It’s Not Benjamin Netanyahu or the West Bank That Divides American Jews from Their Israeli Coreligionists, but Something Much Deeper

November 13, 2019 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

According to the conventional wisdom on the American Jewish left, Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank, together with the policies of the Likud, have alienated U.S. Jewry from the Jewish state. The Israeli right, too, has its own variation on this narrative—namely, that American Jews can’t possibly understand the security challenges Israelis face. In Divided We Stand, Daniel Gordis argues that the profound differences between the two Jewries go back a century and revolve around issues far more fundamental than conventional wisdom assumes. Haviv Rettig Gur suggests an additional explanation for Jewry’s great divide:

Perhaps the most fundamental gap . . . is rooted in the all-encompassing influence of American Protestantism on every aspect and wrinkle of American life. . . . 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 distinctive aspects of American culture. . . . 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.

That’s why American Jewish Zionists seems so maddeningly strange to the Israeli observer. European Zionists sought to forge a new collectivist consciousness to rescue the Jews from never-ending 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.

This is why, [for instance], American Jews view the ḥaredi monopolization of the Western Wall in such visceral terms, leaving Israelis startled and sometimes offended by their vehemence. To an American, Israel’s acquiescence in ultra-Orthodox control over official religious expression—indeed, the very idea that there can be an official religious expression—is an abomination, a violation of the most basic purpose of religious life, which is granted its validity through individual choice.

In Israel, of course, ḥaredi control over Israeli religion is only natural, many Israelis believe, 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.

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