforts yet to look under the hood at what divides Israeli and American Jews, and to examine unflinchingly our seeming inability to think and speak clearly about those differences.
When American Judaism became a religion
Jewish tradition is deliberately vague on whether Jewishness is a religious identity or a national one. It may be a little bit of both. Ancient Jewish religious law, for example, allows for a Jew to be created through either birth to a Jewish mother, as in a tribe, or through religious conversion, as in a religion. So which is it? That ambiguity may leave outsiders confused, but it has granted Jewish identity a malleability that allowed it to adapt over two millennia of exile to changing cultural and political environments.
As early as 1885, in the Pittsburgh Platform adopted by the American Reform movement, American rabbis were taking a stand on the question by proclaiming, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community,” and expect “neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” After Theodor Herzl’s founding of the formal institutions of the Zionist movement a decade later, a similar gathering of American Reform rabbis declared, “We are unalterably opposed to political Zionism… The Jews are not a nation, but a religious community… America is our Zion.”
Later on, while an anti-Semitic firestorm engulfed European Jewry, the heads of the rabbinical colleges of all three major US movements — Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University — all pressured their students to avoid the Zionist call. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the skeptical Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, spiritual leader of American Modern Orthodoxy, came to embrace the newly-founded Jewish state.
Across the spectrum of American Jewish religious streams and organizations, the community’s leaders were vexed not by anything Israel had yet done, but by what it was: an attempt to frame Jewishness in purely national terms. It was “a disagreement over the essence of Judaism,” Gordis writes.
American Jews, after all, had come to view their Jewishness in purely religious terms. They were busy becoming Americans, perhaps the most successful act of integration ever experienced by a Diaspora community. But integration in their new homeland carried a price: America’s offer of full and complete acceptance came with the demand that they acculturate so completely into American society that they could not be visibly distinguishable from other Americans. Pressured to become fully American in their language, culture and politics, it was only in the religious realm that Jews could preserve a unique heritage and identity.
As Gordis writes, “Defining Judaism as a religion gave Judaism a kind of protected status: it was not something America would demand that Jews jettison in order to be seen as thoroughly American.”
Just as Jews in the United States were becoming part of their surrounding society, Zionists in Europe were pushing in the opposite direction. Observing the rising tide of anti-Semitism, the Zionists warned fellow European Jews that their hopes for integration and acceptance in European societies would be dashed by that anti-Semitism. It was only by escaping to a country of their own, only by embracing their uniqueness — not as a religious tradition, but emphatically as a nation — that they might save themselves from the condition of permanent vulnerability and violence wreaked upon them by European intolerance.
Both communities were proven correct. The American Jewish experience has proven that the Jews’ trust in the American ethos of tolerance and individual rights was not misplaced. In Europe, the Zionists’ most dire warnings of looming “catastrophe” never imagined the actual scale of the catastrophe that ensued.
With the 20th century’s destruction through genocide or mass flight of most of the Jews who did not have the good fortune to fall under the protective wing of either America or Zionism, these two strategies, with their diametrically opposed views of the meaning of Jewishness, came to constitute four-fifths of all living Jews.
This underlying gap, set in place at the very founding of these two Jewish civilizations, has had vast consequences. Gordis does a good job sussing some of them out.
Zionist self-reliance had a price, he notes. While American Jews lived in relative safety, prosperity and acceptance within the enveloping protection of America, it was the Jews of Israel who were left to face the full brunt of the brutalities of the 20th century.
America protected its Jews not only from external enemies, but from ever having to dirty their hands with the sorts of compromises and missteps inherent in what Gordis calls ‘the messiness of history’
Long after America all but sealed its borders to mass immigration in the mid-1920s, it was the Zionists who took in the fleeing Jews of the Arab world and post-Holocaust Europe. It was the Israelis, not the Americans, who would have to build a state, an army, a Hebrew-speaking school system, and all the trappings and mundane necessities of a national existence. It was thus Israeli Jews, and not their American counterparts, who would make the kinds of great mistakes that only nations can make, from systemic prejudice toward ingathering Jews, to unnecessary wars, to inequality for minorities.
America protected its Jews not only from external enemies, but from ever having to dirty their hands with the sorts of compromises and missteps inherent in what Gordis calls “the messiness of history.”
American Jews have also made such mistakes, of course. They have on occasion championed disastrous policies and failed wars, held racist views and taken part in military campaigns later recognized as immoral. But when they did so, they were not doing these things as Jews. They did them as Americans, since Jewish identity was relegated to a more personal realm, to the synagogue and local community.
And so, even as they grew powerful and influential, they clung to a view of Jewishness as unsullied by the moral pitfalls of that power and influence. As George Steiner put it in describing this ethic of pristine powerlessness, “It was, during two millennia, the dignity of the Jew that he was too weak to make any other human being as unhoused, as wretched as himself.”
No wonder, then, the exasperation and incomprehension Israelis experience when they meet a progressive American Jew like Daniel Levy, one of the founders of J Street, who insists that a Jewish state that fails to uphold high moral standards does not deserve to exist. “Look, bottom line,” Levy is quoted in the book as saying, “If we’re all wrong, if we’re all wrong and a collective Jewish presence in the Middle East can only survive by the sword… then Israel really ain’t a very good idea.”
To Israeli Jews, many of whom are grandchildren of refugees from decimated Jewish communities across three continents, whose grandparents fled their old homelands at a time when America’s gates were closed to them, this suggestion that Israel’s existence is somehow dependent on its behavior doesn’t seem moral, it seems callous and privileged.
American Jews are used to thinking of Jewishness in moral terms detached from history’s hard compromises, and often don’t seem to grasp that this moral purity is yet another gift of the warm, all-encompassing embrace of America, which did the dirty work for them. Israeli Jews, meanwhile, understand their Jewishness as embedded in history, a conscious shouldering of the moral burdens of self-reliance and agency, undertaken because history left them no other choice.
The point isn’t to justify Israeli actions — though the book sometimes tilts heavily toward a sort of Israeli triumphalism frustrated with America; we are none of us immune to the rift, even as we study it — but to sketch the outlines of how and why each side sees those actions so differently. It is this deeper conversation that is the book’s purpose. The differences between Israelis and Americans have grown so large over such a long period that they have become hard to see.
“There’s ignorance that each side has even about its own history, even more ignorance about the challenges and successes of the other side, and ignorance about the long history of the fraught relationship,” Gordis told The Times of Israel in an email exchange about the book. “All of these have reduced our relationship to banal expressions of support and devotion coupled to regular outbursts of rage.”
For example, “There is really very little appreciation on either side for the complexity of the world that the other faces. How many Israelis understand that [the] Balfour [Declaration] came at essentially the same time that Woodrow Wilson was telling Americans that they could have no other national attachments if they wanted to be true Americans?”
Israelis, too, have their ignorance exposed. Just like American Jews’ complaints about Israel, Zionist complaints about American Jews were there from the dawn of Zionism — as was the startling Zionist prediction that Jews would fare no better in America than they did in Europe.
As Hayim Nahman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet, wrote in 1926, “the day will come [when] economic structures in America will shift, and the Jews there will find themselves aside the broken trough. They will be cast out from all the high positions they have achieved, and without doubt, there will come terrible days which no one desires.”
In 1932, Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff warned that the growing anti-Semitism in America in those years, which boasted famous proponents like Charles Lindbergh, George Patton and Henry Ford, amounted to “the rebirth of European anti-Semitism” on American soil.
The Zionists were wrong, of course. America took a very different path when it came to the fate of its Jews. But that doesn’t mean the Zionist expectation was stupid.
In the late 19th century, while Marxists argued that economic interests were the driving force behind historical change, Zionist thinkers (many of whom were also Marxist) were more focused on identity as the primary engine of history. Marxists pointed to the effects of industrialization, urbanization and capital inequality; Zionists focused on the way the new mass societies forged in the fires of those radical changes were demolishing old forms of identity and replacing them with new collectivist ones. Millions were in thrall to the new nationalist movements, which were reshaping how modern people thought and felt about themselves and their place in the world.
These new identities, Zionists argued, would not be able to tolerate minorities. They would not be able to stomach in their midst a group like the Jews, whose innately bifurcated identities — at once Jewish and French, Jewish and Polish, Jewish and German — called into question the immutability and authenticity of the new Frenchness, Polishness and Germanness. Zionists did not expect the Holocaust, but the Zionist analysis of European modernization was not surprised by it and remains our best explanation for it.
Zionists came to believe that all those Jews who looked for safety in assimilation, communist activism or Haredi retreat were doomed to fail. Though these Jews sacrificed their identities and freedoms in pursuit of safety, they would not, in the end, be spared the anti-Semite’s wrath.
The fact that America as a nation never turned on its Jews, never murdered or expelled them, and in fact served as the backdrop for the most successful and self-assured Jewish diaspora in history, is a fact without any clear explanation in Zionist thinking
The Zionist analysis was profound, and cut against the grain of Europeans’ prevailing view of themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most European powers were experiencing growing prosperity, scientific progress, liberal reforms and imperial expansion. Later, when Arab and Muslim lands began emptying of their Jews following Israel’s establishment, the Zionist analysis proved prescient there too. (Arabs often blame Zionism for this Jewish flight, as though Zionism could empty New York City as it is accused of emptying Baghdad. If every Jewish man, woman and child from every walk of life suddenly flees your city, don’t look too far for the culprit. Your city is the culprit.)
It was not unreasonable, then, for the Zionists to expect much the same in America.
Indeed, the fact that America as a nation never turned on its Jews, never murdered or expelled them, and in fact served as the backdrop for the most successful and self-assured Jewish diaspora in history, is a fact without any clear explanation in Zionist thinking. Jewish nationalism has long grated against American Jews’ anxieties about their place in America, but American Jews, even and perhaps especially American Jewish Zionists, seem to defy the underlying logic of Zionism.
As Louis Brandeis, US Supreme Court justice and godfather to American Jewish Zionism, put it, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism — [for] a man is a better citizen of the US for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; for being loyal to his family… every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”
This is Zionism as American community-building and civic participation. It is thus not merely different from the European Zionism that founded Israel; it is its polar opposite. Israel was founded by those who believed Europe’s promise of liberalism and tolerance could not be trusted. American Zionism is simultaneously a call to support that distrustful Zionism — and a rebuke of it in its validation of American liberalism and American Jews’ place in that liberalism.
This is Gordis’s overarching point that marks the beginning of a deeper conversation: Each side’s defining story grates against the other’s sensibilities, not because either side is callous or shallow, but because they do not know enough about the other side to grasp the gaping chasm of mutually unintelligible historical experiences. That context lets one listen with a new empathy to a progressive American Jew’s fretting about Israel and Zionism, or to an Israeli shrugging off such qualms with the epithet “anti-Semitism.”
Both are channeling old and fundamental anxieties that have been shaping their identities and opinions about each other since the time of their great-great-grandparents, and neither knows enough about the other to grasp the depth of the other’s argument, or to couch their own argument in a way the other side can hear.
“We Stand Divided” has its limits, and the author declares them up front. The book is not meant to be a comprehensive treatise on what divides American and Israeli Jews, but a signpost showing the way out of the stilted debate of the present day toward something deeper and more productive. Gordis writes that the divides laid out in the book “do not, of course, come close to exhausting the issues that divide these two communities, but they do demonstrate that the real causes of the divide are much more fundamental than the current events that often trigger skirmishes between them.”
Gordis seeks to lift our eyes from the quotidian bickering, from Netanyahu and Obama and Trump, and even from bigger questions of checkpoints and occupation and egalitarianism at the Western Wall
He seeks to lift our eyes from the quotidian bickering, from Netanyahu and Obama and Trump, and even from bigger questions of checkpoints and occupation and egalitarianism at the Western Wall, to the older and broader assumptions and beliefs that underlie the two communities’ very different responses to those questions, and the frustration each feels at the other’s answers.
It is thus no critique of Gordis’s book so much as a response to the gauntlet he has enthusiastically thrown down to suggest that there remain unplumbed depths to the cultural and psychological chasm that divides Israeli and American Jews.
One important example will serve. Perhaps the most fundamental gap, alluded to in passing in the book in a different context, is rooted in the all-encompassing influence of American Protestantism on every aspect and wrinkle of American life.
The Puritans who established the Plymouth colony in modern-day Massachusetts in 1620 were relatively few in number. No more than 21,000 ever made the perilous journey from the old world to the new. But as often happens with early waves of settlers — consider the outsize cultural influence of the minuscule kibbutz population on a young Israel — they established the social mores and beliefs that would shape America’s ethos of radical individualism.
The Puritans espoused the most radical version of the radicalizing Protestantism that was splintering 17th-century English Christianity. Key to their revolutionary doctrine was the comprehensive rejection of the Catholic belief that salvation is attained through attachment to the institution and sacraments of the church, an institution beyond one’s self from which one draws religious belonging, discipline and doctrine. That externalized salvation was replaced in the more radical forms of Protestantism by the individual’s own inner world; through “faith alone” is one saved, and not by any interlocutor.
This notion of the centrality of selfhood in producing our most authentic identities and religious truths would grow from a narrowly Puritan religious concept into a habit of mind applied throughout American social and political thought and life, and would become one of the most distinctively American aspects of American culture.
It lies at the heart of the American founders’ fear that both kings and democratic majorities can oppress, and in their rejection of state sponsorship of religious institutions. American democracy thus is not rooted in the same mental soil as the liberalism of the French revolution or of European socialism, both of which interpreted “democracy” as the liberation of one class of people from oppression by another more-privileged class. American democracy as conceived by its founders was a struggle equally against both the privileged and the masses in the service of the only freedom that really mattered, that of the individual.
This way of thinking is so deeply entrenched in the American mind that it knows no partisan or religious boundary. On the cultural right, it has meant a flourishing not only of religious affiliation, but of schism and diversity. The appeal to the inner world of the believer validates personal views over institutional or communal ones, and so drives constant splintering, innovation and self-critique within American religion. This is as true of American Jews and Buddhists as it is of American Evangelicals.
On the cultural left, from the anti-war protests of the 1960s to the gender revolution of the present day, the goals are framed as rooted in individual autonomy, not, as in European protest movements, collectivist solidarity. The American transgender rights campaign is in many ways a break from old assumptions, but the way in which Americans have framed and advocated for it — as the validation of inner truth about an identity once deemed a biological reality external to the self — is the oldest and most authentic of American traditions.
When Jews encountered America, they encountered this radically different mental architecture. They absorbed it utterly, so deeply that they were not fully aware of the shift. And not only them: All Americans, whether Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, are in some fundamental sense “protestant,” not in the content of their beliefs but in their assumptions about where one turns for religious truth and authentic identity.
As noted above, American Jews were indeed troubled by Zionism because it seemed to run counter to their efforts to integrate into their new country. But the tension with Zionism ran deeper still, and this fundamental tension has not abated.
American Jews and Israeli Jews do not even share fundamental assumptions about the source of a person’s identity and the place of the individual in a broader community
Israelis, largely hailing from Muslim and Orthodox Christian lands — cultures held together by collectivist assumptions about the roots of identity — were busy constructing a society predicated on this collectivism and solidarity, and a new identity rooted and given authenticity and power by its appeal to external communal truths and commitments. American Jews, meanwhile, were busy retooling Jewishness itself for the newly discovered inner wellspring of truth and identification baked into the American psyche by those primordial Protestant radicals.
And so American Jews and Israeli Jews are divided not only in their divergent histories, in the lessons they draw from those histories, or in their differing beliefs about the nature and meaning of Jewishness; they do not even share fundamental assumptions about the source of a person’s identity and the place of the individual in a broader community.
That’s why American Jewish Zionists make for such maddeningly strange Zionists to the Israeli observer. European Zionists sought to forge a new collectivist consciousness to rescue the Jews from neverending persecution. Louis Brandeis constructed American Jewish Zionism as an expression of individual commitment, one of many overlapping voluntarily undertaken obligations that make up the web of belonging of the individualistic American.
Here lies, too, the deep inner intellectual core of the liberal religious streams of American Jewry. Their Jewish identity consists by necessity — they cannot really imagine that there might be an alternative — of their own inner religious experiences, struggles and sense of belonging. Judaism is communal in practice but individual in essence.
Where the Israeli rabbi generally encountered by an Israeli Jew is an ultra-Orthodox functionary imposed on the Jew from outside, and at taxpayer expense, American rabbis serve at the pleasure of their communities, and therefore serve their communities
One should belong to a synagogue and attend a Jewish school, American rabbis all agree, but one does so in a uniquely American way. The whole vast edifice of American Jewish organized life is voluntary and self-motivated: When American Jews choose to live Jewish lives in Jewish communities, they and their communities all accept as a given that the community they are building together is founded on the premise of its members’ spiritual autonomy. This is as true of the Orthodox as it is of the Reconstructionist, and it changes everything.
For example, where the Israeli rabbi generally encountered by an Israeli Jew is an ultra-Orthodox functionary imposed on the Jew from outside, and at taxpayer expense, American rabbis serve at the pleasure of their communities, and therefore serve their communities. The Israeli rabbi’s most basic job is to fly the banner of religious truth as handed down from above by the leaders of their religious faction, irrespective of the community in which they live. The American rabbi’s job is to enable and encourage autonomous participation in the community’s religious life.
This is why American Jews view the Haredi monopolizing of the Western Wall in such visceral terms, leaving Israelis startled and sometimes offended by their vehemence. To an American, Israel’s acquiescence to an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over official religious expression — indeed, the very idea that there can be an official expression of religion — is an abomination, a violation of the most basic purpose of religious life, which is granted its validity through individual choice.
American Jews are even more frustrated by the fact that secular or actively anti-religious Israelis largely consent to this Orthodox monopoly — in the words of Prof. Shlomo Avineri, the belief that the synagogue they refuse to enter must nevertheless be an Orthodox one.
To most Israelis, of course, Haredi control over Israeli religion is only natural because that is what religion is. It obtains its authenticity and power from outside the self, from experts and spiritual leaders and the institutions that appoint and empower them. Israelis grasp why someone would fight to free themselves from domineering religious hierarchies, but do not understand the American’s rejection of the idea that those religious hierarchies represent authentic religion in the first place. To Israelis who believe that an authentic identity is derived from without, rooted in one’s collective rather than personal choice, American individualism can seem a hollowing out of Jewish identity, a flight from meaning.
Some of these divides are unbridgeable, and clarifying them may only deepen the rift. Israelis have experienced a radically different, and in some ways opposite, history from American Jews, and cannot be expected to shed the hard-won lessons and experiences they draw from that history. Nor can American Jews be expected to surrender their liberal ethos when they observe Israel, the very liberalism they credit with redeeming them from the dangers of exile to a home that feels, to an extent unseen in two millennia, like home.
In the end, both sides need each other. American Jews will not reverse some of their own most negative and anxiety-inducing trajectories toward Jewish illiteracy and assimilation until they tackle seriously their ignorance about both Israel and themselves. Jewish learning, Hebrew, and a rekindled link to the tribal Jewishness of Israel don’t threaten liberal American Jewry; they are some of the factors most likely to sustain it over the long term. This is no great insight. American Jews have long known about the anchoring power of Israel in the identity-scattering individualism of America.
Israeli Jews, too, will not understand themselves or the Jewish world they claim to defend until they are able to see themselves through the eyes of the other half of the Jewish people — a process that will necessarily also introduce them more deeply and directly to the values and expectations American Jews claim to want to advance in the Jewish state. As Gordis notes in a lengthy passage on the subject, some of the most effective and innovative institutions in Israeli public life, including some that are quietly expanding and enriching the Israeli religious and political imagination, were founded and are supported by American Jews.
“The beginning of the solution lies in Jews learning about themselves, about the tradition they share, and about each other,” Gordis writes. “There are no institutional shortcuts: each community needs to come to understand what motivates the other, what threatens it, what worries it, and why. We need to understand why we have grown so different, how deeply embedded are our competing worldviews and how unlikely it is that either of us will change. We need to appreciate that what troubles the relationship is not only what we do but who we are.”