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Ad Flap Reveals Jewish Split On Meaning of Israel

The Israeli government is worried about a trickle of Israeli citizens moving to the United States; in order to lure some of them back it began running ads on websites that Israeli expats in the US often visit.  Ads showed Israeli grandparents worried that their US-raised granddaughter thought Hanukkah was Christmas and so on.

Once American Jews realized what was going on, a firestorm broke out.  Various Jewish community leaders attacked the ad campaign as denigrating the value and vitality of the American Jewish experience.  The Israeli government listened, thought, and withdrew the ad campaign.  Read the full story in the New York Times.

What this points to is a deep difference between the way many American Jews understand Zionism and the way many Israelis think about it.  For most Israelis, Zionism is more than the belief that there should be a state of Israel.  Theodor Herzl was an assimilated Austrian journalist who he covered the trial of Albert Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying for Germany.  Seeing the blatant anti-Semitism the Dreyfus Affair set off in France, considered the most enlightened and modern country in Europe, Herzl concluded that it was hopeless to fight anti-Semitism.  Gentiles would never accept Jews as fellow citizens; assimilation was a dead end.  Jews needed a state of their own because ultimately no one else would have them. Herzl is widely considered the founder of Zionism, and the idea that Jews cannot flourish or be safe except in a state of their own is deeply rooted in his thought.

Others, both from religious and secular viewpoints, took this farther.  Jews didn’t just need their own state as a refuge; Jews like other peoples could only live their culture and express their identity fully in a state of the own.  The Jew in a ‘foreign’ country, many Zionists believed, was a crippled, stunted Jew.  Jews needed to be farmers, soldiers, statesmen in their own land speaking their own language to fulfill their destiny as Jews. The diaspora Jew was weak, cringing and, well, liberal.  The Jew in Israel was tough, realistic, responsible and free. To move from the diaspora to Israel was to dewussify, to emancipate yourself from being an exile and outsider, to embrace and fulfill your full human and Jewish potential.

More, given that Jews could only be safe and fully Jewish in Israel, it is the duty of Jews, even Jews living comfortably in foreign lands, to go to Israel and help build the state.  A Jew who hasn’t returned to Israel is at some level a shirker, someone who has chosen the path of private comfort over public duty.

These ideas have only a limited appeal among American Jews.  Most American Jews disagree with Herzl’s main point that non-Jews will ever accept Jews as full fellow citizens.  That might be true for European and Middle Eastern Jews, they say, but not for Jews in countries like America, Canada and Australia.  And many American Jews strongly resent the belief common among many Israelis that Jews outside Israel lead stunted, incomplete Jewish lives.  American Jews, who sense that despite occasional blips and outbreaks, anti-Semitism has been on the decline in the US for a long time, often think of Israel as a refuge for Jews in countries like Russia, but in no way do they see it as their own future home.

Over time, the gap between the two visions has widened.  For one thing, American Jews who come to accept the Israeli version of Zionism often emigrate to Israel.  Golda Meir, Israel’s fiery prime minister from 1969 to 1974, grew up in Milwaukee before emigrating to Palestine in 1921.  American Jews who feel their lives are incomplete outside Israel and that they have a duty to build the Jewish state often end up in Israel, but this is a minority in an American Jewish community which feels generally feels that America is also a promised land.

Just as American Jews tend to be more liberal in their politics than many of their American gentile neighbors, they are often more liberal in their views than many Israelis.  In Israel, only Orthodox rabbis are recognized in certain ways by the state; only a minority of American Jews are Orthodox.  American Jews generally (though not always) oppose Israeli settlements and want Israel to take more risks for peace; Israelis, especially on the right, resent what they see as idealistic posturing by people who don’t have any skin in the game.

American Jews by and large still buy the idea that Herzl and his Zionist associates  believed could not work: that Jews, remaining fully Jewish, can participate as full and equal citizens outside a Jewish state, at least in the United States.  Strong Zionists in Israel continue to believe that Jews need to live in Israel to be fully Jewish, and that Israel needs to gather the world’s Jews within its borders to be safe and complete.

A single post cannot capture the full complexity of the various positions on this issue, or do full justice to the wide range of beliefs both in Israel and in the United States.  But one important takeaway is that American Jews by and large feel as deeply at home in the United States as anybody else, and that a deeply rooted belief in American exceptionalism combined with a strong sense of their American identity often leads American Jews to quarrel, sometimes bitterly, with various strands of Israeli opinion — and even the Israeli government itself.

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  • Bryan

    It’s relevant to point out that the relevant Dreyfus in the Dreyfus Affair was, despite being Jewish, an ultranationalist Frenchman. That did not prevent ethnic Frenchmen from believing him to be a traitor on the basis of his Jewishness. Likewise, American Jews tend to be suspected of dual-loyalty on a scale incomparable with any other American minority. And Jews are the religious minority with the highest hate crime statistics (both in absolute and relative terms) in America. America is the best we can hope for in Diaspora, but it’s still not exactly welcoming with open arms.

    As an American Jew who has no plans of making aliyah, I still recognize that things are always okay for the Jews everywhere until suddenly they aren’t okay anymore. European Jewry was fine until it was not; Middle Eastern Jewry was fine until it was not; one day it may no longer be okay for New World Jewry, no matter how ridiculous it seems. Would anyone have believed you in 1880 if you had told them that in a hundred years there would be basically no Jews in Vilnius or Baghdad?

  • TGGP

    “That might be true for European and Middle Eastern Jews” (emphasis added)
    Really? In 21st century Europe? I admit to never setting foot there, nor being Jewish or knowing many people who would have first-hand experience with that (and I never bothered to ask those I do know about that, since it didn’t occur to me). But I don’t think the Dreyfus affair would be tolerated by the gatekeepers of society, and there aren’t forces analogous in power/influence to the anti-Dreyfusards.

    Bryan, “The Lost History of Christianity” by Philip Jenkins discusses some of the declines in minority religions in the Muslim world. It appeared to be sporadic, but it was always the case that dhimmis were considered to be beneath Muslims and were often restricted in a variety of ways even when not subject to violence. I don’t think it has ever been the case that Jews in the U.S had different legal, as opposed to social, status.

  • Micha

    Living in Israel should be viewed as a choice of a certain way to be a Jew. Not the only choice. Not one that invalidates completely all the other choices. Not a desperate choice motivated by fear. Just a choice.

  • Alan

    Finally an article that isn’t so blatantly biased that its not even worth reading!

    My thoughts: Lets also put this in perspective:

    In American Politics, 80%+ of Jews vote Democrat, even though there is tons of empirical evidence that the Republican Party is far more supportive of Israel, right?

    So would it be inaccurate to say that Jews should be wary of Democrats, because even though they seem like friends and Jews vote for them Democrats have a far inferior record of support for Israel? Even turn that into an ad by lets say the Republican Jewish Coalition to try and get more Jews to vote Republican? I think that’s perfectly acceptable. It’s fact based. Not even mudslinging/negative campaigning.

    So how is that any different than Israelis saying that Americans don’t understand their culture. The vast majority of American Jews don’t have a clue.Sabras are very different than diaspora Jews. Everything about their mindset is different. They are unmaterialistic, loud, obnoxious, hard working (with their hands)… Lets compare that to American Jews who are all about money, cars, and flashy things, quiet and politically correct – and couldn’t find a oil pan with two hands and a flashlight. Everything about them is different. Yea, they may all be “Jews” but who gives a [piece of something unpleasant]! Would you Marry a Christian from the Middle East who barely speaks your language, understands none of your customs (except for the religious ones – which in the US aren’t even the same + American Jews don’t even follow any of the religious customs except the orthodox in NY, Miami and Los Angeles). So while I think the effort is futile, it’s Israeli ads reaching Israeli audiences, and it has a very valid point.

    Is that an oversimplification, of course. But the heart of it is the precise problem. A mindset/cultural/priority difference. American Jews are liberals who attack Israel the majority of the time. That person doesn’t understand the meaning of Israel memorial day (yom hazicharon) or why saying christmas is so bad instead of hanukkah. Why would you want to assimilate with those people who quite frankly, have a death wish for your country?

  • Mark Hollis

    I was raised to think of Judaism as a religion and not a nationality or an ethnic background. Many of the Jews I have known here in the United States have reinforced that impression. And this is why many Americans do not understand the issues between Israel and Palestine, as well as the other, mostly Arab nations in the Middle East. And the actions of Israel as a nation tends to create a thought process in the minds of those in the countries around Israel that is the opposite. Jews, to the residents of the countries around Israel make up a nationality, an ethnic background.

    The fact is, the residents of the countries along the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East are largely Semites. They are, essentially, the same ethnic background. In Israel, there has been the introduction of other ethnicities from Russia, Africa and Europe that all claim the same religion, many of whom share varying amounts of Semitic ethnic heritage, some of whom don’t. But the majority in the area are Semites.

    It is this invention of an ethnic background (Jewishness as an ethnicity or race) that has fanned the flames of anti-Zionism in the countries surrounding Israel. And this opposition has polarized Israel, itself. Israel has changed, within my lifetime, from a liberal Socialist young nation, full of promise and optimistic about its future into a hard-lined ultra nationalistic country, extremely pessimistic about its future and full of fear. This is a country that used to have a “right wing” capable of making deals with countries who had gone to war against it. Now, the paranoia that pervades this country has paralyzed its leaders and prevented them from dealing in any responsible way with Palestine, a nation it created in its own midst. Additionally, Israel’s ultranationalists cannot make any deals with any of it’s surrounding countries. Because Israel’s government sees only enemies, it antagonizes its few friends in the region and isolates itself further.

    Many of the American Jews I know and have known don’t believe in the Israeli ultra nationalistic self-definition, generally referred to as Zionism. Many give yearly to various charities, such as the United Jewish Appeal and direct their donations to disallow their use in building “settlements,” which are an illegal colonization process in a foreign nation created by Israel.

    Many American Jews I know may visit Israel sometime in their lives, but would never want to live there despite all of the efforts Israel makes to convince them of the wholesomeness of the state. They don’t like living in fear in a nation that actively antagonizes its neighbors. Happily, most visit Israel for a brief time, which avoids the “Stockholm Syndrome” that Israel wishes to create in foreign Jews who visit.

    I anticipate that Israel will continue missteps in the outreach efforts to Jews living in countries where being Jewish means belonging to a religion, rather than an ethnicity. I remain hopeful that the Christian Right in the United States eventually fails in its mission to create wars in the Middle East in order to, somehow, force a “second coming,” which they believe will eventually destroy all Jews who do not convert to their brand of Christianity. We do not need further polarization in the Middle East, we need real solutions.

  • earl of Sandwich

    The truth behind emigration is that Israel is too small to contain the ambition of many of its citizens. A country of 8 million can only have so many university professors, CEOs, and enterpreuners.

  • Bryan

    TGGP: My point was merely that the status of Jews in America is not fixed forever. Yes, America has provided legal equality for Jews, but it might not be necessary for the American government to act against Jews in order to convince Jews to leave in large numbers.

    For the foreseeable future, Jews will do just fine in America, but we can’t know that for sure. What if there is an explosion of anti-Israel sentiment that turns into riots against “Israel-supporting” Jews? What if Evangelicals suffer from a messianic failure and blame the Jews for being insufficiently committed to redeeming the Land of Israel? What if anti-corporatist movements like Occupy Wall Street become more and more anti-“Jewish bankers?” None of these is inconceivable, merely unlikely.

  • Elliot

    A balanced presentation for which the author deserves thanks. Would that he included the following clincher. As of 2003, the intermarriage rate among non-orthodox Jews was estimated to be running between 70 and 75 percent. So while American Jews are right to feel accepted in America, it is completely beside the point. Of their own accord, they are going the way of the buffalo.

  • Todd

    Zionists who believe US Jews should move to Israel might want to consider how strong US support for Israel would be without the influence of the US Jewish community.

  • Kris

    Very good post, but overkill when it comes to the issue itself. The ad campaign itself is aimed at Israeli ex-pats in the US, and advises them that they’ll have trouble passing on their Israeli identity to their children in the American melting pot. According to the ads, if they stay in America, their young children will speak English by default, they’ll get into the (secular) spirit of Christmas, and their non-Israeli boyfriends won’t be familiar with Israeli Memorial Day. How on earth could this possibly be upsetting to American Jews? How many American Jews don’t speak English principally, are immune to Christmas, or know the date of Israeli Memorial Day? American Jewish organizations themselves are constantly bemoaning Jewish assimilation and intermarriage! One can’t help but posit that the ads are not denigrating in themselves, but rather have unintentionally touched the exposed nerves of an insecure American Jewish identity.

  • Kris

    Mark@5, how very regrettable indeed that Israel is no longer a socialist state! But could you elaborate on your statement that “Israel’s ultranationalists cannot make any deals with any of it’s surrounding countries. Because Israel’s government sees only enemies”? After all, Israel already has peace treaties with two of its neighbors, Egypt (good luck with that!) and Jordan. Who are you blaming Israel for not making peace with, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, or the Assad dictatorship in Syria?

    Also, I realize it must be very frustrating for you that the “Christian Right” in the US supports Israel despite its lurch away from liberal socialism, but do you think you could avoid demonizing them? After all, that doesn’t seem to be in line with the liberal values you seem to champion.

    Todd@9, people who make comments such as yours on Via Meadia might want to consider reading previous posts on the sources of American support for Israel.

  • Micha

    “I was raised to think of Judaism as a religion and not a nationality or an ethnic background.”

    Such artificial and anachronistic distinction exist only to serve a political purpose.

    But it is understandable why Jews would prefer America to Israel. It is better to live in a large country that invades distant nations than a small one defending its borders. It’s better to live in a country founded on the conquest of a continent than merely a tiny coastline of the middle east. It’s better to be in a country people might dislike but is too rich and powerful to completely hate.

  • Larry Bernard

    As a Jewish convert I am getting a kick out of these replies

    know the first Jewish leader concerned with assimilation of the Jews?


  • Kris

    Larry@13: Heh. Even funnier for being literally true.

    He was also the first “oleh.” And “yored.” And “settler.”

  • Corlyss

    “Jews didn’t just need their own state as a refuge; Jews like other peoples could only live their culture and express their identity fully in a state of the own.”

    That kind of racist poppycock gives rise to the errantly false blather preached by blacks and Latinos who insist that unless they have blacks representing black voters and Latinos representing Latino voters, they are legally “disenfranchised.” It’s patently false and leads to balkanization in America, with racial gerrymandering which would be unconstitutional if the Constitution were not disobeyed by common consent.

    “These ideas have only a limited appeal among American Jews.”

    For good reason. Like all of us who grew up in America, they know how to work the political system to protect their interests. They don’t need anything else.

  • American Shlomo

    Rabbinic Judaism is a national church rooted in Jewish nationhood. It was designed for communal survival in the Diaspora. Today, Jews essentially sacrifice or water down the national dimension of their identity in order to become fully participating citizens of the US and other wealthy liberal societies. Zionism offered Jews the opportunity to fully express their national selves in a natural, living Jewish space where there is a modern society with an ambient Jewish language and culture. Jews don’t have to look over their shoulders to see what the neighbors think. Zionism also allowed the Jews to participate as a recognized state with army and diplomats in the world of nation-states, with all its obvious risks. Most American and other Diaspora Jews, for their part, truly face the risk that their Jewish culture will dry up and blow away. That’s the choice they’ve made. There are no easy choices in history.

  • Micha

    The desire of the Jews for an independant nation-state is no different than the desire of the Irish, Italians, Greek, German, Mexican or Japanese. It’s effect on American Jews is no different than members of these other nationalities.

  • Todd

    Take what comfort you can from “previous posts.” Without the economic and political support of the United States’ Jewish community Israel is adrift on a raft on an unfriendly sea with sharks circling.

  • Kris

    Congratulations, you have managed the impressive intellectual feat of repeating your previous assertion! Wake me up when you actually address our host’s arguments regarding the (non-Jewish) sources of American support for Israel.

  • Todd

    You may be asleep but I suspect on this issue you are either disingenuous or in denial. There are other bases for US support of Israel but remove them all from the equation and the US remains in Israel’s pocket. Delete the influence of the Jewish community and the US would likely accord Israel the same level of support given any other small friendly country.

  • Nate

    Largely right, except for the part about Israelis being more conservatively religious. My impression is that practicing Judaism in Israel as a religion functions much more like a European country. By that I mean there’s an institutional state-run Judaism, the orthodox version, and then plenty of patriotic, secular, atheist Israelis who are pretty apathetic towards any type of practice. There is no Reform or Conservative movement.
    In contrast, Reform and Conservative movements thrive in the U.S., much like various Christian denominations, in which the church or the synagogue is a community pillar and/or a way to maintain a certain ethnic tradition.
    In other words, atheist Jews are much more likely to continue going to synagogue than atheist Israelis.

  • Nate

    @Corlyss #15: You seem to have missed the part of the post about how the Zionist idea arose in the conditions of Europe a century ago, and not today’s America. And the fact is, both American Jews and Zionists were correct: there was no future for Jews in Europe, and there was no reason Jews couldn’t fully assimilate into America.

  • Kris

    Todd, our host has elaborated in previous posts about the critical non-Jewish sources of exceptional American support for Israel. All I am getting from you are unsupported assertions. (We might as well have a “strong” Zionist asserting that if all American Jews moved to Israel, that would make Israel strong enough not to need the current American support.) This doesn’t mean you aren’t right, just that you’re not being very convincing.

  • Georgia

    Really enlightening post! It really helped me understand the growing rift in values/beliefs between the two Jewish communities. I thought you might like to see this video (link: goes deeper into some of the adverse reactions to the Adverts, which I think is important to see in trying to understand how the American Jews feel about their own identities.

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