Sav­ing the crum­bling re­la­tion­ship

Why US and Is­raeli Jews are more dif­fer­ent than we think, but still need each other

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • JEF­FREY B. KOBRIN The writer, a rabbi, is the head of school at the North Shore He­brew Academy in Great Neck, NY.

Daniel Gordis of­fers a suc­cinct anal­y­sis of what he terms the “crum­bling bonds” be­tween Is­rael and Amer­ica in his most re­cent book We Stand Di­vided: The Rift Be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael. Gordis looks at the his­tor­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious and so­cial dif­fer­ences un­der­ly­ing core val­ues of both Is­raelis and Amer­i­can Jews, con­clud­ing that cer­tain key as­sump­tions that each side has about the other are at best, in­ac­cu­rate, and at worst, ut­terly false.

Whereas, for ex­am­ple, the Chris­tian founders of the United States were care­ful to cre­ate a coun­try with a uni­ver­sal­is­tic bent, the founders of the State of Is­rael, cre­at­ing a coun­try for Jews by Jews, were in­ten­tion­ally more par­tic­u­lar­is­tic in their phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics. Amer­i­cans as­sume that since Is­rael is a democ­racy, it is es­sen­tially a smaller, “He­brew-speak­ing, falafel-eat­ing ver­sion” of the United States, but this is not the case. Gordis ad­mits in his in­tro­duc­tion that he must – by ne­ces­sity– paint with a broad brush and thus, at­tempts to al­lay the vis­ceral re­ac­tion that in­di­vid­ual read­ers (on ei­ther side of the ocean) may have when they feel that any of his char­ac­ter­i­za­tions or analy­ses do not ap­ply to them.

Is­raelis are un­afraid, writes Gordis, of re­ject­ing the Jewish ret­i­cence to fight their en­e­mies. Gordis is a care­ful and close reader of his­tory and lit­er­a­ture, and of­fers a plethora of so­ci­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal data to sup­port his claims: his deft read­ing of the il­lus­tra­tions of the Wicked Son in a num­ber of Hag­gadot, for ex­am­ple, show that while me­dieval Jews dressed their Wicked Son as a sol­dier, the Palmah’s Hag­gada por­trayed him as a “dandy” in a shirt and tie, lean­ing away from a shovel and a guard tower. On the cover of that same Hag­gadah was “a young man, the fields of the farm or kib­butz be­hind him, gaz­ing in­tently at the ri­fle in his right hand.” Gordis extends this ar­gu­ment to ex­plain that Amer­i­cans, by con­trast, are less will­ing to in­volve them­selves in the messi­ness of war. To this re­viewer, how­ever, Gordis be­gins to ed­i­to­ri­al­ize some­what when he extends this ar­gu­ment to ex­plain Amer­i­can Jews’ rel­a­tive un­will­ing­ness to play a role on the stage of his­tory, to get some rest from what nov­el­ist Saul Bel­low’s char­ac­ter Hum­boldt (also cited by Gordis) called “the night­mare” of his­tory.

Is­raelis, says Gordis, de­fine them­selves through their peo­ple­hood; Amer­i­can Jews by their re­li­gion. Therein lies part of the is­sues di­vid­ing the two. Gordis is a gifted sto­ry­teller, and of­fers a won­der­ful anec­do­tal illustrati­on of this point, claim­ing that when one asks an Is­raeli to com­plete the phrase “Jews and…” Is­raelis will re­spond “Arabs,” be­cause Arabs are a peo­ple. Is­raelis, claims Gordis, would not think to say “Jews and Mus­lims,” even though most Arabs are, in fact, Mus­lim. Amer­i­can Jews, on the other hand, would com­plete the phrase “Jews and…” with the word “Chris­tians,” since Amer­i­cans tend to think in re­li­gious cat­e­gories. (In­deed, this telling ex­am­ple res­onated with both Is­raelis and Amer­i­cans with whom I shared it.)

GORDIS FEELS that a look at the Amer­i­can-Jewish re­ac­tions to the ini­tial found­ing of the State of Is­rael are telling, and his ev­i­dence is com­pelling. Trac­ing the re­ac­tions across the ma­jor de­nom­i­na­tions dur­ing the pe­riod of the late 1940s, even prior to the State’s found­ing, Gordis finds an ini­tial re­sis­tance and re­luc­tance to its very ex­is­tence: at the Con­ser­va­tive Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in both 1945 and 1946, then-Chan­cel­lor Louis Finkel­stein re­fused to al­low the sing­ing of “Hatik­vah” at the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies on the grounds that a po­lit­i­cal song had no place at a re­li­gious ceremony. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, Yeshiva Univer­sity’s Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitch­ik re­sisted grant­ing or­di­na­tion to a stu­dent who was an open sup­porter of the Be­tar move­ment. (On the Is­raeli side, mean­while, David Ben Gu­rion could not un­der­stand why Amer­i­can Jews did not make aliyah in droves.)

One of the core dif­fer­ences that Gordis iden­ti­fies be­tween the ethos of Amer­i­can Jewry and that of Is­rael is that re­li­gion in Amer­ica “was a ve­hi­cle of dis­sent, and dis­sent was key to the Amer­i­can project.” For Is­raelis, on the other hand, “re­li­gion was seen as a bar­rier to cre­at­ing the new Jew, when the new Jew was key to Is­rael’s pur­pose.” This dif­fer­ence is core, and plays out in a num­ber of sub­tle but vi­tally dis­tinct ways.

For ex­am­ple, Gordis holds that the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in iden­tity-for­ma­tion be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­raelis ac­counts for their dif­fer­ent takes on the im­por­tance of re­li­gion in the pub­lic square. Amer­i­cans there­fore are much an­grier than Is­raelis, claims Gordis, when the Prime Min­is­ter re­neges on a deal for Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive Jews to have ac­cess to the Western Wall or when il­le­gal asy­lum-seek­ers are sent back to their coun­try of ori­gin. Is­raelis, for their part, are more san­guine – and are con­fused by the Amer­i­can re­ac­tion. “When Is­rael does some­thing eth­no­cen­tric that strikes Amer­i­can Jews as an­ti­thet­i­cal to fun­da­men­tal Amer­i­can val­ues,” Gordis writes, “many Amer­i­can Jews re­flex­ively call those steps ‘an

ti-demo­cratic’… Is­raelis, in turn, can­not un­der­stand why Amer­i­can Jews, who face over­whelm­ing pres­sures to as­sim­i­late, do not un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of what Is­rael is des­per­ately try­ing to pre­serve.” These are dif­fi­cult dif­fer­ences to bridge, and they are not helped by a num­ber of chal­lenges that keep Amer­i­cans from fully ap­pre­ci­at­ing Is­raeli cul­ture.

Gordis cor­rectly iden­ti­fies an ig­no­rance on the part of many Amer­i­can Jews of Is­raeli his­tory and cul­ture, which stems in no small part from the in­abil­ity of most Amer­i­can Jews to un­der­stand He­brew. While this is mu­sic to the ears of this ed­u­ca­tor fight­ing the bat­tle for Ivrit ed­u­ca­tion in New York, the is­sue goes be­yond the He­brew lan­guage: Gordis de­press­ingly – but ac­cu­rately – re­counts the in­ca­pa­bil­ity of 80% of Birthright Is­rael ap­pli­cants to ac­cu­rately iden­tify Amos Oz, A.B. Ye­hoshua and David Gross­man, or for 40% of the same ap­pli­cants to cor­rectly iden­tify the name of the Is­raeli par­lia­ment from the fol­low­ing choices: “(a) The Bet Din (b) The Ko­tel (c) The Knes­set or (d) The Sch­warma.” While Gordis ad­mits to a grow­ing Jewish il­lit­er­acy on the Is­raeli side of the ocean as well, the Amer­i­can side has much fur­ther to travel to make up for their ig­no­rance, and that much less mo­ti­va­tion, he writes, to do so.

“Zion­ism,” Gordis notes, “has both united and di­vided the Jewish peo­ple in a way that no other cause or move­ment ever has done.” Hear­ken­ing back to the ini­tial Zion­ist dream, Gordis says that Herzl him­self un­der­stood that with­out a united Jewish peo­ple, “nei­ther Zion­ism nor a Jewish state made any sense.”

While not­ing that the strong bond be­tween Amer­ica and Is­rael has cer­tainly not ex­isted through­out Is­rael’s his­tory, Gordis makes a strong ar­gu­ment for sav­ing this re­la­tion­ship. He con­cludes his anal­y­sis with a num­ber of the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal take­aways for at­tain­ing that goal, ap­pli­ca­tions which be­gin with “a fun­da­men­tal de­ci­sion not to let the re­la­tion­ship floun­der” and to heal­ing the rift of the book’s ti­tle.

Chan­nel­ing song­writer Leonard Co­hen’s song “An­them,” Gordis writes that the cracks in ev­ery­thing are pre­cisely what lets the light in. This re­la­tion­ship of­fers too much to ei­ther side for it to be aban­doned. The in­sight and anal­y­sis that Gordis puts forth in this vol­ume is an im­por­tant step in be­gin­ning this vi­tal process.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

CHAIR­MAN OF the Con­fer­ence of Pres­i­dents Mal­colm Hoen­lein with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu at a Jerusalem con­fer­ence on US-Is­raeli Jewish re­la­tions ear­lier this year.

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