Ecco, 2019, 293 pp., $26.99
“The President signing an executive order defining Jewishness as a ‘nationality’ makes me f___ing ill,” tweeted New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum on December 11, after President Trump formally included those of Jewish ancestry under the umbrella of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “I’m Jewish, I’m an American & we need to get this schmuck out of office.” (She later deleted the tweet.)
Forget, for a moment, that the notion that American Jews deserve protection as a people was espoused by President Obama’s Justice Department, supported by bipartisan congressional majorities, and endorsed in 1987 by the Supreme Court, or that the executive order itself was designed to prevent anti-Semitism.
Most Jewish Americans consider themselves adherents to a faith, not members of a nation—or at least not any sort of Jewish nation. They’re Americans, after all. By contrast, Israeli Jews, even those who disdain President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fundamentally regard themselves as members of the Jewish people, a historic nation and not just a religious tradition.
These and other fissures run through the foundation of contemporary global Jewry, as communities in the United States and Israel—far and away the two largest Jewish populations in the world—increasingly find themselves at odds for numerous reasons, among them divergent views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the assimilation rate of American Jewry, and the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
But while these issues have exacerbated tensions, Daniel Gordis, the American-born and -educated vice president of Jerusalem’s Shalem College and a keen analyst of the global Jewish scene, persuasively argues that they’re symptoms, not causes, of a deeper division over what Judaism truly should be about.
“Although most observers . . . believe that the fraught relationship is due to what Israel does,” Gordis writes in We Stand Divided, his illuminating study of the rift, “a closer look at the Jewish communities in Israel and the United States suggests that the real reason has to do with what Israel is.” While Gordis overestimates the severity of this division, largely because he studiously avoids quantifying it, he imbues the debate with much-needed historical context and philosophical explication.
That history began long before Israel ever existed. “For most of the time since Theodor Herzl launched political Zionism at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897,” Gordis notes, “the relationship between American Jews and Herzl’s idea, and then the country it created, has been complex at best and often even openly antagonistic.”
He locates the rift’s origins in three distinct but related sources: different understandings of the painful lessons of Jewish history; divergent philosophies of the nature of Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people; and varying approaches to universalism and particularism.
First, Gordis turns to history to better understand the nature of the division. Lest we be tempted to think Israeli and American Jews have only recently begun feuding, Gordis forcefully reminds us it was ever thus. He skillfully excavates several long-forgotten, and some never-before-revealed, stories of the tensions between these communities dating even to before Herzl’s time. For instance, the leading lights of the most prominent rabbinic seminaries of all three major Jewish denominations expressed everything from skepticism to outright rejection of Zionism as late as the early 1950s. Many mainstream American Jewish communal leaders rejected Israel’s “presumptuous” prerogative to try Adolf Eichmann for war crimes on behalf of all Jews worldwide. And vigorous debates between intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, a European refugee and celebrated émigré to the United States, and Gershom Scholem, a German-born Israeli scholar, prefigure those of their 21st-century counterparts, separated literally and figuratively by an ocean.
In addition to embodying historic tension, the American-Israeli divide also reflects a tension about history.
Jews in the United States have tended to regard their uniquely respected, secure, and prosperous standing in American society as an escape from, or perhaps a triumph over, cyclical historic trends that have always wound up subjecting Jewish diaspora communities to persecution, mistreatment, expulsion, and even extermination. The United States has been so welcoming to its Jewish citizens over more than two centuries that, in many ways, it doesn’t even feel like exile. Indeed, Gordis quotes Jacob Blaustein, the president of the influential American Jewish Committee, telling Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1950 that “we repudiate vigorously the suggestion that American Jews are in exile.”
Poppycock, said and say the leading lights of Zionism. There can never be a vacation from history, according to this view, and the only safe, stable home for the Jews is the Holy Land. After all, they argue, German Jews themselves believed in the 19th and early 20th centuries that history had ended and that genuine acceptance had accompanied their economic success. Zionism, said Ben-Zion Dinur, one of Israel’s founding fathers, entails “casting off Exile . . . . making clear the accommodation and inauthenticity at the heart of Exile, its instability and the ups and downs it invariably brings.” Jews dwelling among other nations will always remain at the mercy of their hosts, per Dinur, and only sovereignty and physical land can secure the Jewish future.
This debate over whether history has ended necessarily informs contemporary disputes, or what Gordis terms the “messiness of history.” If we’ve transcended our past as a people, many American Jews argue, there’s no reason to shed blood over a patch of land. Indeed, some on the left today contend, with J Street co-founder Daniel Levy, that if the Jewish state “can only survive by the sword . . . . then Israel really ain’t a very good idea.”
Israelis recoil in horror at such suggestions. Of course every resident of the Jewish state would prefer to live her life without serving in the Israeli military, without having to take cover from incoming missiles, without exploding buses and stabbings and murderous car-rammings. But these events lie largely beyond Israelis’ control, and the alternative—relocating or subjugating eight million Jews—is unthinkable. Because history is here to stay, Israelis can never let our guard down.
A Religion or a People?
Second, a debate over the nature of Judaism itself fuels the rift. Contemporary American Jews, comfortably ensconced as full-fledged, flourishing members of society, tend to regard Judaism primarily as a faith tradition, while Israelis tend to see Jews as a historical people. Diaspora Jews have always yearned to be accepted as members of the nations in which they dwell, their religion informing their personal and communal practice but never challenging the hospitality of their host countries. Jewish Israelis, however, largely downplay the religious aspects of Judaism in favor of its national characteristics. This gap reflects the distinction between individual or communal tradition and morality on one hand and national existence on the other, or between “Judaism-as-justice and Judaism-as-survival,” as Gordis puts it.
Jewish Americans take umbrage at any suggestion that they are anything less than fully American, and therefore express great reluctance to accept the framing of Jews as a nation. “If we accept” Trump’s executive order, tweeted director and screenwriter Brian Koppelman, “we are saying we are not Americans. We are other. And can and should be separated. This is the banality of evil. We are in it. Witnessing it. And must stop it.”
Israeli Jews, however, loudly trumpet their existence as a nation, in no small part because their neighbors, especially the Palestinians, have long denied the existence of any sort of Jewish nationhood. “Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own,” recites Article 20 of the Palestinian National Charter. “They are citizens of the states to which they belong.”
This distinction exists in negation as well. Gordis observes that while Israelis refer to “Jews and Arabs,” that is, two nations or peoples, Americans refer to “Jews and Christians,” that is, two faith traditions. And whereas American Jews regard with suspicion any attempt to accentuate their nationhood, Israelis revel in it. For similar reasons, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have never attracted a serious following in the Jewish state, as Israelis who eschew a commitment to religious observance satisfy their Jewish desires simply by participating in everyday life.
The Universal vs. the Particular
Finally, the rift derives from varying notions of universalism and particularism. “America and Israel are exceedingly different,” Gordis posits. “Created for different purposes, they believe in and foster very different sorts of societies with very different values and different visions of Judaism.”
Indeed, while there are several similarities between the founding of Israel and the United States—both countries declared independence from British rule, both fought bloody wars to secure that independence, both were inaugurated mostly by immigrants—Gordis asserts that the United States is a country founded on a set of ideals, not on ethnic or racial grounds, while Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jewish people. The United States runs on pluralism and a separation of church and state, while the Israeli public square is thick with religious and cultural meaning.
Likening the American founding to the New Testament and Israel’s to the Old, Gordis argues that the United States articulated a universal vision available to all mankind while Israel held the torch only for Jews. This discrepancy, Gordis contends, accounts for much of the rancor that has permeated the relationship between the communities over the decades.
Yet this distinction is oversimplified and imprecise, as the gap between the two countries is less pronounced than Gordis presumes.
First, Israel itself has vacillated between the universal and the particular, insisting on serving as an Or LaGoyim, a Light unto the Nations, a beacon of hope and promise for the entire world, and a Jewish version of the shining city on a hill. In a passage Gordis himself quotes, Israel’s Declaration of Independence recites that, in the Land of Israel, the historic Jewish people “first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance, and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
Israelis regard themselves as exemplars of ethical behavior, as pioneers of life-saving technologies, as a people quite literally saving the world. The Jewish state takes tremendous pride in deploying rescue crews to South America and the Himalayas within hours of natural disasters. The Israel Defense Forces take tremendous pains to avoid civilian casualties even amidst the most harrowing and life-threatening situations.
Of course, Israel falls short of this promise at times, and there are plenty of elements in Israeli society resistant to the pursuit of universalist goals. Gordis correctly observes that demographic change in Israel has aggravated the divide in recent years. Most notably, after years in the political, cultural, and social wilderness, Mizrahim—Jews who originated in the Arab Middle East and North Africa—have begun to exert “greater influence on Israeli society and culture,” which in turn “helps shape an Israeli society that strikes many American Jews as distinctly illiberal.” In addition, ultra-Orthodox Jews have increasingly flexed their demographic muscles, pushing Israeli politics and culture further rightward.
But contemporary Israel very much craves universal respect—for its cultural, political, and technological achievements—that it is too often denied by countries still hostile to the Jewish state. Meanwhile, within the United States, including among its Jewish community, a movement toward the particular has gathered steam.
The ascension of Trump has bred a new nationalism on the American right, ranging from the benign culture-language-and-land of National Review’s Rich Lowry to the Biblically inspired Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony (an Israeli with a wide intellectual following in the United States who preceded Gordis at Shalem College) to darker precincts of the alt-right. While American exceptionalism for conservatives has traditionally revolved around the country’s democratic values and universal ideals, a more particularistic approach is slowly gaining purchase.
In addition, the American Jewish community is gradually but definitively becoming more traditional, as less observant Jews increasingly intermarry and disaffiliate even as Orthodox Jews, who are generally more strongly attached to Israel, procreate at much higher rates. A widely circulated 2013 Pew study found that Orthodox Jews made up only 10 percent of the larger American Jewish community, while the more religiously liberal Conservative and Reform Jews accounted for 53 percent. But leading Jewish demographers expect the Conservative and Reform population to halve within 30 years and to fall below the Orthodox within 40.
Thus, pace Gordis, macro trends suggest that over the coming decades, the universal-particular gap between the United States and Israel is likely to close, not widen, and along with it, support for the Jewish state is likely to rise. Unfortunately, as Gordis candidly acknowledges, We Stand Divided “avoids, at least for the most part, the use of statistical analyses” because such numbers “invariably raise further questions.” Without a firm foundation in data, however, Gordis’s theoretical structure is prone to wobbling.
Finally, the recent reemergence in the United States of virulent anti-Semitism on both left and right has rightfully alarmed the American Jewish community and punctured its sense of invulnerability to the world’s oldest hatred. When Jews are demonized, assaulted, or murdered— whether by neo-Nazis in Pittsburgh and San Diego, Black Hebrew Israelites in Jersey City, anti-Zionist progressives on countless college campuses, jihadists in Tel Aviv, or mullahs in Tehran and Beirut—we have a way of finding common cause and overcoming differences.
Both quantitatively and qualitatively, then, there are grounds for optimism in the relationship—although perhaps my own bias is showing.
After nearly four decades leading a rich and fulfilling life as an American Jew, I moved to Israel with my family five years ago in search of something more than the religious experience I had enjoyed in the United States. Seeking that national experience of peoplehood that Jews can only truly experience in Israel, we moved to the Middle East in order, as a friend put it, to fulfill our Jewish destiny. But despite enjoying a richer and more comprehensive Jewish experience in the Jewish state, my love of the American Jewish community remains undiminished. The near-constant back-and-forth travel of family and friends between the countries helps ensure the continuity of that relationship.
Gordis certainly does yeoman’s work in exposing the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the American-Israeli divide, along the way shattering pernicious myths. And he’s right to suggest that we cannot expect the perspectives of American and Israeli Jews to ever fully align. But it’s equally important to remember that we remain one people, one faith, one family, experiencing all the joy and sorrow that bring us together. As Gordis concludes, Jews the world over must “recogniz[e] that neither side can live without the other, that each is a critical contributor to what the Jewish people are today.”